I'm watching a lot of horror films right now. That hasn't been the case since I was a teenager. In truth I've been going through some hard times and have wanted to express this with a horror film of my own. Thus I went into Texas Chain Saw for research as well as scares.
I'll point out here that I didn't like the film at first. When I was a teenager I saw it on TV and didn't find it scary at all. I know! To me it was completely amateurish and the final act was unintentionally funny. I then filed it away with the rest of my 'overrated classics'.
Times change though. Life happens. The experiences of a few short years can dramatically change your personality. Your fears.
When I returned to Texas Chain Saw a few weeks ago it was with slight trepidation. Part of me worried I was exposing myself to something I couldn't emotionally handle at the time. The other part of me desired catharsis. Diving in I was struck by how overwhelming the sense of dread is in this film. How the lo-fi cinematography, which I had once thought amateurish, gives the film an unnervingly real dimension. And all under bright sunlight! I thought of every 60s idealist who took off on the road for adventure - did they find peace or utter destruction?
Then it happened. The young hippies out for a drive picked up the crazy guy with a knife. I'll be honest - this scene got so under my skin I was snared for the entire film. Think about it. You're in a crowded van and this hitch-hiker just starts cutting himself, then he starts cutting one of you! I felt trapped watching this scene. Terrified. It was a great relief when they got him out of the van, even though I knew things were only going to get worse.
For a while the film follows what would become the typical slasher format, as one-by-one our characters are picked off. It helps that none of them are annoying. Franklin annoys his friends but I find him endearing. And there's Leatherface - the man who we first see suddenly with a mallet. What a moment! The sound of Kirk's skull cracking, his bodily convulsions, the door sliding shut and bam, scene's over...
I can see why Leatherface has fascinated people for so long. He's a man-child. Not a strong person but a strong killer. When he's freaking out over his own murders, when we get a glimpse of his eyes through the mask, you see a scared little boy who doesn't know what to do.
The final act is a prolonged flow of hysterical madness. Only Sally remains, tied to a chair by her disturbed hosts. It's sometimes hard to believe what you're watching, that someone actually came up with this stuff. Of course they had Ed Gein for inspiration. This scene is essential to making the film work because it puts the slasher element to death and simply bombards us with human derangement. You really care about Sally, not because you know her particularly well, but because she's in a true nightmare; forced to let a decaying old man drink blood from her finger before he is assisted in trying to smash her head in with a mallet. The overall effect of this scene is overwhelming.
I've just noticed that I haven't even mentioned chainsaws. Do I need to point out that running through the woods at night from a masked man with a chainsaw is frightening? I didn't think so.
You know a horror film has worked when you feel genuine relief at the protagonist's escape. When you smile along with them as they realise they're free. Texas Chain Saw is an exhausting film which works on a very simple level, throwing its characters into situations I hope I never have to face. Heck, I'll pray for that! The dissonant score keeps you constantly unnerved, while clever editing turns bloodless murder into great moments of shock horror. For a film with THAT title it's pretty gore-free. Also, what I like about low-budget features like this from directors only starting out, is that they tend to go nuts with the visual style. Texas Chain Saw has shots that are eloquent but it's also punctuated with flashing images and has a loose documentary feel. You can sense they're being creative. That it all came out so real is a testament to those involved.
Has the film turned me off hitch-hikers? No. It makes me think more about damaged families. Of dreams gone wrong. I'll continue to engage with strangers and take journeys into the countryside. I'll knock on a door if I have to. But I'll be on the lookout for madness in others and myself.