The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the greatest films ever made. Yes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as it’s often so erroneously called, even on its own merchandise. It puts the two separate words “chain” and “saw” in it’s opening title, so that title it surely is.
When Chain Saw first smashed it’s way into the world there wasn’t much like it. We weren’t far out of the sixties, a time when so many horror films were for the most part respectable or harmless, sci-fi inflected nonsense. There was the exception of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but even that pales in comparison to what Tobe Hooper was going to unleash into the world in 1974. So much of that horror had been caught up in story and characterisation. Hitchcock’s Psycho, which shocked audiences at the time, still has a substantial amount of plotting. Even Night of the Living Dead was very much a character piece. Chain Saw, however, was totally pure.
Hooper’s movie totally removed any extraneous elements that allowed the audience to take a breather and escape from the nightmare unfolding in front of their eyes, even for a moment. The plot is stipped down. It concerns a group of teenagers on a road trip who are forced to explore an old house in a search for petrol/gas/depending which side of the Atlantic you’re on. From here the teenagers are stalked, captured and murdered by a deranged family of cannibals, primarily the insane, mute, skin-wearing, chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).
That’s about as deep as it goes and it’s all the better for it. One always has to judge a film by its intentions, not by what one wants it to be, and Chain Saw is not interested in characterisation. It would be to the film’s detriment if we were to get bogged down in its participants motivations and idiosyncrasies. We don’t really want to know and frankly the film doesn’t really care. This is not a film that wants to give the audience what it wants. This the first film that wanted to truly, utterly, terrorize its audience. It is a one way trip to madness and it wants to deliver you there by the fastest means possible.
Imagine at separate ends of a water slide is normality and terror. What Chain Saw does is modify that water slide by taking all the bends out of it so it is one long, straight line. Then, by way of removing unnecessary character information, it has sanded the length of it down so there are no rough edges. Only once Chain Saw has then left this water slide in a polar vortex and the entire thing is coated in a thick layer of ice does it shove you hurtling down at breakneck speed towards terror, faster than you can possibly comprehend.
Part of what makes this such a speedy ride into terror is that the film’s antagonists have no reason. There is no motivation given to the way the Sawyer family keep their dead/dying elders in the attic, nor their cannibalistic and murderous tendencies. And with no reason there is nothing that one’s mind can grip onto to stabilize itself. By removing reason and inserting unknown insanity into this recognisable family unit, the humans in it are visually familiar, yet beyond just that one factor, utterly abstract. A demon is fully abstract, a vampire or werewolf there is logic and reason to, but the viewer cannot make sense of this horrifying contradiction in terms presented by the Sawyer clan.
As we pick up speed towards the end of the film it becomes utterly nightmarish. The dinner sequence in which Sally Hardesty (the late Marilyn Burns) is tormented in front of the gibbering clan is a masterpiece in terror. It is a flat out endurance test, daring you to look away yet compelling you to stare at every hideous moment.
When Sally manages to launch herself spectacularly through a plate glass window, it is absolutely nerve shredding. By this point you are so desperate for her to escape, so desperate for her not to be killed such has she suffered; and yet by this point we know Chain Saw is an utterly unforgiving film and there is every chance it will kill her off just to watch you squirm. The sequence seems so long and is so tense that it is physically draining. The hung out blankets the chase hurtles through makes everything so closed in. You can smell the fuel of the chainsaw and the rotting of meat. You can feel the heat in the air. And all the time, never ending, powerful screaming drone of the chainsaw.
The climax is now quite rightly legendary, yet it’s lowkey, real and deliberately chaotic. This only adds to heighten the tension as we’re left to scream at Sally to get in the truck, get out of the truck, get in the car, just get in something! It’s here we see the only true bit of gore in the film, as Leatherface falls, his chainsaw gouging a flesh-trench in his thigh. It’s a startling moment, especially so due to the fact the audience has been so terrified, so constantly, in an 18 rated movie that contains very little blood and gore. It’s a massive testament to the sheer force of atmosphere and relentless aggression Chain Sawthrows at the audience.
From the moment Sally makes it out of the window Chain Saw becomes a drag race of adrenaline, all leading to the final, iconic shot. A shot so powerful that many believe Chain Saw ends in a still image. The truth is it isn’t a still image. It just cuts out as Leatherface is swinging his chainsaw towards the sky in his deadly dance of madness. It’s just such an absolutely powerful, startling piece of imagery that is the perfect mirror of the audience’s state of mind that it burns itself into the viewer’s retina. It is the perfect ending to the perfect movie.
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Images: Popanon.blogspot.com, EW.com, Wikipedia