As I reference the seminal cannibal flick in every other post it is probably time I reviewed it. This is usually where I would retitle a film some variation on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so in this case, let’s call it Fried-Eye Night Lights.
Often imitated but never bettered, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 slasher finds a group of friends on a cross-country jaunt to check on a relative’s grave following reports of cemetery vandalism. Graverobbing proves the least of their worries when they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), at which point the laughter stops and the slaughter begins. You know a movie called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t messing around, and what follows are 80 of the most intense minutes ever committed to celluloid; Psycho meets The Hills Have Eyes, a relentless descent into hell, USA.
Churning up the groundwork laid by Night of the Living Dead and The Last House on the Left, Hooper exhumes the corpse of American society: a monster wearing a face of human skin. The omnivorous family have been hit by the same economic woes as everyone else, mechanisation driving them out of the only business they know: animal slaughter. Few films lay bare the horrors of the meat industry with such clarity; nothing happens to the characters that doesn’t daily befall animals somewhere along the production line from slaughterhouse to dinner table.
Hooper breaks all the rules on the way. No explanation is given for the massacre, no buffer scenes for the audience to catch their breath. Even the way Hooper shoots into the sun defies the basics of cinematography, and instead of a score he uses a clanging industrial soundscape ripped from the bowels of an abattoir. He makes ingenious use of the $140,000 budget, his hauntingly beautiful shot composition searing images into your skull: following Pam (Teri McMinn) towards the house, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) dancing with the chainsaw against a blood-red sky, the cannibals playing with their food at the dinner table. Still, it’s nice that they all dine together.
The hysteria emitting from the screen is so overpowering that the BBFC literally didn’t know what to do with it, resorting to banning the film and the use of the word “chainsaw” from all movie titles. The censors found there was nothing they could cut that would help sanitise the picture, since there is surprisingly little in the way of gore. Hooper crafts his nightmare not through bloodletting but editing, leaving viewers believing they have seen more than they actually did.
Yet for all its hellishness, the movie’s sharpest tool is its realism. Though the groundbreaking decision to present horror as fact has become clichéd, that has not dulled its impact here. We believe in the incessant chatter of news reports and constant whirring and screams, Ed Gein-inspired production design so festering you can smell it, and a skewered yet familiar American family; an abusive patriarch (Jim Siedow) telling a feminised Leatherface to get back in the kitchen, the masked mute sitting down with his head in his hands in the midst of an annoying day.
When the sun comes up on a deranged Sally (Marilyn Burns) covered in blood (also Marilyn Burns’), we bear witness to the dawning of a masterpiece and a new era for what horror movies are capable of. Disturbing, disruptive and transcendent, it is a perfect film and vegan call to arms; the Chicken Run of slasher flicks.