Often credited as one of the most influential horror movies of the last forty years, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is responsible for creating many elements now frequent in the slasher genre. The film was produced for a budget of less than $300,000 but went on to bring in over £30 million at the box office and has since spawned five sequels or remakes with a sixth scheduled for release in 2013. I saw the 2003 remake when I was about eighteen and remember being nonplussed by its story and violence. My Dad then asked me if I’d seen the original and when I said I wasn’t sure he replied “You’d remember if you’d seen the original.” Well nine years on I’ve now seen the original and despite some good moments and obvious influence it has had on recent horror I fail to see its appeal. I didn’t find it scary or threatening, the story bored me and I was very glad that it was only 84 minutes long.
If you’ve ever seen a slasher film then the premise will sound very familiar. Five friends are travelling through central Texas on their way to a run down house owned by the family of Sally (Marylin Burns) and her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain). Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker who scares the group, attacks Franklin and flees. Once they reach the homestead the group slowly begin to dwindle as they encounter chainsaw wielding, leather mask wearing neighbour/maniac.
The film is quite slow to build and except for the odd grisly shot of a corpse due to some local grave robbing, there is nothing of note to scare until the mid point. Even once the murders begin, they are of course violent, but also swift and filmed in such a way that little is seen. The audience doesn’t actually see that much until the final act which also happens to be the only act that perked my interest. The slow build up isn’t really a problem as it adds to the anticipation. I think my problem with the film is that because it is held up as an example of brutal, no holds barred horror that when the bloodletting, chainsawing and screaming began, it all felt a little tame. I was expecting so much more.
What I did enjoy though was the final act in which the now common trope of the single female survivor is used. While still not scary, this section was creepy in a psychological way. There was some great use of quick cutting in the edit and a brilliant shot of the actress’s eye, seen closer and closer in quick cuts until the camera seems to be almost touching her. The terror in her eyes also shows some great acting. The final scenes are also where we first see some full on violence. Earlier in the film horrid things were observed but never fully seen. A woman is hung up by a hook but the gruesome sight is hidden from view. In another scene a man has a limb sawn off by a chainsaw but this is once again cleverly hidden from view. In the closing scenes though we do actually see the likes of hammers hitting skulls and copious bloodletting. The problem is though that despite all of this I was never scared. I put this down to four reasons. The first is that my expectation was that the film would be terrifying; the second was that I kind of knew the story and characters. Thirdly I’ve never been to the rural areas of America in which the film takes place and felt their isolation and lastly, modern horror tends to be much more vicious. Films like Saw and Final Destination delight in fulfilling the audience’s demands for more sadistic and twisted forms of death. I’ve seen much worse on film that a man wielding a chainsaw so as a twenty-something in 2012 I think the film has less impact on that of a twenty-something in 1974.
Even though I thought the film was a bit of a let down there were still things to like. The cinematography was excellent and the third act was creepy if not wholly terrifying. There is also plenty on screen that has been copied since and you can see a hundred slasher clichés that here are mostly original. The film might not have scared me as I thought it would but it has influenced many films that have.