The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

4 out of 5

Directed by: Tobe Hooper

I knew the name.  It haunted the video store aisles that I would “accidentally” drift in to when hunting for PG flicks to rent as a kid; as soon as I was old enough to start poking around the horror aisles with intent, and reading and talking about these movies to which I was drawn, the name would come up again and again.  1974.  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had cast a long, influential shadow; decades long.

It would be a little while until I got around to renting it, for whatever reason.  I went down a gorier path and found a lot to watch before getting back to the “classics,” and was somewhat convinced that I knew what to expect, having absorbed the film through genre osmosis.  But: no.  There’s a lot of running, and screaming, and, surprisingly – as Hooper was hilariously aiming for PG rating so maybe I could’ve picked up the film way back when – not a lot of on screen violence inflicted.  But you really can’t prepare for the visceral tone of the film.  It impresses me each and every time I watch it, but at the same time, it also makes watching it something of a chore: even at a slim 83 minutes, the movie runs out of things for final girl Marilyn Burns to do except for scream and run, and it repeats this a bit too much and too extensively in its final portions.  Even though there are some terrifically tense scenes surrounding and wound through those moments, there’s either a more tightly-edited or slightly more varied version of this movie that’s perfect, that maintains the dread throughout to a point where you’re too immersed to care about turning down the volume so the screams and chainsaw buzzing don’t wake the neighbors.

On the surface, the plot is as scarce as any given horror film which claims TCM as its influence: teens driving out in the country; run out of gas; explore the wrong house; get chased and killed by murderers.  But there’s a lot that director / writer Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel add in to the background that makes the movie standout, in part due to the way it’s structured – opening on camera flashes of horrific crime scene footage of desecrated bodies before cutting to the jovial bickering of our traveling troupe, a complete switch in tone that almost completely erases memory of those introductory shots; keeping the first 2/3rds or so of the film in bright, sweaty daylight, with hints of things to come, but done so that they lean into more of a goofy, road-trip charm; shooting the early scenes in an embracing, part-of-the-group way, until we meet our family of killers, and the camera immediately jumps to invasive angles, with jarring edits – and there’s also the constant chatter of noise, radio reports, animals, and Hooper’s brilliant ambient score, which transitions into outright noise terror when the tone goes dark, both elements which ground the film in a constant sense of “real;” of being drenched in the heat and mud and blood which, by flick’s end, is all over the place.  Given how sloppy some of Hooper’s later films are, it’s hard to say how much of this was purposeful or a happy accident, but the construction of TCM – exhaustiveness aside – is often quite brilliant.

In later years, and after seeing plenty of its followers and imitators, I also realize how valuable the performances are.  The flick has the usual violence-on-women problem, but it’s interesting that nothing here is really sexualized.  We skip over the sex-and-drugs indicators common to horror, and for the most part, these young adults just get to be normal.  They’re not impolite; they’re pretty real with one another.  And the actors help sell that.  I’m not sure why we needed the character of Franklin (Paul Partain), who is obnoxious, but even his obnoxiousness comes with a balance that makes him into a believable character.  But most of these people are out of the picture, and it’s Burns’ Sally that gets to scream and writhe through the last part of the flick, and it’s terrifyingly convincing.  Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface absolutely proves why it’s necessary to have a presence behind a mask – the way he carries himself is as fascinating as his stocky, chainsaw looming presence is immediately shocking – and the way Jim Siedow (the killing family’s cook) and Edwin Neal (a hitchiker the group initially picks up, also a member of the killing family) bounce between notes of lucidity and unnerved insanity is… well, unnerving.  All of this stuff replaces the need for any actual guts being splattered onscreen.

And so, even 30, 40 years on, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre maintains its effectiveness.  There are horror films that get recommended just due to being classics, and plenty that get recommended based on certain criteria.  After you’ve watched a lot, though, the ones that actually still can make an impact become few and far between.  It’s amazing that TCM can still do this, proving its timelessness, but I think it’s even more amazing that that sensation holds up upon multiple viewings.  Because I always end up checking how much runtime is left when Burns goes running through a window for the second time, or takes another try at scrambling through the forest, it’s hard to consider the movie flawless, but it is an absolute genre highlight, and quite impressive in its own right.