I remember it like it was yesterday.
I stood there in the video section of Sam Goody, debating. I had twenty bucks in my pocket so the $9.99 price tag wasn’t the intimidating part. That wasn’t the reason my stomach fluttered and knotted all at the same time. It was because I didn’t know if I could handle it–if, at the fumbling, too-big-for-my-body-puppy-footed-Bambi-on-ice age of fifteen, I was man enough.
I flung caution to the wind and flung my Alexander Hamilton on the counter. The clerk pushed my purchase back to me, plastic bagged and warmed immediately by my clammy perspiration. An hour later, I popped it into the VCR, expecting it to possibly melt the thing’s metallic guts.
And then the gentle, soothing narrative of John Larroquette lulled me into a false sense of hope that there may be some hope, some escape.
And a giant hammer-wielding razorback of a man with mask made of human flesh ground that whole notion up like so much wistful sausage.
Damn you, Tobe Hooper. Damn you, Gunnar Hansen. You ruined my formative years.
And I can’t thank you enough.
That film, seminal for me and the multitudes of audiences who’d seen it long before my maiden viewing, was the The Texas Chain Saw (yes it is two words) Massacre. It affected me like no other horror film I’d seen up unto that point. It was raw and brutal and visceral like nothing I’d watched. It was grainy and gritty as the Texas dirt it was filmed in and every set–even the celluloid it was burned on–looked like a hazmat team should’ve been hosing it down.
That ten dollar VHS tape got passed around to all my friends, the same nervous tension on their faces as I’d had standing there in Sam Goody when the drawn visage of Leatherface (Hansen) and Rex Reed’s infamous critique (“The most horrifying picture I have ever seen”), emblazoned on the box cover, graced my trembling palm. And then a week later they’d tell me after they’d finally worked up the nerve to watch it…and had then passed it on to some other unsuspecting victim, much to my dismay.
Thus, to this day, I have no idea what happened to my original copy.
I can replay it in my head shot for shot.
Everything’s going great for Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul Partain) as they motor down the Texas backroads in a van along with their friends. Of course, they are going to check on their grandfather’s plot, since they’d gotten word of some grave robbing in the area.
And then they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who goes from kooky to creepy in .05 seconds flat, when he starts recounting tales of how his grandfather had been legendary in his ability to brain cattle during his slaughterhouse career. He grabs Franklin’s pocket knife, but turns it on himself, slicing his hand to ribbons as if to drive home the “hey, check it out; I’m seriously wackadoo” point.
When he begins shooting Polaroids of the friends and demanding they pay him, they refuse. He then whips out a straight razor and slashes Franklin’s arm before they’re able to shove him from the van. But as he stumbles out, he smears blood down the side of the van, marking it like a garish Passover door frame.
When they stop for gas later, the owner of the station tells them all the pumps are dry. They get back on the road and head for the old family homeplace. After they arrive, some of the group decide to head to the local swimming hole for a dip. Along the way, they hear generators and follow the sound to an old house, hoping to secure some gas from the owners. Instead, they get snatched up by the Leatherface and end up disemboweled and strung up like Sunday hams.
And what follows is some of the most terrifying cinema my fifteen-year-old eyes (now forty-one-year-old eyes) had (still have) ever seen.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM to afficianados) is more disturbing than most all of its FX-laden contemporaries, though it’s actually fairly light on the blood n’ guts. The gore (or lack thereof) was never what, in my mind, made it such a scary film. The sheer oddness of the killers (Leatherface has a big family), their animal-boned home that looks more Davy Crockett than Martha Stewart, the fact that Grandpa is still alive though he looks like he should’ve been worm food fifty years ago (along with his now-feeble sledgehammer technique)–these are the things that make it so surreal yet leave you feeling like, “yep; that could totally happen.” And Marilyn Burns’ performance, the utter terror on her face in the majority of her scenes, almost make you wonder if she even knew she was in a movie in the first place.
I’d watched other horror movies; I felt TCM. I felt as filthy as the grotesque home; I felt as helpless as Franklin; I felt as desperate as Sally. And hats off to Tobe Hooper, because despite the genre–any director who can pull that out of a viewer is doing a pretty fantastic job.
And he did it by showing us his version of Hell.
There is little more horrific in cinema than the Sawyer (the surname of clan Leatherface) house and the loonies that run the asylum. Violence is the norm, but it’s laced with a depravity and an utter lack of compassion that are truly horrifying.
Sally and Franklin’s mistake is courting the demons. Sure, they believe they are simply pulling over to help a hitchhiker, but they wait to long to distance themselves once the weirdness starts. And their straight and narrow path quickly becomes a slippery slope that they are soon unable to climb.
We often do the same. We jump in with both feet to try and “save” the wayward sinner and lose ourselves in the process.
It happened to Peter when he visited Antioch in the book of Acts and refused to eat with the new uncircumcised Believers, holding to the tenant that they had to abide by the old Law and earn grace through acts. Paul rebuked him, reminding him that Christ’s sacrifice had offered salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike, be they circumcised or not.
In 1 Corinthians 15: 33, Paul warns that “Bad company corrupts good character.” When we dwell among those who go against the teachings of Jesus, we too can become tarnished. We are to reach out to the unsaved, surely, but we must be careful not to compromise our own beliefs in order to pacify theirs. Otherwise, we can get sucked into a house of madness, searching–potentially too late–for a way out.
Disclaimer: We here at ScreamFish believe it is perfectly acceptable and, dare we say, noble, to give a lift to hitchhikers.
Just not in Texas.
Don’t mess with Texas.