Tobe Hooper’s infamous 1974 classic is cinematic slap to the face – short, painful and brutal, stripping you of your dignity, and leaving you shaking but feeling strangely exhilarated. It is horror of the most intense kind, eighty four minutes of pure, visceral terror.
The film opens with the image of a rotting corpse propped on a monument and the voices of news reporters discussing the macabre discovery. Soon we meet our five teenagers travelling across the state in their van. Having picked up a strange hitchhiker the group stop at an apparently deserted house to find petrol. What follows for them is an orgy of death, mental and physical torture in the stifling heat of a Texas slaughterhouse.
Contrary to popular myth The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a particularly gory film; only one death comes by chain saw and even then very little blood is shown. The real terror comes from the sheer nihilistic evil of Leatherface (the legendary Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibalistic family and the diabolical atmosphere of the house which the protagonists find themselves in. This is a film more than any other I have seen which communicates unbearable heat and disgusting filth. Just as in John Carpenter’s The Thing the heat (or in that case the freezing cold) becomes another torturous instrument creating an ominous atmosphere of gathering violence and frenzy.
Hooper’s greatest invention, and perhaps his most important contribution to the genre, was in creating not just one monster but a whole family of them. In Psycho the audience could at least comfort themselves that Norman Bates was an anomaly, one crazed individual in a million. Hooper’s film is something all the more terrifying, the idea that somewhere in the deepest south there could be living and breeding a “dynasty of horror”. That there seems to be no motive or logic behind the family’s sadistic actions is one of the film’s most terrifying aspects. It is almost as if there is nothing whatsoever behind the patchwork human skin of Leatherface’s mask but a personification of absolute abomination. The scene where Sally (Marilyn Burns) is tortured round the diner table is one the film’s most infamous and truly repugnant, the gulping sound of the old grandfather sucking blood from Sally’s finger is particularly wince inducing. And it is partly a credit to the success of the film’s low budget style, and the convincing performances of its mainly unknown actors, that despite its seemingly incredible story The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to this day, never seems to stray far from the realm of possibility, if not from the truth which it purported to tell.
This is a film with one purpose and one purpose only; to scare its audience senseless. It is testament, that to this day, it is terrifying a whole new generation of fans making it surely one of the most effective horror films ever made, not to mention it has arguably the most brutally evocative title in cinema history. Do not waste your time on derivative and generally dull remakes, prequels and sequels – watch the original and find out for yourself “Who will be left and what will be left of them?”.