#1: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Hey Grandpa, we’re going to let you have this one.
What would Halloween be without nightmares, horribly graphic nightmares that jerk you awake in the middle of the night and allow you to enjoy the even better feeling of realizing, “It was only a dream. It was only a dream.” Co-writer/director Tobe Hooper’s appreciated but still under-appreciated debut masterpiece is the closest any horror film has ever come to truly capturing the experience of an unrelenting, claustrophobic nightmare. But unlike “Last House on the Left” (which I strongly considered putting at number one) the story of five twenty-somethings out for a Texas road trip who meet up with a bizarre cannibal family does not collapse your soul into a black cloud of depression. In fact, it’s just the opposite — the horror of it all exhilarates.
To set us on edge from the word go, the story opens with a menacing and foreboding tone that promises horrible things to come with the help of John Laroquette’s straight-forward, documentary-style voice over (which perfectly matches Daniel Pearl’s gritty, washed-out cinematography) and a series of grotesque photographs taken at a crime scene where a number of grave-robbings have taken place. The photographs flash onto the screen, one after another with an unnerving, deliberate rhythm made even more disturbing by wince-inducing sound effects. It’s into this macabre setting our young protagonists enter – three guys, two girls – driving their Scooby-Doo van. They’ve come to make sure their grandparents’ graves aren’t among those desecrated and to relive some pleasant memories by visiting old childhood haunts.
Sally (Marilyn Burns — one of cinema’s great unheralded screamers) and the wheelchair-bound and childish Franklin (Paul Partain) are brother and sister; the other three are friends and, except for the petulant Franklin, coupled up. They all make the fatal decision, though, of picking up a disturbed hitchhiker who sits in the back of the van to regale them with graphic inside information about the local meat slaughterhouse before staging a strange ritual that involves, among other things, the burning of Franklin’s photograph, the cutting open of his own hand, and finally marking the van with blood after the five freaked out passengers get over their shock and kick the weirdo out.
The local filling station (and barbecue pit – heh, heh) is waiting to be resupplied with gas so the gang is forced to hang around town longer than they would like. One couple decides to kill some time in a local swimming hole but the promise of fuel heard in the sound of a far off generator leads them to a creepy old farmhouse decorated with human bones and clucking chickens who hang in uncomfortably small cages. Before the interior decoration can scare them off, one by one Leatherface, a giant of a man partial to chainsaws and the taste of human flesh, butchers them both. By the time night falls, Sally and Franklin find themselves on their own and unwittingly head on over to Leatherface’s place to see what’s up.
“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is the perfect sum of its diabolically twisted and fiercely intense parts, and moves from haunted house chiller (the first three murders), to a crazy slasher film (Leatherface chasing Sally around for what seems like hours), to outright psychological thriller (Sally’s bizarre experience with “grandpa” after she’s captured) like no other horror film I’ve ever seen. You could also argue that Leatherface puts this one-of-a-kind experience into the ranks of a bona fide monster movie, as well.
In the mind’s eye, you might be watching the goriest film ever made, but in reality and in comparison to what we see today, there’s very little actual blood and almost no gore. But that’s the film’s genius, the way it messes with your head and crawls deep under your skin with only a flash of ankle. Contributing to that success is the absolutely brilliant sound design, and not just the myriad of chill-inducing effects that punctuate the most harrowing moments. Seemingly simple things like the source music of twangy old country tunes effortlessly adds an unwelcome heightened reality to the hot, dusty streets, ramshackle buildings, and cast of odd Texas characters. The film’s actual score, which was co-written by Hooper, isn’t all that tuneful and therefore not as memorable as, say, John Carpenter’s work in “Halloween” or as famous as the shrieking violins in “Psycho,” but when it comes to worming its way into your nervous system it might even be more effective.
Ultimately, what makes “Chain Saw” worthy of my number one is that there’s no other film like it, including an okay 2003 remake that ultimately failed because it just tried too damn hard. Tobe Hooper created something that never had to strain because every element feels so real, like a documentary or a nightmare. And when it’s all over and Leatherface is wildly swinging his chainsaw in a ballet of rage, the shock starts to ebb, the screen pops to black, and the adrenaline of exhilaration starts to pump through your system, the same adrenaline that leaves you flush after a thrilling rollerocaster ride…
I made it. I survived. It wasn’t real…
It was only a movie.
But what a movie.
See #2 here.