Despite its rave reviews, I'd avoided this movie for many years, since I assumed it was a gory & exploitative slasher flick. After all, the name suggests as much, and even the positive reviews don't dispel that impression. But after my research for a writing project finally drove me to view the film, I discovered that it's largely gore-free, and even life-affirming -- in a magically "ZZ Top meets Lord of the Flies" sort of way. That may sound ridiculous, but if you've ever walked away from a tragedy feeling limbered up and invigorated, that's what I'm talking about. Not every violent film is cathartic, but in TCM we have a winner.
Apart from superb technique, I think the test of great writing is how it answers the question,"What might a person with this background do in these circumstances?" There are three answers to this question:
1. The incorrect answer: anything a person with this background would not do in these circumstances.
2. The correct but predictable answer: anything we could easily guess that a person with this background might do in these circumstances.
3. The correct but unpredictable answer: anything we could not easily guess that a person with this background might do in these circumstances, but which that person might very well do, nonetheless.
To the extent that a story offers the third answer, that story is great.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers that third answer to questions like,"What might a backward & isolated clan of cattle butchers get up to if their livelihood dried up?," and,"What might a group of teens do if they met such a clan?" You think you know the answers to these questions -- chainsaw, screams, and all -- but you don't. Until you see this movie.
In addition to the greatness of the third answer is a greatness of technique, which TCM has in abundance. The best way I can think of to detail its technical strengths is to compare it with its inferior remake. And so...
OV = original 1974 version
RM = 2003 remake
OV -- Cuts and changes in camera angle are used sparingly; usually only when showing the passage of time or to reveal crucial details (e.g., a cut to later in the day, a cut to a long shot to show someone running toward a car, a cut to a close-up to show someone lighting a photo on fire, etc). Their infrequency and utility make them easier to ignore, helping us suspend disbelief.
RM -- Cuts and angle-changes occur often, and for trivial reasons. This reminds us that we aren't actually there and that we're watching a movie. This approach can be helpful for establishing a visual rhythm in more poetic films, but it's a hindrance in a film whose power is its naturalism. (The RM, like the OV, relies overtly on the conceit that what we are seeing really happened, as per an introductory voiceover. So naturalism is crucial to both films.)
OV -- Most scenes in the OV are shot from a comfortable distance, a few feet from the characters, as though we are there among them, respecting their personal space as we would in real life. Long shots are also used, during scenes in which any spectators present would have viewed the events from a distance (such as when someone ventures into a house alone, or when a van pulls up a driveway). Close-ups are reserved for moments of horror, especially as things really heat up toward the end. (Ultimately, we get perhaps the tightest close-up in film history, in which we can even see the veins behind the veins on the surface of a character's eyeball.)
RM -- Close-ups abound, even during scenes of light conversation, pushing us out of the events' reality.
OV -- Film cuts don't isolate lines of dialogue. The dialogue just flows along naturally as the camera rolls.
RM -- Cuts conspicuously isolate lines of dialogue. They cut to Actor 1 for his line, then to Actor 2 for her reply, then to Actor 3 for his interruption, etc., underscoring the fact that we're watching a film.
OV -- The (sometimes improvised) dialogue is often clumsy and banal, reflecting real life. (Though unlike The Blair Witch Project, it avoids tedium here by not continuing for long stretches.)
RM -- The dialogue tries to entertain by being clever, but the characters' manicured quips remind us of film dialogue, undermining naturalism.
OV -- The protagonists are varying degrees of attractive, from gorgeous to so-so to ugly, which helps the verisimilitude.
RM -- The protagonists are all studs and babes.
OV -- The action centers on two neighboring houses and a nearby gas station, so it's credible when the characters move from location to location. The villains are three brothers who clearly live together, so their complicity is credible.
RM -- The action centers on a gas station, a mill, a house in the wilderness (to which there are no roads), a trailer home in the wilderness, and a meat packing plant. Most of these locations are initially of indeterminate distance from each other. The villains (all of whom are in cahoots) are a woman who runs the gas station, a woman who lives in the trailer, that woman's female guest, two men who live in the house, a third man posing as a sheriff, a boy who lives in the mill...ten lords a leaping.... Credibility decreases as their numbers and locations increase.
OV -- Leatherface (a primary villain) has credible motives (he's a simpleton, he's isolated, he fears discovery, he's amused at others' pain, he's hungry, his brothers encourage his murders for financial reasons, etc), giving him a humanity which anchors his horrific behavior in reality.
RM -- Leatherface is just a killing machine, a la Jason from Friday the 13th. We're unsure of his intellect or his motives. We learn that he's horribly disfigured, but this one-note explanation is inadequate to account for his extreme behavior.
OV -- Leatherface's intellect and motives are revealed gradually and organically, through his body language and his circumstances.
RM -- Leatherface's single motive is presented with such deliberateness that it's didactic: we are practically told his psychosis, rather than being left to discern it.
OV -- Humor results naturally from circumstances, such as the villains' misplaced faith in their decrepit grandfather's prowess with a hammer. This softens the brittleness of the horror, and strengthens the story's connection to reality (since real life is often absurd).
RM -- What little humor exists is confined mainly to the characters' quips, isolating it on a verbal plane. This robs the circumstances of any humorous dimension, and therefore of authenticity.
OV -- The protagonists pick up a pedestrian whose odd behavior escalates into violence. His behavior is crazy, but credibly motivated, escalating in a plausible chain:
*To impress his hosts, he borrows one's knife and cuts himself.
*When that fails to impress, he cheerfully offers to show them his own knife (a straight razor).
*When that fails to impress, he shows them his Polaroid and snaps their pictures.
*Hoping to earn some money, he offers to sell them one of the pictures.
*When they disappoint him by declining, in a fit of pique he sets the picture on fire and cuts the nearest passenger's arm.
His every choice maintains credibility while upping the creepy factor.
RM -- The protagonists pick up a pedestrian whose odd behavior escalates into violence. Her behavior is not only crazy but implausible. First she is catatonic, then needy, then frantic, then numb, then she shoots herself -- all with hardly any provocation. Also, she produces the gun from beneath her clingy dress, as if by magic.
OV -- A live victim is suddenly hung on a meathook, providing one of the film's biggest shocks.
RM -- A live victim is impaled with a hook and then dragged slowly into a hanging position; then a second live victim is hung directly on a hook, a la the OV. The slow build hampers the shock and is more disturbing to watch.
OV -- Violent scenes are mercifully brief, and usually bloodless and inexplicit, maximizing our perception of threat while minimizing our discomfort at seeing suffering. So, we watch a victim dangle from a meathook for only seconds, and the entry wound is never seen. The idea of hanging from a hook is communicated, but the sight of it is minimized, allowing us to experience the horror's maximal wonder with minimal discomfort.
RM -- Violent scenes are explicit and lingering, reducing our dread to troubled disgust. Scenes of suffering tend to push viewers out of the vicarious "I'm them" mindset, and into a sympathetic "I pity them" mindset, which sabotages our fear. (Perhaps this because we can feel characters' fear but not their pain, so their physical suffering sort of leaves us behind at the station.)
OV -- Lighting is from natural sources -- ceiling lamps, sunlight through windows, etc -- which contributes to the naturalism, and reveals without distracting.
RM -- Lighting is esoteric and attention-grabbing.
OV -- The industrial music score is highly unconventional, complimenting the strangeness of the events. But it's also simple and generally unspecific, building moods and punching occasional shocks rather than punctuating every emotional nuance.
RM -- The musical score is traditional and ordinary, and intrudes on the naturalism by interpreting emotional notes with obvious deliberateness.
OV -- After the killer and first victim initially see each other, there's a pause. The pause reassures us that it will be followed by a struggle or a pursuit, since that's always what happens in movies when a killer and victim pause after seeing each other. But instead of a struggle or a pursuit, the killer follows the pause with a sudden blow to the victim's head, killing him. The blow is all the more shocking after the misleading reassurance of the pause.
RM -- The killer sneaks up on the first victim and his deathblow lands within a second after the victim (and we the viewers) have detected him. This suddenness is bold, but it's been used often; it lacks invention.
OV -- Several cars which presumably belonged to former victims are hidden on the killers' property. Their makes/models are fairly recent.
RM -- Several cars which presumably belonged to former victims are in plain sight on the killers' property (implausibly), and actually contain photos of the victims (a contrivance). Their makes/models are all decades old (creating a mood at the expense of credibility).
OV -- The first victim's entry into the killers' home is credibly motivated -- he needs to buy/borrow some fuel, and after knocking on the door he hears someone squealing, and ventures inside. The other victims follow to investigate his disappearance.
RM -- The first victim's entry into the killer's home doesn't make sense. He ventures inside out of idle curiosity, and is drawn farther in by the sound of... cartoons.
OV -- When suspense requires characters to slow down during a chase, credible reasons are established. A character leaps from a window, resulting in injuries that force a limp...a character is struck in the head with a wrench, slowing his pursuit...a victim's hair catches in the bushes she's attempting to scurry through...a pursuer finds himself on the wrong side of dense bushes during a nighttime chase, etc.
RM -- When suspense requires a character to slow down during a chase, the car won't start, the van won't start, the chainsaw won't start...
OV -- None of the protagonists' fates can be inferred from the outset. They're all portrayed by unknown actors, they're all fairly decent people, they receive roughly equal screen time, and none of them is so virtuous as to earn "hero" status. Even the whiny/comic character has a physical handicap which mitigates our impression that he'll be killed.
RM -- The final survivor is telegraphed from the outset. She's portrayed by the best-known actor in the cast, she's clearly more noble than the others, and the camera follows her around like a puppy.
OV -- The villains' butchery and sale of human meat is motivated largely by their desire for money and vengeance, after their layoff from a local meat-packing plant results in their isolation, poverty, bitterness, and eventual descent into savagery.
RM -- The villains' killing spree is motivated primarily by a need to steal a baby for one of their women and cover up the crime. Very "long way around," versus the economy of the OV's villains' behavior.
OV -- The settings are consistent and credible. When a victim runs from Leatherface, obstacles include underbrush and trees that were set up earlier in the film.
RM -- We start off in hot, dusty Texas, but the interior of the villains' lair is dripping with water (enabling the director to shoehorn a wet T-shirt scene into the film). When a victim runs from Leatherface, obstacles include dozens of sheets hung out to dry (as though this family of kooks would prioritize clean linens).
OV -- The victims' initial dialogue foreshadows the massacre, as they drive past a herd of cattle at a meat packing plant and remark on how bulls are slain.
RM -- The victims' initial dialogue is about drugs, sex, and rock'n'roll; indistinguishable from teen dialogue in other films. A later reveal of the meat packing plant across the street seems contrived.
OV -- In the villains' lair, we see a chicken confined in a small, hanging cage, as though it were a parakeet. This incongruous sight suggests that the house's occupants aren't playing with a full deck.
RM -- In the villains' lair, we see a chicken wandering around, free range. *yawn*
OV -- In a signature shot, we watch from a low angle as a girl walks toward the villains' house. The shot sets up her backless shirt (foreshadowing her upcoming encounter with the meathook), and makes the house loom up and seem to fill the screen as she approaches.
RM -- In a rehash of the OV's signature shot, the only purpose of the low angle seems to be to show off the girl's anatomy. There's nothing relevant here about her clothing. The house fills the screen from the outset and therefore doesn't seem to loom up, and the shot's composition deemphasizes the house's presence by focusing on the characters. This shortfall is especially sad, given that the same cinematographer filmed both movies. Makes me wonder whether he ever understood the effectiveness of the shot in the OV, or if its effectiveness was mere luck.
OV -- The surviving character's final scenes are keyed up to a fever pitch of frantic despair, perhaps unequaled in film history. She convincingly escapes by the skin of her teeth in the last seconds of the film, and her relief is palpable.
RM -- The surviving character collects her wits in the final scenes and manages to gain the upper hand, inflicting Sigourney/Ripley style vengeance on her aggressors before leaving triumphantly. The RM abandons the OV's nightmarish coda for a conventional action movie finale (save for a brief shot stolen from The Blair Witch Project). The unreality of a teenage girl handily triumphing over a gang of murderers is palpable.