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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Fifty:

Tobe Hooper’s breakout horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is back in cinemas for its fiftieth anniversary – unsurprisingly it’s lost none of its potency.

Along with his contemporaries George A. Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter Hooper was instrumental in changing the face of horror cinema forever – William Friedkin shares this credit, although he had the backing of a major studio with The Exorcist. Out of those pioneering directors’ defining early works (Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, and Halloween) Texas Chainsaw is arguably the best in terms of how frightening it is, and how brilliantly it’s made from a technical perspective.

Beyond the grainy look of the 16mm, there is little sense of the guerrilla filmmaking prevalent in Night of the Living Dead, and to a much greater extent Last House on the Left. The cinematography is astonishing; the smooth tracking of characters running, panoramic establishing shots of the unremarkable but threateningly vast landscape, eerie low-key angles, and the carefully chosen quick cuts and closeups during moments of intense horror. The soundtrack, composed by Hooper and Wayne Bell, unostentatiously heightens the emotional impact throughout. Rather than featuring traditional instruments, it was – very aptly – comprised largely of sounds animals would hear in a slaughterhouse.

Aiming to secure a PG rating, Hooper kept any explicitness to a minimum; language that was relatively expletive-free, no nudity, and a limit to the graphicness of the violence. Famously, this backfired and made the film even more terrifying. There’s a visceral sense of terror in Texas Chainsaw that can make it deeply unpleasant viewing. The limited budget and filming schedule meant everyone had to work up to sixteen hours for seven days a week, often in soaring temperatures. Several of the actors, including Marilyn Burns who plays Sally (the original final girl), were injured during the course of filming. 

Having been suitably distressed after seeing this for the first time in the cinema eight years ago, I felt more prepared knowing what I was in for on the big screen. Like The Exorcist, watching Texas Chainsaw from the comfort of your sofa is an entirely different viewing experience. What struck me most on this occasion was just how intelligently the script feeds its audience. The information is often sparse, delivered by numerous characters at various points. Other narrative clues are purely visual, and not necessarily at the forefront. Like the violence, it’s seldom explicit. When we get to the final act however, there’s no misunderstanding what’s been happening in and around that farmhouse and why.


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