The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Me

Year: 1974

Director: Tobe Hooper

Stars: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Paul A. Partian

A boy walks into a house. It’s not his house. He’s intruding. But its an intrusion out of both curiosity and necessity. The house looks wrong. Just plain wrong. Dark, dank and grimly decorated. A set of dark stairs press on the right hand side of the frame, hemming the boy down a hallway that leads to a horrible looking room. Said room has a wall cluttered with trophies; animal skulls and other things too small and obscure in the shot to identify. And they’re set against an angry red paint job. It looks like hell in a box room. The boy steps up a small ramp into the room. Before we can process it, a huge, hulking figure in some kind of dreaded skin mask and a filthy apron steps into his path, gigantic like an eclipse. The boy is hit on the head with a hammer by this monster and he falls fast. Dead-weight. His leg kicks. The giant drags him over the threshold and slams an abattoir door across, shutting us out with a slam.

As much as this overwhelming flood of quick information is almost too much to process, it’s the sound of the hammer hitting the boy that doesn’t escape me, and it replays over and over in my head as I lay in bed, trying to shake off what I’ve seen. But it’s looped, and I can’t help but get stuck in a waking nightmare of repetition. And I feel afraid.

*

I came late to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. By the time I saw it, I’d experienced a lot of the big titles that horror has to offer. I’d faced Michael, Jason and Freddie. I’d fallen in love with the alien. I’d stayed at the Overlook Hotel time and again. But where those adventures were exactly that – adventures – Tobe Hooper’s trip to darkest Texas chilled me to the bone. Finally, I’d found a horror film that genuinely disturbed me. That did what all the others promised, but never quite delivered. I couldn’t sleep after watching it and I was surprised at myself for my weakness. And over and over in my head was that image of the boy getting hit and falling dead-weight.

Thud. SLAM. Thud. SLAM…

I can’t say that I love Hooper’s film, but I recognise its power over me and, were I to review it conventionally, I’d slap five stars on it. Not out of love, but out of begrudging respect that’s closest to awe. It’s not my favourite horror film of all time, but if asked for the most effective, this would be my answer.

There’s barely any bloodshed in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That’s what surprises people the most. Like the head in the box in Se7en, you tell people that the gore is never really on-screen and they disagree with you. They remember it. But it’s not there.

Such is the power of the film. Unlike anything else I’ve come across, Hooper made a film that feels – from the very beginning – like death. Following a thick and pulpy spoken-word intro there are only disquieting sounds. Digging? Something unearthed? Then flashes. Lightbulbs? A camera. Rotten remains. Gooey. All glimpsed. All received in fragments. Then the ‘work of art’ at sunset. An apocalypse scene in a graveyard.

The titles, which follow, are like getting drowned in a volcano. A harrowing atonal score and a continuing radio news report converge as we are left to guess what we’re seeing. Solar flares? The very contents of hell? And then a fade through to a dead, upturned armadillo. As opening go, few horror films can match the dread and mystery of Hooper’s abstract start.

The low-budget verite style of Hooper’s shooting is ten-a-penny in 70’s genre cinema, but he has a way of making his ugly frames feel considered, even beautiful. It’s a thick aesthetic, syrupy like Texas BBQ sauce. Sun scorched, grainy, thoroughly convincing. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the benchmark of artful ugliness; relentlessly copied, never matched.

Hooper quit eating meat while filming; his nightmare movie turning him vegetarian. It’s something many have reported from watching the thing, in which a bunch of innocent – if entitled – teens are offed by a family of backwoods cannibals. They’re treated like cattle. Leatherface’s sledgehammer execution of Kirk (William Vail) described above… the way Pam (Teri McMinn) is placed on that hook… The Texas Chain Saw Massacre uncomfortably reminds us of the horrors of the slaughterhouse, subliminally asking us to confront the misery we put animals through to bring them to the dinner plate.

Hooper never lets his audience get comfortable. Sally’s brother Franklin (Paul A. Partian) is designed to get on our nerves. He’s a whiny, awkward presence; cumbersome in his wheelchair. Again, Hooper makes us remonstrate with ourselves for our thoughts. We want Franklin to suffer. We’re culpable. Then there’s the film’s shrill final act. That extended family dinner sequence; all screams and laughter, shredding our nerves… Not to mention the mother of all slasher movie chase sequences… The relentless roar of the chainsaw motor…

Even now, years later, having seen the film three or four more times and having bought the blu ray, I have to psyche myself into watch it (it’s on in the background as I write this and perhaps these words themselves are an act of cowardice; a way of shielding myself from the movie). I have to make peace that I’m going to put myself through the wringer again. Only a handful of films require this mustering of courage (Irreversible, the Japanese Ju-On: The Grudge and Martyrs spring to mind as others).

I know some people who find the film corny, even cheesy (and not headcheesy). That’s fine. No movie is the same to all comers. Everyone has their own experience. But even for all its deliberate aesthetic choices and extreme design motifs, there’s something about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that feels terrifyingly real to me. I buy it. I’m in it completely. Getting through it is my own personal gauntlet. Making it out feels like earned victory.

That’s the tale of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and me.

 

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