Real blood, dead animals, and unrelenting tension are just a few of the ingredients that will keep 'Chainsaw' terrifying forever.
The world mourned the loss of pioneer horror filmmaker Tobe Hooper last week, and in the wake of his death we've seen an upswing of appreciation for his masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film was truly revolutionary in every sense of the word. With its release, horror movies were no longer relegated to corny monsters or cheap thrills—This one felt real.
It was Hooper's focus on authenticity, not gratuitous sex or violence, that pushed his film to new heights. Ryan Hollinger's latest video essay does a great job of deconstructing the ingredients that ground the film in gritty realism, even though much of its action was absurd.
The most noticeable of these ingredients is the production design. The film was shot in a documentary-esque, cheap home video style that makes it almost feel as if we're looking at found footage. Those are, for the most part, real decomposing animals and blood that the art director collected during filming. Hooper did an incredible job of translating the environment of this isolated Texas area on film.
In fact, this realism was enhanced by the purveyance of the cast and crew's actual filming conditions as a means to further the characters' woes. Imagine shooting 16-hour days in 100-plus-degree weather for 12 days straight. You can literally feel that heat and exhaustion through the screen as you’re watching this movie.
And when a real chainsaw and hammer are actually being used for the shot, the actors tend to be a little more invested in their situation since their life is, you know, somewhat in danger. While Leatherface's weapons of choice were real, however, little violence actually occurs on screen.
“Death can come at any time.”
The reduced violence was in actuality a dual move by Hooper to attract wary distributors in addition to avoiding a commercial ban. In effect, the artfully shot death sequences actually end up escalating the tension of the film. As Hollinger notes, the premise of the film "sounds brutal in context but isn’t actually that graphic, making for a very sensory-driven experience that relies on the viewer's imagination to piece together images and sounds that are either not shown on-screen or displaced deliberately in the films editing."
Leatherface doesn’t even appear until half way through the movie. What we do see is a group of friends marooned in a strange land, surrounded by a bunch of locals who seem dangerous, to say the least. We feel as unsettled as if we were one of those friends, stranded alongside them.
These residents that we encounter appear so odd to us that, when we get wind of their preference for cannibalism in the second half of the film, it seems completely within the rules of the world. We are willing to suspend our disbelief. It’s also believable that these kids would get themselves into this mess. They’re oblivious to their impending doom, but not dumb. It’s not as if there are any particular warning signs, until they pick up a hitchhiker (perfectly normal for that era) who suddenly turns violent.
Certainly, another ingredient that ratchets up the film's horror is its editing. Hollinger likens it to the practices of the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The film is cut subliminally to make it feel more surreal. This aspect of Soviet Montage was designed to shock audiences with abrupt and off-putting cuts.
Just like these edits, Leatherface almost always appears to his victims abruptly from seemingly out of nowhere. These are more than just jump scares because this tension is ever-present once the character is introduced. These murders happen during the middle of the day, subverting the convention of the time (and the present) that evil is strictly pertained to the night. As Hollinger puts it, the film feels so dangerous because “death can come at any time.”