Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Directed by Tobe Hooper.
1974. Rated R, 74 minutes
Marilyn Burns
Gunnar Hansen
Allen Danziger
Paul A. Partain
William Vail
Teri McMinn
Edwin Neal
John Dugan
Jim Siedow

Sally (Burns), her wheelchair bound brother Franklin (Partain), and a few of their friends are riding around somewhere in Texas, looking for some sights to see. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker who is obviously a few burgers short of a cookout. He likes to play with knives and cackle maniacally. Luckily for them, they manage to dump this weirdo before anyone suffers a fatal injury. They drive along some more and eventually find a nice secluded/abandoned house to hang out in. There is a lake out back and no authority figures around for miles. Ah, the perfect spot for kicking back and having a good time. Things are going great until they figure out they’re out of gas. One of them gets the bright idea to see if the neighbors in the only other house around will help out. The title and the birth of a sub-genre ensues. You know which sub-genre, right? That one where a group of teens off on an excursion wander into some back woods and meet some inhospitable hillbillies. Truthfully, we can probably trace its birth back a year further to the release of Deliverance. This one, however, creates the template we've been following ever since.

The genius of this movie is threefold. First, it comes dangerously close to boring us. During the setup stages, other than some grisly images right at the very beginning, there aren't all the tell-tale signs that let us know this is a horror flick. Sure, there’s the wacko hitcher, but once that passes it’s fairly mundane for a good little while. No strange sightings, or shadows crossing the camera, or cats suddenly jumping out at us and no foreboding music. The bad stuff starts happening pretty spontaneously. Second, it doesn't go into lengthy exposition to explain the back-story of our psychos. It’s not interested in why this is happening. It merely wants to give us the sinking feeling that something bad lurks in the bowels of America. This also keeps the run time short, a scant seventy-four minutes (according to the DVD I have), packing its thrills tight and not allowing us to grow immune to its tricks. Something the various remakes and sequels suffer from is giving us too much info, using all sorts of ridiculousness to explain things. Finally, it doesn't ever feel the need to make us in the audience feel better. Yes, at the risk of spoiling a near forty year old movie, there is a survivor. However, it’s hardly the ending we've grown accustomed to. We’re not experiencing any sense of triumph when the credits roll.

Where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might lose newer audiences is in the visuals. Don’t get me wrong. The look of the film is still perfect. It’s got the griminess befitting its subject matter. However, for those raised on Saw and Final Destination movies, the blood and guts aspect might be a tad disappointing. When the heinous acts are occurring they’re often just off-camera or somehow obscured. The power of suggestion is a marvelous story-telling tool, but hardcore horror fans, especially those of slasher fare, may feel cheated. As sadistic as it sounds, part of the thrill of watching dead teenager movies is seeing horrible things done to the human body. Here, we only sorta see it. For its era, it is a gory flick. In 2013, it’s still not for the faint of heart, but far short of all those torture porn movies in terms of visible nastiness.

Excessive mutilation or not, TTCM still stands head and shoulders above most films of its ilk. Inspired by real life serial killer Ed Gein, it sparsely presents its story as a matter of fact, not stylized violence and overly elaborate contraptions. This rawness is where its power lies. When things happen we don’t feel like we’re watching a movie crew’s handiwork.

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