High and Low Art Meet at Midnight: “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”

By now we're all familiar with one of modern horror’s favorite tropes: a group of reckless, largely attractive teenagers meet their end, one by one, at the hands of a deranged killer. Come see the film that did it first and, arguably, best—Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)—this Friday at 11:59 pm as part of our summer-long Midnight Movies series!

Hooper’s tale follows five young adults as they make their way through the deep southwest on an innocent roadtrip. Things turn grim once the gang picks up an exceptionally odd hitchhiker who quickly shows them that certain people don’t take kindly to strangers. What follows is a harrowing ride of unrelenting mania, during which the innocent travellers are alternatingly bludgeoned, impaled, and chainsawed to death by the massive psychopath now known as Leatherface.

Though its plot is ostensibly B-movie, the film's ample subtext makes for a surprisingly rich cinematic experience. For instance, the way in which Leatherface treats his victims as meat, in the context of an aging town with an evolving beef industry, raises questions concerning the validity of carnivorism. Additionally, the character of Franklin—perhaps the most useless of the teenagers—is confined to a wheelchair, conjuring images of maimed Vietnam veterans returning as societal casualties of the war.

Despite these potential nods to activist awareness, the film is far from preachy. In fact, in many ways Texas Chain Saw takes a strong stance against the hippie idealism of the late 1960s. Although few in the audience will feel glee at the brutal slaughter of the young people, many will feel frustration at their boundless naiveté—the character trait which does the most to lead these groovy innocents to their deaths.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also stands above many other horror films, especially those within the frequently low-budget slasher sub-genre, in its high level of artistry. The film combines inventive camerawork, gritty yet rich photography, and an unsettling score that consists of pummeling musique concrete to produce one of the most beautifully made exploitation films ever. Audiences should, at the very least, respect the artistic merit of set pieces built entirely out of animal parts and, if rumors are to be believed, actual human bones. One imagines that if Martha Stewart had a bit more interest in the macabre, her crafts might look somewhat like these.

Smart? Yes. Scary? Of course. Hooper’s first foray into horror is the definitive elevated genre film. So start your summer off right by experiencing the grisly heat of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre this Friday in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center! And, if that's not enough Hooper for you, check out the director's underrated zombie flick Lifeforce (1985), also screening in our Midnight Movies series on June 29!

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