By Eric Henderson

Critic Mike D’Angelo pretty much nailed it when he compared The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to James Cameron’s T-800, by way of a borrowed tagline:

“Listen, and understand. This movie is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

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Tobe Hooper’s ruthless 1974 shocker isn’t just one of the greatest horror movies ever made, it’s also one of the most powerfully terrifying. Check that. It is the most powerfully terrifying. Not in the way that jumps out at you and gives you those mechanized, cattle-prod starts once every 10 or 15 minutes, but rather in the way that crawls under your skin and turns it jaundiced and greasy with fear.

Politically aware but astute enough not to underline its points at the expense of creating an atmosphere humid with dread, Massacre rides the 1970s zeitgeist of post-flower child discontent, rising disillusionment over the dwindling American industrial powerhouse, and mounting apocalyptic anxiety. But that serves only as the subtext to a remarkably straightforward nightmare experience.

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The story is blunt and direct. A group of teenagers head out into the vast Texas countryside following reports of a massive graveyard vandalism incident. Two of them are checking on their grandfather’s burial plot and, while they’re there, decide to take their dusty van over to his old farmhouse property, hoping maybe to refuel. (Another ’70s signpost: gas shortages.) Kids start disappearing until, with a nauseating inevitability that seems ported over from the astrology charts they were reading earlier in the day, only one remains.

While it is in many ways one of the prototypes for what would later become known as slasher movies, Massacre doesn’t stage its kill scenes to titillate audiences with the thrill of carnage. Hooper’s gritty, 16mm realism and jagged, found-footage editing aim for a more matter-of-fact depiction of psychological stasis gone horribly awry. Many have noted how the movie doesn’t actually show much in the way of gore. (Hooper allegedly thought he might even get a PG rating, which is absolutely insane given its intensity.) It doesn’t have to. As I noted years ago, “it’s infinitely more impressive how Hooper elevates human sweat, clinging dirt, and tangled hair to the harrowing effect of gore.”

Not only the centerpiece of America’s greatest decade for horror (stretching from Night of the Living Dead through Halloween), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is also one of the few films to really plunge headlong into the abyss of madness — not just the screaming but the laughter. Oh God, the laughter!

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The film screens this weekend at St. Anthony Main Theater as part of The Film Society of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s “Dark Out” series.

Eric Henderson