“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
So begins Tobe Hooper‘s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the most viscerally overwhelming slashers ever put to film. As with any film genre, there are certain household names that are automatically deemed “required viewing” to any budding horror fan- Psycho, Alien, Halloween, The Shining, Friday the 13th. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is often a title that appears on such a list, and while it bears shallow structural similarities to them, it is a fundamentally different, and far more psychologically violating viewing experience. Indeed, no slasher is as inexplicably deranged, nor as gruesomely visceral, as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 exploitation masterpiece.
The film evokes a kind of grainy, pseudo-documentary recreation, the type you might find flipping through the channels on a trashy hotel television. We open following a group of five friends on a road trip across Texas. They stop at a dilapidated house that one of their relatives owns, before stumbling upon a family of degenerate cannibals. As anyone with a passing familiarity with slashers might expect, it doesn’t take long for the body count to begin piling up, as we watch each dumb teenager wander into the same fly trap.
And yet, not a single one of the kills is “satisfying” in the traditional sense. We don’t receive the usual slasher kill-arc of a tense build-up followed by a jump scare and bloody kill. Each kill comes earlier than you expect it, and it’s over far quicker than you truly have time to process it. They’re staged plainly and brutally: murder in this case is neither a creative performance nor a festive event. It’s functional and unfeeling, and in a theatrical setting the film’s violence is more the kind to inspire shell-shocked silence than joyous hollering. The editing becomes almost Eisensteinian at times, interested more in imparting a montage of horrors than capturing the literal gore of the scene. And in fact, for a film with the word “massacre” in its title, it’s surprisingly tame in its gore- Tobe Hooper allegedly wished to achieve a PG-rating from the MPAA a la Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws.
This isn’t to imply the film itself is gentle. On the contrary, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is deliriously- and at times even hilariously- unhinged, building up rapidly in shock value to one of the most constantly psychologically battering sequences in all of horror. Watching the last thirty minutes of the film is like finding yourself in the middle of a nightmare from which you cannot escape, with real monsters chasing you and shrieking into your face as you scream your head off. The juxtaposition between the grainy, 16mm realism of the cinematography and the hallucinatory images it depicts drives a sensation of sweaty unease straight into the back of the subconscious. The film’s abrupt ending does little to assuage this anxiety, cutting magnificently to black as if to assure you that, no, everything is not ok.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has earned somewhat of an unfair reputation of being just another slasher. To even compare it to Friday the 13th or Halloween is a grave dishonor. As great (or maybe not in the former’s case) as those films are, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is simply so much better crafted. It’s exploitative and not subtle in the slightest, yes, but the feverish rhythm with which it escalates towards its brick wall of a conclusion is masochistically irresistible. Seeing the film properly, in the dark with a loud sound system, is to me one of the purest distillations of the cinematic horror experience. Because ultimately, that’s what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is. An experience- one that aims to leave its audience as battered and ravingly mad as Sally’s psychotic cackling in the final scene.