Generally speaking, I prefer horror movies that are fun to watch. I like movies that I can pop in the DVD player, get a few cheap scares or laughs out of and then watch again because I can’t help but enjoy the film. Then there are those movies that I call “ordeal films”, where the films are so unrelentingly depressing and grim that you can’t help but feel like you ran a marathon by the end of the movie and might just need to wash off a layer of grime you picked up along the way. These are movies like The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left or Hostel, which have their own merits, for sure, but are not exactly the kind of movies you pop in because you want to have a good time. I wasn’t really considering putting any of the films that fit in the ordeal subgenre onto this list when I first considered it, but after the gut punch I felt for days after rewatching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre recently, I knew I couldn’t ignore it as one of the greats.
It’s all in the title really. It takes place in Texas, there is a chainsaw, and there is a fair amount of massacring going down. Five youths travelling through the Texas back country to visit an old family home run afoul of another family made up of sadistic cannibals and grave robbers with a penchant for power tools. Over the course of twenty-four hours they are stalked, tortured, dismembered and eaten one at a time until only one girl is left to fight for her life.
What sounds like a run of the mill horror movie is made into one of the most unrelenting and difficult to watch movies by the exceptional direction of Tobe Hooper. While his body of work since this movie has been lackluster at best, he films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with an almost documentary style that makes it unsettlingly realistic and uncomfortable. All the more unnerving is how understated this film is. Despite its lurid title, the violence in this movie is not particularly graphic. There is very little blood on screen and (SPOILER ALERT) only one character is actually killed by a chainsaw. However, the stagings of the film’s few deaths are creepily realistic and violent, creating a near stomach-turning end product.
Of course, the film’s troubled production probably helped with that too. Filmed in a mid-Texas summer under some of the worst conditions imaginable, the frayed nerves and psyches of all the actors are visible on screen. Poor Marilyn Burns is one of the all time great scream queens in this part. Her role isn’t particularly strong and she doesn’t have much to do but scream and get tormented by her costars and director (and get cut up, for real, by pretty much every piece of scenery the movie has to offer), but she delivers her all and has a real good set of pipes. Equally good, and unbelievably chilling, are the three actors in the parts of the crazed family of cannibals. While Edwin Neal and Jim Siedow are tremendous as the Hitchhiker and the Cook respectively, it’s Gunnar Hansen’s portrayal of the family’s killing machine, Leatherface, that is one of the best horror has had. While the character is mute (and the actor going nearly insane from wearing this heavy costume in 100 degree plus temperatures every day of the shoot), he is menacing and terrible and started the trend of the strong, silent slasher movie villain off right. While Michael Myers would perfect the art, Leatherface got the ball rolling in the right direction.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not an easy movie to watch, but it is incredibly powerful and skilled at getting under your skin. Just be glad it doesn’t remove it first.
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-- Matt Carter
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