Grimdark Magazine loves horror movies almost as much as it does fantasy novels. Quite a few of our readers are fans of both genres and grimdark owes a debt to both. As such, we are expanding our reviews to include classics of both horror as well gritty speculative fiction. I can think of no better place to start than with the 1974 Tobe Hooper classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This is arguably the first slasher movie and inarguably one of the best. It’s also far more intelligently written and better acted than its title or reputation might suggest. Don’t believe me? In fact, this movie has a surprising amount of political commentary. Stuff that actually makes sense versus tacking it on to an otherwise solid horror film like some films might.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes advantage of its supposedly true story status to begin with a Star Wars-esque opening crawl. A then unknown John Larraquette (Night Court) narrated the story as if he’s doing a dramatization of a real life massacre. In truth, while some of the details of the horror movie are taken from serial killer Ed Gein (who also “inspired” Psycho), it is about as true as The Blair Witch Project. Which is to say not at all. The thing is, this was great advertising, and you could get away with it in the Seventies.
The premise is a fairly conventional one, mostly because so many other movies ripped it off and it isn’t even that dissimilar to Scooby Doo. Four hippie-ish kids in a van are driving down to the rural heart of Texas due to a series of grave desecrations. After the siblings among them confirm their late father’s grave is fine, they decide to head to visit his old place to hang out for a bit and party. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding with the astrology-obsessed Pam finding many portents, a drunk local warning them years before Friday the 13th‘s Crazy Ralph, and oblique warnings from the local gas station attendant about trespassing.
Needless to say, there’s something horrible awaiting them in the neighboring property and they stupidly rush in. However, the unexpectedness of the actual violence, as well as tension up to this point, are masterfully done. The film’s almost documentary-esque style works wonderfully to make it terrifying. Gradually it moves from feeling realistic to the surreal quality of a nightmare, culminating in the dinner scene that can’t really be described in words.
Part of what makes the movie so effective is the acting of the leads. Marilyn Burns does an amazing job as Sally Hardesty, going from a happy girl in the prime of her life to someone desperate to do absolutely anything to save her life. Paul A. Partain is perhaps one of the most annoying characters in all of horror yet makes it all the more believable because most individuals would not handle stress in a mature intelligent way.
The villains are equally impressive. Gunnar Hansen does an amazing job as Leatherface, managing to act in a bizarre and terrifying manner that is still human despite no dialogue. Edwin Neal’s hitchhiker is a truly memorable performance and Jim Diedow’s Cook also adds to the horror that so many other slashers ignore in their attempt to make nothing but silent killers.
Strangely, this is a movie that is not actually all that violent. Indeed, it is almost bloodless. Every murder is almost entirely off camera and the only scenes with blood are a trickle. Ironically, this makes it scarier as your mind fills in the blanks. The most horrifying element is the skeleton and body part art laying about that is the most direct reference to Ed Gein.
The political satire element is also an understated part of the story. The unnamed family of cannibals (later named the Sawyer family in the sequels) were driven to their peculiar habits by automation destroying their way of life. The association of animal cruelty and murder comes off quite clearly as well. Even if you’re a die-hard carnivore, it’s hard to think of a movie that doesn’t make a better case against traditional slaughterhouse activities.
In conclusion, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the best horror movies of all time. It is tense, well-acted, and well-written from beginning to end. I may not approve of its pretensions to being a true story but that’s a small complaint about an otherwise excellent story.