Firstly, it is a technically perfect horror film (bar one exception, which I’ll come to in a moment). But more than that, it actually has a story. Like the film Jaws, you could just about take the monsters out of it and still have a fascinating tale about how humans treat each other. (And also how they treat animals — but again, more on that in a bit.)
Before I start eulogizing why it’s a technically perfect horror film, I want to deal with that exception I mentioned, because it’s a big exception.
Of all of the slasher-style horror films I’m aware of, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perhaps the least misogynistic. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it sort of is. I want to get this out of the way at the beginning, because the way that women are treated in this film and others like it is something I could write a separate article on – and plenty of people much better informed on the subject already have. If you’re interested and would like to know more, reading either THIS or THIS about ‘monster misogyny’ in horror films might be a good start. Long story short: in this film the men are all killed quickly and we watch the women suffer (and suffer, and suffer).
This film also has a paraplegic character in a wheelchair, and a murderer who appears to be suffering from learning difficulties. I personally don’t have a problem with either – in fact I think all of the characters in this film are rounded, believable and even sympathetic to a certain extent – but I’d be interested to hear from anyone better informed about these issues than me.
But that said, disclaimers aside, if you judge a film by how much of an emotional reaction it induces (and I do), this one is, in every sense, a monster.
Its story might feel overfamiliar now, but that’s because the makers of Halloween, Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Blair Witch Project and countless other horror films were both terrified and inspired by images of an enormous man wearing a mask made of human skin and wielding a chainsaw. This was the film that got there first. It became something of a text book.
And this is how it starts:
Right from the beginning it just piles on layer upon layer of glorious doom. It’s not based on a true story, but it was the first cult horror film to start with a title plate making the totally bogus suggestion that it was. And from this and the name of the film, already we know that the heroes are going to die. Or, at the very least, be unable to make complex origami.
We then see a van full of attractive looking teenagers, who remind me a little bit of the kids in Scooby Doo. They go to a cemetery that has recently had graves robbed, because two of them had a grandfather buried there.
And then we get bad omen after bad omen. A drunk man at the ceremony warning that “I see things!” A horoscope with “Saturn in retrograde”, promising “you may find yourself asking – is this real? Pinch yourself, and you’ll find that it is”. Then a very strange hitchhiker who attacks one of the group. Eventually, they run low on petrol.
And I would say “you can guess the rest”. But if that was true, I wouldn’t be eulogizing it.
Everything in the cinematography is perfectly designed to make you uncomfortable. Unsettling camera angles that give you the feeling something sinister is watching. Suggestions, but only suggestions, of something very dark and nasty around the corner. And there is no musical score in this film: just weird, otherworldly noises.
But actually… this is the easy part of any horror film. Setting up a stall, and saying, “We’re going to show you something really terrifying.”
Fine, we say, but you better deliver.
And my oh my, do they deliver.
Hearing a gasoline generator in the middle of nowhere, two of the young protagonists approach a nearby house to ask to borrow some gas for their van. And that is when we first meet the man with the chainsaw. Readers, meet Leatherface. Leatherface, readers.
But where the film goes from here is perhaps not what you might expect. This may be the film that inspired a thousand slasher films, but it’s not really a slasher film itself: there isn’t a great deal of gore – nothing like what you might expect from King Lear or Titus Andronicus. There are moments of extreme violence, but you don’t see it up close and personal. (I read on Wikipedia that its director was actually hoping to get a PG certificate for the film, which is, to be fair, insane.)
Where it gets really interesting, I think, is that there is no element of the supernatural to it at all. This is about human evil, and is one of a trio of very famous horror films that are directly inspired by the case of Ed Gein: the other two being Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. It also feels to me, on recent viewing, like it carries the influence of the film Deliverance, as well as oppressive atmosphere of The Birds.
The moments of actual extreme violence are infrequent, but as the film moves into its final act it is pretty much the upper limit of what I can handle in a film. Not because it’s gratuitously shocking but because it is genuinely disturbing.
So with this nastiness in mind, why would I eulogize this film?
Well, at the heart of this film is a very dysfunctional family. This is not a film about a lone psycho unstoppable killer. The one that does the killing, Leatherface, seems to me to be a sympathetic character. He seems to have the mental faculties of a young child, and he is bullied by this household of twisted men into doing unspeakable things that they’re not prepared to do themselves.
Leatherface works in a slaughterhouse attached to his farm, where he kills cattle with a hammer and then dismembers them, just like many rural farmworkers do the world over. The only difference is that he is clearly unaware of any reason why you would treat a person differently to an animal.
There is one particularly brutal scene which not only illustrates the complexity of the Leatherface character, but makes a startling comment on humanity as a whole, which has stayed with me since the first time I saw the film. And it is really this scene that made me want to eulogize this film.
Leatherface has just killed a character with a hammer, and is about to cut his victim up with a chainsaw, when the victim’s girlfriend comes looking for him. Leatherface grabs the girl and impales her on a meat-hook, and then goes back to cutting up her boyfriend with a chainsaw while she writhes screaming on the hook just a few feet away.
What is clear is that Leatherface is not consciously torturing her. He’s not even really aware of her. To him, she is just another animal, like a chicken or a lamb, that might make a lot of noise when you stick them on a hook, but after you’ve done it a number of times you don’t even notice.
And once you see this scene, it begs the question: is there really that much difference between killing an animal and a human? Morally? If an animal writhes and screams when its kin are killed in front of it, why shouldn’t it be feeling as much trauma as a human does? Because humans are intelligent? Does that mean we actually suffer more, or just that we’re better at articulating it? (A friend told me in the pub the other night that film critic Mark Kermode became a vegetarian on seeing this film.)
We’re used to seeing people brutalised in horror films. But I think it’s a very clever device to make that horror simply be the horror we inflict on animals every day. Because although we in the audience may wish this chainsaw-wielding maniac dead, we can’t help but feel complicit in his actions.
Lots of horror films present us with some terrrifying superhuman force, and when the film is over we remember: oh yeah, they’re not real! Go Humanity! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is fiction, but believable fiction, and it reminds us that humanity doesn’t need its monsters to be supernatural. A mirror will do just fine.