Fifteen years ago, I sat with twenty of the world’s most prolific serial killers, responsible for hundreds of stabbings, beheadings, and other unspeakable murders – and I was absolutely captivated. Bringing together horror filmmakers including Wes Craven, Eli Roth, Larry Cohen, Don Coscarelli and Robert Rodriguez, the event, jokingly called the Horror Masters Dinner, was wildly fun. Just as comedians tend to be more serious than you think, horror performers tend to be very funny.
The only time I remember the mood turning solemn was when the discussion turned to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Its director, Toub Hooper, timidly chewing on his salad, took turns recalling the first time they saw this incredible masterpiece. They spoke in vivid, surprising detail, as if they were reminiscent of religious insight.
None of the classic horror films of their era are highly respected by genre directors. However, Chainsaw was stubbornly difficult to copy compared to its peers like Night of the Living Dead and Halloween, which spawned entire genres. However, you can detect Chainsaw influences in a number of recent films, including Tee West’s X, A24’s exciting new indie that captures the nasty pleasures of 1970s horror with modern and elegant sophistication.
The special strengths of the “Chainsaw” are rarely replicated as they are often misunderstood. Despite its crude title, this is a formally refined feature film filled with beautiful nightmarish imagery that is as poetic as it is insane. The film is less gory than its reputation. Even though each beat is as tense as its title, its violence is delivered with the wrong direction that the sequels and remakes don’t.
Another misconception that even seasoned and admiring critics have learned concerns his most famous character, Leatherface. In a Variety review last year, Owen Gleiberman pissed off horror fans by calling Halloween a “Chainsaw spoof” and then defended his position in an essay to find the killer masked signature of the two films. . “It expresses his identity,” he wrote of Leatherface, “and his identity is that he has no identity. »
Gleiberman was on solid ground with Halloween, whose killer is an abstraction without psychology, a murder without motivation, but Leatherface is more than a scarecrow. As he pulls off some of the most astounding murders in cinematic history, Chainsaw’s majestically manic final act changes our view of him from a hulking killer to a stuttering minion. Without resorting to a tiresome story, the film positions Leatherface as a monster and a victim who is intimidated by his dirty work by his cannibal family. He is closer to the misunderstood creature of Frankenstein than to Jason Voorhees.
Chainsaw’s feat is to make us empathize with the most feared figure without diminishing the disorienting, chattering horror. Few films do this.
In Nightmare Alley, chainsaw fan Guillermo del Toro made a movie that also introduces a terrifying character, a circus geek, before making us question our original judgment. By turning his preoccupation with monster films into prestige humanist cinema, del Toro lost some of the fear (and fun) along the way. Her film frays its seriousness only to come to life in the final scene, which ends with a direct visual quote from Chainsaw’s haunting final close-up as the last survivor cries so hard he laughs.