Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
USA 1974

The first time I saw this film, alone in the middle of the night, I received a phone call halfway through from a friend who thought she was being followed after getting out of a taxi. Staying on the phone with her while she found a police station with Leatherface’s chainsaw screaming in the background isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry.

At the time the film had an almost holy mystique after being banned in the UK for so long. I was filled with anticipation and dread before watching it - and the unfortunate events of the night aside, it scared me rigid. Last month I picked up an uncut DVD version for three quid in my local Tesco. How times change.

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is the most respected, most influential and probably the most frightening film on the list. It excels in every area. The camera work is astonishing in its originality, the direction tight, the pacing unique. It eschews the traditional murky, dark tones of the time in favour of dripping colour, sunsets and sunrises providing a lurid background to the horror. And that horror hits you like a smack in the face, an abrupt switch part-way through the film that doesn’t let up until the very end.

Hooper uses unusual camera techniques – low level tracking shots, burnt-out lens flare, wide-angle lenses for closeups – to create a deeply unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere. There are iconic scenes throughout – the blood-soaked, sobbing figure of actress Marilyn Burns as she is tracked at low-angle through sun-parched undergrowth; an extreme close-up of her terrified, fluttering eye; Leatherface's psychotic dance in front of a blinding sun. It's all shot on colour-drenched 16mm film, high-contrast and hyperreal, with an amazing sound design of chugging diesel generators, gibbering madmen and incessant, terrified screaming.

The subject matter and rural setting are commonplace nowadays but were unusual at the time. No-one had thought to exploit the city audience's fear of that other America of the isolated, inbred redneck. Hooper does it expertly, and though the formula has been imitated many times it's never been topped. There's even a queasy humour in there, hysterical in the literal sense, hardly ever commented on because the horror swamps it so utterly.

And it is absolutely terrifying. The speed at which the horror appears and then attacks with double-punches of cinematic shock and sickening cruelty leaves you breathless. The body count mounts so rapidly it seems the film must run out of steam but it doesn't, switching expertly to the drawn-out torment of a single character and a bleak, soul-destroying finale.

It's almost an insult to call this masterpiece a horror film, relegating it to the ghetto of the genre movie where it has never received the mainstream critical acclaim it deserves. But it is a horror film through and through, building on those that came before it and sticking to the same claustrophobic, tension-building formula that makes previous classics like “The Birds” and “Night of the Living Dead” so effective. It's proof that the horror genre is a vital and innovative part of cinema, driving the industry and giving it much-needed kicks up the arse, while remaining resolutely underground, independent and subversive.


Nicholas said...

Yes a classic I agree. It's influence resulted in many b-movie cash-ins released with 'chainsaw' in the title, one of my favourites being 'Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers'. It was even starred and co-penned by Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The UK version had to be renamed 'Hollywood Hookers' as we prefer our Hookers not to wield chainsaws, as clearly that would just put you off. Check out Wikipedia for some great quotes: "I was cleaning the chainsaw and it just started up!"
It's interesting just how far censorship has changed since the video nasty years. Now you can download Abel Ferrara's 'The Driller Killer' for free as its in the public domain...

Ben said...

I love cheap cash-ins. I've got a film called something like "Emmanuel and the Living Dead" on order from Love Film. Not sure how soft porn and zombies is going to work, but it should be interesting at least!

Didn't know you could get Driller Killer for free. It's far from my favourite horror film but one I do have to watch again at some point.

Derek said...

Great review Ben! I've watched this film only once so far, when it was shown on late night Channel 4 TV about four years ago. I have to say it is a very effective piece of horror cinema! As a child in the very early 80's, I vividly recall the large red and black rental video box leering down at me from the top shelf in my local video club! Anyone else remember that?

Oh, there is a new version about to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray:

Ben said...

Cheers Derek! Memories of these scary films in my local video shop prior to the ban are one of my driving fascinations. I don't remember "Texas" but a large "Tenebrae" poster used to adorn the window of North Lane Video in Headingley, Leeds.

I really should have mentioned in my review that the Blue Dolphin DVD I picked up in Tesco is one of the worst quality DVDs I've ever bought. It almost spoiled the film. Hang on for the new release!

Derek said...

I remember most of these "video nasties", circa 1982/83 in full display in establishments such as "Norfolk Video" in Gorleston-on-Sea, and "Ace Video", a grimy little video shop (all dark and sleazy) in side street behind Great Yarmouth town centre. Arr, memories -- haha!

Keep the reviews coming. Good stuff!

Did you get that book of Video nasty covers, which came out about 10 years ago?
Search for this on
"The Original Video Nasties: From Absurd to Zombie Flesh-eaters (Paperback)"

Derek said...

The remake of this is on Channel 4 late tonight. I'll have to record it to the HDD and watch it another day. :)