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In ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre,’ Sympathy for the Devil

As is usually the case with grindhouse marketing, the title is deceptive. By the standards of horror, there’s no massacre. Only five people die, much fewer than in the sequels and remakes. Mr. Hooper relied on suspense more than gore, staging the kills with nary a drop of blood. He didn’t show, for instance, a woman’s back impaled on a hook, but the bucket below her, letting viewers make the connection to this container’s gruesome purpose.

Typically, when horror fans try to make you take a scary movie seriously, they resort to politics. And while “Chain Saw” has often been explained as a brief for vegetarianism, it could just as easily be used as a metaphor for our current moment: It focuses on anxious red-state family members whose jobs at a slaughterhouse are made obsolete by technological innovation (the air gun) and who lash out at dismissive outsiders. If you want to explore the theme of white working-class resentment, it wouldn’t be difficult.

But Mr. Hooper made an intimate movie that has always seemed more personal than ideological. Its last act is essentially a single set piece about a severely dysfunctional family at dinner, with battling brothers fighting for the approval of a damaged patriarch. “Those family dinners can go very wrong,” Mr. Hooper told me in an interview, recalling that his parents constantly fought before getting divorced when he was 8. “I saw some things growing up that were bizarre and wrong.”

Mr. Hooper didn’t sugarcoat the evil of the killers, but when he lingered on Leatherface’s eyes behind his mask, you saw fear. An inarticulate simpleton, he gets bullied by his obnoxious brothers, forced to make them dinner. Their taste may be unorthodox, but who knows what years working in a slaughterhouse will do to your palate? When planning the movie, Mr. Hooper and his fellow writer Kim Henkel watched “Frankenstein,” and their film, like that classic 1931 Universal horror picture, extends some sympathy to the monsters.

They are certainly far more compelling characters than the young victims. (The wheelchair-using Franklin is the ultimate example of the common horror character so intentionally annoying that you secretly cheer his death.) Mr. Hooper baffled many by describing his movie as a comedy, but you can detect its sense of humor in the way the killers come off as fools quibbling in a mundane family comedy, a sensibility that became far more overt in his sequel, an entertaining farce that disappointed fans expecting something as terrifying as the original.


Leatherface, twirling and holding the chain saw aloft, at the end of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

Bryanston Distributing/Photofest

All great horror movies lose something in the second viewing. Once you’ve seen the alien burst out of the chest or discover the truth about Norman Bates’s mother, a certain pleasure, an essential one to the genre, is gone. While watching “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” for the first time remains a singular adrenaline rush, it’s the rare horror movie that just keeps getting better every time I see it.

What’s lost in surprise is made up by new details noticed, the gothic juxtapositions of colors or the ominous tracking shot underneath the swing as a victim approaches the killer’s house. When Steven Spielberg met Daniel Pearl, the “Chain Saw” director of photography, on the set of “1941,” he stopped shooting and asked how that shot was pulled off. It’s one of many moments when Mr. Hooper turns the vast blue Texas sky into a terrifying backdrop.

In the seminal final shots of “Chain Saw,” the color of the landscape changes, turning hot yellow in an instant, an abrupt shift that belongs more to dreams than any real-life dusk. The nightmare ends with Leatherface holding a roaring chain saw aloft and twirling, a dance of death whose gracefulness is the movie’s final shock.

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