I've seen maybe 10 to 20 films since my childhood that only get better with each viewing. I have seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre roughly 40 times in my life and it never loses its power. On such a visceral emotional level, it effects me unlike any other "movie". And it sets itself so much higher than any horror film that came before it. And after it. This is the greatest horror movie ever made.
How can a small independent slasher film made by film students become one of the best works of American art in the past century? We are dealing with a film that is loaded with disparate elements that when combined create an experience that is works as a story, as a film and as a message. As any art would be, film is a means of communication. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre says, effortlessly, what most films can't communicate in 3 hours of star actors, established screenwriters, expensive productions and Award-winning directors.
What this film gets across is its purpose. Its not in the dialogue. Its not even in the events of the story. Its revealed in the drama which it inspires. The plot is a microcosm of all the struggles that faced a generation of hopeful young people. It alludes to Vietnam, The Grassy Knoll, The Manson Family, The Male Gaze, Rape Culture, the civil rights movement, the evils of crass commercialism. Everything that destroyed the dreams of the Love Movement. This film is a damning indictment of America is the way it shows how a generation of innocent, ill-prepared, clueless hippies were chewed up by a malevolent reality. The story descends deeper and deeper into the mouth of madness and exposes the connections between the corruption of capitalism and literal cannibalism. The crime that is being "reconstructed" here is not a chainsaw massacre but the massacre of the American dream.
Director Tobe Hooper, writer Kim Henkel and cinematographer Daniel Pearl combine their powers to charge this story with incredible weight, ideas and eye-opening vision. Hooper uses the camera to give the audience front row to a human slaughterhouse. The camera acts as a voyeur to evil acts. When things can't get worse, he brings us closer. Every shot is designed to drive you out of your mind and into a nightmare. Henkel takes a simple story of unlucky kids who meet serial killers and frames it into a political message, a psychosexual jungle, a masochist's wet dream. He creates a mystical, symbolic world out of backwoods Texas where astrology, karma and occult practices are all confirmed real, but so is the power of Free Will. Pearl's job is to make sure that it looks like a documentary and never feels like a staged, Romanticized movie version of murder. They all achieve their jobs to transcend together.
But the film comes from the school of Romantic and Gothic horror. It looks and feels Naturalist, with the amateur acting, natural lighting, setting and lack of budget used to pitch perfect effect. We feel as though this is a mirror to the hopeless, doomed world presented to us on most television screens. That this, sadly, is the way things are. With each scene, we sink deeper into a Defeatist coma. But in the prolonged climax, our protagonist uses her strong volition and sense of virtue (that is subtly present throughout her introduction) to escape this prescribed defeat. She rejects her own death by simply choosing to live. She changes her fate. This is the moment that changed horror movies and cinema in general: a true heroine who is running for her life and not going to be a damsel when there is no savior from the horror. Now its a cliche plot device to fill time and cause action, along with stranded teenagers being killed off by a masked killer. But this single sympathetic characterization in the story transforms Sally into a heroine. Here it is an existential crisis. This is the creation of Survival Horror and the modern Slasher Film.
She is reduced to an animalistic survivor. Her situation evokes the survivor in all of us and reunites us with the suffering of all animals who are simply victims of the predators in the wild. In the last act of the film, this young woman is brutally tortured, mentally raped and faced with her own mortality when she faces four men who represent everything evil in the world. But she never gives up. She fights and makes choices until she is free. Suddenly, the film presents an obvious Deus Ex Machina, a crazy Romanticized ending that rejects all of the Realism and Naturalism that has propelled it. And it feels earned. We WANT this to be true. Because this story again is a metaphor for the hope that the victims in life can reject their fate, find an opportunity for escape and be rescued by those who sympathize. Its not probable, but it must be wished for from everyone. It resolves the dilemma that if there is great metaphysical evil, there must be great metaphysical good. But, in our reality, would she find sanctuary at the end?
Perhaps the greatest horror of all is knowing that this film's dark parody of a "Happy Ending" is actually the only fictionalized part of it. That in the real world, Leatherface would most likely win and does everyday. Because we let the circle of hate, violence, exploitation, sadomasochism, schizophrenia, identity confusion, amoral profit, murder, cannibalism and evil occult practice continue. We are as much the family of killers in this movie as we are the poor tortured children. We exist in the middle of Heaven and Hell and that is shocking. We are the butchers, the meat and the meat eaters. So... is the Texas Chain Saw Massacre a true depiction of our world or not? That mystery is how its scared people for so long.
I've uncovered some deeper meanings in this great piece of cinema. I knew that Hooper and Henkel deliberately parallel the sexualized way that Sally is seen by the killers with the way a meat eater sees a piece of meat, likewise with the kids as farm animals about to be slaughtered. But I found this neat tidbit from TVtropes:
There are very strong parallels to the meat industry. Sally and her friends are livestock, they are led into the slaughterhouse (with the other four following after the first), they are treated with unnecessary cruelty and they are eaten. The three maniacs represent different positions in the process. The hitchhiker is the farmer who brands them (the blood on the van), Leatherface is the slaughterhouse worker who kills and butchers them and the cook only works with the final product and dislikes the killing process.
The ultimate meaning of TCM is how evil is born. The 1960s was a time of great corruption and disillusion and Henkel and Hooper, two former "flower children" documented the process in a small symbolic story, taking place at ground zero of American moral decay. They both blame the evils of capitalism above all else; GREED. H & H both believe that the dog-eat-dog ethics of capitalism leads to the ascent of the most vicious among us over the most peaceful and that their evil practices of the powerful in attaining and keeping power would trickle down to the very bottom of the food chain, to make monsters of bad habit out of the disenfranchised who can't hide behind a mask of "polite society". Both artists would make their own sequel to underscore what they thought was the worst thing was about their created monsters of capitalism. Hooper's TCM2 highlighted the drug-assisted, the nihilistic crass commercialism, thegreed, the cannibalism, the vampirism, the war profiteering, the misplaced moralism, the outdated family tradition and the growing yuppie cultism in America. He focused on the plight of the middle class vs capitalism. While Henkel's TCM4 reinforced the manipulation, deception, sadism, sexual depravity, necrophilia, voyeurism and illegal surveillance, propaganda, the puppet-string control of corrupted moral stateism. Henkel is obsessed with speculating the shadowy business of the richest and most elite who exist "above the law". Both of their diatribes are so massive and valuable that they work well in their own film, but the magical expression of their original collaboration in TCM comes from a focus and sympathy for the poorest of the poor, the bottom feeders, the social outcasts, the Texas white trash, the people put out of jobs. Their original script pronounced their message more directly with pages of The Hitchhiker explaining how big business turned his Texas backyard into a wasteland. But this was deleted like the pages of extreme gore that was never filmed. Hooper decided that the style of "less is more" would make the message more effective and he was right.