I was nine years old when THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE first hit the screen and despite my parents' somewhat lax criteria for what I could or could not go to see with them, there was no way in hell they'd ever have taken me to see a movie with so lurid a title. (Plus, while they did not shy away from films with graphic violence, horror and gore movies were decidedly not their bag.) So I endured the next seven or eight years hearing wild tales about how the flick was so out of control that there were scenes of limbs being graphically sawed off and flung about as blood geysered all over the camera, and with each year the tales of its rumored excesses grew ever taller. I mean, how could a film featuring a family of chainsaw-wielding maniacs who engaged in on-screen cannibalism possibly fail to appeal to the febrile tastes of a budding gorehound?
Skip ahead to my junior year in high school and one of the venerable Sono Cinema's now-legendary "Scream All Night" film festivals, the first such all-night event that I ever attended. If I remember correctly, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE was the first or second film on the bill and as it unspooled I found out firsthand that virtually all of the rumors I'd heard about it had been second-hand bullshit spread by schoolmates and their older siblings, none of whom had seen the film that I was sitting through. There was no trace of the celluloid charnel house that I'd awaited witnessing for all those years, and there wasn't even a massacre to speak of. When I returned to school the following Monday, I launched on a crusade to dispel the lies told about the film and steer my classmates away from what at the time I felt was a textbook case of the emperor having no clothes. Sadly, a good number of my peers shared my opinion and none of us were willing to give the film a second chance.
That changed sometime during my infamous year living in SUNY at Purchase's B-basement during my third year of college, a period where I and a good number of my friends wallowed in THC-laden excess and did more watching of cult items on VHS tapes than actually giving a jackleg fuck about attending classes. Somewhere between the massive doses of untranslated anime shows straight from Japanese first-run TV, then-legal Traci Lords tenderloin opuses, and cheapjack straight-to-video gore flicks, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE found its way into my stack of tapes to be watched, and I got to it with the intention of refreshing it in my bonghit-addled mind. Watching it alone and with full knowledge of its actual content was a whole other experience from my first time with it, and the second time around I found myself fascinated by its every aspect.
The quintessential mid-1970's iteration of the kind of creepy "innocents wander into some very bad shit" yarn that's been told around campfires since Day One, the narrative is informed by the nation having been exposed to the all-too-real nightmarish horrors of the deranged Ed Gein and what he got up to in the 1950's, a litany of unspeakable acts and "handicrafts" that found their way into the landscape of America's darker shared consciousness immediately after they were made public. Also a likely influence upon the film is an ultra-intense E.C. Comics-style sensibility when it comes to the hellish situation the van full of innocents find themselves in, with the story's descent-into-hell aspects far outweighing the more obvious, broad humor found in the average E.C. comic book. (Thankfully, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE's slow-winding tension and shocks don't suffer from the "comic" relief of bad Crypt Keeper jokes.)
Upon viewing the film from a slightly more mature perspective, I was taken by its look and feel, which transports the viewer into a kind of netherworld road movie that's stated to be set in Texas, but for all intents and purposes it's really a purgatory in the middle of nowhere, which only serves to distance the story from reality and set it firmly in an environment that would have made the Brothers Grimm proud. I used to think John Waters was nuts when he said he felt it was a perfect scary movie for kids, but I now totally get where he was coming from; its gore is about 98% implied, there's no sex or nudity, and all of its story elements can be clearly understood by kids without having to explain away any "adult" content, which is why it so strongly reminds me of an old E.C. horror comic. And I defy you to find a more terrifying sequence than when Leatherface suddenly explodes onto the scene and drags away that poor, tiny, screaming girl to hang her up alive on a meat hook through the back. It's downright appalling and yet there's no blood or gore whatsoever. and to me the fact that the scene is as balls-out powerful as it is proves to me that this film is a work of horrific art. And things only get more hysterical (in the truest sense of the word) when the group's last surviving member (Marilyn Burns) ends up as a very unwilling guest at what may be the most harrowing family dinner in the entire history of cinema.
Worst. Dinner. EVER.
Following my mid-1980's change of opinion, I sat through the film several more times, but the screening that took the cake was the one in which I sat my then-roommate, Mark, through it. It was somewhere around 1992 and Mark had never seen the movie but expressed interest, so we went down to the local bodega, procured a hefty assortment of beers — "You're gonna need these," I told him — and then settled in to watch the videotape. By the end of the film, Mark found himself completely wound up and totally creeped-out to the point of practically having to be peeled bodily from our living room ceiling. He did not expect to be so strongly affected by what he thought would be just another horror outing that might not have registered to his somewhat-jaded sensibilities, and I firmly believe he enjoyed it all the more because it was more than another of the cookie-cutter, garden variety slasher flicks like the ones that proliferated during our adolescence.
Bottom line, I fucking love THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and I will gladly sit through it at any time of the day or night. It's the ne plus ultra of its particular breed of fright cinema and is a force to be reckoned with. Accept no substitutes. (The first sequel is fun in a goofy way, but skip all that followed that one. There's really just no point in trying to recapture this kind of once-in-a-lifetime lightning in a bottle, and I wish the sequel-makers and contemporary remake regurgitators would realize as much.)
Poster from the original theatrical release.