The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Posted on June 12, 2013

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First, let’s get the story out of the way. The film is about five young friends on a road trip and their terrifying encounter with a family of cannibals. The young friends are Sally; her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin; her boyfriend, Jerry; and two other friends, Kirk and Pam. They take the road trip to visit the graveyard where Sally’s grandfather is buried. There have been reports of grave robbery and the kids want to make sure that their grandfather’s grave is undisturbed.

On their way back, they run out of gas and decide to stop at their old, abandoned homestead. When they hear a generator from a neighboring house, they go to ask for fuel but instead, stumble (literally) into a nightmare.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, contrary to its brazen title, it is about the power of suggestion. When Leatherface cuts up Kirk with his chainsaw, we are only shown Pam’s horrified reaction. Later when Franklin is chopped up, we are not shown the gruesome details of his death. Instead, we cut to Sally, who is screaming in uncomprehending terror. In fact the chainsaw makes contact with flesh on-screen only once and ironically, it’s Leatherface who cuts himself.

The film is full of incredible sequences. For example, the opening shot of the decomposed corpse on top of the pillar. The gruesome tableau is slowly revealed to us and is held up as something for us to contemplate. The shot is drenched in orange—the color of madness and the scorching sun—and that pretty much sets the tone for the film.

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The film is deliberately slow to start. The first 30 minutes are spent building a mood of creeping uneasiness and boredom. The film lulls you into a drowsy complacency, so that when Leatherface finally appears, you are completely unprepared and disoriented. The film eschews cinematic conventions and it adds to our disorientation. There is no ominous music building up to the moment and the camera maintains a casual distance. Kirk enters the house to investigate the strange sound, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, Leatherface appears from behind the door, smashes Kirk’s skull with a mallet, drags his twitching body inside and slams the steel door shut. The whole thing is over in a few seconds and it is incredibly shocking and confusing. But even before we can fully understand what is happening, the scene swiftly cuts to Pam calling out to Kirk. It is followed by the famous low-angle tracking shot of Pam walking towards the house. The shot is both slutty and ominous.

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Pam suffers what is probably one of the most horrific and agonizing deaths in cinema and it is done without showing a drop of blood on-screen. Leatherface grabs her and hangs her from a meat hook. We don’t see the hook piercing her back but her agonized screams allow us to imagine the unbearable pain that she is enduring. Pam then has to watch Leatherface cut up Kirk.

When Sally, the last of the group, runs into Leatherface, the movie kicks into another gear altogether. From then on, it is just savage and unrelenting. You simply can’t believe what you are watching. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the brilliant dinner table sequence, at once darkly comic and grueling to sit through. It is an expressionist sequence composed of a series of extreme close-ups of Sally’s eyeball, screaming mouth, and the strange objects on the table.

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ImageThere is no explanation for the madness that we witness; we know nothing about the Sawyer family, or how come nobody has discovered them or how on earth the rotting corpse that they call grandfather is still alive!

What is astonishing is that the film succeeds in creating some sympathy for Leatherface. Terrifying he may be, but he is also bullied by his family and he comes across as slow-witted and uncoordinated in his movements—he is almost like a child. His job is to gather food/meat and cook it for the family. And on this particular day, when more meat arrives that he knows what to do with, he is understandably frustrated.

When Sally finally escapes the house, we are just as surprised as her to find that it is dawn. Daylight is always associated with safety in horror movies but the terror that pursues Sally doesn’t care for such conventions. The hitchhiker and Leatherface chase Sally down the road, each manically brandishing their favorite weapon.

The final scene is a thing of beauty. Sally escapes in the back of a pickup truck, leaving Leatherface angry and frustrated. Leatherface wildly waves his chainsaw over his head in rage and then suddenly, his frustration gives way to an inexplicable little dance.

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ImageImageIt’s incredible to find a shot of such startling beauty in a horror film. Gunnar holds the buzzing chainsaw over his head and pirouettes, not once but twice, and Hooper lets him. As far as endings go, this is one hell of an ending.

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Posted in: Appreciation