If you can scare the shit out of horror master Wes Craven, you’re clearly doing something right.
In Jason Zinoman’s excellent 2012 book Shock Value, Craven (The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street) said this about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: “[The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] looked like someone stole a camera and started killing people. It has a wild, feral energy that I had never seen before, with none of the cultural Band-Aids that soften things. It wasn’t nice, not nice at all. I was scared shitless.”
And with that, Craven pinpoints exactly what makes director/co-writer Tobe Hooper’s horror classic the scariest movie ever made, a superlative that holds true to this day, 40 years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s initial theatrical release. Even within Dark Sky Films' pristine new digital restoration (currently available in a special "Black Maria" Blu-ray box-set), the suffocating grimness is as palpable as ever.
It’s right there in Craven's quote: “[It] looked like someone stole a camera and started killing people.” If not for Hooper’s meticulously erratic and unnerving edits, and composers Hooper and Wayne Bell’s ear-piercing, violins-playing-in-Hell’s-orchestra score, one could understandably think that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a backwoods snuff film that you should be sending to the nearest police department rather than casually watching. The almost inhuman shrieks emitted by actress Marilyn Burns throughout its final 25 minutes don't make you think "acting"—you think, How could the director keep filming this?
Every on-screen death feels real and terrible. The screams sound painful and desperate. Unlike the barely passable, Hollywood-machine-churned 2003 remake, the horror in Hooper’s original film isn’t diluted by the presence of recognizable participants like Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey and Jessica Biel—there’s not a familiar face or name in sight. Furthermore, none of the cast members followed up The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with anything of note. For all you know, they all, except for “final girl” Sally Hardesty (Burns), really were killed back in 1974, in front of Hooper’s camera.
Of course, to cite the brilliant marketing campaign for Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie.” Those Chainsaw actors—Allen Danziger (Jerry), William Vail (Kirk), Teri McMinn (Pam), and Paul A. Partain (Franklin)—didn’t actually die in the outskirts of Austin that summer. They’re still alive today, giving interviews about how unpleasant the shooting process was in the scorching August 1974 heat. And Leatherface himself, Gunnar Hansen, doesn’t really wear human flesh and carve people up with this hand-held motorized chopper—believe it or not, Leatherface is a published author. But in 2014, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't "only a movie." It’s horror cinema’s equivalent of Cal Ripken’s seemingly insurmountable 2,632-consecutive-games-played record—it’s an incomparable exercise in fear that won’t ever be topped.
Repeat viewing don't diminish it, either. Rare is the horror film that can routinely give you the ultimate willies with each revisit, but even rarer is the horror film that feels like it should be illegal to watch. Well, let me rephrase: even rarer is the horror film that feels illegal but also artistically proficient. Sleazy exploitation flicks like Blood Feast (1963), Murder-Set-Pieces (2004), and A Serbian Film (2011) all elicit strong why-the-hell-am-I-still-watching? feelings, but they’re less films than one-dimensional endurance tests. Their creators aren't filmmakers—they're sadists holding cameras. Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, however, is the work of a director who knows precisely how to manipulate his audience with directorial flourishes that even the most horror-adverse critics have to respect.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a horror movie moment that’s more effective than Chainsaw Massacre’s infamous third-act dinner table sequence, and it’s all Hooper’s doing—the sharp cut aways to Sally’s deranged, taunting captors and steadily tighter close-ups of her eyeball, punctuated by the dissonant soundtrack that sounds like a messy symphony of dentist’s drills and power tools. It’s nauseating to watch, a merciless capper to the preceding 70 minutes of lo-fi terror. By the time supper begins, you've already been left shell-shocked by the thunderous slamming-door sound accompanying Leatherface's first appearance; you've writhed in discomfort as Leatherface hangs the Pam character on that hook, forced to watch her boyfriend get hacked up while she dangles in agony; you've seen Sally helplessly witness her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin take Leatherface's buzzing chainsaw to his gut.
Still, Sally's dinner from hell is the film's most traumatizing bit. Like so many other things about the film, its strengths have only been accentuated and reaffirmed time and time again by imitators. In his new man-turns-into-walrus horror movie Tusk, Kevin Smith stages an extended dining room table back-and-forth between stars Michael Parks and Justin Long that owes everything to Hooper’s infinitely superior film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s basic plot, meanwhile, has been aped more by genre directors and storytellers than Quentin Tarantino’s ‘non-linear crime film’ structure popularized in Pulp Fiction. If you were to try counting every horror movie that’s used the old “a car breaks down and leaves people fighting for their lives” template, you’d experience numerical vertigo.
What all of the imitators continually fail to realize is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s magic lies in how of-its-time Hooper’s film will forever be—you can’t replicate its kind of lightning in an organ-stuffed bottle.
Which brings us back to how authentic and lived-in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre feels. It’s a dynamic that, sadly, is dead and gone from movies. Nowadays, no matter how scary their latest films may be, most directors and actors treat the medium as an a communal, shared practice. Blame it on social media, and look no further than last year’s toxically received franchise reboot Texas Chainsaw 3D, for which its studio, Lionsgate, launched a #ChainsawThursdays hashtag and a widget providing cast pin-ups and sanitized clips of new-age Leatherface in action. Instead of no-name actors like the ones Hooper hired, Texas Chainsaw 3D starred R&B star Trey Songz. Whenever anyone watches the movie in the future—Hey, it could happen!—whatever unease they may feel will be squashed once they see Trey Songz playing a fictional character who parties to Trey Songz’s hit single “Say Aah.” That’s not meta so much as it’s mega-idiotic.
And because of that, this embarrassing headline exists: "Trey Songz Wants to Hear Leatherface Say Aah in New Texas Chainsaw 3D Photo." That Gunnar Hansen's original Leatherface can still scare viewers in the aftermath of such character-shaming is impressive enough.
So what makes Hansen's masked killer so eternally terrifying? He never lets you, much like Teri McMinn's Pam, off the hook.
Nor does the film itself. Horror movies often challenge your suspension of disbelief, whether suspect/dated VFX ruin shots (see: Poltergeist), silly comedic relief repeatedly derails the tension (The Last House on the Left), or the gimmick overshadows execution (The Blair Witch Project). Those issues are absent in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The visual effects are limited to smartly employed camera tricks, like when Hooper suggests brutal carnage by merely showing that meat hook and the bucket catching blood beneath Pam's feet but never any metal-to-flesh contact; what little dark-as-night humor there is in the film comes primarily during the dinner table scene, and it's uncomfortably funny without Hooper having to telegraph anything or dumb it down; and the only gimmick is John Larroquette's (yes, this John Larroquette) opening narration ("The events of that day were to lead to one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history."), which he delivers in a slightly hammy newscaster-of-doom pitch but is justified by everything that follows.
The same can't be said for horror cinema’s other “scariest movie ever” candidates. The Shining, for all of director Stanley Kubrick’s behind-the-camera brilliance, will forever contend against Jack Nicholson’s distracting star power and, it must be said, frequently over-the-top performance. Night of the Living Dead retains a classical movie vibe through its black-and-white photography and has that, you know, unrealistic conceit of reanimated cadavers. Universal’s monster movie O.G.s Dracula and Frankenstein suffer the same fantastical pitfalls. Rosemary’s Baby will never not star Woody Allen’s supremely gifted ex-wife, nor will that hallucinogenic dream/rape sequence ever allow anyone to look beyond the supernatural. Jaws has composer John Williams’ beautifully arranged score to constantly remind you that it’s cinema of the highest form. It's "only a movie... only a movie."
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn't have any of those setbacks. Leatherface and his family of buck-toothed, flesh-eating deviants seem as real as you and the person next to you. And there’s nothing overtly cinematic about it—Hooper’s aforementioned directorial touches operate as a deranged artist’s methods of assaultive madness, not anything someone would learn in film school or by studying the greats.
In director Adam Simon’s must-see 2000 documentary An American Nightmare, genre movie historian/iconic director in his own right John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) describes Tobe Hooper’s film perfectly: “When you’re watching a Hitchcock movie, and you are in suspense, you are in suspense as the direct result of being in the hands of a master, a master craftsman who’s manipulating the image in a way to lead you where he wants you to go. That’s a comfortable ‘scary’ feeling, whereas in [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre], when you’re watching the movie, the people making the movie are untrustworthy… You’re watching it and you’re not in the hands of a master—you’re in the hands of a maniac!”
That's a somewhat flexible quote. You can replace "Hitchcock" there with Spielberg or Polanski. What you can't do, though, is apply its closing statement to any other horror director, past, present, or future. For that brief moment in time back in 1974, Tobe Hooper lost his mind and unleashed a primordial and singular nightmare onto audiences. Forty years later, horror fans still haven't woken up.