Tools Of Terror: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – 40th anniversary Blu-ray review
Horror at its simplest and most complex. It’s as allegorical as you want it to be, provided you aren’t too scared stiff to debate subtext.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
(Tobe Hooper, 1974)
The rules of the horror film are so well-known nowadays that, by rights, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should no longer be effective. The Cabin In The Woods alone has parodied the premise of a gang-of-five in unfamiliar surroundings, ignoring the warnings and stupidly venturing into places where all kinds of in-bred lunatics might reside. Yet knowing what’s likely to happen isn’t the same thing as feeling it, and Tobe Hooper’s film – perhaps more than any other in the genre – is intent on making you feel it.
The raw 16mm look of the film has an unrehearsed feel to it (partly the result of budgetary constraints, partly a conscious aesthetic choice) that gives the film a realism its glossy studio imitators can never hope to emulate. And even as narrative rituals are forged, Hooper’s pacing avoids the rhythmic beats of the three-act movie. The more horror films you watch, in fact, the more off-guard you’ll be when next to nothing happens for half an hour, only for instant icon Leatherface to catch up by dispatching all bar one of the protagonists in a brisk, brusque fifteen minutes of hammer time. And then there’s still half an hour for Marilyn Burns – the archetypal Final Girl – to be put through hell in ways unforeseeable… until you’ve seen (and heard) them.
Is this art? It’s hard to truly find fault with the initial reaction of shell-shocked critics and cultural commentators, faced with something so grisly (in attitude, if not necessarily in visual graphicness). Hooper shows just enough to unnerve but it is the cuts away from the horror (as sudden as the door clanging shut on Leatherface’s abbatoir) that truly appal. There is considerable artistry here being applied to exploitation, for no better reason than to deepen the scare factor. It certainly isn’t as self-consciously making a state-of-the-nation address as, say, Night Of The Living Dead.
And yet, Hooper’s knack for symbolism makes this one of horror’s most resonant texts. The senselessness and starkly numb detail reflect the news from Vietnam and Hooper encourages the connection with his iconography (the kids drive a hippy-dippy camper van, while one is wheelchair-bound, a subliminal association with the growing number of wounded veterans). Then there is the more overt link to the American meat trade, a form of industrial slaughter whose changing technology has rendered blue-collar families at such a loose end that they’ll stoop to massacres for kicks. And, of course, the nuclear family (and the role of the woman within it) takes a beating in the surreal, savage soap opera of the dinner table sequence. As Hooper wryly reminds via the horoscope one character reads one, “the events of the world are not doing much to cheer one up.”
None of this dissertation fodder detracts from the sheer disquiet of the technique, with its disorientating wide-angle compositions (those overhead shots!), the proto-industrial soundtrack with its abrasive din supplemented by Burns’ non-stop screaming, and the gradual slippage from an objective documentary, with its John Larroquette narration and ‘set date’ caption, into a subjective nightmare that never actually ends: somewhere, a lunatic is still waving a chainsaw around, looking for his next victim. Sequels and remakes might have positioned Leatherface with a brand and a backstory, but watch the original and you simply forget everything else when faced with the primal dread of mask and machinery.