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In Defense of Empty Spaces: ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ at 35

| October 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 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 hangs heavy over 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 the violence.

I’ve begun to realize that the best of the horror genre seems to subsist on atmosphere when it 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 anyone purposely made a movie.  Shot on a low budget, with unknown actors, the movie has time to linger over dead landscapes, the Texas no-man’s –land with dead grass and rotten trees.  They are unsettling in a very productive way.  From within that landscape comes a spare soundtrack made up of sounds not completely rural desolation.  Listen carefully and you’ll hear unsettling sounds of wind, saccades, pig snorts, a gas generator, footsteps.  It seems to come from a distance.  We seem to be in a forgotten place just on the dreary outer shores of Hell.

My memories of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem to have been filled with buzzing saw noises and sudden bursts of violence that well up out 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 about as short on brain cells as he is on the concept of basic hygiene.  When he cuts one of their number on the leg, they dump in 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.

What follows is gruesome, nasty and beyond repulsive.  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.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1974) View IMDB Filed in: Horror