The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Directed by Tobe Hooper

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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A young woman, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), and her handicapped brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are travelling through rural Texas with three of their friends. After they arrive at the ruined house where the two siblings had lived as children, the members of this group chance upon a family of murderous cannibals who happen to reside nearby.

Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most genuinely disturbing films I have ever encountered.

Although the movie's narrative consists of little more than the protagonists' arrival in a small Texas community, their unfortunate encounter with a monstrous clan of yokels, and their subsequent murders or attempts to escape from being murdered, this simple tale is, thanks to its profoundly emotive elements, still able to engage the viewer.

Rather than merely spraying the movie screen with the blood flowing from various eviscerations and killings, Hooper conjures up an atmosphere of such horrifying weirdness that the viewer is left stunned by his experience of it. In fact, the director has included very few depictions of violence, and most of what he does show is not presented graphically. Somehow, however, he gives the acts of violence he has included an intensity that makes them utterly repulsive and fearful. Most are, moreover, tinged with a shocking nastiness. Whether he is revealing a woman's twitching body being shoved into a freezer, a man flailing about after having been hit on the head with a hammer, or an old man sucking blood from a cut on a young woman's finger, the director is sure to leave the viewer shaken.

As repugnantly mesmerizing as such sequences are, Hooper's delineations of the members of the psychopathic family who attack and slaughter the movie's protagonists are even more enthralling. These persons range from an apparently relatively normal man, who, being so, may strike the moviegoer as the most reprehensible of the lot, to a mindless, withered old codger, to a pair of grotesquely deranged brothers. One of these last two, who is identified as Leatherface in the credits, and who is undoubtedly the film's most famous fiend, is a hulking, chainsaw wielding, retarded killer who wears a mask made from the skin flayed from a human face. While this creature has very little personality, and appears to be entirely dominated by his brothers, he is a truly terrifying being.

What is more, the house in which these individuals live, which has been decorated with furniture made from human skeletons and body parts, is so bizarre simply to look at that it is itself wildly disturbing. With its ordinary kitchen, which is used as an abattoir for the human beings its inhabitants capture, its spartan upstairs bedroom, where they keep the rotting corpse of an elderly woman, and its bone filled living room, which is strewn with the feathers of a cackling chicken shut inside a tiny bird cage, the place is among the most nightmarish ever to have been filmed.

There are, admittedly, many persons who, for whatever reason, will complain that a work is bad merely because it arouses feelings of fear or repugnance, even though those same individuals may well praise another movie for its capacity to elicit other feelings, such as empathy or love. I suppose these persons will call Goya's Black Paintings trash and praise pastel pictures of unicorns nuzzling. To some such individuals, namely, those who are simply limited in their capacity to enjoy the full range of experiences the arts make available, there is little I can say here. Others, burdened by prejudices, may also believe that some emotions are valid and others are not, but, if such individuals can overcome these prejudices, they may realize that there is no emotion that cannot be relished, even fear or repugnance. While I will not claim that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre possesses any notable virtues, its failures are not a result of the emotions it stirs up.

The film is, in truth, so repulsive, brutal, and terrifying that watching it can be exhausting. It is, however, thanks to the presence of these very qualities, one of the most effective horror movies I have ever encountered.

Review by Keith Allen

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