The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ★★★★★

“I just can’t take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it.”

Like many people, I love horror films. Good sense should dictate that we wouldn’t. Being scared willingly? Mingling with death and dismemberment? It’s absurd but strangely enjoyable. There’s a catharsis in the typical shock/release rhythm of horror—we face our fears from a distance, process them in safety, and live to fight another day.

But it’s not just being scared we enjoy; it’s being scared on our own terms. There’s a predictability to it all. A jolt of fright-fueled adrenaline, followed by the reward of peace and calm. A few more jolts, a few more releases, and a happy-enough ending. Maybe some gore thrown in to test our gag reflex along with our fight-or-flight response, depending on our mood.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of cinema’s most effective horror films precisely because it does not follow this script. There is no back-and-forth between pain and pleasure. There is only a brief, uneasy setup followed by a descent into unrelenting terror. You don’t watch this film; you survive it.

Refracting the concerns of its era (Watergate, Vietnam, economic malaise) through a demented Grand Guignol lens, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains breathtaking in its audacity some forty years later. The countless imitators begat by the film have tended to learn all the wrong lessons from it, misguidedly focusing on establishing half-assed relationships between characters about whom we do not (and need not) care, filling in backstories for killers whose opacity serves their menace much better, and lazily dispensing graphic gore rather than emotionally exhausting terror.

Tobe Hooper and his crew had no such concerns. They knew we did not need an exploration of the budding romance between Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) or the family dynamics of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her invalid brother, Franklin (Paul Partain). They understood that Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) would be less, not more, terrifying if we knew that he was abused as a child. They saw a nightmare of a world and simply dropped us into the middle of it. Using grimy, realistic cinematography; jarring, slashing editing; and a soundtrack populated by screams, animal sounds, and news reports of horrible atrocities, Hooper crafted a sensory onslaught that is unparalleled. The audience leaves The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feeling as though they’ve just watched a snuff film, though little actual gore is shown (Hooper was hoping to secure a PG rating). Instead the decaying, grotesque production design and the brilliant use of montage, coupled with the persistent braying of man and beast, fray the viewer’s nerves to the breaking point. We must have seen something unspeakably awful, something graphic and extreme, mustn’t we? That’s why we’re so drained, right?

But the truth is much simpler: Hooper never rewards our terror with any tranquility. The lies of the Nixon administration (like the film’s opening lie that it was based on a true story) never abated. The self-immolation in Southeast Asia and the tragedy of our returning soldiers never took a convenient, commercial-ready break. The displacement and disenfranchisement of so many workers was anything but momentary. In 1974, it was all too permanent. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre reflects that sense of hopelessness, absurdity, and grotesquerie through Sally’s endless trials. From the moment Leatherface’s sledgehammer descends on Kirk, we’re trapped in a perversion of everything we thought we knew. The heartland isn’t wholesome—it’s horrifying. Wide open spaces aren’t safe and inviting—they’re terrifying, offering no cover and no way of gaining our bearings. Ordinary Americans aren’t kindly and hospitable—they’re perpetrators of evil plagued by unsound reasoning and a moral compass skewed by relativism and self-interest. True horror doesn’t offer a release.

A film of countless imitators, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still feels remarkably sui generis, an unhinged assault on an unsuspecting audience. Even the Final Girl trope, so deeply ingrained in future horror films, took on a symbolic aspect in later films—the virgin surviving because she is unsullied, a glimmer of hope and justice and a reinforcement of puritanical mores. But Sally doesn’t survive because she is pure. She survives by chance. Blood-soaked. Laughing hysterically. A brilliant film’s final act of cruelty.

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