The director Tobe Hooper, who died Saturday at 74, will always be remembered for one spectacularly terrifying low-budget horror film, and that’s because it happens to be one of the most uncanny movies ever made. When “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” appeared on the landscape in 1974, the film instantly became famous; though relatively few people saw it, just hearing that title made you feel like you had. The film’s very existence was designed to give you a shudder.
Yet for those who did venture out to experience it (those numbers grew impressively as time went on), “Texas Chain Saw” turned out to be something nearly unimaginable: a haunting and indelible dream of terror in the form of a meat-hook exploitation film. It was the wildest nightmare that the movies had ever seen, all built around the image of Leatherface, a mentally disabled grunting mute psycho wearing a mask of human skin that he never took off, chasing people around with a giant buzzing phallic power tool that was as much an instrument of torture as it was a weapon of death. The film presented itself as a true story, and it had the raw atmosphere of a found object, a kind of primitive documentary suspense film. A key element of the horror was the sense that it was all really happening right in front of you (or that it had, in fact, actually happened).
Yet the ultimate reason that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” emerged as such a landmark movie, one that just seemed, somehow, to have appeared, is that it was made with a precision and suspense, a luridly exacting reverie-of-fear quality, that was nearly classical in its execution. And that was all because of Tobe Hooper. Working with the cinematographer Daniel Pearl (it was the first feature for both of them), Hooper framed shots with a shivery stateliness that came right out of Hitchcock and implied that the action we were watching was being hovered over by an unseen presence. Call it what you will — the spirit of existential darkness, or maybe just evil. But it was that feeling, that presence, that low-budget horror films almost never succeeded in conjuring. They had the desire, but not the technique.
“Texas Chain Saw” did. It was a full-blown and fully accomplished masterpiece of nightmare cinema, as shocking as “Psycho,” as haunting in its visual and dramatic language as “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Exorcist.” Hooper, born in Austin in 1943, was a vintage child of the ’60s, and he had more than a desire to scare you; he had a vision. It was one that grew out of the counterculture, and out of the even Wilder West that was the early ’70s — a world in which all the old codes of behavior had been knocked askew and cast aside, and no one knew what, if anything, was going to spring up in their wake.
The clan of cannibalistic redneck killers in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” were, on some level, a drive-in-movie riff on the Manson family: a grinning, leering, down-home cult of slaughter waiting to obliterate you. But the lawlessness began before we even met them, with the spectacle of a bunch of post-hippie kids in a van, driving through Texas on a road to nowhere. That trope — kids on the road, heading wherever, living free enough to die — became, after “Chain Saw,” the opening scene of a thousand horror films. And that’s because it was a metaphor for our new spiritual state: young people out for themselves, on the hunt for kicks. “Chain Saw” gave them a horrific comeuppance. The movie said: This is what happens when living for the moment becomes a way of being.
Leatherface, played by the Icelandic-born Gunnar Hansen (whose name, at least on the grindhouse circuit, made it sound like he was the eerie decadent spirit of European vengeance rising up to attack America), was at once a monster and an overgrown corpulent beastly child, and the decision to have him never once remove his mask turned out to be a directorial stroke of genius. Evil, in the “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” would never become familiar and knowable. It would remain as inexplicable as the serial murders of Ed Gein, the blood orgies of the Manson family, or the mass homicide instigated by the Nazis.
That last reference may sound flip: comparing a hog-wild B-movie to the most serious evil of the 20th century. But my point is that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” attained its power through the vast litany of true-life horror that it channeled. The movie, in every scene, is really asking a moral question: How could human beings descend to this? To watch the movie, and to be terrified by it even if you don’t have a conscious thought about it in your head, is to confront that question.
“Chain Saw” is full of moments that qualify as lurid cinematic poetry: the first appearance by Leatherface (it’s like the grunge version of the “Psycho” shower scene), culminating in his sudden and ominous slam of that metal door; the creep-out family dinner, with a trapped and terrified Marilyn Burns sitting at the head of the table as the audience’s stand-in, a sequence that uses elements of backwoods comedy to attain a pure pitch of bloodshot insanity; the famous final image of Leatherface spinning his chainsaw around in front of the sunrise, a lyrical dance of death that seals the film’s atavistic quality of life as a hallucination poised at the edge of an abyss.
Yet the film’s timeless brilliance has always made one wonder why Tobe Hooper didn’t make more great films. He had a couple of moments that were noteworthy in an ironic way. “Poltergeist,” the 1982 ghost-through-the-TV story he directed for producer Steven Spielberg, is a diverting spook show with very little resonance (Spielberg was rumored to have taken over the directing chores, which has always made it a bit hard to gauge the magnitude of Hooper’s contribution); it’s a fun piece of product that lacks a trace of the sinister darkness of “Chain Saw.” And Hooper’s video for Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” with zombies crawling up buildings to pursue the singer, is, in its way, an ingenious mock creep show.
Yet Hooper, like the late George A. Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”), was a filmmaker who created his true and lasting legacy in the endless echoes that his defining film created in the cinema of horror that followed. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” literally invented the slasher film as we know it: the masked killer, the grisliness of the slaughter (though in “Chain Saw” it was notably understated), the utter insanity of the rampage, the fiery strong “innocent” girl whose sexual restraint is what saves her in the end. That last trope is far from insignificant. The fact that “Texas Chain Saw” unfurls as a cosmic punishment — be young and loose and free, and travel in a van into the lawless Southern wilds, and this is what will happen to you — made it a movie whose resonance remains as timely today as it was 43 years ago. To watch “Chain Saw” is to realize that living without license comes with a price, and that we’re still running from the terror.