Everything about this movie is just plain eerie and disturbing. The mood just drips off of the screen with every frame, drawing you into a hot, sweaty, nasty, foul smelling, sticky nightmare that lasts for 84 minutes - from the now-classic foreboding opening narration to the frantic and abrupt slap-in-the-face ending which is just as iconic.
"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is from an era where horror films were generally more about lead-in and atmosphere than shock and gore, although to be sure those thing existed. But it was more about the unseen, which for my money is far more effective than showing. And although when it was released, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" was extremely controversial, and was one of the infamous "Video Nasties," compared to today's standard stock it's pretty tame in terms of what you actually see.
In fact, something I always found interesting was that when you talked to people about "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," they always remember it as being far gorier than it actually was. To me, that's the mark of a fantastically effective horror film. Oh for sure, there are people getting stuck on meathooks and getting dissected with the titular wood-cutting implement, but it's always kept obscured, which makes it more effective since your brain is capable of coming up with far more disgusting things than what the screen can show you.
Oh, this can't end pleasantly...
The story may be somewhat cliche nowadays, mostly because of the slew of imitators it spawned. The tale of a group of college-aged students running afoul of a bunch of inbred hillbillies is not something that is uncommon in the annals of horror movies. But rarely does a story like that give rise to such a legendary villain, in this case Leatherface - the Ed Gein inspired giant who wears a mask made from the skin of his victim's faces.
The interesting thing about Leatherface is that mentally, he's a child. It's not a stretch to imagine that under other circumstances he probably wouldn't hurt a fly, and would be a quiet, dim-witted, lumbering, friendly giant. But because of the savage upbringing he received, murder and slaughter is second nature to him, like a child being taught the ritual of making their breakfast cereal. And when these people walk into Leatherface's house, it scares him. He does what he's been told and butchers them like cattle, but there's no malice or rage. It's all fear of these strangers, the same as a toddler crying when they meet someone new they're not sure of. Only this time, the toddler is a 6' 7", 275 lb. beast with a chainsaw. And he's coming at you with it.
That's freaking scary, man.
Gunnar Hansen plays Leatherface with a supreme grasp of the physicality required to pull off being scary while having no dialogue besides pig-like squeals and muffled yelps. In preparing for the role, Hansen said he spent a lot of time with specials needs children in order to convincingly portray someone like that, and it really paid off. One of the eeriest scenes of the movie is ironically the only quiet moment Leatherface gets, where he just sits there spacing out, and Hansen has this amazing "thousand yard stare" going on. It's also the only part when you get a good look at his eyes under the mask, and the eyes are where he sells that moment, as you can see what little wheels are up there are turning as best they can.
I'm also a fan of Marilyn Burns, who plays Sally, the "Final Girl" as the trope has it. I can't even imagine the kind of strain and torture and general horribleness that must have gone into the crafting of her performance, but it is extraordinary to watch. The entire last half hour of the film is essentially made up of Sally alternating between running for her life and screaming her head off, and much of the time doing both at once. I can't imagine someone keeping up the level of intensity she has for that long, but she did it.
I know the screaming woman has been done countless times before, but in "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" it's different. When you see it in this movie, it seems legit. It feels absolutely real. And I'm seriously of the opinion that her demented, hysterical laughter right before the credits roll of someone taken right to the edge of their sanity and given a nudge off the cliff before being yanked back wasn't at least partly genuine.
Seriously. I think you're looking at someone who is, at that very moment, legally insane.
I also liked Teri McMinn, who played Pam, and would forever be known afterwards as "The Meathook Girl." Her terror isn't as drawn out as Sally's, but for as long as it lasts, it's just as intense. And while Sally got far more screen time, the image of Pam hanging on a meathook while watching her boyfriend get carved up with a chainsaw on the table in front of her may be the most memorable single image from a movie composed of memorable images. At least it was for me. And man, does she sell that scene. It's horrifying.
Edwin Neal is also a standout as The Hitchhiker, bringing one of the most bizarre, awkward and disturbing introductions to a horror movie that I've seen. Before he appears, the movie had been all about mood and foreboding. The first image we see is a corpse dug up and displayed in a shamanistic fashion on a tombstone. There's a dead armadillo on the road. Pam starts taking about bad juju because Saturn is in retrograde and other hippie stuff. An old man says creepy stuff like "Things happen here they don't tell you about. I see things." They drive by a slaughterhouse. This is all in like five minutes.
We do nothing but hear about all this bad stuff getting ready to happen. Then the Hitchhiker appears and puts a face on this dread and ominous madness. The clearly insane ramblings of this guy give the impression that he could just as well not even be a person. He could just as likely be an avatar of the land itself, made flesh and bone from the sun-baked evil that has permeated the very dirt of this stretch of lonesome, backwoods country. After he enters their van and marks them, there is no escape. The Earth itself may have just as well opened up and swallowed them whole, and Neal makes you believe it all. It's another fantastic performance.
If this guy gets in your van and tells you, "My family's always been in meat," find a way to invent a time machine quickly as possible, and go back and stop yourself from EVER setting foot in Texas. Seriously. Just do it.
On the other hand, I did not care much for Paul Partain, who played Sally's wheelchair bound brother, Franklyn. Obnoxious is too mild a word for this guy, and by the end you're actually looking forward to Leatherface putting him and the audience out of their misery. Evidently this feeling was also shared among the cast, as apparently Partain wasn't much liked on set either, since he was just as obnoxious as his character was. Hansen reportedly was looking forward to the scene when he took him out, since that meant he would be going home. Then again, it did make for some very believable tension between the actors. Can't argue with that, I suppose.
Once Sally is the last one left, the final act of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" begins. And it is, bar none, one of the most intense and punishing stretches of terror I've ever seen. The dinner scene in particular is filmed in such a unique, uncomfortable way so as to make us feel that it's us strapped to the chair, being served what is undoubtedly our last meal before being butchered by this family of freaks. The extreme, frankly beautiful close ups of Marilyn Burns' eyes just do something to me that puts me on such an edge. I never thought I'd see an eyeball so close up that I could actually see the tears not forming on the lid, but coming out of the duct itself.
And you thought Malcom McDowell's eyes got a lot of screen time...
I'm not a big fan of slasher movies, as most who know my tastes in horror can tell you, but I make exception for "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." It's just so masterfully crafted in its pacing, so effective with its tone, and so smart with its scares that I think it transcends the genre that it helped create. This isn't just a compilation of kills, gore, and T&A, like most slasher films are. It's a grueling endurance test. The last act in particular is so ungodly uncomfortable to watch, and assaults you so completely with the pure cacophony of screams and yelling and chainsaw revving that it is mentally - and borders on physically - exhausting. That's art.
It ain't pleasant, but it's art none the less.
THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is a fantastic movie. Any person who considers the horror genre something that they even passably enjoy owes it to themselves to see it. Gore-hounds will find it lacking, but people who enjoy their horror more atmospheric and scary rather than simply gross and startling will find plenty to enjoy. If "enjoy" is a word that can be used in conjunction with "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."