The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the original from 1974, follows a group of young adults (or youths as stated in the opening credits) as they fight to survive against a family of cannibalistic sociopaths.
Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that once rolling narration scrolls through the screen I immediately thought this was going to be pretty stupid. Because you know, what’s scarier than reading your own narration? Of course the fact that it’s read by John Larroquette, who went on to have a great career, makes it a little less weird. Still, the opening scene that immediately follows sets a better tone for how this thing is going to go. The eeriness of corpses being illuminated by only camera flashes is a genius foreshadowing to a certain hitchhiker who happens to like taking pictures of gory things. It’s creepy and the shot of the posed corpses in the graveyard allude to the general creepiness that is to come.
In this sense, the practical effects used are extremely interesting. Throughout the rest of the film the crew relied on practical effects to show the Leatherface’s carnage as well as heavy makeup and custom prosthetics to bring the characters to life. The man who played Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen, had to do all the running in three inch inserts so he would tower over everyone else in a scene and it really pays off. He becomes an actual presence, much like Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. He seems so much of a force rather than a person because he is just a hulking form of a person. This makes all the chase scenes so much more frightening. Sally is so much smaller than Leatherface so all the shots of him barreling after her swinging a chainsaw around are so much more frightening.
Still, these practical effects pay off extremely well. Some of them are a little dated, like the old age makeup for the grandfather that legitimately looks like a Halloween store mask. But besides that the simple ways they delivered solid scares works to the film’s advantage. Practical effects are so much more creative than special effects to me, which is why I love classic horror like this, The Exorcist, and The Evil Dead because they worked with what they had and made lasting images that new horror still references today. These films all serve as amazing examples of how effective and interesting practical effects can be and make modern cinema watchers nostalgic for the times that CGI wasn’t relied upon so heavily in the modern horror genre.
Still, putting that aside, there are some silly moments that extremely dates the film. The scene where Franklin is pushed down a hill from truck wind is hilariously bad, and is even accompanied by the signature Wilhelm scream effect. Then there’s dialogue like, “Hey man you believe all that stuff your old ladies hocking me” and “quit goofing on me” all uttered by the same paisley shirt-sporting nerd with geometric glasses. The dialogue as a whole is pretty cheesy, and a lot of reaction shots are a bit extreme. If you don’t get a chuckle out of Franklin’s reaction to the hitchhiker cutting his hand then you are missing out. Actually almost everything Franklin does is so ridiculous. He is easily the most over-the-top out of the bunch. But that’s not to say everyone else isn’t ridiculously over-acting either.
Sure there are parts that are so ridiculous they’re laughable, (i.e. one character smacking one of the teens with a freaking broom to disarm her and then just like continuing to weirdly whack her with it). But overall for a horror film in 1974, its genuinely pretty scary. Chase scenes seem real and well paced. The main characters are having a great time being evil and it’s increasingly disturbing.
Overall, this is one of the best classic horror films I’ve ever seen. Parts are cheesy and come across awkward, but the actual scares are strong and disturbing without relying on in-your-face gore and buckets of blood. It also doesn’t rely on a “gotcha” ending like a ton of horror flicks in the same time period did. The ending is perfect, even though (SPOILER) she just leaves the trucker to deal with Leatherface, what a bitch. Like is he okay or is he still running. Why didn’t they just drive away in the truck? Added suspense? Seems a bit dumb. He wasn’t chain-sawing his way into an 18-wheeler. (END OF SPOILERS)
Still, it is a disturbing and gritty cult movie that has its moments of being too over-the-top while having subtler scarier moments in between. The second half is the best part, relying on sheer absurdity to deliver on its horrific premise. I love classic horror movies, and this is definitely one of the most legitimately scary ones that I have yet to see. A lot of times they don’t age well, and for certain scenes this movie certainly applies, but as a whole package this film has lasted over 40 years and still delivers a solid scare.
Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10