So I thought I was going to get a classic of the genre, and got ready for a night of gore and terror, afraid I might not sleep. The first twenty minutes alone, though, made it clear this was one of those movies that terrifies only the culture that begat them. Thirty years later, we are terrified of terrorists, maybe of AIDS, but psychedelic terror just doesn’t cut it any more.
The movie starts with a band of hippies in a minivan traveling through Texas. They pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be quite the lunatic and slashes the arm of one of the travelers with an old-fashioned razor. Then the group gets to a gas station that ran out of gas, where they are told (a) gas is about to come, and (b) they should not go to the house the slashed co-traveler wants to visit, because it’s unsafe. Instead they should have some of the excellent barbecue.
[warning! spoiler to follow]
Of course our friends do exactly as not told and visit the house. There, they are one by one killed in the most atrocious way by a madman/madwoman with a human skin mask. Towards the end, the scene becomes dark and confused, and the last victim is actually ‘invited’ to dinner.
Turns out the barbecue served at the gas station is actually human flesh, and our last friend is about to be eaten alive. When they try to kill her, a mishap allows her to run out of the house, followed by the mad butcher with a chainsaw.
Somehow the girl succeeds in escaping the whole scenario and is saved when a trucker by mistake kills her persecutor, and the chainsaw butcher misses her, who jumps onto a providentially arriving pickup truck.
Why the whole plot? Because I wanted some form of proof to myself that I actually watched it all. The movie was not really frightening, just weird and illogical. The problem is that it was all built as a typical psychedelic trip – from the hippie conversation at the beginning to the imagery of the butcher’s shop in the house. Everything was full of hallucinatory meaning, and somehow the immediacy of it gets totally lost on someone in the 21st century.
It’s a bit sad, because I can really see how a teenager in the Seventies might have really be scared watching this. In the Eighties, we had a very similar phenomenon, where sex replaced drugs. The most successful scary movie of the time was then ‘Fatal Attraction’.
As a scary movie based on the same idea, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was much more compelling.