Who Will Survive & What Will Be Left of Them?
I was exposed to the blistering, sunbaked brutality of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 opus THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE a little late in life for it to have defined my fandom, but it instantly and unflappably became my favorite horror film of all time. Two decades or so later, it still remains unchallenged, perched at the top of the list like a piece of necromantic cemetery art. And yet I’ve never written about the film before—it’s a classic of its kind, one that has been discussed endlessly. What else can possibly be said about it? And yet…here I am, stupidly putting pen to paper (metaphorically speaking).
Supposedly based on a true story, the true story behind the true story is that none of this actually happened. Sally Hardesty and her young companions never actually piled into a van and ventured into the rural Texas wastelands to visit her grandfather’s grave. They never actually ran afoul of a demented clan of murderers with a taste for blood and family dinners. They never actually got sliced, diced, slashed, bashed, and pricked. And no, Sally Hardesty never actually jumped through two—count them, two—plate glass windows over the course of 90 minutes. TCM may share some superficial similarities to the Ed Gein case, but this is no more an Ed Gein film than PSYCHO is. And thank God for that. It frees me to enjoy the proceedings immensely without feeling like such a ghoul.
Detract from it if you must. Yes, some of the performances are shaky and over-the-top; Sally’s brother Franklin is among the most obnoxious and annoying characters in the genre; and it’s never entirely clear why all of this is happening. But none of that matters in light of the fact that this is a horror film with genuine horror attached. Whereas the flashy remake film (which I also appreciate) offers more in the way of instant gratification, the original instills in you a general sense of unease that lingers long after the closing credits have begun to roll. Your nerves are left raw and exposed in a manner seldom seen. No, this didn’t really happen. And in fact, it probably couldn’t really happen. But there’s a chance, a possibility, and that’s close enough to chill you ‘til morning.
Hooper’s manic direction, his script written with Kim Henkel, and the fantastic use of location (you can practically feel the oppressive heat radiating from your screen) all go a long way in generating that buzzing terror, but it’s the art direction of Robert Burns that really brings it home. The piles of bones, the macabre sculptures, the backwoods voodoo iconography—it may all appear to be mere set dressing, but it creates a disturbing haze all its own. These images drill into your brain without you even realizing it, and they take root. A simple flashbulb or a mechanical whirring sound is all that it might take to unearth them, and just like that, you’re flung back into the repugnant desert where death wears a human face that is not his own, and fear exists in a watery iris.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is lightning in a bottle, just as likely to shock as it is to kill. Often imitated but never replicated, we’ve been discussing it for more than four decades; and even if there’s nothing left to say, I will never get tired of talking about it.