Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Film Review: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

© Vortex | Source: Texas Chainsaw Massacre Wiki

USA; 83 min.; horror
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writing: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Cinematography: Daniel Pearl
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan

"My family's always been in meat."  -- The Hitchhiker 

There is a surprisingly low amount of gore in the movie which inspired a bunch of other popular slasher classics such as John Carpenter ’s Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) or Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and yet after 40 years of its initial release I still find The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be one of the most nauseating films I have ever watched. At the same time, it is also one of the most beautiful and visually engaging examples of its genre, turning my viewing experience into a mixture of blood-chilling terror and cinematic delight.

The opening credits alone are a small masterpiece in their own right. After a serious voice tells me that the things I’m about to see actually happened (a lie, by the way), the film begins in darkness. I hear the sound of digging and the heavy breathing of an exhausted man. Then, time and time again, the screen is lit by the piercing flash of a camera making visible body parts of rotten corpses. An eerie kind of music haunts the scene and a voice-over from a radio news announcer fades into the acoustic, informing me about ghastly cases of grave robbery. The next scene depicts two decomposing bodies wired to a tall gravestone just as the sun begins to rise. The music culminates in a frightening climax. The credits appear. I’m terrified. With only five minutes into the movie.

Tobe Hooper’s low-budget horror production is the pioneer of the slasher genre. It introduces the storyline of a bunch of teenagers running out of gas in the middle of nowhere to meet their gruesome demise by the hands of a masked, die-hard killer with a deadly hand tool. It introduces the trope of the final girl, the shaken, sole survivor of the attack. It reminds us of the socio-critical power of horror films and how they can comment on the psychological nature of human beings. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has us know, even though the title might suggest otherwise, that horror movies do not have to be about the mere sensation of the kill. They can, in fact, harbour much more depth.

I find it rather fitting that at one point we see Leatherface, the merciless killer, swinging his roaring chainsaw in the first rays of sunshine on an open road. It is not only one of the many fine examples of Daniel Pearl’s expressive, atmospheric photography within the movie, it also symbolises the overpowering omnipresence of evil forces in our everyday lives, forces which don’t just come creeping out in the protective shadow of the night but which lurk in broad daylight. Hooper also uses radio reports about abductions, brutal murders and the collapse of sabotaged buildings to expose the world as an unsafe place in which malice and brutality are common practice. He then perfectly contrasts this gloomy world view with the naiveté of the teenage protagonists. It seems like not even the most sinister accounts of blood and thunder can prevent them from entering dilapidated houses or inviting suspicious hitchhikers into their car. It is this rather absurd assumption that all bad things only happen to other people but never to oneself which leads the teens straight into their fatal doom. Safety really is a mere illusion.

I enjoy that Leatherface, unlike his fellow slasher buddies Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, is provided with a rather complex psychological background. To me, he becomes more creepy because he isn’t just a masked, almost anonymous killer with a supernatural longevity but a human being tainted by his upbringing and dysfunctional family ties. Hooper uses him, in an exaggerated manner, to show how a harsh life at the margins of society, where there are no real prospects or no room for kindness, can turn people into ferocious, selfish psychopaths, completely out of touch with humanity, and he shows how brutality and viciousness can easily be passed on from one human being to another.

Hooper is not afraid to portray cruelty, and he doesn’t need buckets of blood and fake guts to do so (don't be fooled by the cover picture, people). By focusing on the sheer terror of the teenage protagonists, the director manages to effectively strike fear into me. It’s the nasty dialogues as well as the bloodless yet poignant depictions of physical assault which do the trick. Much is left to the imagination which forces viewers to wander through the darker realms of their minds. Despite never actually seeing any real gore in the film, it still left me with a pungent imaginary taste of blood long after the closing credits had rolled. As a vegetarian, I can hardly come any closer to horror than that.


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