In some ways, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the first modern horror movie. In some even deeper ways, it may be possible to consider it as the first modern movie, period. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the death of old Hollywood. It’s the destruction of the studio system, of the rules, and really of structure of any kind. It doesn’t look like a movie. It looks like a straightforward portrayal of madness. You look at the film and you wonder who in the Hell actually made this, because it looks like torture.
But in many ways it was torture. It might not have been an actual snuff film, but it was torture. There’s almost no element of the movie’s production that could be accomplished today. There were no rules. No guidelines and therefore nothing set in place to protect the cast and crew. Many people almost died on a fairly frequent basis throughout the filming, and star Marilyn Burns got the absolute worst of it.
The plot of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is brutally simple. And it is this simplicity that helps it to feel real. A few friends visit an old family homestead and, on the way there, run out of gas. They’re left stranded in the middle of nowhere. So two of them go off to see if they can get some help. They stumble onto a nearby farmhouse. What they find that down is nothing more or less than death. There is no suspense being created here. There’s no buildup, there’s no anticipation. Our first unlucky teenager walks into the house and it just happens. There’s Leatherface. He is revealed in a brief close-up, hitting poor Kirk over the head with a sledgehammer and watching the body convulse without the camera really pulling away from the death itself. And then the door slams shut. Here is where we hit the first and one of the only music cues in the movie. Because this scene is where the Texas chainsaw massacre truly begins.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is often considered to be the granddaddy of torture horror—which is ludicrous. Many movies, such as the films of Mario Bava or Herschell Gordon Lewis that predated Chain Saw were at the forefront of that particular sub-genre. There’s only one real, actual sequence of torture in the movie, and it is also one of the movie’s most infamous moments: the dinner scene. It’s intense and almost unbearable to watch, but the torture here isn’t all that violent, it’s emotional. It is relentless emotional torment. Screaming from not only poor Marilyn Burns as Sally, but also from the members of the cannibalistic family as well. And there’s the numerous extreme close-ups of Marilyn’s bloodshot eye. It’s a portrait of insanity.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the rare films actually shot in sequence. Due to numerous reasons, films are almost universally shot out of sequence. But this was low-budget enough and had few enough locations that it could actually afford to shoot in order, and that helped the film greatly. Because what appears to be a descent into madness on-screen was a descent into madness off-screen as well. As the film went on, production problems piled up, conditions worsened and became unbearable very quickly. By the time the dinner scene happened, the cast and crew had already been through hell. They gave into it completely, and many people do not actually remember filming it because so much of the filming was a blur at this point to those involved.
The dinner scene revealed a lot about the characters, making up the cannibal troupe—in fact, it’s where most of the characterization comes from. Nothing much of the personalities of the madmen is revealed until this extremely enlightening scene in which we get a glimpse of their home lives. We see how they operate on what is for them considered a normal day, or in this case perhaps a special occasion as they have a dinner guest.
We see the Hitch-Hiker’s personality is about exactly what it was when he appeared earlier in the film. He is the most manic and sadistic of the three. He is the most wild and the most uncontrollable. The Cook, we see now, does not seem to love what they’re doing. He’s the most reluctant to participate. But it goes deeper than that. The Cook may love what they’re doing as much as the Hitch-Hiker does, but he’s guilty about it. He treats it as something that has to be done for the sake of survival, but it’s really about repressed pleasure.
And just because he cannot communicate speech and wears a mask of human skin does not mean there isn’t character to Leatherface as well. The dinner scene actually reveals quite a bit about him. Leatherface changes his wardrobe for the first time, wearing a nice dinner jacket, and also changes his mask. He now wears what is called the “Pretty Woman Mask.” This has caused a lot of controversy over Leatherface’s sexuality. Which it really shouldn’t. It’s much more complex and interesting than simply being a question of whether or not Leatherface is gay.
Instead, Leatherface may just not be able to express gender and sexuality in the same way he cannot express speech. Leatherface is an androgynous, genderless entity. He takes on the persona of the host because he has a dinner guest and is on some level aware that’s what you do when you have a guest. He takes on the wardrobe because that’s how you look respectable when hosting a party and wears the face with the makeup because he knows that you are supposed to look good while hosting. He makes no distinction between male and female when it comes to these ideas.
Taken another way, Leatherface is an actor in the Ancient Greek tradition. A deleted scene actually shows him putting on the new mask and putting the makeup on it. It also shows that Leatherface has a collection of masks, each with their own purpose. In a macabre way, these do harken back to the masks of the Ancient Greeks. Each one has a different meaning, a different representation. And when Leatherface puts each one on, he is becoming a different character. They all reflect aspects of himself at the same time, but they are all very different.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the Rorschach Test of horror films. Everyone who watches it will look into it and see something different. People will see a film that is about a world adapting to the horrors of Vietnam. People will see a political statement. They will see a movie about the breakdown of the family unit or the collapse of the economy. They will see the most gruesome, disgusting horror movie ever made. And they will see a dark satire. They will see the most bizarre account of true crime ever documented, and one that happened to a family their parents used to know. Or maybe they had an uncle who shared a prison cell with Leatherface. They will see whatever they want, because even if the Texas chainsaw massacre never actually happened, the film is a shared experience. It’s not just something we’ve watched, it’s something we’ve survived. And in that respect, what happened is true.