One of the creepiest movies ever made is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s unique place in popular culture fuels an air of dire expectation that inspires horror even among those who have never seen it. That was certainly the case for me; as a kid, I never had access to this movie, and so I could only fuel my imagination by whispered mentions of it as a Thing of Legend rather than Just a Movie. By the time I finally watched Chainsaw for the first time, a few years ago, I had already seen all kinds of horror cinema, so I figured that surely, by now, I was ready for it.
I was not. From the beginning, this movie establishes a deep sense of weirdness and moral corrosion; a world where any goodness has been so bleached away or rendered distant that the only things left to flourish are madness and barbarity. The story of a few extremely unfortunate road-trippers who run out of gas in the boondocks of central Texas and accidentally visit a family of insane cannibals is disturbing enough on its own. But Tobe Hooper’s direction creates a sense of dread and tension from the first frame that simply never lets up, so by the time the movie is over, we are so damned grateful that it’s done, it almost doesn’t matter who survived. The important thing is that we did.
At the time it came out, Chainsaw was widely decried for its brutality and gore, but in the years since, it’s been rightly recognized as one of the best horror movies ever made, inspiring many other filmmakers and establishing many of the ground rules for the modern slasher flick.
The funny thing is, Chainsaw doesn’t actually play by many of the rules it helped to establish. It’s actually not a particularly gory movie. Its central villain—the horrifying Leatherface—doesn’t really operate the way many of the other costumed freaks he inspired in other movies do. There is a moment where our group of victims splits up so they can cover more ground, but it’s done in a way that makes sense—it provides the reason for the horrors to follow, rather than an excuse. There are no obligatory teens running off for a roll in the hay so they can be caught in post-coitus slaughter. Chainsaw doesn’t rely on jump scares, or on a villain who dies and comes back to be killed again, or killers who seemingly defy time and space to pop up in front of to-be-slain side characters so the movie’s body count might be satisfied.
For me, this movie’s moment of truth runs in direct counter to that last convention I listed above: the way in which slashers seem to head off any victim no matter where or how fast they flee. There is a scene where our main character, Sally Hardesty, is attacked by Leatherface out in the open. As Leatherface dispatches Sally’s helpless, wheelchair-bound brother, she flees screaming into the night. And all the while, we keep hearing that infernal sound of Leatherface’s saw running. It never stops. There comes a point where more recent movies would have given us silence to excuse Leatherface suddenly popping up in front of Sally. But no; we just hear the saw recede into the distance…and then grow louder once again as Leatherface gives chase. The saw never stops running, and neither does Sally, and as she franticly searches for any kind of refuge, we know that whatever she finds, it will not help her. This is the one movie where we are told for a fact that the killer is pretty far away from our victim, and somehow, knowing that actually makes things even more frightening. And it’s the sound that does it. The sound of that saw is the soundtrack of a world into which Sally has stumbled. It is the sound of madness itself. And it is a sound that stays in our ears long after the screen goes black.