In 1974 an independent horror film shocked cinema patrons and critics alike, it was banned in several countries and gained notoriety quickly. With that backdrop it also wound up being one of the most profitable independent films of its time and spawned 3 sequels, 2 remakes and 1 prequel. That film is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Its 18th August 1973, and we open with a series of flashes glimpsing decaying body parts as the noise of a camera flash pierces the noise of rustling. Soon after we are welcomed by a close-up of a corpse sitting atop of gravestone, a rotting work of art by a sadistic mind. News from the local radio station narrates in the background providing accounts of recent grave robberies and disturbed burial sites. A minivan pulls up at the graveyard with five young adults, Sally and Franklin Hardesty are there with friends Jerry, Kirk, and Pam looking to find out if the grave of their relatives have been affected. After they leave the site they embark on what will be their last trip together, and horrific journey into raw insanity. It begins after picking up a deranged hitch-hiker with an unusual interest in the violence of the local abattoir and ends with a horrifying family dinner made that no nightmare could prepare you for.
The impact of this film is profound, it provided an inspiration for future generations of horror films and it built a template for what nearly every slasher film would use in the subsequent years. However over 40 years later the film still remains original and packs one hell of a punch, with only one film coming close to capturing its essence of pure insanity and that is Rob Zombies House of 1000 Corpses.
The scorched setting of dilapidated houses and barren roads provide a desolate playground for evil, with anywhere to go but nowhere to turn. The unknown nature of the actors at the time, and the relative lack of experience lends itself to feeling of reality, these are real people and this really happened to them. At a swift 80 minutes running time, no time is spent creating back stories to characters or making relationships, it’s all about a specific event and what happened to those involved. It’s a perfect example of why low budgets can be a positive thing for any film, the restrictions on shooting prevent much time to be given to create frivolous situations that pad out a running time. This is something of a frequent issue in modern horror films. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is as streamlined a horror you can get and it wastes no time in creating a disturbing atmosphere. It also wastes no time in disposing of its cast, around the 50 minute mark we are already left out our sole survivor who must spend the remaining 20-30 minutes trying to survive. This fast development ensures a distressing pace is kept, where you don’t even get time to digest what just happened to the last poor soul who ran into Leatherface.
The minimal use of sound serves to amplify the nightmarish events the characters go through, especially that of Sally, played by Marilyn Burns. After the death of her paraplegic brother Franklin, she goes through some torturous scenes that would break anybodies will and mind, and we unfortunately get to experience it with her. A night time chase through a wooded area solely consists of echoed screams and chainsaw revs which plays out for a while but without dragging. It’s followed by a macabre dinner scene that is so bizarre it is almost farcical. If a similar scene played out in a film today it would probably come across as overacting, but here it’s frightening. Though Leatherface is the posterboy for the film, and the franchise, it’s the cook played by Jim Siedow I still find the most terrifying of the family. The cook doesn’t like to kill, and unlike the hitchhiker and Leatherface he moves between normal and crazy in the blink of an eye. It’s incredible he didn’t get more roles off the back of his performance because it’s simply perfect theatrical madness. When you next watch the film, pay attention to his behaviour when ties up Sally and drives her back to their home, and when he is at the dinner table. One second he wears a blank gaze and in the next he begins to manically giggle, moving between the two seamlessly. It’s both scary and captivating at the same time.
I’ll ashamedly admit that when I first watched this film when it was cleared to air on British TV that I was disappointed due to the conveyor belt of gore I’d gorged myself from slashers such as Friday the 13th and modern horrors. However upon subsequent viewings the film becomes scarier, and I readily accept is easily one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever watched. Which quite frankly is an amazing feat with the complete lack of physical gore in the film. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a slasher film with psychological horror, and its stripped to the bone simplicity is part of the reason it is one of the best horror films of all time. Forget the legacy it left behind, as a stand alone film it is one of a kind. A perfect example of how effective independent film making can be, and how it can influence the mainstream.