There are many ways in which a movie scene can be memorable, but in the spirit of the upcoming Halloween season, let’s discuss perhaps the most memorable scene in (fuck objectivity) the finest horror movie of all time, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The realism and frightening power of the scene in question is indebted to the already established tone of the movie so far, which is somewhere between cinema verite documentary and teen road movie/sex comedy, but this is the moment when the tension finally builds to a breaking point and the true face of horror is seen for the first time. One can only imagine how shocking this scene was for audiences in the in 1974, bearing in mind that this type of movie didn’t really exist yet (with the exception of early progenitors of the slasher genre like Psycho and Peeping Tom, with early pioneers like Black Christmas and Halloween still to come later).
The first shot is from the interior of the homestead where most of the movie’s ensemble will lose their lives, as Kirk (William Vail) opens the screen door and tentatively sets foot into the house. “Anybody home?” he asks in the silent corridor. This shot could almost be the POV of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) if he were already standing in the doorway where he will soon make his entrance.
The next shot is a cut to Kirk’s POV at the main entrance, looking in at the stairs going up to the second floor of the house, the animal pelts hanging on the wall at the end of the hallway, and the thing that draws our eye the most, the room to the right of those pelts, its red-painted wall hung with various animal skulls, bones, and mounted heads. “Hello?” Kirk ventures again, his tone betraying a rising dread.
A reverse shot gives us a tighter, more claustrophobic view of Kirk as he debates whether to cross the threshold, and then we are back to his POV into this unsettling house. It is at this point that the pig noises begin, coming from within that mysterious open room. There is a jump-cut to a closer view of the red wall and its disturbing animal trophies, then a second, even closer jump-cut as the apparent squealing of pigs intensifies and a clanking sound, as of metal on metal, is heard.
“Hey, Pam…,” Kirk says as we reverse back to the tight medium shot of him, barely looking back to his unseen companion and the outside world into which his mounting, dreadful fascination prevents him from retreating. The squealing continues, though, and Kirk enters the house, letting the screen door (and any last chance of escape and survival) close behind him. “Hello?” he shouts once more, before all too eagerly jogging forward to his doom.
The POV returns to what was formerly Kirk’s vantage from the doorway as he stumbles over the incline leading up to the hidden room just as Leatherface steps out from his hiding place to the left of the open door. As he appears, he lets out one final feigned pig squeal, as if gloating over the success of his trap. As Kirk falls to the floor, there are two quick cuts: Leatherface’s POV of Kirk mid-stumble, looking up at him, followed by Kirk’s POV of the monster himself: first his already bloodied apron (the blood, our horrified minds are not too stunned to quickly notice, is in the shape of streaked human handprints), and then a quick tilt up to the hideous dead skin mask and the raising of the sledgehammer.
Back to the doorway POV for the first amazingly realistic strike, a viciously accurate blow to the young man’s skull, and Kirk falls quickly, lying still almost long enough for a jubilant cry of victory from Leatherface that is nearly indistinguishable from his earlier swine calls. Then he begins a feverish, unconscious head-trauma seizure, his feet tapping wildly on the floor as his body jerks around in a grotesque parody of dance.
We see this more closely in a quick succession of three shots from Leatherface’s POV as he watches Kirk’s unconscious face, his blood-spattered torso, his insanely jitterbugging feet, perhaps enjoying the effects of his own handiwork. We then cut back to the now omniscient doorway POV as Leatherface strikes Kirk again, abruptly ending the head-injury shuffle, then dragging Kirk into the secret room and tossing his limp body to the side like the dead meat it now is and always has been to him. He rises from this crouching position and slams the sliding steel door shut with an animalistic grunt of triumph and bloodlust, leaving the shell-shocked audience with only that low note of doom on the soundtrack echoing the cold spot we already feel in the pit of our stomachs.
On par with, if not even greater than, such cinematic triumphs as the shower scene in Psycho before it, or the chest burster scene from Alien after it, this is my nominee for the greatest horror movie scene of all time. Nearly 50 years after its release (and even if you, say… watch it a bunch of times in a row for some reason), its power has not diminished a bit. Often imitated, never duplicated, this is the most frightening single minute in movie history.