When I’m not carving topical jack-o-lanterns and funding my dentist’s third home, I treat Halloween as an opportunity to catch up with the horror greats I spent my adolescence cowering from (thanks to vividly traumatic childhood experiences with The Shining and The Exorcist that may or may not have involved pants-peeing). No longer new to these parts, my map says scaremeisters Bava and Fulci are in the fog up ahead as I run screaming and unarmed from the well acquainted monsters of Argento and Romero. But my most recent detour brought me to the doorstep of the mindless butcher Leatherface in one of the scariest horror films I’ve ever seen. Somehow I survived the breathtaking nihilism of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 slasher template The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Like Night of the Living Dead (but perhaps more schlockily evocative of Russ Meyer or Monte Hellman), the first thing you notice about TCSM is the lo-fi creative beauty: camera flashes illuminate the black as we hear shoveling and the knock of wood, sumptuous colors and oblique angles invite us to Leatherface’s house for dinner, and quick cuts and zooms augment the terror of the attacks. In the opening, the radio blares reports of widespread grave-robbing and dismembering as we see two corpses artfully tied to a monument. This does not bode well for the vacuous children of Vietnam that pick up a creepy hitchhiker in their Mystery Machine just outside the cemetery. Sure enough, they’re soon marching single-file right into Leatherface’s lumbering arms, no students of history, these heroic happy dead.
But it’s wrong to say The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is nihilistic, because it ferociously reveals its amoral monster for what he is; he can’t be wrong if there is no right. Leatherface, not the film, is nihilistic. Industrialization, institutional power, the draft—that’s nihilistic. In 1974, Nixon resigned from the highest office in America in order to escape brutal impeachment—peace with honor, eh?—and America continued funding a war it had just signed peace accords to end. To Leatherface, we the people are mere bodies for sustenance, the micro version of a global politics fueled by violence. You’re darn right the third act is disgustingly exploitative (and I found it literally nauseating). How else do you describe a violent superpower?
That’s why I found the final, sudden cut-to-black somewhat puzzling—on the one hand, I question the ending’s thematic plausibility, but on the other, the future is very much uncertain. Whatever happens to anyone else, Leatherface rages on, dancing with his chainsaw while the sheriff lies incapacitated and the citizens offer the head cheese. No wonder the remake came in 2003.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.