Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Good lord, this movie retains its power. Watching it for the sixth or seventh time last night, I was surprised that it still frightened me. Like the very best horror films, its scares come, not from shocks or jumps, but from burrowing into our psyches and mining our nightmares.
Its structure is startlingly spare, I realized. It eschews a traditional, act-based structure almost by necessity (at 81 minutes, it still feels like it could have been edited into something shorter and meaner). We meet the main characters. They pick up a hitchhiker, who promptly terrifies them, then cuts one of them. They stop at an old farmhouse. Chaos ensues. It flows naturally, like the course of the evening it takes place over.
This structure, or lack thereof, makes the film feel disarmingly real. The concept of “wrong place, wrong time” is essential in horror, but rarely have the fates of characters felt so disturbingly arbitrary, yet inevitable. The structure reminds me of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, the brilliant, horrifying short story by the brilliant, strange mind of Flannery O’Connor, the queen of Southern Gothic and grotesque.
In that story, a horrifying situation develops out of what, to that point, had been a perfectly normal family outing for its main characters. It’s the timing and the tone that make it truly horrific; we sense that something is wrong, but at no point does O’Connor introduce the players who will make it wrong until it is too late. They are suggested on the periphery, through newspaper headlines and local gossip, so passively that there’s no way for us to prepare for their actual arrival.
Hooper structures this film in much the same way. Leatherface doesn’t make an appearance nearly halfway into the film, the moment he kills his first victim. Compare this to other horror movies, like Halloween, Scream, and A Nightmare on Elm Street; iconic villains usually make an appearance in the first scene. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre waits, and waits, and then sucks us into its horrifying little world, turning the idea of familial hospitality on its head. It’s not just about showing horrible deaths; it’s about planting that little, unsettling seed of an idea that, yeah, this could actually happen. Like the best horror, it knows that it doesn’t need to scare us with bombardment, that what truly frightens us lies within.