This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
Second on our line up is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s not pretty.
So horrified were British censors by Tobe Hooper’s 1974 slasher nasty The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that not only did they ban the film, they briefly banned the word ‘chainsaw’. As slashers go, this definitive hardcore favourite is surprisingly light on the bloodletting but is all the more successful for it. Here is a film that bludgeons its viewers with so traumatic and all encompassing a sensory experience that time weathers not its morbid appeal.
As befits blunt horror, the essential structure of Hooper’s Massacre is a straightforward one, beginning as a road movie and climaxing as last survivor torture porn. Marilyn Burns heads a cast of, then unknown, actors as Sally Hardesty, one of five youths en route to their old homestead via the graveyard in which Sally’s grandfather is buried. Said cemetery has recently been subject to a spate of grave-robbings and the group are keen to ensure that Grandpa Hardesty remains safety stored six feet under. Which, indeed, he is.
Whilst travelling to the old Hardesty haunt, now derelict and packed with spiders and foreboding totems, they pick up, and later eject, a disturbed hitchhiker and are warned off visiting the house by the old owner of an isolated gas station. As it transpires, it is not the Hardesty’s they should fear but the quiet farmhouse. hidden in the thickets behind. There lives a family of retrograde ex-slaughterhouse employees who have developed a passion for cannibalism, the most iconic resident of the house being the imposing, mentally retardant figure of Leatherface, so named after the mask he wears.
A more sensitive film might have painted this Promethean monster with more sympathetic eyes. Hooper steals one fleeting close up into the face of unmotivated evil and captures, albeit briefly, a depth that goes unexplored here. It is an unfortunate but vehemently effective tool that sees his cannibal family portrayed as aggressively backward, allowing for an escalation that will climax with terrifying barbarism. Whilst late in the film, savvy camerawork establishes urgency through extreme close-ups and vibrant handheld footage, the build up sequences long and unsettling shots to instil a permanent mien of paranoia. Throughout all of this, Hooper masterfully makes the most of natural light to nail an iconic visual cinescape on a tight budget.
And a tight budget it was. Financial thriftiness lies behind some of the film’s most successful creative decisions, however. Diegetic sounds were mined for unsettling effect, the gore was toned down, with viewers invited to mentally fill the mordantly grim blanks themselves, and the shoot was compressed to cut down on rental costs and satisfy the whims of a deeply uncomfortable cast. An urgency is established by virtue of such necessity that sees the film’s stark visuals – a wired corpse, a dead armadillo, a meat hook – not just crawl under one’s skin but repeatedly burst from it. That the blood, sweat and tears are very often real in the film only does to heighten its terrifying aesthetic tone.
Easy as it would be to write off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a cheap genre assault, Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel load their fear-fest with a thematic backdrop that is remarkably dense. The American nuclear family model is decimated and hypocrisy is exposed in the meat industry’s cruelty to animals. Further still, Hooper’s mistrust of government is infectiously present, there is a luddite attack on the impact of industrialisation on working men and, ironically, nationwide levels of violence meet castigation. Had the filmmakers been more aware of gender politics – male characters are gifted swift deaths, whilst women are tortured – this level of engagement with the contemporary would have exceeded that of much more complex films.
This is a film that is exactly the sadistic and nosy exploitation piece that its reputation describes. With it being inspired by the same story that gave rise to Hitchcock’s Pyscho, many once bought the pretence that Hooper based his Massacre on a real story. That the film can still stand among the scariest ever made offers a shocking inditement on humanity’s capacity for murder. To this end, its directors ulterior motives and messages continue to wring true.