Kicking off our #31DaysOfHorror, Mike Muncer – host of The Evolution of Horror podcast – describes his relationship with one of the most infamous horror films ever made…
When I was 13 years old, I watched the scariest movie I’d ever seen. It was a grimy, cheap-looking film about a bunch of kids getting mutilated and killed by a cannibalistic family in Texas. Something about it felt unsafe. Were these even real actors? Was this a documentary? Was the violence real? Was I watching a snuff film? All these questions raced through my head as I sat and endured this nightmare that didn’t seem to end. Never before had I witnessed as much of the mad and macabre depicted on screen as I did in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
So what makes Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film such a harrowing masterpiece? After all, the story feels pretty generic; Sally (Marilyn Burns), her brother and their friends are road-tripping through Texas on a hot August afternoon when they make a pit stop to visit their grandfather’s grave, go for a wander, then stumble across a house occupied by a masked chainsaw wielding psychopath called Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who picks them off one by one. Pretty standard stuff. Even at the tender age of 13, I’d seen plenty of other teen slasher movies (Halloween, Scream, Friday the 13th) so I felt confident I could handle something like this.
But Texas Chain Saw was entirely different. It seemed dangerous.
Of course, the genius of this film is that in reality, there’s nothing particularly dangerous about it. It tells a fictitious story (albeit very loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein) made with actors, costumes and props, just like any other movie. But Hooper directs the film in such a way that we believe everything we’re seeing. From the opening scroll – which reads like an ominous trigger warning (“The film you are about to see is an account of a tragedy that befell a group of five youths…”) – to the grainy images of decayed corpses accompanied by jarring sounds of camera flash bulbs, we’re made to feel like what we’re about to watch is genuine.
One of the most frightening scenes in the film is the first appearance of Leatherface, which occurs 35 minutes into the film. It’s a fleeting – and in many ways unsensational – scene in which Kirk (William Vail), one of our main characters, wanders into a house in the middle of the day and hears what sounds like a pig squealing from a room at the end of a hallway. As he approaches the open doorway a towering, imposing man in a mask appears and hits him over the head with a mallet, drags his unconscious body into a room and slams the steel door shut behind him, leaving us on the other side, unable to see what is going to happen next.
The whole scene lasts about 30 seconds, contains virtually no gore, very few close-ups and is not accompanied by a traditional score. The lighting is flat and the image is muted. In other words, Hooper avoids all of the traditional stylistic tropes and conventions of the horror genre here, instead presenting us with something altogether more upsetting; a moment of extreme violence that feels cold, jarring, illogical and entirely out of the blue, just like violence in the real world. Unlike other American slashers or Italian giallo films of the era, nothing about the horror here feels sexy. In fact, this may be the least sexy horror movie ever made. While Hooper’s contemporaries like Dario Argento might have chosen to show gushes of blood from the head wound, Hooper focuses on Kirk’s twitching legs, presumably in spasm after having his brain smashed with a large hammer. Yikes.
This scene is indicative of Texas Chain Saw as a whole: there is barely a single drop of blood drawn in the entire film and most of the on-screen deaths don’t actually happen by chainsaw, in spite of the dramatic title. Nothing looks or feels glamorous: it’s a cheap, low-budget film shot in the boiling Texan heat that shows the real sweat and tears on the actors’ faces. This kind of filmmaking stimulates other senses – you can almost smell it… and it smells rotten. The usual beats of horror – arterial blood spurts, expressionist lighting, jarring, jumpy soundtracks – all create a kind of safety net, reminding us that what we’re seeing is artifice. But none of these are present here.
As the trauma escalates, everything goes from bad to worse. Hooper never gives his characters – or us – an easy way out. The final act is a nightmarish endurance test as final girl Sally is pursued by Leatherface, accompanied by a relentless soundscape made up entirely of her ear-piercing screams and the cacophony of a roaring chainsaw. The final sequence – in which Sally is kidnapped and tied up at the dinner table – feels like some kind of sadistic torture scene, but again, in true Texas Chain Saw style, there’s very little on-screen physical torture here, just a whole lot of screaming and some truly stunning horror filmmaking.
In the closing moments of the film, when the nightmare is over and Sally escapes on the back of a truck – exhausted, traumatised, not knowing whether to laugh, scream or cry – I’m right there with her.
A great movie is like a great magic trick: we think we’re seeing something we’re not. With The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper created the world’s greatest and scariest sleight of hand. This cheap, grainy movie with very little blood or violence made 13 year old me feel like I’d just watched the nastiest, goriest movie I’d ever sat through. Twenty years later, I rewatch the film and feel exactly the same way.