One of my favorite movies is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It is one of those films that a lot of people try (and fail) to duplicate. Though many might consider it a type of gore fest or, as Roger Ebert called it, a cinematic equivalent of a geek show, I feel it is a Hobbesian meditation on chaos and man’s natural state. I know some of you are laughing right now. And that’s fine. But let’s take a step back and see how this notorious film has made its way into cinematic history.
I could start with the Romans—feeding Christians to the lions, the violence of their drama in comparison to the Greeks—but let’s speed things up the twentieth century. For all intents and purposes the slasher genre was born in 1960 with Hitchcock’s Psycho. Yes, there were obviously other films before, but let’s skip the Duryea Motor Wagon and go right to Ford’s Model T. Psycho broke all the rules. I know I’m not the first to say this, but I don’t think a lot of younger people realize how radical it was on its debut. This was the first big film to feature a killer whose motivation wasn’t money or revenge or really anything logical. And it scared everyone because it was true. Based on Robert Bloch’s novel which was inspired by real life killer/grave robber/ necrophiliac Ed Gein, Psycho shoved an unwanted dose of reality onto the movie going public.
Fourteen years later Tobe Hooper arrived with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While Hitchcock worked with beautiful black and white (echoing German expressionism), Hooper used color in raw, natural light. A lot of people say the film is “almost like a documentary,” and I know what they mean but politely disagree. Hooper’s film is hyper stylized. But it is stylized to get the best of both worlds: every image is pretty much storyboarded but you remember it being gory and realistic. There is actually little blood throughout. Just enough to suggest more. Lots more.
The plot is about as simple as it gets. Some young people are driving through Texas and they get murdered by a cannibalistic family. That’s it. But what makes the film brilliant is (among other things) how the cannibals are portrayed. Remember, this is an entire family, not just one disturbed man running a motel. Hooper never gives any reason how this household has turned insane. He never lets us know what is going on with Leatherface. But the acting gives a few clues. Gunnar Hansen, who plays Leatherface, wears various masks for various family roles—be it the butcher or the motherly caretaker. At times Leatherface seems as afraid of the young travelers as they are of him. It is all nuanced and subtle.
Lesser horror movies try to make the audience feel safe. The ghosts are able to rest in peace. The monster is destroyed. The werewolves return to human form before they die. The madman is killed by a final girl. But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leaves you out on the side of the road with no closure. How did all of this happen? Who knows. It just happens and there is nothing you can do about it. Coincidently, the only other horror movie to have the same type of gall was also released in 1974. Black Christmas is often cited as “the best horror movie you’ve never seen.” In a lot of ways Black Christmas has been more influential—especially when you consider how Halloween and Friday the 13th clearly built upon that film’s storyline and structure. But all of those movies focus on a type of claustrophobia whereas TTCM captures a sense of isolation. All of the film is out in the middle of nowhere Texas. No one is around for miles and miles. No one is coming to help. This is why, in my opinion, the film endures so well. It is a cynical and mean spirited film that stands by the idea that we are all alone leading lives that are brutish, nasty, and short. It is the cinematic standard of American gothic.
Writer living in the hill country of Texas