For those unaware, Massacre is the kind of feature presentation that – like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) – had been seen theatrically and talked about for a few years after. Media sensations were different back in those days – there were exponentially fewer television channels and movie houses – so when something ‘left its mark’ on audiences it continued being talked about for some time. So on top of all the controversy Massacre had in both getting made and getting released, moviegoers gave it new life beyond their respective viewings by telling friends and family about it, encouraging fans to go and see it, and cautioning the parents of children to keep their kids away from it … at all costs.
As you can imagine – and as a result of the hype – Massacre became the kind of flick kids like me just had to see. Somehow. And – most likely – you had to see it while keeping your parents oblivious to the fact that you finally saw it. That was the trick, you see, and that’s why we had friends and neighbors. We’d go to their house and watch it, probably while their parents were away, and find comfort (or not) by following that whole ‘there’s safety in numbers’ rule.
So, yes, I saw it under those precarious circumstances. As so often happens when society builds something up, I was a bit let down. Oh, sure. The whole wacky cannibal family made an impression, and the assortment of eccentric backwoods Texans were memorable in ways only movies deliver best. But, for me, lost somewhere in all of that weirdness was an interesting story. Massacre – or, at least, the sum of its part – remains only a visceral escape. A carnival thrill ride gone bloody. Because I wouldn’t be venturing into those parts of Texas – nor was I likely to explore creepy houses without an invite – I just wasn’t all that impressed, much less scared.
At my young age, I was unaware just how many folks had come face-to-face with Leatherface and were scared silly.
Decades later – and vastly wiser – I think I understand its impact much better.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“Five friends head out to rural Texas to visit the grave of a grandfather. On the way they stumble across what appears to be a deserted house, only to discover something sinister within. Something armed with a chainsaw.”
Could there be any simply way to deliver pure terror than that?
Now, I mean no disrespect. I’m a pretty bi fan of Horror – though I prefer Science Fiction and Fantasy far more – but scripts that dabble in mostly conventional ideas kinda/sorta leave me cold. They don’t turn me off; it’s just that inflicting the lion’s share of torture on any cadre of unsuspecting victims can be accomplished with greater creativity, can’t it? I prefer frights that are a bit more supernatural in delivery. Ghosts, demons, possessions, and the like just tickle my fancy – they give me a bit more to think about, you see – and torment or suffering of such a primitive variety can be accomplished with relative ease. There just anything all that ‘special’ about it.
Still, Massacre earns a bit of my respect because – as they say – it was the first of its kind. Much has been written about the film’s authentic presentation of some fairly grim subject matter, and, yes, I’d certainly have to agree that such raw spectacle had eluded filmdom before screenwriter and director Tobe Hooper put his particular stamp on the genre. I’ve also read that it was the first film to throw power tools into the heady, bloody mix; though I’ve not done enough research to know whether that’s accurate, I’ll take such a statement at face value, agreeing that this, too, probably puts Massacre on any ‘must see’ list when trying to understand what truly makes people frightened of what goes bump in the night.
Honestly, I would’ve been too young to have seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in theaters, and I’m glad I was. It likely would’ve scared my wee-little mind for life. Though its true chill are still a bit passé by today’s standards (we’ve come a long way, baby), I’d still argue that actress Marilyn Burns deserves an incredible bit of special recognition for her part in pioneering an all-new kind of fright on the silver screen, and it’s a performance whose heights can’t be understated in away possible way. Yes, others were scared silly before, but at the end of a chain saw? Nah. This was all new territory for moviegoers, and her work in the picture warrants a modicum of praise.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that there’s a wealth of written material already out there exploring Massacre from a variety of intelligent perspectives. Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel constructed their project to say something about the world-at-large, and many a brainiac has spent time dissecting its images and themes across the veritable spectrum of academia. My two cents in this space will not be the be-all-end-all on the film in any regard, so I do encourage those of you who still read to surf the information superhighway for rest stops all of your own. Trust me when I say, “There will be plenty.” And … much of what has been written is kind interesting.
Still, because its foundational principles aren’t exactly my bailiwick, I’ve always stumbled in trying to have something relevant to say about it other than what I’ve said here. It’s a lean, mean, killing machine. It’s arguably one of the best edited frights you’ll find in the whole Horror library, with not an ounce of fat nor wasted space. Its players all show up and hit their marks admirably – even those with the most oddball mannerisms or quirky sensibilities. It likely won’t be a comfortable viewing experience … but I dare say it’s one you may never forget.
If you’re looking for special features? Well, then buckle up because this collection is loaded to the gills. The 4K disc includes four separate commentaries (including the actors, actresses, and many craftsmen and women who worked on the picture in some capacity), so that alone is going to give you hours of extra entertainment. However, the goods don’t stop there, and the accompanying Blu-ray bonus disc includes an all-new feature-length documentary of the flick’s enduring legacy; several making-of and/or interview shorts with cast and crew; deleted scenes; outtakes; bloopers; stills; TV spots; radio adverts; and even a bit more. I say this humbly: this is exactly the kind of value purchasing practical media still provides fans as it’s an incredibly comprehensive set of extras put together to your benefit. Well done, all around.
Highly recommended … if for no other reason than the fact that the film definitely deserves to be seen at least once. Many won’t return to it – for any number of reasons – but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s a textbook definition for how low-budget Horror films truly work and what they’re capable of.
As I tried to be clear above, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t so much a good film as it is a relevant film. Its cast and crew set out with the unstated ambition of trying to do something first: they wanted to give audiences an authentic bout of manic fright. They wanted it to look and sound and feel as real as possible; and I think on that standard there’s no mistaking how well a result they achieved. The flick has gone on to become the gold standard for ‘this type of thing,’ and decades later it continues to influence storytellers just getting started in the business. It’s as ground-breaking as it is blood-letting … and that’s saying something.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Sky Films provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD Steelbook Edition of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.