The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is either terrifying or horrifying. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Sometimes it’s visual terror or horror, sometimes it’s audial, sometimes it’s just implied. Director Hooper has three different styles–daytime, nighttime, indoor–and each goes from terror to horror multiple times. The film takes place over less than twenty-four hours, with Hooper and the film taking breaks–sometimes long–to move ahead in the present action. There’s an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break.
The breaks are never scenes. There is no comic relief. Even when there’s a relative pause in the intensity, Hooper keeps it buzzing. There’s a constant reminder. It’s not about being concerned or cautious or scared. It’s about being terrified. Hooper, photography Daniel Pearl, co-composer Wayne Bell–in addition to directing, producing, and co-writing, Hooper also co-composes the score–they make the idyllic terrifying. In the opening crawl (narrated by John Larroquette), the film says it’s going to make idyllic terrifying. And it does.
The film, the opening crawl informs the viewer, is about five “youths,” specifically Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain (at least, according to the crawl). And Burns does have a central role in the film’s goings-on, whereas Partain just has a big part. He’s left out of the action; Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel bully Partain to a degree. He’s in a wheelchair–he’s traumatized in the first five or six minutes in an attack from a knife-wielding hitchhiker (Edwin Neal)–yet he’s still a complete jerk. Sure, Burns isn’t an awesome sister to him and her boyfriend, Allen Danziger, is a dick, but Partain’s a jerk.
It’s not about him whining or being unpleasant in general, it’s about how those traits affect his actions, which do not endear him to anyone. And most of Texas Chain Saw Massacre does not involve chainsaws or massacres. Most of it is, in terms of runtime, not intensity of moments–most of it is the five youths.
They’re apparently college students or at least around that age. William Vail and Teri McMinn, who are the nicest, complete the five. The girls are blonde and into astrology. The guys are sort of early seventies dimwit Texas hippie posers. Vail and McMinn are a couple, with Vail the traditional male lead type. He’s sweet, a little dumb, but sensitive.
And, for a while, Hooper and Henkel tease him having the bigger part. Then they give it to Partain; taking the film away from someone likable and sympathetic, putting it on someone unlikable and difficult to sympathize with, even though not sympathizing with him creates guilt. But no resentment. Because Texas Chain Saw isn’t about resentment or sympathy or likability.
It’s about horror and terror.
Hooper shoots the daytime scenes as tranquil, relatively rich in color (there’s this lovely sunflower patch some characters walk through). He does tracking long shots, often with a slight dolly in or out at the end. The narrative distance is the thing. The opening crawl told us to pay attention to the youths–who are in this part of rural Texas seeing if Burns and Partain’s grandfather’s grave has been robbed–and Hooper directs exactly how we can pay that attention. The sound editing is big in Texas Chain Saw, and not just when it becomes a combination of clanging music, screaming, and a chainsaw–which is when the film is being terrifying, while foreshadowing being horrifying. The sound editing is also how Hooper is able to keep the audience with the characters. We can always hear them, we just can’t really see them. Instead, we mostly get to see Partain. Whining. Being weird. Being unpleasant.
The nighttime shots are completely different. Cinematographer Pearl gives the film this rich blackness, which Hooper sporadically, unevenly fills. There’s a chase sequence through bramble; it creates a maze for the pursued, one the audience can’t see around either. And the pursuer–Gunnar Hansen in a mask of flesh and waving a chainsaw–is always just behind. The chainsaw, which Hooper refuses to fetishize, always seems just in range of its target. Later, during the morning sequence, Hooper shows he can do terrifying chase scenes in daytime too. He and Pearl’s subtle use of depth throughout the film is magnificent.
After the nighttime shot comes the interior scenes. Even though there have been some interior scenes on the same location, Hooper handles it differently. Tight shots. Fast cuts. From the victim’s perspective to outside the victim, toggling rapidly; sometimes the rapid cuts lead to the change in perspective. Editors Sallye Richardson and J. Larry Carroll do great work throughout, but the last thirty minutes are unbelievable. The film’s already shockingly intense, but then Hooper and his editors have to kick it up a notch. Turns out there are even more surprises in the story than expected. Though expectation is hard. Hooper keeps the viewer’s attention on each moment as it occurs. No distractions.
Except Partain. Isn’t he annoying? Don’t you hate him? Wow. You hate a kid in a wheelchair. You’re awful. Isn’t he annoying though?
The last third is terrifying and horrifying in a way the first two-thirds aren’t. Turns out there’s a comfort in the unknown, all Hooper and Henkel have for reveals are worst case scenarios. The last third explores that unknown. Intensity to the point of nausea. Then more. Then more. Then more. It never ends.
I suppose Partain’s great. His obnoxious is perfect. Burns’s good. Vail and McMinn are fine. Danziger’s an unlikable prick, which, again, seems to be the point. Hansen doesn’t get any lines, but the physical performance is outstanding. Especially since Hooper takes the time to show the inhuman villains emotional moments, but not their intended victims. Neal’s good. Jim Siedow is a gas station owner who the Mystery Machine–oh, yeah, the youths are in a van–comes across. He’s great.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre terrifies. It’s what Hooper’s going for–terrifying the viewer. The way he does it is to create this masterpiece of mood, timing, photography, performance, everything. Every shot appears precise (which is astounding given the film’s micro budget), every cut is right on; his control of the mood is absolute.
Maybe someday I’ll even be able to watch it in one sitting.
Produced and directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Kim Henkel and Hooper, based on a story by Henkel; director of photography, Daniel Pearl; edited by J. Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson; music by Wayne Bell and Hooper; released by Bryanston Distributing.
Starring Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul A. Partain (Franklin), Allen Danziger (Jerry), Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), John Dugan (Grandfather), and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface).