Yesterday, the movie business lost one of its most famous leading ladies ever. It wasn’t Dame Judi Dench, Meryl Streep or Diana Rigg, in fact, you may have never even heard of her. But back in the early seventies you will have heard her. Her name is Marilyn Burns and in 1974’s horror masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre, her bloodcurdling screams provided a backbone for the rest of the eerie sounding design and cemented the film as one of the most frightening films ever made.
Tobe Hooper’s film may look very outdated at first glance, filmed on the ancient Eclair NPR 16 mm camera, it feels awkwardly grainy and looks, by modern standards, terrible. And yet, when the uninspired remake hit cinemas in 2003 a lot of criticism was levelled at the sleek modern look it has. In reality, the grainy, amateurish edge to the look of the original is one of the reasons it is so successful. It doesn’t seek to be a found footage film in the vein of Cannibal Holocaust or modern flicks like The Blair Witch Project & Paranormal Activity and yet the desired effect of those films is captured – without the seasickness inducing shaky-cam or painful diary entry style set ups.
Chainsaw Massacre is famously remembered for its distinct lack of violence… Yes, you read that right. The film actually only has one lingering shot on an injury and that is in an early sequence where a creepy hitchhiker (later found to be a member of the famous Cannibalistic family) cuts his hand open. What is so impressive about the film is that the violence is suggested; it leaves the most gory ideas for the overactive imaginations of a horror fan – a place occupied mainly with the macabre.
What is most fascinating about the film though, is that is more than just a straight up slasher film in which its characters are slowly picked off by a random ghoul. The ideas behind it are more subtle and far more political, it hints heavily at the desensitisation of the American people because of the Vietnam War. The Gein family sitting round their dinner table laughing at the tormented Marilyn Burns is a form of entertainment in the same way Tobe Hooper regarded the regular news updates about the Vietnam conflict. Talking about the war, Hooper said that “man was the real monster” so he put a literal mask on the monster (Leatherface) in Chainsaw Massacre.
Although its political commentary is undeniably clever, the lasting impact of the film will be its guttural, grainy approach to slashers. The genuinely unsettling vibe the movie gives off lasts to this day. And as blood curdling screams go, Marilyn Burns was the queen of them all.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is available on DVD and Online Streaming Sites Now. Image Rights; Universal Pictures