Calling The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a masterpiece seems wrong, because while it’s made with incredible skill—and while its potency as a fear machine is beyond reproach—the movie is so unrelentingly sadistic that praising it requires significant qualifiers. Yes, a strong argument can be made that the film represents an unflinching statement about the evils that prowl our modern world, and yes, there’s a glimmer of hope in the film’s climax. But, man, this movie is grim beyond measure, and that last shot—I won’t spoil it for you, but brace yourself for nightmares—is among the most frightening images ever committed to film. So while director Tobe Hooper deserves all sorts of credit not just for his cinematic craftsmanship but also for his merciless integrity, one must ask the inevitable question: Why was this film made?
I have a hard time believing the picture was created to express the dark psychological and social themes that bubble beneath its bloody surface. I have a much easier time believing the picture was created as a thrill ride, and that it’s only because Hooper did his job so well that critics look for meaning in the movie. And that, in turn, raises another inevitable question: What does it say about society that something titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre qualifies as a thrill ride?
Setting aside these larger questions for the moment, the texture of the picture is deceptively simplistic. Several young people, led by Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), wander into the Texas wilderness and stumble upon the lair of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his deranged clan. Living in a dilapidated old house far away from civilization, these inbred monsters are cannibals and murderers, so the horror begins the moment the young people end up in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. Excepting sequences preceding the introduction of Leatherface, all of which are creepy, Hooper doesn’t really bother with the subtle art of building mood once the movie reaches cruising altitude—Leatherface kills someone in his first scene, and the bodies pile up as the movie progresses.
Leatherface is so named because of the human-skin mask he wears over his features, and the pervasive gruesomeness found throughout the movie is just as nauseating as the reason for Leatherface’s moniker: A woman gets impaled on a meathook; a man gets it with a chainsaw; and so on. There’s actually not much gore in the movie, at least not nearly as much as one might expect, but Hooper makes clear exactly what’s happening so viewers can fill in the ugly pictures with their imaginations. Allegedly inspired by the crimes of real-life killer Ed Gein (who also inspired the novel that became Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho), Hooper’s movie is meticulously filmed, and despite a miniscule budget, the production design is sickeningly perfect. The central location will ring true for anyone who’s ever lived by a mysterious abandoned house, and the costuming of the film’s grotesque characters is so persuasive that simply looking at Leatherface’s family is enough to turn the stomach.
The rare horror movie that’s truly horrific, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a unique piece of work that shouldn’t be tarnished by its association with myriad lesser sequels and remakes; Hooper’s original is unforgettable, in the worst possible way.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: GROOVY