Familiar aspects of the self are a catalyst for a chain of dream logic terrors in Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The self, both physical and mental; an unexamined every day intimacy with flesh and blood is teased out into a cunning, gleefully beautiful and grotesque nightmare. Even the extraordinary skill and talent for filmmaking on display aren't enough to account for the singular brilliance this movie achieves.
A group of two young women and three young men are on a road trip, travelling in a large green van, when they pick up a strange hitchhiker despite the misgivings of the more superstitious of the two women.
Maybe the guy isn't so strange, because despite the unaddressed red stain on his face and his jittery mannerisms, he and the paraplegic Franklin initially bond over knowledge and love of the slaughter house, taking turns admiring each other's knives before the hitchhiker shows his interest in slaughter extends not only to human flesh but to his own as he ecstatically slices his palm for them, apparently surprised and confused the action only produces horror in his audience.
And yet, later, after they've kicked out the hitchhiker and are alone, Franklin can't disguise the admiration he feels for what he saw, examining his knife with the barely concealed morbid hope he'll find a trace of the man's blood on it.
Franklin is the most developed character of the group of young travellers, the others existing as little more than types, adequate sketches to serve as point of view vessels. The bodies of the young women are emphasised, not only for their vulnerability but in order to connect sexuality to cannibalism, to show a lust for meat and bone that eclipses libido.
One of the young women, Pam, wears a halter that leaves her back totally bare. Hooper must have known this would draw the eye, and he exploits it when he has Leatherface mount her on a meat hook through her back. The connexion drawn early on between the desires of the cannibals and the normal practice of eating meat makes this peculiar imbalance of lusts seem not altogether alien, rendering it the more horrifying for it.
Visually, the film is absolutely amazing, especially considering its low budget. It was shot, by necessity, with low grain 16 mm film that required a great deal of light, creating intense contrasts for a look that was frequently replicated intentionally in films afterwards.
The effects in lighting that Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl create with this look both naturalistic and fascinatingly expressionistic.
The apparently natural darkness, which must have actually been accompanied by a great deal of light so that anything would be visible at all, highlight the vulnerability of a young woman pushing a fat guy in a wheelchair through wilderness.
The entryway of the cannibals' house is really nicely conceived, looking like an open wound with pale walls leading to an off-centre room of bright red and bone.
The sudden first appearance of the piggish Leatherface makes me jump every time.
The bone sculptures of the cannibals are strangely beautiful, too, and nicely enforce the theme. But my favourite shot is Pam and Kirk approaching the cannibals' property, the foregrounded wild daisies not so much providing a contrast from the gory colouring of metal structures and equipment, but complimenting them.