At their core movies are a visceral art form -- fueled by a sensory appreciation and fusion of a multitude of other disciplines. Certainly, film has the potential and the inclination to take shape around a number of other tenets and considerations -- narrative, theme, point of view -- but some of the most powerful and gripping among them achieve their lasting and affecting legacies through the integration of these considerations into a larger dynamic fabric. They work on multiple levels, and each is self-sustaining and satisfying on its own.
I was completely oblivious to and uninterested with these ideas when I first saw Tobe Hooper's 1974 horror staple The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I was around twelve and had reached the point when video store clerks were less concerned about what I attempted to rent or buy, so I was able to pick up a copy. Since I was four or five, I had been fascinated by horror stories -- ghosts, monsters, the whole lot -- and had recently begun to search beyond the likes of the Goosebumps series or the "True Ghost Stories" anthologies I could convince my parents to purchase from local bookstores on Cape Cod or in Florida. I had matured past them, I decided. I wanted something really really scary.
Over the next few years, I wandered around the back aisles of video stores looking at the dusty VHS covers of films like Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and their lazy children, churned out year after year in slack-jawed homage to the new horror icons. As I got older, I scanned through these films, thrilled by these blunt new ghost stories, teeming with things that Goosebumps never dared to talk about.
I would bring them to sleepovers, and watch as my friends curled up beneath blankets in anticipation of each new slaying, quickly emerging thereafter to try to catch the others in the room silly enough to show that they were indeed afraid. And while I too jumped at the sounds drawing each subsequent camper or babysitter out to a lonely violent death in the woods, or the basement, or the attic, the sharp pangs of dread always evaporated quickly. Nothing really got to me, until Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It's easy to condemn TCM as a derivative entry in the slasher genre (despite the fact that it predated the Halloween -- the popular pick for father of the genre -- by four years, and premiered the same year as Black Christmas -- another oft-cited parent of the slasher film). Certainly, the film has had its share of derivative and flaccid sequels and remakes, the most recent seems like ultimate proof that no one truly takes Hooper's original seriously. Taken in relation to their inspiration, though, these films only serve to underscore what a remarkable piece of filmmaking -- horror and otherwise -- the original truly is.
Far more than any horror film in memory, Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre has an incredible grasp of tone and location, juxtaposing setpieces of horror and strange unnerving beauty to create a portrait of a setting and a cast of characters that both employs and transcends genre tropes. If one looks to Marcus Nispel's 2003 remake of the film, this becomes all the more clear. For Nispel, location is simply a clutter of horror symbols -- strange disfigured dolls, damp and forbidding basements -- rather than a space to be indulged.
The house occupied by the film's antagonist Leatherface, and his demented family, is just one of many places in which things can go bump. For Hooper, on the other hand, location was everything. As is well known by this point, TCM was partially inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, who -- for a brief period -- quietly terrorized a small town in Wisconsin, before blooming into a figure that's become synonymous with tropes of necrophilia and cannibalism.
While Nispel attempts to create tension by emphasizing the sordid and incomprehensible evils of Gein's behavior, Hooper instead focuses on Gein's legacy as a function of his location: a creature of wild and unknowable violence placed among the symbols of a peaceful American heartland. The locations in Hooper's film are not scary because they are the sort of places in which we expect evil to reside. They are scary because they -- in their image and iconography -- should be immune to the sort of broad animalistic violence that will soon color them.
This same approach extends to Hooper's thematic considerations, most of which are largely absent from any subsequent film under the Texas Chainsaw header. With films such as Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the idea of the murderous cannibal hillbilly family has become a regular horror cliche. Just look to the remake of that very film, or --worse -- its flat-footed ripoff franchise, Wrong Turn. Within these films, the family unit simply exists. Certainly, its perversity is stressed through scenes of abuse and incest, but otherwise, the family as a creature of violence serves no purpose other than to disturb.
For Hooper, Leatherface's family (and his role in it) operates on both a superficial level (there are more of these guys?) and a thematic one. If Hooper's cinematography and mise en scene works to chip away at America as a location, his use of Leatherface and company is a playful and genuinely disturbing argument against America as a familial institution. In Hooper's film, the family is deprived of meaning after the local slaughterhouse becomes automated and jobs are cut. In opposition to the encroachment of industrial society, then, they transform into a bastion of feudal and elemental violence. They are both a parody and an indulgence of questions of the family as a dying institution. As they gather at the dinner table to torture their victims, they invoke traditional symbols of community, and force the viewer to ask whether such a fundamental unit of connection is the antidote to or the agent of violence.
If this all seems somewhat pretentious and heavy for a film in which a man in a mask made of human skin chases his victims with a chainsaw, then that is just another example of how skillful a film Hooper made, and an affirmation of the duality I attempted to discuss at the beginning of this piece. Above all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre works because it is able to artfully integrate its directors ideas into its action without either component overwhelming the other.
Rather, TCM succeeds because its pacing and tone allow it to casually and humorously posit each of Hooper's ideas, while those ideas add dread to the proceedings on screen. The film's expert use of setting and tone charge the narrative with more realism than any "based on a true story" disclaimer ever could, while its themes and rhythms allow the picture to sustain frequent rewatches by proving that knowing what happens in no way decreases what makes those happenings frightening.
Much more so than other horror films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre patiently and dynamically reveals itself over the course of its runtime. It engage its viewer, before it gradually and coyly begins to show its hand, all the while coming up with more and more cards that might throw the audience for a loop. After forty years, it's no surprise that Hooper's film has been able to maintain its impact and its legacy. It's a smart film. It's a fun film. It's a film that is made artfully while respecting and enjoying the pleasures of its genre and history. But more so than anything else, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is terrifying as Hell.