Classic horror movies, as the years plod on, have a habit of losing their edge. Be it decades of homages and rip offs eroding it’s originality or simply new generations of audiences simply becoming immune to it’s scares, what used to terrify once upon a time, isn’t necessarily always going to put the willies up everyone forever.
This fate, however, seems to have eluded The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie made on the cheap in 1974, that even today is still a brutalistic, pulse pounding exercise in bowel spraying fear.
The movie tells the tale of Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair bound brother Franklin who are en route with some of their friends to look into reports that someone has been vandalizing the graveyard where their grandfather is buried and sure enough someone has been digging up bodies and posing them in grisly examples of bizarre sculptures. Deciding to visit the old homestead the gang come across a lone hitchhiker on the desolate Texan road, see that he’s plainly a leering weirdo and opt to give him a lift anyway. In no time at all and to the surprise of no one except the occupants of the van, the freakish character attacks Franklin with a straight razor and is kicked back out on the road pronto but the surreal encounter is only the start of things to come.
The kids eventually stumble on a farm house just down the road from Sally’s family home whose main occupant is a squealing maniac who has a weakness for wearing masks made out of human skin and greeting any unexpected visitors with a battering for the business end of a hammer and this “Leatherface” starts working his way through each unwitting trespasser who innocently wanders his way.
A lean, mean, scaring machine, the secret to TCM longevity is the grainy, no frills, almost documentary style that captures the feel of footage from Vietnam that was being beamed into the homes of Americans at the time and therefore makes the atrocities contained within seem horribly real. Utterly loaded with indelible images that brand themselves into the brain, be it from the opening shots of a freshly dug up corpse being illuminated via flash photography to the sound of grinding squeals, to closing sight of an enraged Leatherface swinging his Chainsaw around in the grotesque parody of a dance.
The movie also is a fascinating study of class, the generation gap and the hideously skewed family unit when you contrast the care free hippy kids with the clan of cannibals who look after their own – even after they’re dead. Each of the family member function as a recognizable member of your basic family layout with the nervey Cook as the patriarch, the Hitchhiker as the wayward teen, Leatherface acting as a sort-of stay at home mother (despite being the Hitchhiker’s brother and the Cook’s nephew) and finally the desicated, corpse-like Grandpa is the member they all look up to and worship.
For a film with it’s reputation, TCM is surprisingly almost gore free (another sign of it’s raw power is that it doesn’t need it), but equally surprising is the thick vein of humorous absurdity that runs though such an unrelenting film. Witness the obese Leatherface overshoot a tight corner while chasing a victim, barely making it with little hops, or the Cook blowing his stack at the collateral damage inflicted on his house, (“LOOK WHAT YOUR BROTHER DID TO THE DOOR!!”), or most infamously, the dinner scene where the family gleefully try to include their ridiculously frail Grampa in their murderous shenanigans.
But questionable guffaws aside, Tobe Hooper’s untarnished classic, be it through subject matter (it’s loosely based on the antics of Wisconsin ghoul Ed Gein), piercing soundtrack, or some world class set dressing (the furniture – sculptures made up of pieces of victims – actually utilized fresh chicken bones and stunk to high heaven), is a thrilling assault course on the senses and a true icon of the genre.
It came. It sawed. It conquers.