Editor’s Note: You can win a copy of the 40th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-Ray and several other great horror films in our #hAElloween contest here.
Overview: Tobe Hooper’s low-budget horror masterpiece about five road-tripping friends whose trip is interrupted by an encounter with a chainsaw wielding killer. Bryanston Pictures; 1974; Rated R; 83 Minutes
Elements of Successful Horror: Start with a distinct killer. Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface is certainly that. In forty years since his inception, sequels and reboots have etched the maniac’s likeness into the Mount Rushmore of movie killers (taking company with Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees). But what sets Leatherface apart, at least in this original movie, is his normalcy, his humanity. With his child-like grunts of effort, his spastic and fearful gesticulations, and his clunky ungraceful pursuit, Leatherface is more reality than entity, a reactionary victim in his own right, killing in panic and confusion, as human as movie killers have dared to get.
Elements of Good Horror: Learn to wield a malicious camera. It might be easy to dismiss the functional effectiveness of Daniel Pearl’s gritty camera style to the movie’s low-budget or the standard of photography in the era, but one must give credit to the techniques in application in this film. We are made to witness involuntarily with stationary or steady cam shots. The frame holds seconds longer then we want it to. The movie cuts harshly to new angles when we just want to look away. The camera allows no moments of comfort or reprieve. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a complete affront and total subversion of the enjoyable movie going experience (as all great horror wishes itself to be), and the primary weapon in this assault is Hooper’s camerawork and editing.
Elements of Great Horror: Leave no tool hanging in the shed. Think of the sound editing in this movie. The dull thud of the hammer as it slams into the skull, the sickening gurgle of victims, that sharp piercing single repetitive note, Leatherface’s noises, the audio-splicing of literal pig grunts. And the design production: the infamous intro, the dead armadillo, the apocalyptic ruins in the isolated Texas landscape, the bone and flesh furniture.
Elements of Transcendent Horror: Care about the performances; inhabit the situation, not the tired template. Marilyn Burns’s performance as Sally, the final victim, has been imitated countless times and I’m not sure anyone has even fractionally matched her. Her fight for survival is uniquely unnerving, seemingly authentic and biological. Her leaps through windows do not feel like stunts. Watching her struggle, we recall nauseously black-and-white pictures of real victims in newspapers rather than comparable performances on theater screens. And when the camera holds tight to her face, her display of mindless anguish and fading hope exhibit facial acting that stands alone with Renee Maria Falconetti (The Passion of Joan of Arc) as the most effective ever exhibited by an actress.
Elements of the Very Best Horror: Go as far as you can go. Never close the gap, never mercifully answer questions. Leave the audience with a survival that is no certain resolution, and a killer waving his weapon against a sunset, because the best horror feels no obligation. It makes you want to surrender but earns your undivided attention. There’s no explanation for why we keep watching when forced to witness the half-alive grandfather suck the blood from Sally’s finger, why we don’t turn the movie off when the hammer falls from grandpa’s hand a third and fourth time. That viewers finish this movie is a testament to the carnal curiosity in all of us, the inherent fascination with our own mortality, the psychological need for horror which is stronger and cleanly separate from the need for any other type of movie.