October 1st of this year marked the 45th anniversary of the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which seems as good a reason as any to talk about it. I realize that this film has just about been discussed to death, and who am I to add my two cents, anyway? Nevertheless, much as the power of Christ compelled Regan/Pazuzu, so the power of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre compels me to write about it.
The question that I will attempt to answer here is what, specifically, makes the film so effective, even 45 years later? I have narrowed it down to two closely-related elements, both having to do with the formal qualities of the film. One is the formal characteristics of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a film—i.e., its approach at the technical level of filmmaking. The other concerns its formal qualities as a story, specifically its plot structure and story elements. In both cases, the film consistently subverts expectations, achieving a destabilizing effect on the audience that is matched by few films before or since.
“It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only…”
This destabilizing effect of the film is perhaps most evident in the fact that so many viewers, at the time and even now, often describe it as looking and feeling as if it were real. At various times, the film has been likened to a documentary or even a home movie. The latter was perhaps best summed up by the quote, attributed to Rob Zombie, that “it looks like someone turned on a camera and started killing people” (or something very much to that effect).
What is interesting about this quote is that it talks about the overall effect of the film as a whole. It’s not a comment on, say, the true-to-life quality of the cinematography, which on the surface it may appear to be. It’s important to note that Rob Zombie is a filmmaker himself and, regardless of how you may feel about his work, he probably knows better than most just how unlike documentary or cinéma vérité much of the film is. Obviously, were it really the case that someone had simply pointed a camera at the carnage we see in this film, it wouldn’t look like this at all. But, the spirit of what Zombie is saying is what matters and, in that sense, his quote is quite apt.
I would argue that—its 16mm graininess notwithstanding—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a film that looks particularly “real.” It is simply too well-made and skillfully employs too many cinematic techniques to be accurately described as documentary-like. It is, however, a film that feels very “real”. What I believe is so “real” about the film is the sheer intensity of the experience of watching it, and this is achieved primarily through the film’s destabilizing approach to its technical and storytelling elements.
Arguably, what the film achieves is less a sense of realism and more a state of heightened realism or hyperrealism. It is one that we experience so intensely that we have no better way of describing it than simply as feeling “real.” It is less the case that what the film presents us with and the way that it presents it is realistic per se and more that the various elements of the film work together to produce a viewing experience that is singularly visceral in its impact.
A Little of This, A Little of That
While there are numerous ways in which the technical qualities of this film contribute to its enduring power, I have chosen to focus on one in particular. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre equally embraces verisimilitude on the one hand and the artifice of cinema on the other. It successfully combines elements of both perhaps better than any horror film before or since. To some extent, it could be said that the film blurs the distinction between the two by constantly juxtaposing elements of each.
For its duration, the film alternately—often rapidly and at times simultaneously—employs techniques of traditional narrative filmmaking, as well as those of both art and documentary filmmaking. All this cinematic code-switching creates a tension at the technical level that matches the film’s narrative tension, which in turn is heightened by the film’s unconventional narrative structure. This shifting between cinematic modes is nicely illustrated by taking a closer look at just one of several passages of the film in which we see multiple styles of filmmaking employed, one after the other. In this case, the focus will be on the passage that begins with the first appearance of Leatherface and the film’s first death and ends with Pam’s discovery of the true nature of the farmhouse.
Despite being the point at which the film takes a sudden, shocking, and decidedly darker turn, Kirk’s death at the hands of Leatherface is presented in a fairly undramatic and relatively straightforward manner. It is done almost entirely in medium shot and with relatively few cuts. It happens quickly, in broad daylight, and without musical accompaniment.
The scene is unlike what we typically see in most films and is particularly uncharacteristic of a horror film. There is no slow buildup with creepy music and no stinger in the score to accentuate the jump scare, no use of lighting to create shadows, and no constant moving of the camera or changing of camera angles to generate suspense. It is one of the most notable instances of the film employing an almost documentary style, and it is effective both because of how it contrasts with moments prior to and immediately following it (moments that feel decidedly less matter-of-fact in their presentation). There is something unsettling in seeing a brutal murder depicted without any stylization to soften the blow, so to speak.
This semi-documentary/cinéma vérité approach of the film is seen in the deaths of Pam and Jerry, as well. Notably, the first three murders in the film happen in relatively rapid succession; there is no drawn-out stalking of the victims. There is no stylizing of any of these deaths—two happen very quickly, and the other, while drawn out, is presented in a somewhat matter of fact way. This is a perfect example of the formal—cinematic and storytelling—elements of the film working in tandem to great effect. The way the deaths are presented visually is surprising in its uncinematic nature. The way that they happen, quickly and without buildup or fanfare, is surprising from a storytelling perspective. They are presented almost as matters of happenstance rather than as major plot points.
Significantly, all the murders happen in daylight and in full view, yet each death is virtually bloodless, and there is zero gore. Think about how drastically different the movie would be if, for example, instead of simply clubbing him with the sledge, Leatherface appeared with a cleaver and cut off Kirk’s head. It would have been far less effective than it is. For one thing, it probably wouldn’t have looked very good, given the limited budget for effects. Secondly, it just would have felt too over the top, even to the point of being silly. If the film had gone that route, it’s unlikely anyone at the time—certainly, no one now—would be talking about its feeling “real.”
Following the quick and unceremonious death of Kirk, we have one of the most overtly cinematic moments in the film, and one often cited as an example of the technical skill involved in making it. The tracking shot of Pam approaching the farmhouse would not be out of place in any well-made, higher budget, Hollywood film. I have always been reminded of the scene in Psycho in which Marion’s sister Lila makes her way up the stairs to the Bates house.
The shots are comparative particularly in the way that the house grows larger and larger in the background, filling up more and more of the frame so that it seems to be looming over the figure approaching in the foreground. I don’t know if this similarity was intentionally allusive or not, but it would be rather fitting, given the two films’ shared, ripped-from-the-headlines source material (with Psycho, of course, itself becoming source material for the later film). The shot is, of course, even more impressive when the film’s minuscule budget is taken into account.
Immediately following the tracking shot of Pam approaching the farmhouse, we have a fairly extended scene of Pam taking in her surroundings, at which point she begins to realize that she is in a bad place, even if she doesn’t yet realize just how bad it is. Though I’ve referred to it as a scene, it’s less of a scene and more a sequence of quick cuts alternating between Pam’s POV and her reactions.
The entire sequence is atypical of a traditional narrative film and the result is jarring, as it is meant to be. All of this, from Kirk’s murder to Pam’s entry into the house, takes place in a span of fewer than five minutes; within that span, we see three distinctly different approaches to filmmaking. The last approach, with its disorienting quick cuts, is the only one that is clearly unsettling; the others, one actually quite aesthetically pleasing tracking shot and the other with its relatively uncinematic, low-key mise en scene, are only unsettling in context.
One Messed Up Little Story
In addition to its technical elements, the film subverts at the level of storytelling in various ways, most significantly in its unusual plot structure. This plot is one that defies our expectations for the trajectory of a narrative film.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film with minimal exposition. What exposition there is, however, is accomplished quickly and effectively and fully serves its purpose. It provides some context for the things that follow, but it still falls short of offering anything like a reason for the events that follow. This is crucial to the spirit of the film, as this is a world in which there really is no reason; it is, in fact, an almost perfect embodiment of the idea that “shit happens.”
Notably, there is very little in terms of background information and little to no character development. In a different kind of film, these might be criticisms, but here they are integral to why the film is as effective as it is. No amount of background or character development would have made the film more horrifying or more terrifying than it is. In fact, it almost certainly would have had the opposite effect (as I would argue is evident in the wave of remakes, reboots, and sequels produced in the 2000s based on this film as well as other classic, mostly ’70s horror films). This is a film that does not attempt to explain the macabre, it merely presents it and trusts it to stand on its own for its impact.
Beyond the lack of explanation, the very structure of the film is odd. As noted, it wastes little time on exposition and instead jumps almost immediately into what will be an extended period of rising action leading to an even more extended climax. I am identifying the climax here as the entirety of the dinner scene and what follows it. At this point, the film moves from action that has either been a series of rapidly occurring, discrete events or protracted, even repeating, chase sequences (this element of near repetition of entire scenes/sequences is another example of the unconventional and disorienting way in which the plot unfolds), to action that occurs in a single location and that involves essentially the physical and psychological torture (emphasis on the psychological) of one character for what feels like a really long time.
Importantly, it feels so not only because of what is happening in the scene but because it genuinely does go on for a long time, far longer than we would expect a scene—especially one like this—to go on for. It goes on for an uncomfortably long time. And there is no doubt that it is intentional. If there is one thing that is clear concerning the intentions of this film, it is that it aims to make the viewer uncomfortable, certainly a noble goal for any horror film and one at which this film succeeds extraordinarily well.
Not only does the climax of the film go on for an inordinate amount of time, but it also continues to build right up to the film’s abrupt ending. There is no falling action here and certainly no resolution. It builds and builds, piling chaos onto chaos, and then it simply ends with a cut to black and silence. It is one of the greatest endings in the history of horror films and it is nearly impossible to imagine it ending any other way.
No Hugging, No Learning, No Heroes
Another example of how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre manages to achieve a destabilizing effect through subverting expectations is one that occurs at what may be considered both the formal and thematic levels simultaneously. It is the film’s lack of a protagonist in the true sense. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I would nevertheless add that the film, without question, lacks anything resembling a hero. In most narratives, indeed the majority of narrative films, a protagonist is driving the plot forward.
Sally, while no doubt the main character, cannot truly be said to drive the plot forward. She does not make things happen in any significant way. Instead, things simply happen to her. Make no mistake, Sally puts up a hell of a fight, and it is no small miracle that she survives. But she is only ever reacting to the craziness around her, and her only goal is not to die. An understandable goal if ever there was one and eminently relatable, but if we are being honest, it’s really more through a combination of luck, accident, and incompetence that she is able to escape. Her agency throughout the film is relatively limited. Note that this is not a criticism of the character; rather, it is an observation of what I believe to be one of the central themes of the film which, going back to something I said earlier, is that essentially “shit happens.”
Taking the protagonist away from a narrative film is disruptive because it subverts our expectations of the film as a vehicle for storytelling. Additionally, it undermines something that we like to believe about ourselves and which we like to see reflected in the stories we tell ourselves. In this case, it is the belief that, if not heroes, we are at the very least protagonists in control of our own lives. This film decidedly makes the opposite case, more or less saying that when it comes down to it, we are in charge of very little, which is inherently frightening.
I should note that this film ascribes barely more agency to its antagonists. They seem nearly as much to be characters to whom things merely happen, rather than making things happen, as Sally is. Thus, we have a film that truly has no protagonist, which deprives us of a traditional source of comfort and familiarity, something like a center holding our narrative together and keeping us tethered to it. Again, for a different kind of film, this could be a major criticism and perhaps a fatal flaw. Here, it is the highest compliment.
Not only does the film deny us a protagonist but it also actively refutes the idea of anything that might be called a hero and, by extension, the very concept of heroism itself. There are three characters—and two of them are barely characters at all—that could even be considered to fill the role of hero in the film. The first is Sally herself. Again, while her ability to survive is commendable, we can hardly consider her a hero if even her status as a proper protagonist is in question.
The second is the semi-truck driver. He does stop after running over the hitchhiker (so, we have an antagonist taken out by pure accident, just by blind, impersonal fate). Though we may give him some credit for making an attempt, ultimately he is ineffectual to the point that it seems absurd to refer to him as any kind of hero. The last time we see him he is running away.
The third is the driver of the car that Sally jumps into, finally making her escape. Aside from the fact that we never even truly see this character, he is, like the truck driver, only there through sheer happenstance. All he does is stop his car long enough for Sally to jump in, and then continue driving. Is this heroic? No, not really. So, we arguably do not have a protagonist, and we sure as hell have no hero.
In fact, the end of the film from the hitchhiker getting run over onward could be considered essentially one big deus ex machina. I think this is intentional rather than a fault of the film. I think it is entirely appropriate because to this point the film has done nothing but show us a world in which seemingly random chaos and cruelty runs rampant.
So, why shouldn’t the series of events that allow our main character to survive—beaten, bloody, physically and mentally broken—be merely another instance of “shit happens”? The only difference is that this time blind, inexorable fate has briefly favored someone who actually deserves it. So, this may then be considered perhaps the one bright spot in the film: Sally doesn’t die. But really, it’s not much of a bright spot; it’s the dullest glimmer; it’s a glimpse of something other than total darkness in the vastness of an utterly indifferent universe. The fact that Sally survives—but, to reference one of the film’s wonderfully apt taglines, what is left of her?—barely tempers the utter nihilism of the film. However, this one “bright spot” is just the almost negligible difference between absolute dark and merely almost absolute dark.
The Film May Not Have a Resolution, But This Article Does!
It is for these reasons—its ability to disorient and disquiet, its intentional refusal to provide any sense of constancy, coherence or closure, and its stark and relentless depictions of physical and psychological violence, all of which are accomplished by way of each element of the film working in conjunction with the others—that the Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains one of the singular achievements in the history of horror cinema and is still uniquely effective even 45 years later.