This past weekend, I stumbled across this film playing, which I had always written off as a late night, cheese-o-rama, gross-out horror film, but while dated, is surprisingly good as one of the first ‘young-carefree-couples-get-stalked-by-insane-murderer’ films, later turned into the still-beating ‘slasher’ genre that really revved up in the ’80s. By today’s standards, some of the sequences run too long (e.g., the close up of Sally’s eyes during the ‘dinner’ scene and her subsequent screaming through the rest of the film) but overall Texas Chainsaw Massacre holds up fairly well.
The second of many horror films loosely inspired by Ed Gein, the first being Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), amidst its primary purpose of horror I would argue Texas Chainsaw Massacre reflects a deep liberal anxiety about the ‘otherness’ of the South, and would place it alongside such films as Easy Rider (1969) and Deliverance (1972) in this regard.
Wikipedia states that the film was “mainly shot using an Eclair NPR 16 mm camera with fine-grain, low-speed film that required four times more light than modern digital cameras” and an element of effusive sunshine encapsulates the film’s day scenes.
Despite its low budget (made for under $300,000), there are some surprisingly good moments of cinematography and diegetic sound in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, particularly in the cumulative effect of various shots and sounds conveying a tense and brooding atmosphere: the sound of the farmhouse generator, with no one visible around; the skeleton bone art in the house; the old vehicles covered by mesh; establishment shots framed through various objects. (The influence on Season 01 of True Detective is apparent.)
The film’s title and the iconic figure of ‘Leatherface’ notwithstanding, there is very little actual violence shown. Rather, it is implied. Most of the film, and what makes it more memorable, is the strangeness that takes place, something I would characterize (to put it into more current terms) as a Lynchian strangeness. For instance, the sequence with the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) is quite unsettling: the hitchhiker talks erratically about how he and his family used to work at the local slaughterhouse. He then borrows Franklin’s pocket-knife, cuts himself for no apparent reason, takes a Polaroid picture of the others, and then demands money for it. When they refuse to pay, he burns the photo ritualistically and then slashes Franklin’s arm with a straight razor. Very strange. Or when ‘Grandpa’, a figure we thought was mummified and long dead, is shown to still be alive and slowly sucks blood from a cut in Sally’s finger. The final scene of Leatherface dancing maniacally against the setting sun is iconic, symbolic of the horror that still lives and will likely kill again.
These nightmarish sequences are what make Texas Chainsaw Massacre a cult horror film.