(Note: I was fortunate to catch the stunning 40th anniversary print of this horror classic, presented by Cinefamily in Los Angeles and Dark Sky Films. This is the very best you will ever see this movie look. If you have a chance to see the restoration in a theater, do not hesitate to go.)
I’ve seen “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Countless viewings over the past three decades have left me with a deep appreciation of its style and tone, its seamless blending of the Grand Guinol, unbridled horror, and a twisted sense of humor. This is not a film with which I am unfamiliar, and I could likely debate it, scene for scene, with other hardened horror junkies like myself.
So imagine my shock when I realized, as I sat watching the movie in a theater for the first time recently, a packed audience stacked in rows behind me, that I’ve never really seen it at all. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is, unequivocally, one of the most terrifying movies ever made. Perhaps all those years of watching its horrors unfold on a small screen, the soundtrack, dialogue, and scream of the chainsaw tinny and distant to my ears, dulled my senses. I’ve always been acutely aware of its status as an important landmark in the history of horror films, and have never disagreed that it’s a damn fine film. But, if I’m being honest, there’ve been too many times when I’ve asked myself if, perhaps, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” hasn’t been just a mite over-hyped and mythologized. Boy, was I ever wrong.
What happens in the earliest scenes, happens with a disarming simplicity: Sally Hardesty, her brother, Franklin, and three of their friends take a road-trip through the backwoods of Texas to find a house that belongs to Sally and Franklin’s family. We get long, lazy, almost dreamy shots of the kids driving in the van, the long hours and oppressive heat punctuated by spontaneous conversations about nothing very important at all, or stops for gas, while Franklin, bound to both a wheelchair and his sister, gripes and whines about everything within reach. Things get a little ominous when the kids pick up an unbalanced hitchhiker; but they soon boot him from the van (after he slices his palm open with a dirty blade), and continue on their trip.
The scenes at the abandoned Hardesty house unwind with a kind of bucolic ease. The camera follows the kids as they inspect the property, its corners festooned with shadows and cobwebs, the staircase old and creaky, and search out an old swimming hole that has long since gone dry. A gentle breeze blows through the tall grass, and a blazing summer sun fills the frames with brilliant shades of gold and rust. It’s a perfect summer afternoon—the kind often referred to as idyllic.
One of the guys walks to a nearby property in hopes of finding some gasoline for the van’s practically-dry gas tank. He knocks on the open door, calls out through the windscreen, but no one answers. Taking a chance, he steps inside. That’s when director Tobe Hooper hammers us—and the guy—with the first of many acts of shocking violence, and everything changes from there.
Another character follows into the house (a masterpiece of bizarre set design) and never comes out. And soon, another. Suddenly, the brilliant colors of the sky have been supplanted by the deep crimson of a setting sun. Shadows grow longer and deeper on the ground. We can almost feel the chill coming on the air. Night falls, as Sally and Franklin push their way through the thicket and brush to find their friends, and…
On the off chance you haven’t seen “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and therefore know nothing of what happens or why, I’ll stop right here and say only that Hooper’s film unleashed not only one of the film world’s most famous mass murderers, but quite possibly the most demented family to come along since Norman Bates and his mother. The film becomes relentlessly intense from the moment the first hammer comes down, and never stops from there. Poor Sally is dragged through the seven circles of hell, an ordeal that begins with her being chased through the woods by her assailant, and only grows in misery from there. If I have one small complaint about the film, it’s that Sally’s hysterical screaming throughout the second half of the film becomes so overwrought and forced, I found myself starting to lose sympathy for the character.
As I said, it must have been something about the big screen that heightened my entire perception of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” What a frightening film this must have been to audiences forty years ago. I feel as though my appreciation of its best qualities has only deepened, and I can finally say I understand why it often places at the top of the list of the most revered horror movies ever made.