The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the universally recognised shocking films in horror cinema and it has stunned audiences since its release in 1974. Upon release, TCM faced a total storm of outcry, censorship and controversy for its exploitative nature. It’s a fiercely effective film that successfully manages to massively disturb viewers with them barely witnessing a single drop of blood. Using an unbelievable level of suspense, insane background music and psychological horror results in an atmospheric film that leaves a lasting impact of genuine fear and uneasiness upon whoever watches.
The film tells a fairly simple tale – sweet natured Sally Hardesty, her wheelchair bound brother Franklin and their friends Pam, Kirk and Jerry take a road trip to rural Texas to investigate reports that have suggested grave-robbings have been occurring – so the group make a brief stop at her grandfather’s grave to check it is still intact. Little do the five unsuspecting friends realise the real terror of what is hiding beyond the graves is a certain chainsaw-wielding, skin-wearing maniac and his deranged family. Marilyn Burns steals the show as our “final girl” and definitely gives it her absolute all to gain the scream queen title in what must have been an exhausting and traumatising role. Gunnar Hansen’s exceptional portrayal of the iconic villain Leatherface offers glimpses behind the mask into the character’s tortured and crazed soul.
Despite the incredibly low budget of the film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is certainly startling and impressive looking. Director Tobe Hooper clearly had a sharp eye for effective and breathtaking shots in such an early stage of his career. Extreme close up shots of Sally’s petrified eyes help you understand her absolute terror in the most personal way. Hooper creates such an unbearable atmosphere and descends the viewer into the sheer madness of the situation – especially throughout the hypnotic climatic scene. The gritty cinematography is so effective and efficient – conveying perfectly the impending doom of the cast.
Astonishingly, despite the gruesome title, there is very little blood spilled in the entire run time – probably making this one of the most misleading names of a horror film in history. Audiences will never see a meat hook impaling human skin, a hammer slamming against anyone’s head, or even a chainsaw touching anyone’s skin. The chainsaw itself mentioned in the title is only used once. The film relies on the viewer’s ability to use their imagination and fills in the gaps themselves. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was refused a certificate for theatrical release and remained banned for a remarkable 25 years in the UK. In 1999 the film was finally given an 18 certificate which is rather interesting when you consider that the film is tremendously tame by today’s standards, especially in terms of graphic content.
The raw and grainy quality of the film topped with the striking production design gives it such a dirty realism that hasn’t been matched in a horror film since. It completely immerses the viewer into the sheer filth and decay of the town. The heat of the blazing summer sun paired with the rotting stench of the town almost oozes through the screen. The soundtrack contributes massively to the film’s overall tone of terror and insanity. The score is minimal and consists mostly of noisy, bizarre tones resembling metallic scrapes, screams and occasional percussion – showing proof of experimentation that speaks the language and evokes the atmosphere of the slaughterhouse and the state of mind of the demented family.
Some modern filmmakers should go back to the roots of where it all begun and take note – cheap jump scares and buckets of blood is not entirely necessary to provoke genuine shock from your viewer. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfect example that heavily uses the reliance of suggestion and implication rather than off the wall and in your face gore to make the film all the more terrifying. This is an incredibly rare tactic and one that, even 40 years after release is still horrifying and shall continue to unnerve audiences for years to come.