The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Hopefully this clarification isn't necessary for most readers, but I want to make it clear right out of the gate that I'm talking about Tobe Hooper's 1974 original classic here, and not the 2003 remake from director Marcus Nispel. The remake did have flashes of innovation and even inspiration, but it doesn't come close to comparing to Hooper's version. To be fair, a lot of other movies don't stack up too well against the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, either.
There are a number of things that make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a successful horror film, but to me, the thing that makes it a uniquely scary experience is the way it always cuts to the chase. With the exception of a slightly overwritten opening narration, there is no bullshit or filler here. From the camera work to the dialogue, from the sets to the pacing, every single aspect of this movie enriches the story and its themes.
After opening on alarming images of decomposed bodies set to a radio news broadcast delivering a mostly unsettling report, the film focuses in on five youths enjoying a drive. The grandmother of two of them, siblings Sally and Franklin Hardesty (Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain) used to live somewhere in the area. It's a warm summer day, so they've decided to bring Sally's boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger) and their mutual friends Kirk and Pam (William Vail and Teri McMinn) out to the place and show them around. Although Pam warns against it, they soon pick up a strange looking hitchhiker (a deeply unnerving Edwin Neal) who proceeds to deliver a graphic monologue about how to boil a cow's severed head to make head cheese. Needless to say, the group gets tired of this warped little cretin before too long (but longer than it would have taken me) and they kick him back out onto the side of the road. By that time, he's already gouged his own hand right in front of them, and he smears his blood all over the side of their van as they peel away. Franklin studies the blood smear later and thinks it looks like some kind of symbol, but Franklin is an invalid, and a bit eccentric (to put it mildly) so his pals don't always pay as much attention to him as they should. This element of T.T.C.M.'s plot - the unheeded warnings of a person regarded as a lunatic - has been ripped off, sent up and paid tribute to by countless films since.
In astonishingly short order, all of Sally's companions have been done in by an imposing figure who wears a mask made of someone else's face. Then we cut to the chase in the literal sense, as the bulk of the rest of the film consists of Sally fleeing this monster's chainsaw in dizzying circles. This is, of course, made a lot more horrifying and groundbreaking by the fact that the monster in question is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and the director choreographing the extended cat and mouse sequence is Tobe Hooper. Marilyn Burns is also a major asset here as Sally, one of the earliest and most influential "final girls", as durable as she is hysterical. The girl is just constantly screaming - and I am not ashamed to admit that I would be too, in addition to pissing myself - yet her lung power is outmatched by her leg power. She runs and runs, even after throwing herself through the glass of a second story window to escape Leatherface, the adrenaline of her ordeal propelling her from one nightmare scenario to another, until it almost seems she's fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole into some macabre other world. There is no dialogue other than screaming for long stretches of T.T.C.M., so it is to the credit of all involved that the viewer can identify with Sally's escalating terror so well. Hooper frames everything just right, Hansen presents a figure anyone would be terrified of as Leatherface, and Burns is remarkably adept at conveying each new level of terror through facial expressions and other non-verbal means. It's a true case of teamwork making the dream work...or nightmare, in this case.
The setting and set design of the film provide for excellent shots throughout the movie. There are numerous wide angle shots which show the peace and tranquility of the back country roads Sally and company are traveling, while also allowing a sense of isolation to creep in as the camera lingers. Once the isolation of our protagonists has been well established and all of Sally's friends have been summarily dispatched, the suddenly dangerous new world she finds herself in seems to restrict around her. There are a lot more close-up shots of her as she flees for her life, getting tangled in branches or otherwise impeded, Leatherface's chainsaw growling menacingly just out of sight. When wider shots are used again, it's mostly just to show how much the maniac is gaining on her. All the while, the viewer gets the sense that Sally is only succeeding in getting more lost and further from any semblance of safety, as she unknowingly stumbles into Leatherface's own house in her desperate search for help or refuge.
By this time, we've already seen something of Leatherface's humble abode. That's where he kills Sally's friends, in gut-wrenching scenes that are not particularly gory, but are extremely well-crafted and realistic. The place is decorated with assorted bones from both humans and animals, as well as feathers and live chickens in dangling cages. There are also more meat hooks on prominent display than you see in the average home, which come in handy if you need a place to hang your latest victim while you use your chainsaw on her boyfriend. There's also a sliding steel door that Leatherface likes to hide behind while making strange noises to entice his youthful prey to come closer. We never get to see what's beyond that door, but whenever I think about it, I usually settle on "the gaping maw of Hell".
It turns out Leatherface's stomping grounds have even more surprises in store once Sally makes her way there. The lampshades made of human faces are nothing compared to the revelation that Leatherface is only one deadly member of a whole family of monstrous, backwoods killers. Out of all of them, the scariest in my opinion is the Grandfather (John Dugan), a withered, yellowed husk of a man, so ancient and decrepit that it's easy to think he's actually a dead body that his family treats as if it were still alive. The movie eventually proves that theory wrong in one of the most horrific scenes in the history of the genre. As the Grandfather's dutiful family force the captive Sally's bleeding finger into the man's mouth, his dry, yellow lips begin to move, weakly sucking down as much of her blood as he can get. I have never been able to articulate exactly what it is, but something about this moment just freezes my veins solid and makes my skin want to crawl off my body and hide.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes the claim of being based on true events, and even decades later, many people think the events it depicts actually occurred. They did not, although Leatherface himself is based on the notorious serial killer, Ed Gein. Claiming to be recreating actual events is a time honored tradition in cinema, and I have no doubt that many watched this film simply because they thought it was a true story. However, that conceit alone would not have been nearly enough to earn this movie its status as a horror classic.
What ties the different elements of the film together so well and sets it apart so effectively comes back, once again, to Tobe Hooper's ruthless ability to simply cut to the chase. The film picks up right before the terror begins and ends at pretty much the exact same moment the terror does. Though we find out a good deal about various characters during the course of the film, it doesn't spend undue time showing us their lives before the tragedy that befalls them, and it doesn't linger once it's done to give any hint as to what becomes of Sally after. Every single detail of this film is deliberately placed to amp up the viewer's tension until every bit of fear has been wrung out of them. Once it's done that job, the film simply ends, closing with one last shot of Leatherface slashing his chainsaw hungrily through empty air, as if refusing to acknowledge that the carnage is over. And, in a way, it's not, since the Texas Chainsaw Massacre will continue to be sought out by new generations of horror fans eager to experience it for themselves and unable to forget it once they have.
We're rapidly approaching my number 1 favorite horror film, so stay tuned!