“Classic” is a temperamental designation. Often a work benefits from distance. A movie can seem like a classic because it belongs to a certain moment in time when it seemed particularly fresh of innovative, the first of its kind. After all of its imitators and admirers pick its bones clean, the original might feel weak or worn by comparison. It’s lost something that’s hard to define.
Not so with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When I picked it up again after not having seen it for years, I expected it to be an exercise in nostalgia. Certainly after all the Saws and Human Centipedes, the waves of films in the “torture porn” genre and filmmakers constantly looking to up the ante on shock value in the past several decades, Texas Chainsaw Massacre might be quaint. Dated. Hokey.
Nope. If anything, Tobe Hooper’s original movie is more transgressive and terrifying now than it ever was. If you haven’t seen it in a while, toss it in your player (or more probably, fire up your stream) and give it another look. Preferably sometime after midnight when you’re all alone with all of the lights off. Even better if it’s a good sweaty summer’s night. The movie is horrifying. And that’s what we’re after as fans, right? To be left to wonder at all the grotesque possibilities of a world we can never fully know.
That’s on display before the opening credits even roll, when we get flashes of rotting limbs and then a wide shot of a corpse obscenely impaled on a monument of some sort. It’s a striking image, and the camera takes its time pulling back to reveal the whole tableau.
We do get a couple of tropes when the story start. Five younger people are traveling in a van on a lonely road – right away you know most of them aren’t going to live for long. Even before they pass the slaughterhouse and start talking about different methods of killing cattle. Or before pick up a weirdo hitchhiker who cuts himself and invites them all back to his house for head cheese. But that guy’s got a wild energy and sets an edge for what’s coming.
Of course they run out of gas and get trapped in the middle of nowhere, because that’s where all the bad stuff happens. You have to start somewhere.
That first kill is quick, all hammers and twitching, and a quick glimpse of the featured tormentor. The imagery around that part of the movie is wonderful, all of the bones that may or may not be human arranged in a purposeful but incomprehensible manner. And then the first victim gets the hook to watch a friend go under Leatherface’s saw. Once the blood starts to flow, that’s it. You’re in.
The plot is simple after that. There are three people left. How will they die? Leatherface isn’t particularly strong or quick or nimble. There’s nothing supernatural about him. He’s just got his heart set on killing everyone he meets and maybe saving the meat for later. His big advantage is that his victims usually don’t know he exists until seconds before the saw starts running. And then he is relentless, and breathtakingly cruel. The one major twist after that is that Leatherface isn’t alone, and his family is just as crazy and murderous as he is.
And oh, that scene where we meet grandpa and see him revived be sucking just a little bit of blood from his victim’s finger. Somehow, that seems even more terrible than being clubbed with a hammer and cut to bits. Jim Siedow’s laughter as the Old Man is just as iconic as Leatherface’s mask. And when the last young woman left alive wakes up screaming at the dinner table and the whole family screams back, there is no more perfectly terrifying moment in horror film history. They are mocking her, but in a way that makes it seem like her imminent death is all part of the fun. And that they’ve seen this before.
Even when someone isn’t running for their lives, they are confronted with scenes so strange and macabre – the best of which is family dinner time – that there is no time to pause and wonder why any of this might be happening in the first place. That’s the heart of it. Hooper never bothers to explain any sort of motivation for Leatherface and Co. They aren’t getting revenge or working out some childhood trauma, as far as we know in the original film. They just want you dead and slaughtered, maybe after they’ve teased you a bit by waving around an angry sounding saw. Just the sound of it is frightening. They don’t stop.
There are some clues in the very beginning about a barbecue restaurant, but that doesn’t come into play until the equally brilliant but more comically inclined sequel. The closest we come to understanding the reasons behind what they’re doing in the original movie is, maybe your leg from the knee down would make a nice lamp.
Hooper created a complete, if senseless, world where there is menace in every image. And if you stay, you die. Sooner rather than later. There is no reasoning with your fate in this place. Maybe you can catch a passing truck and get out, because Leatherface is a psycho killer, but he’s not a strong runner, per se. Still, you’re going need an enormous amount of luck to escape him. The 84 minutes go by so quickly.
There have been a lot of films since Texas Chainsaw Massacre willing to test an audience’s sense of decency, and what they are willing to withstand in the name of entertainment. But there’s something clinical about a lot of them. They are Oasis to Hooper’s Beatles. Successful franchises, maybe, but they don’t have the same spark. And it still holds up.