As a student of the genre and a lifelong horror film aficionado, this nightmarish meditation on unrelenting terror ranks as a masterpiece of 20th century independent filmmaking. There are so many things to love about this movie, where do I even start?
It was shot in Austin Texas in July-August 1973 by director Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl for a budget of $60,000. That’s right – I said $60,000! Salaries ranged from $50 up to $125 for the entire shoot! It went somewhat over budget in editing, but I think you get the point. I don’t really give a fuck how much it made (about $31,000,000.), it changed the global cultural zeitgeist.
The opening credit sequence is a masterpiece of disturbing images and unsettling sound design that perfectly sets up an uneasy sense of dread. Once seen, never forgotten.
A hugely powerful method of creating tension and dread is provided by the soundtrack. Did I mention yet that there is no music on the soundtrack at all? That’s right – only disorienting electronic and verite noises and distortions of everyday sounds to deliver the story to the deepest parts of your brain.
The closing sequence is the perfect ending for this film – the macabre dance of Leatherface with his chain saw blazing in the Texas sunrise, wearing his suit and mask of human skin with lipstick, rouge, and fake eyelashes is like something out of a very, very bad fever dream (see photo).
One thing I was always struck by was that no one really seemed to be acting. The “family” didn’t seem to be fictional characters played by actors – the whole thing was so weird and effectively done that it seemed all too real. I grew up in the south, and trust me on this – there is no crazy like southern crazy.
Case in point – the character played by Edwin Neal, who we are first introduced to as “the hitchhiker,” gives (in a just world), an academy award winning performance. His body movement, facial expressions, manner of speech, and sheer manic intensity just don’t seem like anything that could be written in script directives. It’s such a fully formed performance that he literally seems to be that person, and it’s just one small but important element that makes this such a very unsettling film.
And what are we to make of Leatherface, played by a 6′ 4″ 300 lb. actor named Gunnar Hansen? We never see his face (only grotesque teeth constantly being licked by his tongue) since it’s covered by a mask made from the tanned skin of another human’s face. This would be scary enough without knowing that Ed Gein actually did this. He wears a suit with a ridiculous short tie through most of the film, often with a butchers apron stained with blood. Since he can’t speak, he communicates with high-pitched cries, and there is clearly some gender confusion – one of his masks is made up like a nightmarish hooker complete with curly wig and frilly apron. And let’s not forget what appear to be “Beatle” boots he’s wearing at the end sequence…
Although there is very little blood in the movie, many of the scenes of violence are so shocking and masterfully done that they disturb you in the same way that witnessing real violence does. There is a scene where one of the young men wanders into the house in broad daylight, is suddenly struck on the head with a hammer by Leatherface, and immediately falls to the ground and starts having a seizure. In a normal horror film, the scene would work perfectly well just having the boy struck and then falling. Adding the seizure takes it out of the realm of “movie violence” and your brain processes it as real.
The third act is just an absolutely unrelenting exercise in terror. The actress Marilyn Burns gives an unforgettable “performance” as possibly the first “final girl” in this movie. I put performance in quotation marks because it seems anything but. One of the most disturbing aspects of this film is the sense that this actress is literally being terrorized – her screams don’t seem to be acting, they seem to be reacting. And the horror unleashed upon her has no respite – it just goes on and on and on (over 40 minutes), with her descending into a deeper and deeper state of traumatic shock.
The “dinner table” scene at the end just has to be seen to be believed. The insane interaction of the older brother scolding his two younger brothers, the introduction of grandpa, the incessant giggling of the family while Marilyn screams – there is no other response but horror for the viewer. And because the film has slowly but surely been ratcheting up the intensity, by the time you get to this point in the film it’s too late to back out. You actually feel dirty watching it.
Now’s as good a time as any to note the incredibly detailed art design of the sets. Based on the crime scene photos of Ed Gein’s farm house, they are a surreal celebration of death, the defiling of the human corpse, and cannibalism. Furniture made out of human bones, a lamp shade made from a human face, “clothes” made from the tanned skin of human bodies. This would all be scary enough if it was fiction – to know that it really happened is, to most reasonable humans, almost beyond comprehension.
I’m at 1000 words here and just scratching the surface – I could write a short book on this film and it’s influence on global horror cinema. For the moment let’s just note the power of art. A great idea executed perfectly, with whatever resources the artists had at hand, yielding devastating results. Layer after layer of meaning – it seems to hold up to close observation no matter how many times you view it.
As an artist, there is also the disturbing realization that no one involved in this film ever went on to do anything remotely as powerful. How is this possible? Life and art are mysterious. Sometimes you just have to step back, stop thinking, and submit to the experience.