There was no shaking the clammy feeling of déjà vu last month when the season finale of True Detective took us into a suspected killer’s house of horrors: the sweaty, deep-south location, the peeling paint and creaking floorboards, the dust motes and tilting slabs of sunlight, the creative arrangement of bones and feathers, the aura of unchecked perversion and array of staged corpses in Sunday finery.
The setting might have been somewhere in rural Louisiana on a mercilessly hot day, but in our minds we knew where we really were: back in that awful house of giddy evil we first visited 40 years ago in a little rusty-nail nightmare called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Shot on a $100,000 budget over six sweltering weeks in the summer of 1973, it was Austin-based Tobe Hooper’s first feature. He assembled various friends, borrowed vehicles, rented equipment and a script loosely inspired by the genuine exploits of the murderous Wisconsin cannibal farmer Ed Gein (also the muse for Hitchcock’s Psycho) to produce a film that he hoped would get a quick run in the then-flourishing drive-in/grindhouse market.
But Chainsaw Massacre’s run has not been quick. It cut a swath through the horror genre as surely as its lumbering killer Leatherface ripped through a door, and it effectively made horror-movie history. By the time Leatherface and his family of unemployed slaughterhouse cannibal trash had their way with five stray hippies and several million viewers – all in the tidy space of 83 sawtoothed minutes – the timeline of American scary had added another milestone. In the same way that Psycho and Night of the Living Dead marked points of no return for horror movies, Chainsaw Massacre established a new standard for cinematic scariness.
The inspiration for Chainsaw Massacre has several sources. Hooper has always claimed the idea came to him while waiting impatiently in the checkout line at a hardware store and thinking of how the chainsaws on display might speed up the process. But he’s also credited stories about Gein that were told to him as a kid. Co-writer Kim Henkel, meanwhile, has claimed the movie was influenced by the atrocities committed in Vietnam. And there’s no escaping the fact that, on one level, Hooper’s film is like Deliverance, the 1972 movie about a quartet of canoeists who are assaulted by some very scary mountain people. Chainsaw Massacre is a riverless road trip into Texas hillbilly terror terrain, but without the final sop of violent retribution. In Chainsaw Massacre, nobody gets away alive or sane.
The late critic Robin Wood describes the movie’s strength as the “authentic quality of nightmare” – the sensation of being trapped in an exitless maze of escalating torment and panic, made all the worse by the fact your tormentors are having such a blast.
Chainsaw Massacre is primarily a fiercely effective exercise in economy, from its bare-bones plot about lost kids violently dispatched by a flesh-eating family to Hooper’s still-astonishing way with minimal technical means: His 16-mm camera image bleeds light and dark like stains when blown up to 35-mm; a home-composed musical score is heavy on animal sounds and industrial noise; the editing style is so blunt it convinces you that you’ve seen more than you actually did.
Then there’s the ingenious sensation of nightmare entrapment. In Chainsaw Massacre, it may be possible to break through a plate-glass window to the open air outside, but only so that you get caught yet again. And that ending: the hulking Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), in suit, tie and curly black Joan Collins wig, wielding his chainsaw and doing a victory jig on the highway as the sun comes up.
Several inferior sequels and countless tomes of academic analysis later, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, despite its seventies pedigree, maintains its power and status precisely because it forgoes all complexity, nuance and elaborate interpretation. It’s the horror movie version of that sit-or-scram moment when the first victim is clobbered so suddenly by the big guy’s sledgehammer.
While it set new levels of explicit violence in American horror movies, the bulk of its violence is ultimately more suggested than shown, and is more traumatic because of that. No other horror movie traded in fundamental helplessness and random evil with quite the same remorseless logic, or insisted that the really scary stuff was never more than just an empty tank of gas away.
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