A visceral experience that will shake even the most hardened horror fans to their very rotten cores, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is nothing short of one of the most electrifying and haunting American films ever made. From the aural assault that comprises the last 30 or so minutes to the irrepressible and stifling mood that permeates the bulk of the movie, this is horror at its finest.
Hooper worked with a shoestring budget, using an Eclair NPR 16 mm camera with fine-grain film to capture the mugginess of Texas. The cost of the equipment rentals was through the roof, which caused some pretty long days on the set. Special effects cash was slight, which meant that considerable innovation was required to add to the realism. Real animal remains were used to litter the floors of the terrifying farmhouse, for instance.
Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are travelling with three friends (Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn) to visit the grave of their grandfather. Apparently there have been reports of vandalism. After investigating the situation, the group elects to head for the dilapidated family homestead for a break. They pick up a creepy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) and are haunted by his actions inside their van.
After being unable to get gas from the local station and having another altercation with a memorable character (Jim Siedow), the gang reaches the homestead. The group splits apart into pairs, leaving wheelchair-bound Franklin as the habitual third wheel. He is still haunted by his experiences with the hitchhiker, but matters get a whole lot worse when two of his friends run into Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).
At its core, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sets out to exploit. It plays on the audience’s fears of being lost in the middle of a backwoods nowhere, of coming in too-close contact with the very nature of insanity. When Hooper’s expertly but chaotically uncorks the final sequences and brings Grandpa (John Dugan) into the fray, the screaming and subsequent aural anarchy is anxiety-inducing and terrifying.
This is wisely built through a series of quieter, less intrusive sequences. The movie’s pace sets this foundation, using distant establishing shots to present the feeling of someone watching and offer a wider scope on the yellowed fields and dead animals littering the countryside. It is the American Dream gone awry, the subsequent mire of crushed circumstances and bloodied loss.
When the hitchhiker, a former slaughterhouse worker replaced by newfangled techniques, subjects the well-heeled hippies to his story, the skulking layers of insanity leak in. His tale, common enough, takes on ominous undertones and reveals itself further in the “logical” conclusions of his sort of dejection and apathy. When Drayton (Siedow) finds him drifting along the road later in the film, it seems he’s been there forever.
And the film’s finale, a terrifying sequence beyond words, takes the insanity further into the life of the “typical American family.” Leatherface is the housewife, made up for supper and clubbing the shit out of dinner for when the boys come home. Drayton has slaved away at his empty gas station, while the child’s wandering and terrorizing comes with his life’s new and purposeless territory.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a petrifying and gruelling ordeal, a horror film that demands endurance and a strong psyche as opposed to a strong stomach. So hard to shake are the screams, the buzzing, the drone-like score, and the general disquiet of Hooper’s masterpiece that it’s hard to imagine any other horror films coming close to the same achievement.