by Steve Habrat
When I sit down and reflect back on the horror films that have scared the daylights out of me, there is one gritty and uncompromising masterpiece that really stands out among the others. That particular film would be director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cannibalistic nightmare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a horrifying and skin-crawling trip into a rotting and withering Texas wasteland that is just a little too unshakably real. Made for a measly $300,000 dollars and inspired by the brutality of the evening news, the dishonesty of the US government, and real-life serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would go on to become a massively influential slasher movie and give birth to one of horror’s most notorious boogeymen—Leatherface. While the name alone will turn off many squeamish viewers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t your typical exploitation horror film. There isn’t a massive fixation with blood and guts, but there is a burning desire on Hooper’s part to stuff the film with rusted atmosphere and stomach churning anxiety that has been baking in the smoldering Texas sun. You practically expect the film to reek of gasoline fumes, sweat, and decomposing road kill. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerged from one of the most unforgiving eras in the history of horror and has remained one of the cruelest genre efforts of the 1970s, right up there with such spine-chilling classics as The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Jaws, and Dawn of the Dead.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with Sally Hardesty (Played by Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Played by Paul A. Partain), Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Played by Allen Danzinger), and mutual friends, Kirk (Played by William Vail) and Pam (Played by Teri McMinn), venturing out into the backwoods of Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather after reports of grave robbing and vandalism in the area. After checking on their grandfather’s grave, the group decides to head over to the old abandoned Hardesty farm. Along their way, they pick up a local hitchhiker (Played by Edwin Neal), who claims to live nearby the old Hardesty farm. After cutting both himself and Franklin with a razor, the group kicks the man out of their van and leaves him out in the Texas sun. The group thinks their problems are over, but while exploring the abandoned farm, they discover another secluded home that they believe is also abandoned. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that the home isn’t abandoned at all and one by one they fall victim to a deranged group of cannibals led by the hulking chain saw–wielding Leatherface (Played by Gunnar Hansen).
Hooper kicks off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with narrator John Larroquette reading from a text crawl that explains what we are about to see is based on true events. We then have a pitch-black screen cut with brief flashes of what appears to be a decomposing corpse. During your first viewing, you won’t be entirely sure, but you will swear that rustling and grunting sound effects that accompany the dark are the sounds of furious digging and scraping. Then a radio report kicks in with news of a local grave robber and the macabre creations that the individual has been leaving in the local cemetery. Hooper then cuts to a close-up of the face of a gooey corpse, pulling his camera back to slowly to reveal the body of the corpse has been tied to a massive headstone. If you look carefully, it almost looks like the corpse is grinning at the viewer. As the camera continues to slowly pan back, Hooper is revealing an amber wasteland and his elevated corpse is warning us that death rules over this nearly abandoned and decrepit part of the great state of Texas. It also seems to be conveying that madness will be the king for the next eighty-four minutes and you are a poor sap at its mercy. With this monument to madness on full display, the radio reporting on strange disappearances and morbid local activity in the background, and Hooper revving up his clank-roar-and-bang score, we are pinned to our seats, stomachs uneasy about what carnage is to come and what redneck monsters this dried up abandonment will spit out. The first time I saw, it nearly paralyzed me with fright.
After this massively effective opening sequence, it could have been very easy for Hooper to cater to exploitation audiences hungry for plenty of blood and guts, but he keeps a good majority of the violence off the screen and lets our imaginations fill in the nasty stuff. Instead, he continues to pump in the rotting atmosphere of a once delightful small town full of happy memories now gripped by unemployment, hopelessness, and insanity. It is the ultimate American nightmare. Every single character is suspicious or just plain spaced out under the burning sun and every home or farm is sinking away into the cracking landscape. When Hooper lets Leatherface Sawyer out of his house of horrors with his chain saw buzzing, the terror hits highs you never thought possible. He lumbers around the inside of Sawyer household while screeching like a banshee and plopping his victims on meat hooks. When he dashes through the night after scrappy victim Sally, who basically becomes our heroine, it actually feels like Hooper was creeping through the trees and filming an authentic chase between these two (Someone call the authorities!). You may have to lean forward to fully see what is going on, but in a way, the pitch black highlighted with streaks of blue keep your imagination buzzing just like Leatherface’s chain saw. This pitch-black chase reminds the viewer how removed from society these people are, that the Sawyers are the ones that live on the path that is just off the beaten path, far away from modern society.
Since the sets, atmosphere, and monster are all so good, you barely even notice some of the amateur acting that plagues the first portion of the film. The only one of the kids that really stands out is Marilyn Burns as Sally, who must have been without a voice for a month after all the screaming she does in the final twenty minutes. Once you see the horrors she is staring down (I don’t think that is animal meat on her plate), you will not blame her for all the screaming. Then we have Edwin Neal, who plays the kooky hitchhiker who used to work at the local meat packing company. He is just plain crackers as he slices his hand with a razor and then giggles over it. To make things worse, he is the brother of Leatherface, a hulking, mentally challenged killer who likes to wear masks made of human flesh. Hansen plays him with plenty of gusto and he is made all the creepier through the several costume changes he undergoes. He switches from butcher, to housewife, to formal dinner attire and one is creepier than the next. Also on board here is Jim Siedow as the old man who runs the gas station. He seems like a harmless old man at first, but it is soon revealed that he has ties to Leatherface and the hitchhiker. To make things worse, he is cooking up some seriously nasty BBQ in the back of the gas station.
Like most of the other classic horror films of the 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t shy away from making a political statement. Hooper has stated that “the film you are about to see is true” gimmick at the beginning of the film was a response to the lies told by the US government during Watergate and the Vietnam War. You could also view it as a cheap exploitation trick to lure in audience members hungry for some major depravity. Hooper has also said that he was inspired to make the film after repeatedly seeing jaw-dropping violence and graphic coverage on the evening news. There is also plenty of inspiration drawn from Ed Gein, which is especially present in the Sawyer family homestead that is complete with human bones fashioned into furniture and even human skin covering the light over their dinner table. Overall, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most starkly convincing horror films I have ever seen. It is raw, in your face, and unforgettable, begging to be seen again and again to spot the tiny details thrown in by Hooper. But the true terror lies in the idea that there is nothing overly fantastic here. Sometimes, a simple backwoods cannibal wearing human skin as a mask and wielding a chain saw is one of the most terrifying things out there.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Here we are, boys and ghouls! We have made it to my top 10 scariest movies of all time. I hope I have introduced you to a few horror movies you haven’t seen or heard of and tackled a few of your favorites as well. So without further ado, these are my top 10 favorite horror films that have curdled my blood, given me goose bumps, made me a little uneasy to turn out my bedside lamp at night, and made me consider shutting the films off.
10.) The Evil Dead (1981)
The ultimate sleepover horror flick! With a budget barely over $375,000 and a handful of no name actors, first time director Sam Raimi tore onto the directorial scene with The Evil Dead, a gruesome little supernatural horror film that follows a group of teens as the travel to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of drinking a few beers and hooking up. Once secluded in the cabin, they stumble upon a book called, naturally, The Book of the Dead, and they, of course, read from it. The book just so happens to release an ancient force that possess all who stand in its way, turning the teens into bloodthirsty, demonic zombies. Stopping to consider the budget, the special effects here are a true marvel, even if they are dated and the sound effects will give your goose bumps more goose bumps. While Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness descended into campville one of the most amazing parts of The Evil Dead is the fact that it refuses to offer any comedic relief. The most grueling aspect of the film is that by the end, our hero Ash has to face the terror all by his lonesome. Absolutely unyielding once it gets moving and savagely in-your-face, The Evil Dead will without question fry your nerves.
9.) Suspira (1977)
Italian director Dario Argento created perhaps one of the most visually striking horror films to date. Suspira is scary decked out in bright neon colors. Following a young American woman who is accepted to a prestigious ballet school in Europe where it may or may not be under the control of witches is the real deal. The film begins with easily one of the most intense murder sequences ever filmed and it should almost be criminal with how well Argento builds tension and suspense within it. While mostly scaring you through supernatural occurrences and basically becoming a mystery film, Suspira leaves its mark with images that sear in well-lit rooms. Nothing ever happens in the dark in this film, and usually its what we do not see that is the scariest. And to deny the fact that this film is a breath of fresh air to the horror genre would be utterly absurd. The best advice I can give is just wait until the end of the film. You will be left pinned to your seat.
8.) Psycho (1960)
When it comes to unforgettable movie monsters, give me Norman Bates over Freddy or Jason any day. Everyone is familiar with what is perhaps the most famous and scariest of all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, this film literally could be the closest to perfect that any motion picture will get. The score is unforgettable. It breaks the rules by killing off its main star in the first forty minutes. It keeps you guessing until the very end. It WILL terrify you by its sudden outbursts of brutal violence. And seriously, who is not familiar with the shower sequence? Still not convinced? See it simply for Anthony Perkin’s performance as mama’s boy Norman Bates. I guarantee he will find his way into your nightmares. Remarkably, the film lacks all the crows’ feet of aging as it still manages to be one of the scariest horror of personality films to date. While it was needlessly remade in 1998 to disappoint results, the original is a true classic in literally every way. Psycho breaks all the rules of horror, and leaves the viewer disoriented and wowed all at once.
7.) Straw Dogs (1971)
Never heard of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 home invasion film Straw Dogs? Well, you have now and you have no excuse not to see it. As an added bonus, it stars Dustin Hoffman! I noticed that on many of your favorite horror films that you have sent me, you listed the 2008 film The Strangers. While The Strangers is creepy, Straw Dogs is flat out gritty, unrepentant viciousness. A nerdy math professor and his wife move out to the British countryside where they are looking to enjoy a simple life of peace and quite. Their pursuit of happiness falls short when the couple becomes the victims to bullying by the locals. The bullying soon boils up to a vicious rape and an attack on the couple’s home that leads to one hell of a nail-bitting standoff. Many consider it a thriller, but this is flat out horror in my book. The film becomes an exploration of the violence in all of us. Yes, even the ones we least expect. We never see the violence coming from the mild mannered math teacher. Even worse, it leaves us with the unshakeable notion that this horrendous violence lurks in all of us. Another great quality of the film is the fact that it will spark conversations after viewing it. What would you do in that situation? Would you allow yourself to be the victim or would you stand up and fight for what is yours? Sound simple? Straw Dogs is far from simple. It will etch itself into your mind.
6.) Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Nosferatu is on here twice?!?! Sort of. Nosferatu indeed deserves its place among the greats but Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is without question the greatest vampire movie of all time. It drives a silver dagger right through the heart of all the vampire flicks out there (Take that Twilight!). Part remake, part valentine to F.W. Murnau, part Dracula; this is an undeniably sweeping horror film. Who would have believed that a slow motion image of a bat could make the hair on your arms stand up? Elegant and astonishing beautiful, one could recommend the film on the cinemamatogrphy alone. This interpretation of Nosferatu abandons the name Count Orlok and instead is Count Dracula. The appearance of Count Dracula is almost identical to Count Orlok but the rest plays out like Dracula. The film features what could be one of the most mesmerizing performances ever caught on film with Klaus Kinski’s interpretation of Count Dracula. He is at once heart breaking and threatening. The film’s apocalyptic images are spellbinding. The score is the stuff that nightmares are made of. The acting is top notch. The scares are slight and real. This is the scariest vampire movie ever and one of the most underrated horror movies ever made.
5.) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The glaring problem with the 2003 remake of this disturbing 1974 classic is that the 2003 remake was more concerned with being a sleek experience rather than a gritty and realistic slasher flick. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre does a fantastic job making you feel the Texas heat, as this movie is an absolute scorcher. On top of that, the film uses surprisingly little gore and still manages to gross you out to the point of you seriously considering becoming a vegan. What makes the film so traumatic is the fact that it does not only contain one monster, it has several. There is basically no escape from the dreaded, chainsaw wielding Leatherface and his merry band of cannibals. The film also throws another monkey wrench into the equation: one of the main characters is in a wheelchair. Yikes! The final chase of the film seems like it was ripped right out of an old newsreel and it has such a realistic tone that the atmosphere actually overrides the horrific murders. I recently read a quote from Stephen King about his favorite horror films and I have to admit that I heavily agree with him. He says “One thing that seems clear to me, looking back at the ten or a dozen films that truly scared me, is that most really good horror films are low-budget affairs with special effects cooked up in someone’s basement or garage.” If this quote applies to any horror film, it would be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Amen, Mr. King!
4.) The Shining (1980)
As far as supernatural horror movies are concerned, Stanley Kubrick’s version of the Stephen King book The Shining is the first and last word in haunted house movies. Combining hallucinatory images, a mind-bending story, and a horror of personality all into one Frankenstein’s monster of a film. Kubrick tops it all of with a big bloody bow. Jack Nicholson is at his bat-shit crazy best as Jack Torrence, a seemingly normal writer who, along with his family, are employed as the winter caretakers at the secluded Overlook Hotel. With the hotel cutoff from customers, the ghosts start coming out to play. They posses Jack’s young son Danny (REDRUM!). They torment Jack to the point where he grabs an axe and goes on a killing spree. If you have not seen this, see it just on the grounds of Jack Nicholson’s outstanding portrayal of a man slipping into homicidal madness. It is probably one of the most epic horror movies I’ve ever seen, and one of the most visually jarring. I really do not think there is anything creepier than twin girls standing in the center of a long hallway and inviting Danny to “come play with” them. The Shining leaves the viewer to figure it all out at the end. But damn does it end with some blood soaked fireworks.
3.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s follow up to his 1968 zombie freak out wears the king’s crown in the land of zombie movies. This one has it all, folks. It’s dismal, gory beyond anything you could ever imagine, intelligent, shocking, and freaky as all hell. Picking up right where Night of the Living Dead left off, we are thrust into a world of chaos. I will warn you that the first half hour or so of the film is so overwhelming; you may need to take an intermission after it just to gather yourself. Romero is launching an all out assault on the viewer, testing them to see how much they are able to take. But he hasn’t even gotten going yet. Hell, the opening is actually tame compared to the gut-wrenching climax. Romero does lighten the mood a little in places because the film would be unbearable if he never did. The plot centers on four survivors who flee from war-torn Pittsburgh to an indoor shopping mall to escape the panic that has seized hold of America. This panic, of course, comes in the wake of the dead returning to life and eating the flesh of the living. They live like kings and queens in the land of consumerism, which also leads to their ultimate downfall. Greed takes hold and soon the army of zombies gathering outside is the least of their concerns. Featuring some of the most heart stopping violence to ever be thought up and some truly tense moments, Dawn of the Dead may actually cause you to have a heart attack or, at the very least, a panic attack.
2.) Hellraiser (1987)
If demonic horror scares you, then you are going to want to stay far, far away from Clive Baker’s Hellraiser. What sights the soul ripping Cenobites have to show you. What ghastly sights indeed. Bursting at the seams with some of the most unsettling images that any horror film has to offer, Hellraiser simply has it all. It has monsters for the monster crowd. It shows glimmers of the slasher genre. It satisfies the gore hounds thirst for blood. It offers up a wickedly original storyline. Following a man who ends up possessing a box that can expose you to the greatest pleasures imaginable is a pretty unnerving experience. There’s a dead guy in the attic that an unfaithful wife has to provide with male bodies so he can regenerate. There are four time traveling demons that rip apart their victims with chains. A daughter is desperately trying to unravel her father’s death. Did I mention it has lots and lots of monsters? The best part of seeing the first film in the Hellraiser series is that you get to see the Cenobites, who could very well be some of the creepiest antagonists that have ever haunted a horror film. They slink through the shadows and send icy chills up your spine. When Pinhead, or “Lead Cenobite” proclaims that they are “Angels to some and demons to others”, he is not kidding. Are they the four horsemen of the apocalypse, given the films left-field apocalyptic ending? Could be. Undeniably vicious and oddly hypnotic, the film will scare the living daylights out of you and replace those daylights with the darkness of Hell.
1.) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
During the class that I took on the horror genre in college, we discussed that the scariest movies of all are the ones that posse an unwavering realism. I seriously think that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the embodiment of this argument. Raw, powerful, disturbing, and a searing knock out, this is without question the most terrifying film I have ever seen. You will be locking your doors and possibly adding another lock for extra good measure. The plot of the film centers on Henry who is soft-spoken exterminator who also happens to be a serial killer. Henry happens to be staying with his friend Otis, who is currently on probation and works at a gas station and also sells pot on the side. Otis has also allowed his sister Becky, who is a stripper looking for a new start in Chicago, to shack up with the two bachleors. Soon, Otis learns of Henry’s grotesque hobby and quickly decides he wants in. Henry takes him under his devil wings and the two descend into the night to prey on innocent victims. The uncanny, fly-on-the-wall vérité approach elevates the film to the territory of the unbearable. Every explosive murder is chillingly real. Every line of sadistic dialogue is muttered in a disconnected tone. The film also chills you to the bone because there is never a character to truly root for, a character to take comfort in. The closest we get to a hero is Becky, but mostly because we fear for her safety. We know she is incapable of stopping the maniacs. While the violence will shock you, and trust me it is some absolutely grisly stuff, the fear of the violence and unpredictability of it all will wear away and you will be left with the fear that this could actually happen. There are actually people out there who could be capable of doing this, and I could be next if I just so happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece of the horror genre and it will leave you thinking about it for weeks.
I hope all of our readers out there have enjoyed our 31 days of Halloween special- Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular- and will come back next year for more horror, thrills, and chills. I have personally had a blast doing this as Halloween is my favorite holiday and has been since I was in a diaper. Enjoy the next few days of horror movie posts and the review our readers chose. Have a terrifying Halloween, boys and ghouls! I know I will.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
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