Five kids in a van pass by an old deserted house that used to belong to one of their families. The neighbours house isn’t quite so deserted. And so the scene is set for one of the most influential horror films, loosely based on the exploits of Ed Gein, also the inspiration to Psycho amongst others.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is very cleverly put together and although it’s served as inspiration for so many films that came after, those pretenders really miss the point and have none of the attention to detail in both setting and narrative, while dragging themselves down with unnecessary exposition. The recent remake is a case in point. As a slasher, it’s adequate, but this original was never supposed to be a mere slasher.
The five teens have very little backstory and from beginning to end we learn very little about them. No angst, in other words. A sulky cripple feeling left out is the most we get. This actually makes them more human and the eventual attacks more savage. Normal people on a road trip don’t pick that moment to play out all lives tragedies, so these regular kids seem more real. Other characters in the early part of the film are also given only the barest material to get through the scene, meaning there might be genuine surprises toward the end and even if you do see them coming, the film never tried to trip you up in the first place so it feels right. There’s also a surprising amount of humour. Again there’s no over-playing the irony, but it’s there and should make you laugh albeit guiltily.
That commitment to its own story is old fashioned film making, as are hints at what’s to come. Instead of the modern style of talking about feelings and morals, these teens discuss how the old slaughterhouse despatched the cattle, worry about trivial meanings in horoscopes or find evidence of ritualistic killing, all of which subtly screams “run!”, but they pay it no heed. Instead of opening their hearts, we learn how their hearts will be opened! It’s a fascinating example of just how good cinema was in the 70s; old fashioned methods with new independence. Why modern versions can’t see that balance, I’ll never understand.
Everything is in the preparation in this film. The house they wander up to to ask for help (not the wisest move) is astonishing in the detail. Bones and feathers, grime and decay, all litter the place. It looks like they’ve wandered into a pit of death, and the host ain’t too friendly either. Leatherface’s entrance is simple but devastatingly effective. His massive frame suddenly fills the a doorway and he immediately clobbers his first victim with a sledgehammer then slams the door shut! No music here and throughout the film also just let the images linger. That’s right for this film, but I’m not saying music isn’t right in general; Hitchcock’s take on the Gein story in Psycho racks up the tension using the exact opposite method.
More killings follow and none are gratuitous. Leatherface kills like a slaughter man kills cattle (as we learned earlier) and we don’t really see much. With that setting, the marvellous sound design and simple reactions from the victims, our imagination fills in the blanks. I don’t about you, but I need to have words with my imagination; it’s far too descriptive…
The last act of the film, which I previously hated, is actually a further descent into depravity in perfect keeping with the rest of the film. Grandad’s the best killer of all apparently, but his decrepit efforts are hilarious and disturbing at the same time. The shot of the victims desperate eyeball is fantastic as she makes a last desperate bid for sanity.
Those perverse final images of Leatherface whirling his chainsaw around confirm what the earlier scenes suggested. That he is scarier and more tangible than almost any other screen horror villain I can think of. I reckon if you check his fridges you’ll find both Jason and Freddy! But not Michael. He is another matter entirely.