The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is back in theaters this week for its 40th anniversary with a newly restored edition that makes director Tobe Hooper’s classic slasher look better than ever. Not that it needs the help! Shot for less than $300,000 with a cast of unknowns, the 1974 film helped shape the horror genre and become a huge independent hit. And it’s still one of the scariest movies ever made. Here’s why it holds up.
2. It’s a daytime story.
Darkness, shadow, and not being able to see what’s coming are basic tools of any horror movie. But most of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s run time is dedicated to the daylight hours, as Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and their friends Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn) travel through a run-down part of rural Texas and have an unfortunate encounter with a local family. The frightening part about Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) isn’t that he could be lurking anywhere, but that he’s this horrific monster dropped right into the middle of a summer afternoon. When he first appears, it’s in a set-up that would seem perfectly innocuous were it not for the sense of apparently unrelated dread that the film’s been drumming up — white house, swing, sunny day, and then from out of it comes this figure of dread wearing a mask made of someone else’s skin.
3. It doesn’t need gore to be disturbing.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre manages to convey shocking violence while actually showing very little on-screen gore. Tobe Hooper reportedly had been aiming to get a PG rating, though instead he got an R and a film that was initially banned in the U.K. But the result is a movie that relies on the idea of what’s happening without having to show it, and when those ideas include people being placed on a meat hook or gored with a chainsaw, that’s plenty. One of the reasons The Texas Chain Saw Massacre holds up so remarkably well is that it has few effects to age poorly. Instead of showing what happens when a sledgehammer hits a human skull, the film focuses on the body twitching in shock after taking the blow, and that ends up being even more disturbing.
4. It doesn’t give explanations.
There’s often a strange movie logic to what gets people in trouble in horror flicks — they’re mean or naughty, they pick up cursed objects, they do drugs or have sex, or they’re the sacrificial person of color who inevitably dies first. But Sally and her friends don’t break any obvious rules of the genre — they even give the creepy hitchhiker a ride, to their immediate regret. And while they’re hippie kids in the country, they’re not invasive outsiders, as Sally and Franklin’s grandparents have an old house in the area. Their fate’s so resonant because there’s no morality or reason (even in the weirdest big screen sense) attached to it. They’re just incredibly unlucky.
5. It’s an ode to creepy interior design.
The house that Leatherface and his family inhabits is a wonder of WTF art direction. The walls are lined with hides and taxidermy and the attic holds two desiccated elderly people, one of whom’s still alive. And there’s a whole room filled with feathers and bones, and furnished with a delightful skeleton bench and a live chicken in a cage. The thought that’s gone into this insane decor is part of what makes it so spooky — this isn’t a squat. “Look what your brother did to that door. Ain’t got no pride in his home!” the gas station-owning uncle played by Jim Siedow says, outraged, when he sees that Leatherface has cut through the front entrance while chasing a would-be victim.
6. It’s just the story of a family trying to get by.
As it ramps up to its conclusion, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre becomes as darkly funny as it is fucked up, as what’s previously been a nightmare of a mute monster murdering innocents becomes a warped variation on a sitcom. Leatherface, in drag, oversees a dinner table at which there’s good-natured bickering and some gentle encouragement of ol’ grandpa while Sally, tied up, screams in terror at the foot. The sequence doesn’t just upend all expectations, it slyly suggests the film’s a depraved fable about members of a fading community struggling against economic shifts and changing technology. When there’s just no place for folks at the slaughterhouse anymore now that it’s switched to using a cattle gun, what’s this family supposed to do but turn to eating people instead?
7. It’s a surprisingly beautiful movie about murderous inbred cannibals.
Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre manages some moments of strikingly golden beauty amid all the slaughter and terror. A hulking maniac swinging a chainsaw in thwarted rage has never looked as gorgeous as Leatherface does in the film’s final scene. That prettiness is one more reason the movie remains so haunting, and why it’s worth seeing on the big screen if you have a chance. Frightening is one thing, but to do it on a budget while looking so good? That’s why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a classic.
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