The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I, like so many of my generation, first saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre on a crappy VHS (or was it Beta?) on a small TV in an over-lit room, probably with a bunch of people talking at inopportune points and, thus, have never been especially impressed by it. It’s hard to see stuff; it’s hard to hear stuff; and for all it’s supposed shock value in 1974, it’s surprisingly not very graphic or gory. Interestingly, though, as I’ve talked about before, there is one shot of Teri McMinn approaching the Slaughter family’s house (and her doom) that is so iconic, I was able to identify the remake from the first second of the trailer because it aped that shot.

The Flower thought her completely backless top was amazing!
The camera dollies up from here so it’s not as prurient as this still makes it seem.

I was somewhat reluctant to take the kids to it, for that reason, and especially because it was part of a double-feature (the second feature being A Nightmare on Elm Street) but they were game for it, and it proved, beyond all else that seeing it in the theater is better. I mean, “You won’t miss much on the little screen” is a common refrain, but I can’t think of a lot of cases where that’s actually true, because it’s not just the size of the screen that matters, but the immersion: The lighting, the sound, the (relative) lack of distraction, etc.

In any case, it is very much not true for this film, which is startlingly effective in a theater.

EEeeeeeeeauuugh!
The scene doesn’t read at all at home. And it’s great in the theater.

I found myself really liking it even though it is exactly the sort of horror film I generally don’t like: I prefer the spooky, the ghost story, the monster movie, or even the slasher to a film like this, which has elements of a slasher, but which is a lot about the very creepy. At least one writer I’ve read has argued that the big shift in TCSM is that the interesting characters are not the kids who are being murdered—they’re in fact pretty disposable characters we don’t know that much about, and what we do know we don’t especially like. But the Slaughter family (that’s their last name, and they run the “W.E. Slaughter BBQ”, yes, they do!) has some real characters in it!

The set up, going in, is that our kids, in their archetypal van and their bell bottom pants (HUGE bell bottoms, except for shorty-short wearing McMinn) are off to visit the graveyard where their grandfather was buried, which has been the recent site of vandalism (or maybe harvesting, though one wouldn’t be thinking like that in 1974 Texas) and, reassured that he’s been undisturbed, continued on to his old house. On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (1974!) who has an awkward manner and fascination for knives.

Don't we all carry straight razors around?
And what’s wrong with that?

Well, that doesn’t work out very well for anyone, so they kick him to the curb and continue along their way to the old house. Nobody they run into thinks they should go out that way, but they do.

That doesn’t really work out very well for anyone either.

It’s a very creepy movie. If it were just creepy, it would be competent but not all that interesting. But about halfway into it, all hell breaks out. And in this respect, it’s actually a kind of unique film. This movie is creepy, creepy, creepy, BAM! (Literally. BAM!) And then BAM! BAM! BAM!

Then creepy, creepy, creepy, HOLY CRAP!

If you couldn't guess.
This is one of the creepy scenes.

There’s no real attempt to make a “spooky” atmosphere in the traditional sense. The opening features a cheesy intro explaining the documentary (I think “based on” not “found footage”) narrated by John Laroquette (!) and long stretches of the film are without music. When there is music it’s the sort of ambient electronic noise (kind of like Forbidden Planet) you might find in a haunted house maze today. This makes things sort of eerily real-feeling, the way some of the modern “found footage” stuff can be. Only with very skilled and energetic camera movement and positioning.

It’s also not gory. My impression as a kid was that the film was so notorious that it must’ve been extraordinarily gory or shocking in some way, and since the producers were, at one point, trying to get a PG rating (for real), they cut down on the gore. The movie is better for having to imagine some of the more awful things that happen to our poor campers. But, even without gore at all, there was no way that a movie this shocking (on the big screen, anyway) was gonna NOT get an R, for “thematic elements” or “shocking scenes of ickiness”. This may be part of why the film still works as well as it does: Gore, like all special effects, can start to look silly as it gets outdated.

The kids loved it. In some ways, the next feature (A Nightmare on Elm Street) would not fare as well.

 

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