The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the only film in my memory that creates an atmosphere that is comparable to rotten meat. Believe it or not, I mean that as a compliment. There’s a lot of death and decay in this movie, a lot of rotten, messy decomposition. What is unsettling is that this atmosphere of rot and decay fills long silences in which nothing seems to be happening, we wait and wait for it to lead somewhere. Unfortunately, it finally does. For me, the long silences are scarier than a chainsaw.
I’ve begun to realize the best of the horror genre seems to subsist on atmosphere filling gaps when the movie comes up short on having a story to tell. Atmosphere can breed many things, many emotions, many fears. That’s especially true when your movie persists on little more than a pudgy maniac wielding a chainsaw. The very best thing about this movie is that it never seems to feel like a movie. It looks and feels so natural that you can almost smell the decay in the air
My memories of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre seem to have been filled with buzzing saw noises and sudden bursts of violence that well up about of nearly dead quiet. What had slipped my mind, in the years since I first saw the film was that, for much of the time, there seems to be almost no sound at all. Those moments, to be quite honest, are far more potent than a woman hanging from a meat hook. This is a gross, desolate, grisly and unsettling little film in which the horror seems to come from nowhere.
The story you know: Five kids in a van are driving across the ass-end of Texas looking for their grandfather’s old house. They pick up a hitchhiker who seems two tacos short of a combination plate. When he cuts one of their number on the leg and in a panic they dump in on the road. The obvious question, why don’t they turn around? The answer: they can’t – they don’t know where they are going. In a pattern that would follow nearly ever horror film for the next four decades, the group splits up. All eventually arrive at the same farmhouse and nearly all meet the same fate.
What follows is gruesome but not for the obvious reasons. The kids find a weird family whose chili recipe contains an ingredient not approved by the FDA. They are killed one by one by a pudgy, chainsaw wielding freak in a mask made of human skin. When there is one kid left, she is taken into their home and tormented. She, and we, are shocked by the state of the place wherein everything is made of human bones and bound in human skin. It’s sickening, nauseating and, in its own way, a weird masterwork of art direction. This house could be an antechamber in Dante’s Inferno.
Yet, for all the violence, this is essentially a bloodless film. Many murders happen off-screen and your mind creates what the screen isn’t showing us – in a way that’s worse. Yet, it isn’t the violence that stays with you, it’s the desolation and nausea created by the setting. The landscapes they are traveling through should tell them everything they need to know. The sides of the road are overgrown with weeds and dead trees. When they go looking for the house, the sparse scattering of houses seems to be rotted, apparently abandoned long ago. For long stretches of time, there is no violence, no monsters, just dirt and decay. We wait and wait for something. Somehow, it’s more effective that way.