This 1974 horror classic about a group of teens who get lost and are terrorized by a family of cannibals feels like a relic of a simpler time. No one had cellphones, hardly anyone thought twice about picking up hitchhikers, and nobody could legally conceal a handgun in Texas—that didn't change until 1995, despite The Lone Star State's reputation as a haven for the gun-toting. A change in venue and the film might have been "The Texas Chainsaw Close Call" or even just "The Texas Fun Time," and maybe I'm the only one who spends this much time considering what it would be like to have a horror movie end with the would-be villain pumped full of lead before a more traditional story arc has time to set in, but even a better sense of self-preservation or a few minutes consulting a good ol'-fashioned map might have saved the ill-fated youths from the grisly fate that awaits them. Luckily for fans of the horror genre, our plucky protagonists are as enthusiastic as they are naive. Hell, as far as I can recall they don't even bother wearing seat belts nearly a decade after Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed."
Is it a far-fetched premise to have a van full of young people being maimed and/or slaughtered by a clan of Texans whose murderous predilections are an eclectic mix of Ed Gein meets the Manson Family? Sure, but then again the ill-fated protagonists are just the type to wander into the backwater Texan equivalent of H.H. Holmes' murder castle. I mean come on, Pam (Teri McMinn), you're in East-Texas in the mid-'70s, you don't need an astrology guide to tell you you're in danger! Then again, I suppose the "protagonists" are really just space-holders in a way, flat characters for the audience to relate to so the truly interesting cast has a chance to shine.
It's the antagonists of the film that truly make "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" a treat to watch, and the measured but steady pace with which the film reveals their deranged family structure holds the viewer's attention just as well as any of the bloody action sequences. The clan in question is a terrifying parody of a Texan sitcom family—a father and his two sons complete with a leathery, elder patriarch. Though one brother is more of a jock and the other is more of an artist, the jock is more into chain saws, cudgels, and cross-dressing in other people's leatherized skin than football and the artist is more into grave desecration, pyromania, and knife play than any more traditional outlets for creative energy. Like a slow-motion train wreck, you don't want to stare but it's too hard to look away as such a fascinating, if grotesque, series of events unfolds.
So, despite its age, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" holds up as a fun film precisely because it avoids relying entirely on the gore-porn gimmicks of contemporary offerings in the horror genre. There's certainly no lack of intense violence and gore—there's a reason the film was initially banned in a number of international markets including the entire Nordic region—but the way it builds tension, its ornate set design (animals skulls everywhere), and its compelling characters keep the film engrossing instead of just gross.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" screens at the Charles Theater on Oct. 29 at 9 p.m. For more information visit thecharles.com.