Forty years later, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shouldn’t be as powerful as it ultimately is. Tobe Hooper’s film is written in the bones of anybody who has even a slight appreciation for horror, and has been diminished by sequels and remakes and the continued recycling of its plot and scares. When I saw it recently at an anniversary screening, the audience spent much of their time laughing. Until Leatherface. With his hammer. With his mask. With his chainsaw. The plight of young adults looking to screw speaks to the young, I guess, but a man wearing another person’s skin over his face? That’s universal terror.
The film is unsettling from the opening note of its score, which is set against the title card’s laughable claim that the young men and women who found their way into Leatherface’s clutches were enjoying an “idyllic summer” (because the idylls of youth are often spent wondering if your grandfather was dug up by a cult of art-maniacs and pissing into a bottle on the side of the freeway). The first shots are disorienting, a sequence of flashbulbs casting an intense, brief light on rotting meat. Human meat. A corpse in the awful Texas summer. There’s nothing right about the world here, and yet, for the kids assembled in that van, there’s nothing to do but move forward. The worst is always behind them until it’s right there, screaming and swinging his chainsaw.
It’s never clear why Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her brother Franklin (Paul Partain), and their friends (Allen Danziger, William Vail, and Teri McMinn) decide to stay the night at the old Hardesty homestead. They’re out of gas (because of course they are) and the closest station won’t have any until morning, but the house they’re planning to sleep in is a husk (because of course it is) and their van is smeared with the blood of a lunatic hitchhiker, who slashed Franklin with a straight razor after terrifying everybody in the van by pulling faces and cutting open the palm of his hand. They can’t leave, but it doesn’t seem like they want to. Texas is gritty and hot, a miserable, sick place where people tailgate at the local cemetery, but the Hardestys can’t help where they are, nor what those places do to them.
This is America, Hooper’s film argues, a brutal land that hides away its psychopaths in places where they can quietly maim the innocent. It’s an argument made more visceral by the conditions the film was shot under—brutal sixteen-hour days in excessive heat, with no pay up front. The sweat, exhaustion, exasperation, and terror is real. But the screening I attended would seem to suggest that these things no longer hold sway the way they did in 1974. The audience laughed at the crazed hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), Grandfather (John Dugan), Old Man (Jim Siedow) and Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) in drag; twice—when the opening scene reveals the corpse art, and when the family has Sally over for dinner—a man raised a digital camera to his eye and took pictures of the screen. As The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was creating its grim spectacle from ramshackle houses and chicken bones, I found myself as agitated by the crowd watching the film as I was by the film being watched.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a film that allows its audience to get comfortable for long, though. Leatherface’s murders are too brutal for that, deftly edited so that the shock of seeing a man get clubbed by a hammer quickly moves to the nausea of watching him twitch on the ground. Though its influence is unmistakable, few American slasher films work to this level. Its elements—the houses, the masks, the power tools, the fresh-faced victims—are endlessly transplanted, but are powerless when divorced from their original context. Its descendants play up the camp or the gore, gaze longingly at the bodies of those wandering into hell, or are completely undermined by the utter clarity of digital cinema. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre warns the audience that the events it is about to see are real, then presents those events through so many layers of grime and filth it’s hard to believe that anybody left the set unscathed. If the image of the family gathered around Sally at dinner seems ridiculous in 2014, the shots it is cut with—Sally’s eye in extreme close-up, widened and darting around the room for a means of escape—cast that image as real; the eye screams though she doesn’t. Her eye screams even if we refuse to scream along with it.
Finally, we are left with Leatherface, dancing with his chainsaw in the morning sun. Are there many horror films that do their gristly work in the daylight? Or with such unsettling beauty? Made on a paltry budget with limited physical resources, Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl subtly shift gears from the docu-realism of the graveyard scenes to the grotesque tableau of Leatherface’s murders so that it all feels unmistakably real, even when a man in a bad latex mask is feebly trying to live up to his reputation as the best killer at the old slaughterhouse. Far from operating under the pretense that a good murder or two is all that it needs to be memorable, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre revels in a miasma of sick, miserable images. It takes a prism to our world and twists it something awful, but manages, even in its darkest corners, to delight and disgust the viewer, often in the same frame.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. With Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty), Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty), Allen Danziger (Jerry), William Vail (Kirk), Teri McMinn (Pam), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface). Directed by Tobe Hooper, from a screenplay by Hooper and Kim Henkel.