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Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Directed by: Tobe Hooper 

Premise: A group of hippies encounter a cannibalistic family in rural Texas.

What Works: There are a handful of movies, especially in the horror genre, that have acquired a reputation that is bigger than the movie itself. When that happens viewers are almost always bound to be disappointed with the film when they finally see it. The expectations that are built up in the viewer’s mind are rarely matched by what is on screen. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those rare films that lives up to the hype and it does so because its filmmakers employ cinematic techniques that, four decades later, remain a punch to the gut and the film tells a story that taps into primal fears. What is extraordinary about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is obfuscated by its simplicity. The story is archetypal. A group of young people wander around the back roads of America and are picked off by a killer until only one remains. This narrative formula is familiar to anyone who has seen a slasher film but in this case the way in which the story is told puts Texas Chainsaw Massacre not only in the realm of Friday the 13th and Halloween but also in the genre of fairy tales as told by the Brothers Grimm. This is an R-rated version of “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” but imagined for early 1970s America. Like any good fairy tale, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre lives beyond the specific time in which it was created and it continues to make an impact because it reaches the viewer on a level that transcends the age of the film or the maturity of the audience. No matter how comfortable we may be in the outdoors, there is something foreboding about the woods and regardless of how powerful we may become, the prospect of being at some else’s mercy remains a terrifying prospect. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues to play because it taps into both of those fears. The fears of the unknown and of being victimized are not exclusive to this movie, but the filmmakers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre work in a third element that pushes this movie over the edge and that is its madness. Most narrative films operate by creating a simulacrum of reality; filmmakers set out with the goal of replicating human experience on the screen but they do so in a way that is structured and balanced. The three-act organization utilized by most storytellers is designed to provide comfort and create a satisfying impression of balance and closure. In many movies of violence, especially those involving serial killers and madmen, there is a psychosis that anchors the film and the audience in some kind of rational context. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t work that way and in fact it uses non sequitur storytelling and unusual cinematic techniques to subvert rational expectations. The centerpiece of that irrationality is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), an enormous but mentally challenged brute who attacks his victims with a chainsaw and wears masks of human skin. Although Leatherface was the first of many silent masked killers in horror movies, he remains distinct, particularly in the first Texas Chainsaw film. The Leatherface of this movie is in a strange way a sympathetic figure in the mode of Grendel in Beowulf and his violence is disturbing because it is so wild and animalistic. The madness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is also found in its technical qualities. The use of sound, such as non-diegetic effects and an experimental music score, adds to the film’s discomfort. The photography of Texas Chainsaw is also unusual with cinematographer Daniel Pearl using imposing angles and the generally stable images of the early portions of the film give way to a chaotic and disorienting climax.

What Doesn’t: When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974 there was very little like it in the horror genre. Previous to this film there had been Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas was released the same year as Texas Chainsaw but the seminal breakthroughs of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th were still years away. Looking at Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the aftermath of its imitators, sequels, and remakes, audiences may not see what was—and is—special about this particular film. One of the ironies of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that this movie, with its scandalous title and reputation for violence, is not really that gory of a picture. Audiences who are accustomed to the extreme body horror of Hostel and Saw may be surprised to find that there is less on-screen blood in the R-rated Texas Chainsaw Massacre than in the PG-rated Jaws. Ultimately, what is special about Texas Chainsaw is not to do with its stock characters, thin plot, or its virtually nonexistent gore effects. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a grueling experience whose outstanding qualities are in its simplicity and savagery and the filmmaking craft with which it is executed.

DVD extras: The home video rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have changed hands over the years, resulting in releases of varying quality. The 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition features the film in its best presentation to date, remastered in 4K and sporting a new 7.1 sound mix. This version features four commentary tracks, the documentaries The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth and Flesh Wounds, as well as featurettes, deleted scenes, interviews, bloopers, image galleries, trailers, and radio spots. 

Bottom Line: Decades after its original release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still one of the great horror films in American cinema. The film’s ability to immerse the audience in madness and taboo has never been equaled and the final uncompromising vision of evil makes it far stronger than any other film in the slasher subgenre.

Episode: #112 (October 15, 2006); Revised #514 (October 26, 2014)