The earliest of viewers of this movie, the grandfather of that tradition, might not have anticipated those impending shifts in conviction, otherwise they might have regarded what they were seeing from more practical neutrality. But they did, in fact, discover something profound in those early frames. And who could blame them? The film opens unlike any of its kind: a scrolling title card – spoken in voiceover that is strikingly ominous – warns viewers that what they are about to see is inspired by very real events that shook local communities to their core. The words are a framing device for a prologue containing disturbing images of unearthed corpses posed atop elaborate headstones at a cemetery; behind them, police reports on a radio indicate that they are sourced from a group of grave-robbers and maniacs currently wreaking havoc somewhere in the grassy fields of Texas. Who they are is not as important as knowing where they might be living – at least with that latter part of knowledge, the teenagers who might be hearing those foreboding radio reports while driving nearby might have been lucky enough to avoid getting too close to the source and inspiring all sorts of new insanity.
Imagine a world where such characters thought more consciously about those situations. Would so many lives have been lost in the “Friday the 13th” films, for example, if they knew of the tragic crimes that occurred before them at the same campsite, and saw them as suggestions to stay away? Would they regard the legends more seriously? And would they do more than just stand there and scream when they discovered their friends butchered in the next room? The unspoken virtue of the young victims of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is that they emerge from no mold other than their own, and are legitimate characters who take charge of their individualism. Consider an early sequence where they are bantering in a van while on their way to visit one of their grandfathers somewhere in the countryside. Among them is a token personality that must see everything from gross and morbid curiosity, but none of their conversations are laced with the disposable teenage banter that is indicative of one-dimensional filler. They discuss astrology charts. They possess a sense of keen friendship. There is more to them than just good looks, smoking weed and premarital sex.
As they are making good on their travels, the inevitable moment comes when they must stop and pick up a scraggly hitchhiker off to the side of the road, who acts as a prophecy for impending nightmares. He is odd, nervous and curiously aggressive. The teenagers, byproducts of the city, do not detect the depth of his depravity until a key moment when he cuts himself and then turns violent on another, inspiring a host of circumstances that must lead them all into the desolate maze of the Texas backroads, and right into the vicinity of an abandoned slaughterhouse. Hooper’s push to take his young victims though a brief journey of dark and sinister locales is more than just satisfactory at foreshadowing; they are full-fledged realizations of dangerous realism, clearly meant to rob their audience of any possibility that they might be seeing anything approaching fun, or innocent, or tongue-in-cheek. This is a story that has no sympathy or relief to volunteer in the 11th hour – only unending nihilism, sporadically intersected by the presence of a masked madman who wields a chainsaw as easily as children clutch teddy bears.
At the site of nearby house, they begin to, one by one, wander into its corridors. They shout generic greetings, anticipating a response; when no one answers, they wander deeper. The first of those curious sorts makes an audacious move by striding right through the foyer and into the lit hallway at the back of the main floor, and he falls right into the trap of the villain, who beats and mutilates him like disposable cattle. The moment is scary because it is abrupt and overpowering, and matched by a roaring soundtrack chord that realizes the terror with immediacy. As others follow, the depths of the killer’s depravity increase drastically, and then there is a scene towards the end when the chainsaw – his most prized weapon – is finally put to use in a very loud and ambitious way, causing us to wince in utter bafflement. Irony evolves from that moment; when the chainsaw calms down long enough for the film to focus on one last surviving victim, she does not reach immediate safety or overpower her stalker like most last-ditch heroines do. The climax, involving her abduction, consists of the discovery of an entire family of psychotic degenerates, who bound her to a chair and forces her to dine with them as they talk about their experiences in grave-robbing, murderous rampages and senseless cannibalism.
I have seen a plethora of films about these specific characters – ranging from sequels to prequels to deplorable modern remakes – and in nearly every instance I have purposely avoided dealing with them in any of my writing, lest I wind up revealing my unflattering prejudices (though I did write about “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” long after the fact, and called it “an ugly film, overwhelmed by transparent shock value, short-sighted storytelling and nihilistic undertones.”). But in these current sensibilities where it has become lucrative to return to the horror genre, I could no longer avoid dealing with the original; it is, by all existing standards, the benchmark of its genre, the film that singlehandedly is responsible for the most notorious offshoot of the modern horror cycle. It must be considered.
But in doing so I must approach it from a practice that violates the basic rules of film criticism. There are things I hold against it that are beyond the reasoning of the filmmaker – a decidedly unfair reality. He isn’t a facilitator of geek show sensibilities that are either generic or senseless, because he frames them in a context that considers all necessary sources. The screenplay by he and Kim Henkel regards these activities with a genuine sense of evil, and finds alarming sympathy with its lone survivor, whose horrific screams pierce the speakers like a heart-wrenching plea. And the technical values, so ordinarily shoddy in films of this nature, are the work of skilled professionals; the cinematographer knew exactly how to frame the movie’s most critical moments, and they are dressed up in stylistic sensibilities that are not cheap, exploitative or seeped in amateur values. It is a real film, made with care and intention, and a sense that it takes all of the material with solemn principle.
But my personal philosophy remains unmoved by skill and prowess when it comes to an idea this drastic. A chainsaw is a cheater’s instrument, a device that disrupts all threads of rhythm and psychology. It can never allow a movie to truly reach transcending resonance. No, I can’t argue against the impeccable timing and pacing of Hooper’s endeavor. No, I can’t deny the sheer gusto of his actors here, who are inventing a method as they go that demands the absolute pinnacle of anxious trepidation. And yes, there is almost a brilliance to the way he devises antagonists who indulge gleefully in the sadism, and how effectively their dialogue conveys an added layer of menace. But they are all fighting against something that silences them in the grand affect. At least with knives and guns, audiences at these sorts of movies are given the chance to respond sympathetically; for a brief moment they can sense the fear in the eyes of the victim, recoil as if sharing the pain, and then continue on the path of dread in hopes of finding relief. A movie with this much predestined overkill denies those possibilities. We jump, we whimper, and yes we even shield our eyes from moments we anticipate to result in outlandish scares. But when a madman must whip out such a sensational crutch, our fright is taken beyond the reaction of shock. In this instance, it delivers us right into the unforgiving embrace of scorn.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror (US); 1974; Rated R; Running Time: 83 Minutes
Marilyn Burns: Sally
Allen Danzinger: Jerry
Paul A. Partain: Franklin
William Vail: Kirk
Terri McMinn: Pam
Gunnar Hansen: Leatherface
Produced by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley and Richard Saenz; Directed by Tobe Hooper, Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper