61 Days of Halloween- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.
Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.
Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Now that I am into all new selections, meaning that they are both new to me as a writing experience and as a post to this site, I do want to step back a bit from typical review format when possible. Spoiler Alert: I will be analyzing the film with some detail.
Themes have a way of evolving. Initially the idea was to watch a horror movie every day during the lead-up to Halloween, typically a new one. However, now I watch enough horror films as a rule that seeking out new doesn’t always win out over revisiting what definitely works.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a film I first saw in a horror/sci-fi class in college. I signed up to get many weekend screenings and see some mandatory titles. The first time I saw it is something I’ll never forget. It was the 20th of 20 screenings, and aside from the fact that our professor had an uncanny knack for programming double- and triple-features, it was the the most memorable ‘lights up’ after the film. It was dead silent, like the the first moment of calm after a bomb went off. We all looked around at each other checking each other’s level of unease.
Why I go back to my initial reaction to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is because typically when you take a film you’ve viewed and put it in rarified air, you can start to nitpick. Whether or not you consider TCM to be one of the greats here are some things you have to agree with:
This film is post-Psycho and pre-Halloween and bridges that that gap. It takes the quantum leap and amplifies Bate’s mommy-fixation to a family affair. However, it also, on a mass consumption level, creates a faceless (for most of the film) killer.
Clearly, many of its motifs, whether original to the film or not, have become favorites: incessant, brutal noise followed by shocking dead silence; the sound of a flashbulb; the faceless killer; lack information about the antagonist amongst others.
Perhaps the most important thing is not listed above: “Why me?” as it pertains to the pursued in a horror film is still a question that many films feel the need to answer. It was films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that made identity, pathology and reason behind these killers less necessary than ever. In fact, the issues in long-running series are introduced by reason. You’ll recall that Michael Myers history was discussed in Halloween but Laurie Strode being his sister was only added as a plot element in the sequel. In the first film, we just assume he chooses her because he sees her and his psychosis is enough reason. The very fundamental fear of it could be anyone, even you, makes it a universal fear.
Bringing it back to Chainsaw what it does is flirt with overt and obvious set-ups and discard them: Yes, the the hitchhiker’s crazy but they jettison him. There’s no short-cut missed, there’s no getting lost. They break down but are not found at random. It’s their choosing to go to the wrong place that crosses them in the wrong path.
In a way it takes you back to a similar idea in Psycho: if Marion Crane drives on, or is allowed to sleep at the side of the road, the movie ends up being about her trying to get away with the money. There is minimal “Oh my God, that was so dumb!” in TCM. Mistakes are immediately punished, and on two occasions Sally flings herself through a window to escape. The fact that you can fault little of what the protagonists do once found, or even in order to be found, makes it that much more immediate and palpable, as insane and unnatural as the family dynamic, psychosis and actions may seem.
It’s a master class in tone that starts from the read-aloud title crawl that haunts you, and then very normal things unfold slowly and get weirder and weirder.
The sound design of the movie barely incorporates music, and relies on the chilling nature of the sounds of the story: the screaming, the buzzing of the chainsaw, the insane cackling of the family, the blunt thuds of blows.
And flipping the vague antagonist on its side, it’s a film that becomes about its victims and trying to survive. You may not like all of them, and that’s fine, but you know who they are; and to me it passed a crucial test which is I want these people to survive ultimately, some more than others.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is also the rare horror film that leaves you more unsettled after its over than you were before it started. Going into a horror film you’re amped. You’re hoping you’ll be scared, amused, entertained greatly; it bumps your adrenaline in anticipation. What this film does brilliantly is that it leaves a sole survivor, but her laughing hysteria at the end combined with Leatherface’s grostesque chainsaw ballet make for a chilling conclusion. The cherry on top in essence, this film just scared the hell out of you, it gives you one survivor, but he’s still out there and just as insane as ever.