i think part of the big success of this film is that it combines genres so well. it’s part mystery, part cautionary tale, part college-aged sex flick, and, of course, part horror film. it’s also a well-paced film. the first scene sets the stage for the rest of the film and grabs the viewer right away. i think there are two approaches to great horror – one is to establish some degree of normalcy and then smash it with the horror, and the other is to just come out swinging; this film falls into the latter category. i think horror is more successful when it gets you into a comfort zone, and then jolts you out of it. the dawn of the dead remake did this very well, whereas the original dawn of the dead started off in a state of chaos…though, to be fair, dawn of the dead is sorta meant to be a sequel to night of the living dead which did establish some normalcy before descending into the nightmare it became. a film can be successful regardless of how it approaches this issue, but in this instance the choice cunningham made was appropriate for the film and, really, that’s what matters most.
texas chainsaw massacre is the first film like this that i can think of…20-something kids out in the middle of nowhere being picked off one by one. this theme got pretty big in the 80s for some reason, maybe because of a perceived immorality of the times or something. ultimately a lot of these films are cautionary tales – and friday the 13th makes this perfectly clear. the first victims are taken out during a make-out session and all the subsequent victims (except the groundskeeper) are libidinous college-aged kids.
from a filmmaking standpoint the film isn’t amazing, but it’s certainly worthy of some praise. the opening sequence is well-done. the music is great and original for the time, the freeze-frame technique didn’t come off as cheesy at all; on the contrary, it was rather horrifying. cunningham established a subjective point-of-view for the killer in this first sequence and squeezed dividends from this technique throughout the film. there were times in the film where the cunningham would use a handheld camera to indicate a reversion to this subjective point-of-view shot and would creep up on a potential victim. but as the camera was walking towards the would-be victim, that victim would then turn towards the camera thus indicating that, in this instance, the handheld camera did not indicate the killer’s point of view. it’s the visual equivalent of raising, and tightening the music track as if an attack were imminent, only to subsequently lower, and loosen, the music; it gets the viewer on edge without racking up the body count.
similarly, cunningham would use misdirection within the mise-en-scene. in one sequence kevin bacon (yay) was getting it on with his girlfriend in a bunk bed. they were on the bottom bunk and the camera shows them having sex and slowly raises towards the top bunk to reveal a dead body laying right above them. shortly after the two lovers are done, she leaves the cabin to go to the bathroom and bacon is laying on his back looking at the bottom of the top bunk. at this point the camera is looking down on him. a drop of blood drips on his face and he wipes it off with his hand and looks at his fingers with bewilderment. quickly a hand reaches out from under the bunk and grabs his head. there is a cut to his profile and we see a knife come up through his neck and blood spurts all over the place. it might be the best scene in the film because everyone expects the action to come from above the bunk (where the dead body is), but it comes from under him and it scares the shit out you.
of course, as is true with most horror films, you have to suspend your disbelief a bit in this film. how did the killer get under the bunk? how did an old lady dispatch all these young kids so easily? how did an old lady throw one of the victims through a window? etc. so if you can suspend your disbelief a bit and are willing to be scared then this will do the trick. the ending is a bit of a mindfuck and i like it that way.