Director - Tobe Hooper
The best way to understand the tone of this film is to have the DVD menu on loop for a while as you try and make a phone conversation. Eventually, the discordant tones and horrible noise will make you so unnerved that you have to stop talking and actually watch the film. Just to make the menu stop...
This is a film which celebrates making the viewer feel wrong. A film which shows plenty of violence, but little to no gore, and a film which implies the majority of its cruelty - and yet, despite the fairly tame actions which actually take place on scree, it manages to make you feel very uncomfortable.
I thought it was a wonderful film. Mesmerising. But I will gladly never watch it again.
The film's strength is in the villains, and indeed for the first part of the film, as we follow our victims... sorry, heroes, the film does drag. We have the usual mix of pretty people (though they are delightfully 70's, and a whining man in a wheelchair who seems almost as sinister as the people they're running from).
As this is up there with Halloween and Psycho as one of the earliest slasher movies (even taking the same source as Psycho for inspiration) - it is amazing how many traits of the film are now cliches (though saying that, the one survivor only breaks one of the rules of surviving horror movies) - the group pick up hitchhikers and wander from one creepy abandoned looking house to the next.
It is only a matter of time before they is killed.
Where the film shines is with Leatherface. Far from being the unstoppable one dimensional force of other slasher villains, here our villain is drenched in story, in character and in an amazing amount of pathos. There is something much scarier about the fact that Leatherface is clearly mentally unstable and being manipulated by other, more evil, brothers. It reminds me of another great cinematic family in which a strong simpleton is manipulated by his brothers.
However, Leatherface never gets his moment of rebellion - and probably lacks the strength to escape the clutches of his family too much.
I'm not trying to paint him as a complete innocent, wrapped up with a bad bunch, not at all - but there are moments which show how difficult it must be for Leatherface. Particularly the moment where he goes and sits by himself after killing the first two victims. Their deaths were messy, violent and somewhat horrific - and he performs them with a clinical accuracy, but his reaction to it is one of pained fear. He is upset that people keep wandering into his home and interrupting his (admittedly twisted) way of life - he isn't murdering just for fun, he is protecting his home and his own way of life.
I'm not sure what happens with the sequels, and how badly the remake fucks it up, but certainly in this film it paints Leatherface as a far deeper and more interesting villain.
The film's best moments all take place in Leatherface's home. A palace of death. The invention and the design behind it all is so impressive. It also shows how you can easily make something very very disturbing on a low budget - just with a shit load of well placed bones.
The film's most disturbing moment comes when Sally is captured and introduced to the rest of Leatherface's family over dinner. This includes his two brothers (both at different points on the descent to full whacked insanity) and their nearly dead grandfather - surely inspiration for the costumes of Trash humpers.
Again, nothing really HAPPENS on screen - in fact the whole scene is built on the grandfather being too weak to be able to kill anymore.... however, the tension and the atmosphere in the scene is unbearable. Sally's screams mix with the laughs of the family - on top of that the industrial sound design continues for far too long. By the end the audience is begging for anything - even the death of the protagonist - to stop the tortuous scene unfolding.
And THAT is the sign of a successful horror film.