The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
“The most terrifying motion picture I have ever seen”
– Rex Reed
Once upon a time, me and a buddy scored weekend jobs working at a small video store. We thought we were a couple of high rolling swells. We weren’t making any serious cash ( better off than our friends. They thought work was a mysterious foreign word for “allowance”) but we were allowed free video rentals. Now that was more important than money!
Of course there were rules applied to accessing the cornucopia. Technically, we couldn’t check out anything rated R or unrated. We couldn’t get anywhere near the locked adult video room we’d dubbed the naughty closet. I say technically because if you’re thinking that we actually stayed away from the Rs and NRs then you’re just as crazy as the people who ran the place. Those poor fools actually trusted us.
I saw many films for the first time working at the video store — all of Kubrick’s post 2001 work, most of Dario Argento’s movies, everything Scorsese had done up to that point, scores of others, including every grindhouse and drive in flick that I couldn’t catch on late night TV.
I can’t remember where I’d first heard about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, maybe I’d read about it in a horror mag. I grew up in a small town with one drive-in and a small walk in theater in that showed classic films, just not the 1970s exploitation kind, and by the time our video clerking days rolled around, there was only your basic two cinema blockhouse that showed current releases. This was before the Web and our basic cable package consisted of six additional channels besides the networks. If you wanted to find out about something, you had to work for it. All I can recall is really wanting to see it, and I think it had to do with pictures of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) doing his chainsaw jig, so it was probably a horror mag — Fangoria, no doubt.
I’m the sort of guy who has to do something when it gets stuck in my head. Soon, I was like some Anti-Ralphie from the Halloween version of A Christmas Story. My fevered brain seethed with ways to get to see this movie.
I know what you’re thinking: video store, dummy! But it took me two months of working there and plowing through everything else before I found a copy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre sitting right on one of the shelves. I’d been foiled by the fact that the movie had been filed outside of its category. One would hardly classify Chainsaw as a light romantic comedy.
I was the horror guy. My buddy was the sci-fi guy. My own SF tastes ran towards the dark and dystopic and he was always pounding me with Star Wars. We took turns picking what we would watch for the weekly Saturday night hanging out and I normally bribed him with comic books so I could subvert his choices. A couple of issues of Aquaman did the trick (he still suffers from poor taste) and we took the movie home.
We’d been conditioned by the typical late eighties slasher film — the Halloweens, the Elm Streets, the 400 other ones involving scantily clad teens getting the business end of power tools. We thought we knew what we were getting into with Chainsaw.
Boy, were we ever wrong.
When the last scene cut, we stared at each other with blank, shocked expressions. I then made a mad dash for the bathroom and puked up my popcorn.
Looking back now, with a little film scholarship applied, I understand that the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is maybe the only horror film I’ve ever seen that relentlessly terrorized me. It’s also one of the few horror films I’ve seen that I tend to avoid repeat viewings of. The damn thing still makes me uneasy.
Much has been written about how effective the film is at doing what it does, from both the critical level and personal level. I’ve little to add there. All I can tell you is why it did what it did to me.
First, the movie really does have an authentic documentary quality. It feels like some kind of nasty real snuff film discovered in some lost vault, something we were never meant to see. The “based on true events” opening crawl heightens that effect. I’m quite sure there is somebody somewhere that thinks it all actually happened. And by the way, to any of those types creeping around, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’ll sell ya real cheap.
Another thing was the fact that I truly felt like I knew these characters. From the redneck hippies in the van, to the locals hanging out at the vandalized graveyard, and even the lunatic Sawyer clan— they all could have been people from my hometown. Although the film takes place in rural Texas, it could take place in any rural area. This is not a film for desolate places coupled with hyperactive imaginations.
The film conveys a suffocating sense of heat. You feel sweaty and grimy from practically the first frame, added to that is a soundtrack that sounds like it was recorded by letting a bunch of hyperactive three-year-olds bash on every pot and pan in Tobe Hooper’s house. In short, the movie starts out grinding your nerves and just keeps grinding and grinding.
Everybody talks about how you see very little blood in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that’s true. It doesn’t need gore to shock. People get their heads bashed in with sledge hammers, get hung on meat hooks, get beat with brooms, cut by razors, and sawed to bits and pieces, but you’re not drowned in blood. Those scenes might be less effective with lots of FX that would take you out of the realism.
The last 30 minutes or so of the movie in which Sally (Marilyn Burns) is tormented by the sadistic cannibalistic Sawyer clan remains some of the most disturbing stuff I’ve ever seen in a horror film. You’re so emotionally exhausted afterwards that you can’t even cheer when she finally escapes.
Since I’ve wrote this, I’ve come to realize that The Texas Chain saw Massacre has haunted me my whole life.I sometimes still hear Sally screaming her brains out over a roaring engine. It has stuck a big fat splinter in my subconscious. If you haven’t seen it, do not watch it lightly.
Seeing it a couple of times is enough for me.
Scariest Scene: can’t pick one!
Scariest Line: My family has always been in meat.