(In anticipation of the coolest day of the year, this month-long series will offer one recommended horror flick a day up through Oct. 31.)
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974). It's putting it mildly to note that when this horror flick was first released back in 1974, it caught audiences completely off guard. Even coming on the heels of The Exorcist, which did its own share of theater-clearing, this one emerged as a lightning rod of controversy; like the earlier Night of the Living Dead, it succeeded largely because of its gritty, low-budget shooting style, and its influence on subsequent (and inferior) slasher flicks cannot be overstated. Loosely based on the real-life exploits of serial killer Ed Gein (whose sordid tale also served as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho), it centers around five college-age kids whose ill-advised road trip through a desolate part of Texas puts them in contact with a murderous, cannibalistic clan whose most terrifying member, tagged Leatherface, is a silent, hulking psychopath with a nasty habit of peeling off his victims' faces and wearing them as masks. The movie itself has worn many faces over the years, representing the disillusionment of the nation after Vietnam and Watergate; pushing a pro-vegetarian stance by decrying the brutality of eating meat; serving as a bastardization of the comforting image of the all-American family as a wholesome, reliable entity; and further supporting the big-city mindset that views rural America as a haven for inbred illiterates. The bottom line is that the flick remains a genuine classic of the genre, a punishing, unrelenting nightmare that never allows viewers even a moment of sanity or security. Much of the credit goes to lead actress Marilyn Burns: There's a touch of madness in her third-act emoting, and her wide-eyed terror — as primal as anything I've ever seen in a motion picture — remains with you long after the film is over. Ignore the 2003 remake (produced by the clueless Michael Bay), a feeble retelling that guts the integrity of the original and wears its own cynicism like a ragged mask.
Incidentally, the 1986 sequel is pretty wretched, but ya gotta LOVE the Breakfast Club-inspired poster: