I have a little of a love/hate relationship with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. On the one hand it's original, well-shot, and stylish in its very low-budget way.
On the other hand, it is still, more than 30 years after its original release, and with the lights on, the most relentlessly terrifying film I have ever seen.
Every time I watch it I am scared like no other movie has ever come close to scaring me. I'm disturbed, horrified, and apt to hit the Pause button on my remote and walk away for a few minutes to break the steady stream of fear that permeates every frame of this movie. It doesn't try to overdo it with gore, it doesn't try to ingratiate itself with in-jokes and self-referential moments. It's pure Gothic horror in the Americana tradition, and director Tobe Hooper wrings every moment with style and dread.
What can you say about a movie where so much has been said already? There's the terrific prologue by John Laroquette, an early attempt (so often done now) to dupe the audience into thinking what they're witnessing is a true story. A series of flashed images of rotting corpses leads to the first true moment of the film: a close-up of a rotted corpse's face, which then slowly zooms out to reveal an instance of grave desecration while the news report of the event plays in the background:
The next scene is of a dead armadillo - roadkill, something that will take on a new meaning at the film's end. But already we're filled with nothing but images of death, and we're only 5 minutes into the movie. The grainy 16mm film only adds to the authenticity Hooper was looking for when production rolled in the oppressive Texas heat.
The heat and the sun play an important role in the movie. It's palpable, and as our group of youths trucking across the state pick up the mysterious and seriously screwed up hitchhiker, things begin to take an ugly turn. I think that's one of the things that makes TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE so frightening - in most other horror films the daylight hours are the hours where our protagonists gain respite from the horror, when they investigate and search for an answer.
Here the daylight doesn't save anyone. Hooper immediately gets things going, killing off half his group in less than 5 minutes. Kirk and Pam find an old house after looking for a place to swim. They're also looking for some gas, so Kirk decides to investigate the house, which is open. What could go wrong? It's bright daylight outside. He goes in, and hears squealing at the end of the hallway. in a red room adorned with skulls. He's maybe there for 15 seconds when he meets one of horror's most enduring characters:
Two hits and Kirk's done. The scene closes with Leatherface violently slamming shut a steel door that blocks the room. Hooper then moves outside to Pam, who now is wondering what's taking Kirk so long:
It's a great shot, low and following her the whole way to the house. She walks in, hears some weird sounds coming from one of the rooms, and stumbles in to find a crazy assortment of chicken feathers and bones, which wouldn't be so bad except that a lot of the bones are human. Leatherface shows up, and she books, running straight out the door except...
Leatherface ain't having none of that. He drags her back in, hangs her on a meat hook and proceeds to do nasty things with the titular chain saw. There's a great moment where for a second the camera pans down from Pam to see a bucket below her feet. To catch, you see.
There's just so much that works in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE - I could probably write pages detailing each scene, each little nuance that serves to propel the film onwards, never slowing down. The music, a weird blend of low droning tones and jarring percussive noises, was partly composes by Hooper, and instead of using it throughout the movie to falsely set a certain mood, he uses it very sparingly. Whole minutes go by without anything but the background noise. The use of widescreen is great too: despite his limitations, Hooper makes each of his shots exciting and large in scope.
And in Leatherface and his demented family Hooper creates a terror that is at once completely alien yet hauntingly familiar to us. It the family unit, complete with sibling bickering, father/son confrontation, and a twinge of regret. For the father of this clan, the killing's necessary (although they never tell you why, and that's more frightening than knowing), but he doesn't really like it. Of course, that doesn't stop him from cheering when they get Grandpa to heft the hammer up for a killing blow.
Sally, the main protagonist in the movie, undergoes so much pain and torture you almost wish she would have died. My favorite moment with comes when she first escapes Leatherface by doing something that, on paper, sounds like normal movie-fare: she jumps out a window to the ground below. Now when you read that, you probably envision this: she runs, stops, is trapped. She looks around. Only a window. She turns back. Leatherface is right behind her. She turns, runs, and jumps out the window.
Well, I didn't see the 2003 remake, but if they included this scene in it, that's probably how it went. Not so here in 1974. Sally runs top speed up a flight of stairs, down a hallway and full speed out a second story window without pausing once to stop and see if she was being followed. Just full-bore, flat-out running for her life and damn if she's gonna stop until she's 100 miles away from all this madness.
And the end of the movie, where she finally does escape by jumping into the back of a passing truck and Leatherface does his crazy chain saw dance, you get a sense that the world is so much more terrible than you ever imagined, because it wasn't smarts or skill that saved Sally.
It was pure blind luck, plain and simple. And perhaps that more than anything else is what makes THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE so frightening. No Good triumphing over Evil, no lessons learned.
Just dumb luck, and nothing else.