40 years on from Tobe Hooper’s horrific masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it appears time has had little impact on this film’s ability to bully the senses…
After 40 years The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still managing to send shivers up the collective spine of its audiences. To help celebrate the arrival of a spiffed up 40th Anniversary Blu-ray reissue of the movie, Mark Fraser looks back at what is arguably one of the most misunderstood moments in the history of modern American cinema.
In his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood makes a pertinent point about Tobe Hooper’s 1974 seminal cult horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that quite a number of filmgoers continue to miss regarding this terrifying work.
“Hooper’s cinematic intelligence,” he wrote back in 1986, “becomes more apparent on every viewing, as one gets over the initial traumatising impact and learns to respect the pervasive felicities of camera placement and movement.”
This observation echoed a similar one made by Danny Peary some five years earlier in the first instalment of his influential Cult Movies books, in which he said The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was “extremely well-acted and crafted” for a low budget horror yarn.
Having enjoyed Peary’s writing for some years now, I’m surprised I didn’t heed his advice a little sooner regarding this film, which is an easy one to develop an aversion to if you’re not a big horror fan. As for those who don’t like being terrified for extended periods, it can be difficult not to look beyond the movie’s in-your-face brutality and completely write it off as an unpleasant nightmare.
By reaching this conclusion, however, one essentially under-appreciates (as I have in the past) many of the admirable things this work has to offer – as highlighted by the recently-released 40th Anniversary Blu-ray reissue of the film, which presents The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in all of its violent, mean spirited, non-gory glory.
Hooper’s “felicities” include his eye for mise-en-scene and framing (as seen in a number of quite interesting dolly and innovatively-angled interior horror shots a la Alfred Hitchcock), an understanding of pace as well as the ability to tell a story economically. He also eschews the use of excessive gore, relying instead on some interesting shock and awe tactics to pummel his audience into submission. When mixed together, these qualities put this movie quite a few notches above almost all of its counterparts (including the seemingly endless list of sequels and remakes which have followed it).
Aside from showcasing the director’s talents, this Blu-ray reissue also highlights cinematographer Daniel Pearl’s terrific lighting – something that has not been overly apparent in earlier prints of the movie. Sweat now clearly glistens on the skins of the five soon-to-be young victims as they endure the Texan summer heat during a cross country road trip; the late afternoon key light coming through a window reveals all of the finer sewing details in Leatherface’s (Gunnar Hansen) human skin mask during a rare moment of quiet reflection for the monster; meanwhile, it becomes apparent just how stunning a sunset in Texas can be – a perfect backdrop for the early part of the murder and mayhem which unfolds on screen.
Furthermore, this tweaked print adds a new lease of life to the horrifically sinister bone-strewn sets of art designer Robert Burns, which pay far more attention to detail than perhaps has been previously acknowledged by some critics.
In addition, the film’s lethal treatment of its three course narrative (the arrival of the victims; their murders; the extended chase) remains just as punchy and unsettling today as it no doubt was when it first hit the screens 40 years ago. Put simply, this movie really hasn’t aged that much.
Finally, the performances are still great. In particular, this latest reissue brings out the best of two key roles – the hilariously, older genial-cum-sadistic station proprietor (Jim Siedow), a character who wouldn’t have looked out of place in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), and Edwin Neal as the crazy self-abusing hitchhiker. I’m not sure if they are meant to be father and son or brothers, but it doesn’t matter as, by the time they start tormenting the bound and helpless Sally (Marilyn Burns) at the family dinner table with their terrifying cannibal hillbilly shtick, they are unnervingly electrifying.
Having said all that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, after 40 years, remains what it always has been – an exercise in pain and terror.
It is a movie that is totally devoid of any real empathy, mainly because it quickly slaughters most of its “sympathetic” characters like cattle before turning into an extended chase film. Under these circumstances it’s difficult to build up any kind of affinity with anyone, no matter how likeable or appealing they may happen to be. In this instance, it’s every man for himself as fear and trepidation become the viewer’s main preoccupations.
At the end of his 1981 appraisal of the film, Peary concludes that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre “is too realistic for its own good”. This is a valid point. However, one could also argue its surrealism is too raw for its own good. While the script (by Hooper and Kim Henkel) has enough subtext in it to keep cinephiles and sociologists happy (Wood’s appraisal of the work is very illuminating in this regard), for the rest of its audience the movie is nothing more than a delirious assault on the senses; a murderous nightmare where logic gets turned on its head and the seemingly impossible becomes a reality.
This is arguably one of the key reasons why The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has remained so misunderstood – in some ways it’s a little too effective as an exercise in unbridled horror to be considered “serious”, despite the fact a closer look reveals an undeniable intelligence at play.
Another is the fact that many critics back in the 1970s effectively wrote the film off as a B-grade gore fest. The late, great Roger Ebert, for example, said it was “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises – a real Grand Guignol of a movie”, when clearly it wasn’t.
Meanwhile The New York Times didn’t even bother to send a reviewer to watch it when it was first released, presumably because one of its critics (Howard Thompson) had walked out of a viewing of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (in December, 1972) and the paper subsequently decided it wasn’t going to deal with films about “repulsive people and human agony”.
Going back to Ebert for a moment, in his defence he did say The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a “weird, off-the-wall achievement.”
In this regard he was absolutely spot on – something the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray version and its numerous extras prove in spades.
1. Robin Wood, “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s”, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan, (New York, Columbia University Press), p. 88.
2. Danny Peary, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, Cult Movies (London, Hutchinson Publishing Company, 1981), p. 350.
3. In his January 1, 1974 review of the film in the Chicago-Sun Times, a reasonably supportive Roger Ebert described it as an “exercise in terror”.
4. Peary, 1981, op.cit., p. 350.
5. Ebert, 1974, op.cit.
6. Howard Thompson, review for The Last House on the Left, The New York Times, December 22, 1972.
7. Ebert, 1974, op.cit.
Written by Mark Fraser
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Written by: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, Teri McMinn
Country: USA / IMDB
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has recently been released in a 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Steelbook in the UK. This can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk HERE