“My family’s always been in meat” stutters the resident teenage hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), as he attempts to bond with the group of fellow teenagers as they drive through the rural South. Loosely inspired by the real-life story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein – as was Psycho (1960) before it and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) after it – Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre follows five young friends on a road trip through 1970s Texas. It‘s not long before they make acquaintances with the locals and we are plunged into a world of chicken feathers, human barbecue and incomprehensible accents.
Hooper’s homicidal hillbilly horror is essentially about a dysfunctional family trying to survive the only way they know how. In order to make ends “meat” the redundant slaughterhouse workers continue the family business albeit a substitution. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre manages to convey shocking violence through indirect gore as opposed to the direct exposure of blood and guts.
When Kirk (William Vail) wanders into a desolate house, Hooper denies us an obligatory overhead shot that would pre-empt the overwhelming shock of Leatherface (Gunner Hanson) appearing on screen. The off-screen sound of squealing from behind the frame suddenly becomes a reality we have to face, as the star of the show smashes his victim’s head in with a sledgehammer. Before we have time to register the events, the body is dragged off and the steel shutter door slams shut. The voyeuristic gaze of the audience is denied access and we are left with our imagination in overdrive.
Hooper never lets us forget that the victims are akin to beef cattle for the Sawyer family. Bodies are strung up on meat hooks and feet twitch as the weapon strikes. In a particularly memorable moment, Pam (Teri McMinn) discovers the Sawyer room of horrors and we are reminded of Neal’s earlier comment on cattle “headcheese”. Implied images insinuate that every part of dinner is used – bones included. For, they make lovely decorative sofas.
The film ends on a note that is both delirious and exuberant. As the sun comes up on his night of fun, Leatherface gives his phallic weapon one last spin, whilst a blood soaked Marilyn Burns laughs hysterically as she is driven to safety. With an audio that uses environmental sound to such an unsettling degree and avant-garde editing courtesy of Larry Caroll (who in 1979 wrote the cult flop Tourist Trap) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre unrelentingly assaults the senses, earning it a place as one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
Tobe Hooper’s film smoothly blends the atmospheric and the grotesque. The Texas Chainsaw is a classic that everyone can appreciate, not just the horror aficionados.
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