*UPDATE: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available to watch at SBS On Demand. Scroll down for details.
"Things happen hereabouts they don’t tell about.”—Graveyard Drunk (Joe Bill Hogan), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
“My family’s always been in meat.”—Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
“Hey, I got us some barbeque.”—Kirk (William Vail), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
“[This is] a film from hell. Low budget, dirty and wrong.”—Eduardo Sanchez, co-director, The Blair Witch Project
Imagine a cinematic landscape without Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Freddy Voorhees, Errol Childress (the scarred killer in the recent True Detective) or any of other homicidal maniac characters created in the wake of director Tobe Hooper’s game-changing 1974 horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
All these guys wouldn’t even exist without Leatherface, the chain saw-wielding, skin-mask wearing member of a family of laid-off slaughterhouse workers who murder passing strangers and serve them as smoked meat treats at their dilapidated petrol station (which, of course, has no petrol).
There are two things for the uninitiated to remember if you’re seeing the film with fresh eyes. First (and with supreme irony given the film’s reputation), there’s very little actual gore on display. Rather, the film’s atmosphere of unrelenting terror is so immersive that it is the power of suggestion, supplemented by shrewdly-chosen camera angles and movement, that make viewers think they’re seeing more violence than they actually are.
The second point circles back to that camerawork. Daniel Pearl’s cinematography is remarkable, particularly given the film’s origins as more or less of a university project. Pay particular attention to the ominous tracking shots, which were innovative in their day but have been duplicated to the point of diminished returns.
Still, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre did many slasher movie tropes first and best. What follows is a completely subjective list of the best movies of the genre. That many of them followed in the immediate wake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a testament to the movie’s lasting impact on cinematic horror.
10. Scream and Scream Again: A History of the Slasher Film, 2000
Though difficult to find, this 70-minute BBC documentary is an essential entrée into the genre, featuring prominent British critic and filmmaker Mark Kermode interviewing such major genre players as directors John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, as well as legendary make-up artist Tom Savini, Psycho author Joseph Stefano and Leatherface himself, Iceland-born actor and poet Gunnar Hansen.
9. Blood and Black Lace, 1964
The giallo film and literature genre revolves around crime fiction and mystery, but the great Italian director Mario Bava decide to push the boundaries by focusing more on the intrinsic horror and sexual aspects of the traditional ‘whodunit’. The resulting film, in which a masked killer (Cameron Mitchell) stalks and kills a half-dozen models in search of a scandal-ridden diary, was generally considered an influential template for the slasher film. See also: Bava’s bloodiest film, 1971’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (Ecologia del delitto, aka A Bay of Blood).
8. Deep Red, 1975
Another giallo, this one from the great Dario Argento. David Hemmings plays a music teacher investigating the murder of a medium he witnesses in his apartment. This leads him to a hatchet-wielding maniac and an ever-growing body count. Note the numerous tracking shots and keep an ear cocked for the very first score by the Italian progressive rock band Goblin; three years later they scored the European version of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Deep Red is available in numerous versions with various running times, the best of which is probably the 2011 US Blu-ray.
7. Friday the 13th, 1980
Directly inspired by the runaway success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (see below), Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th set the American template for the slasher film. At a remote summer camp, a sinister killer offs the counsellors with sadistic glee. Though it certainly belongs on this list due to its financial success and influence, some see the film and the resulting franchise as a cynical cash grab by Paramount Pictures to capitalise on the still nascent genre. Which brings us to…
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984
Writer-director Wes Craven’s massively successful franchise began here, and the kernel of his idea—the terror of trying to figure out what is real and what is imaginary—is an inspired one. (He pulled of another original wrinkle for the subsequent Scream series.) Yet few series have diluted their brand as severely as this one, which has dulled the genius of the original concept. As with the other more successful films on this list, the recent reboots can be ignored.
5. Braindead, 1992
Peter Jackson’s third feature is a gleefully over-the-top horror splatter comedy that reverses the tropes of both the slasher and zombie genres. The rest you’ll just have to discover for yourself, as all attempts to coherently describe the plot are doomed to failure and/or gales of laughter. See also: writer-director Sean Byrne’s 2009 Australian horror comedy The Loved Ones, and the first 10 or 15 minutes of Greg McLean’s 2013 sequel Wolf Creek 2, which features the goriest and best set piece of either film.
4. Don’t Look Now, 1973
A bit of a ringer on this list, director Nicolas Roeg’s independently produced British-Italian psychological masterpiece isn’t really a slasher film per se, though it does contain specific horror conventions. Roeg and screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant have adapted and expanded the short story by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) as a meditation on the ripple effects of grief in the emotional response of two parents (Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie) to the sudden death of their child. The film features the first film score by the great Pino Donaggio, who went on to compose for many of Brian De Palma’s films.
3. Psycho, 1960
Joseph Stefano’s script for Alfred Hitchcock’s initially misunderstood masterpiece was inspired by the antics of Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, who also influenced Texas Chain Saw Massacre author Kim Henkel. And even though the critics were decidedly mixed, the public couldn’t get enough of the film. Amongst its many other, uh, virtues, the infamous shower scene (see below) predates and predicts TCM’s success with persuading audiences they’ve seen more than they actually had.
2. Halloween, 1978
The film that overtook The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the most successful independently produced genre picture of its time, John Carpenter’s Halloween had an equally massive influence over the slasher films to come. Seen today, it can be appreciated for Carpenter’s catchy electronic score, Jamie Lee Curtis’ total commitment to the lead role as the scrappy survivor (another trait of TCM’s success), and Carpenter’s relatively tasteful depiction of the murders as secondary to the special tension.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974
Which brings us back to the beginning. The Sydney Film Festival will present the 4K restoration of the film Friday the 13th at the Blacktown Drive-In. An inevitable DVD and Blu-ray release will almost certainly follow, introducing a whole new generation to the finest extant version of the best and most influential horror film ever made.