The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper; directed by Tobe Hooper; starring Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty), Allen Danziger (Jerry), Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty), William Vail (Kirk), Teri McMinn (Pam), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) and John Dugan (Grandfather) (1974): One of the remarkable things about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is how little graphic violence actually appears on screen. The makers pretty much manage what Alfred Hitchcock did in the shower scene in Psycho in terms of tricking the audience into believing it’s seen terrible things that never actually appear on screen, but they do so for 90 minutes, not 17 seconds.
It’s a terrific movie, filled with dread and grotesque comedy, terrible images, and sudden action. Reviewers who compared it to a nightmare were quite right, I think — the suddenness of occurences in nightmares, and certain things all people dream fearfully of, especially flight from something dreadful and perhaps inescapable. And then they woke up. Maybe.
Made for very little money, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre nonetheless doesn’t seem low-budget. The acting is solid throughout; the grainy 16mm film stock perfect for the grunginess of the environment the five unlucky travellers find themselves in. Hooper and company also conjure up a nightmarish soundscape meant to suggest what cattle would hear in a slaughterhouse. That works too.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre made an astonishing multiple of its production budget in several theatrical releases in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. It kickstarted what I tend to think of as The Bad Road-trip sub-genre in horror movies, one which thrives to this day. It also pretends to be a re-creation of a “true story” (it isn’t), and it gives us one of the first iconic monsters in post-classical horror movies, the human-mask-wearing Leatherface. Who keeps a pet chicken in a bird cage. Seriously. And it’s a weirdly disturbing moment, the revelation of that chicken.
Another reason I think the film disturbed so many is its attention to suggestively occult set design. There’s nothing supernatural about the monsters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but their interior decorating (well, and exterior decorating in a nearby cemetery) gestures towards a baroque world of fetishized death and decay.
Nearly 40 years after its release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains an influential classic in any film genre. It’s a work of transformative brilliance that ends with what feels like one long scream climaxing in a chase sequence that’s like a horrifying Keystone Kops routine. John Laroquette supplies the opening voiceover narration, for which he was paid one marijuana joint. Groovy. Highly recommended.