Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Horror Classic Movie Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

I'm not entirely sure this film belongs in this October series because it's not a film that was part of my childhood memories of scary movies. I don't think I saw this until I was in college. But the film was always something I was aware of. Everyone knew about Leatherface and how this was supposed to be one of the scariest movies. It actually scare me quite a lot when I did finally see it.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

A demented family portrait.
The most terrifying movies I’ve seen all come out of the 1970s, the time of the New Hollywood Golden Age, when studios were willing to back risky projects because audiences were willing to lay down money for challenging subject matter. Sometimes they just wanted visceral thrills. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre certainly provided the latter, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a challenging film or that it has anything of real importance to say. Its sole purpose is to scare the shit out of whoever is daring enough to see it. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s story is a depiction of a demented hick family in central Texas, where they prey on helpless victims, offering them a sadistic nightmare of torture.

Five hippie youths traveling through Texas pick up a hitchhiker who signals very bad omens for their future. He speaks cryptically, behaves bizarrely and then laughs maniacally as he slices his own hand open. They wisely dispose of him on the side of the road, but rest assured he’ll be back. No surprise he turns out to be part of the cannibalistic family that delights in grave robbery, human carvings and general nastiness. They make a stop at an old farmhouse where two of them spent some of their childhood and in a search for gasoline for their van, two of them wander off to a nearby home where one, and then the other, disappears inside.

Up to this point, Tobe Hooper (who also directed the film) builds the tension in slow steps. The soundtrack is comprised primarily of the ambient sounds of nature and radio reports about a local grave robbery. Before the first young man steps into the house and is suddenly confronted by Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a bear of a man wearing a mask sewn from human skin, we have no idea what to expect. Suddenly, in one abrupt swing of a small sledge hammer, the movie transitions from high anxiety to sheer terror. We watch as the young man’s body writhes on the floor, Leatherface drags him inside and slams a metal sliding door shut. It’s a scene both farcical and horrifying at the same time. To find yourself almost laughing at how it transpires reveals the subversive nature of Hooper’s film.

From here on out all bets are off and things only get worse. One victim winds up hoisted, still crying in agony, on a meat hook. Another, confined to a wheelchair, is shredded by the woodcutter’s tool of the film’s title. The final would-be victim, Sally (Marilyn Burns), becomes a dinner guest in the family’s twisted ritual which has them trying to revive Grandpa by suckling the blood from Sally’s finger. In an attempt to help Grandpa regain his former glory as the greatest cattle slaughterer in Texas, they prop the sledgehammer in his hand so that he may knock Sally on the head. Again, the scene devolves into sick black comedy as he continually drops the hammer while Sally awaits her imminent death again and again.

Hooper not only directs the film with the assured hand of a seasoned pro (he actually wasn’t, but obviously possessed the natural instincts of a great horror director), but also created a film with a production design that is at once intensely realistic and completely over the top. The demented family’s home is adorned with trinkets of chicken feathers and bones, probably both animal and human. When the characters stumble into this world their instincts tell them to run far, far away (just as you in the audience may want to do), but alas, it’s too late for them.

You could read the film as being a commentary on the effects of prolonged violence on the human soul. The murderous family was in the business of slaughtering animals and Tobe Hooper was reportedly inspired to make this movie by the political landscape in the early 70s which saw the government concealing atrocities in Vietnam while the nightly news revealed horrid sights for family viewing. Still, the primary purpose of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is purely to frighten the wits out of those who watch it. It remains a classic because of its audacity, its technical proficiency, and the nightmares it may instill in you for many years.

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