Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Gunnar Hansen

I believe this serves as sort of an instruction manual – a blueprint, if you will, for horror films…if you’re asking how to start one off, how about with a grim, seedy black backdrop while a scrolling text tells the audience that what they’re about to see is an account of some teenagers who witness something truly horrible and tragic:

"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

It sets an atmosphere incredibly well, and is only furthered by the weed-ridden, dusty Texas outback setting that we’re dumped into next. Everything is untrustworthy and suspicious as hell. Then we get introduced to the characters – they’re all fairly interchangeable hippy types, except for Franklin, who is an invalid and needs help getting around in a wheelchair. They’re going out to the Texas lowlands to visit their grandfather’s grave. However, this turns out to not be a good idea. Especially when they pick up a hitchhiker who cuts his hand open and sets things on fire – I think that means it’s time to kick him out, guys. Sooner than you did, at least.

Just look at this setting. Has there ever been one more fitting of a horror film? I don’t think there has. It’s just such a desolate, unsettling setting; this broken down husk of a house way out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by unfriendly woods. Pure terror. The kids all split up to explore the house, on top of the world and believing they can never really be hurt, and that’s when they’re struck down. There’s a ton of atmosphere bleeding out of every inch of this scene as they explore the grounds of this weird back country Texas lot. It’s weird, it’s minimalistic and it sets a better atmosphere than any other horror movie at the time, and even better than many in the future.

Until a giant in a skin mask appears out of nowhere and murders them all individually with hammers, chainsaws and meat hooks.

I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to see this in 1974. Even today it’s scary as shit! I mean…wow! This is just such a stark, cold-blooded scene. There’s no emotion there at all; it’s just pure, detached slaughter. Imagining what’s going through his head is even scarier, because he’s just so unpredictable. Leatherface is like a child here, and the shot when he’s sitting in that beam of light by the window is one of the best in the film. He looks at you with those blank eyes and that half-open mouth full of deformed teeth, and you’re trapped in the movie’s world for good. Nothing will ever be the same again. After this dead-end point the movie becomes a complete nightmare on all sides.

An eternity in the dark follows – chased through the woods by a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Listen to the sounds of their screams and that revving, rusty sawblade. How can you possibly have any hope? The scene where Franklin is butchered is another masterwork of complete, bile-spewing terror. Completely void of any kind of emotion, and for that, scarier than almost anything in mainstream horror cinema since.

Then we get the scene where she goes back to the gas station from earlier in the movie, hysterical, screaming for help. Good, right? Maybe she’ll finally get some help out in this insane miasma of Southern weeds and dirt and blood…maybe someone will help her out and get her to safety, the poor girl. Oh, wait, no; the guy at the gas station is in on it. Isn’t that just the ultimate gut-punch in this situation? The one guy she actually finds out in this backdoor of the world is in on the whole thing and he takes her right back to the bloody mayhem from where she already came. Look at that scene where he’s got her tied up with a bag over her head and he keeps prodding her with the broom handle. Sickening…

And of course what comes next is the Big Horrific Payoff. Because there’s no way to end these movies other than with a bang. You have to escalate the terror to its breaking point and then push it further; that’s the only way to do it. And TCM does exactly that when it puts the lead girl tied up in a chair in the middle of a room full of yammering wackos who could kill her at any minute. This scene has been influential to countless horror movies, the biggest of which being Evil Dead and House of a Thousand Corpses off the top of my head. Just pure, unadulterated chaos. Points for those creepy, bugged out shots of her eyes as her mind breaks. Just chilling. We then get the classic, iconic scene where Leatherface chases her out of the house and starts spinning around with his chainsaw as she gets away with a truck driver. It’s cool. And it is the perfect way to send off this grave, unforgettable masterpiece of the genre.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is just a classic. It’s not one of those dull movies that you call a classic because it’s old and important; no – this is still a landmark of fear and paranoia. This could be you; that’s what’s so scary about this. It could be you out there lost in the Texas outback, and nobody would ever hear from you again. Therein lies true fear. All posers beware.

All images are Copyright (c) of their original owners.