(dir. Tobe Hooper)
A group of friends on a road-trip become the victims of a cannibalistic family.
No matter how many times I’ve seen this film, it gets me every time. From John Larroquette’s opening narration I am all in and on edge. This entire film sweats. You can feel the heat rising off the Texas back-roads as the Hitchhiker ambles to towards the van, smell the cow farms and undercurrent of rotting flesh underneath as you watch Pam make her approach to that infamous house, taste the spoiled waste of America as you join Sally at the dinner table. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of the most visceral cinematic experiences to ever play across our screens, and no matter how many horror movies we’ve seen since then, some gorier, some more emotionally involving, and some better directed, nothing packs the same kind of punch as Hooper’s film.
What’s amazing is that despite it’s reputation and initial controversy upon release, the film has very little gore. Growing up, a decade or more before I saw the film, I remember seeing Todd McFarlane’s Movie Maniac figure of Leatherface and thinking that this movie was peak horror film, something forbidden and perhaps beyond my ability to handle—the most disturbing thing conceivably put on film. I was right about it being peak horror film; it is, but not for the reasons I imagined.
It’s not the level of violence of even the subject matter that makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so horrific, but the stained reality of it that makes it look like a portrait created by a PST-suffering Norman Rockwell. Hooper films from low angles, most famously in the shot of Pam’s approach to the house, but this affect makes the viewer feel small and as if we’re approaching something so large that it’s impossible to look at head on. Even on its small budget and limited use of locations, there’s something massive about this film, mirrored by Leatherface’s own hulking frame. Our first glimpse of Leatherface as he comes into the door frame and slams the metal doors in front of him gives me chills without pause each and every time I see it. There’s something deeply human about Gunnar Hansen’s performance, a childlike confusion and an all-consuming savagery that can viewed as the changing face of America during Vietnam and afterwards. The hugeness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stems from the fact that it taps into something about this country, something too big and dark, to face sanely. Sally’s mad howls and laughs as she escapes, not to safety, but to insanity, is a reflection of inescapable violence that America’s youth faced, and still faces. And Leatherface, dancing in frustration with chainsaw in hand is not a display of defeat but a spiraling promise that this horror story will continue, saw blades cycling towards infinity.