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  • Writer's pictureZachary Zanatta

The Door Slam That Changed Horror Forever

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is well established as a horror masterpiece, and that’s large in part due to the memorable antagonists of the film, the Sawyers. The Sawyer clan is made up of the living corpse, Grandpa, the two-faced patriarch, the Cook, the wildcard brother, the Hitchhiker, and the brutal behemoth, Leatherface. While each iconic in their own right, it’s Leatherface that acts as the posterchild of the Texas Chainsaw franchise. His status as pop culture icon can be owed to his monstrous appearance, Ed Gein inspired wardrobe, titular weapon, and a generally terrifying presence. In the tradition of many other horror icons ranging from Freddy Krueger to Ghostface, his franchise essentially devolved into parody and the ingenuity of the character’s first iteration is lost to time.

But for now, I implore you to forget the illuminati cults, Alexandra Daddario cousins, and self-driving cars and remember the original 1974 masterpiece. For I’m about to break down what may just be the greatest scene in horror history: the first appearance of the skin-wearing, chainsaw-wielding, young adult-killing Leatherface and his door slam that changed the trajectory of horror forever.

The door slam arrives about __ minutes into the film, and it’s important to consider what the film has established in this time. Five young adults visit the Texas backcountry to check on their grandpa’s tomb after a string of grave robbings. After double checking that Pops is ok, they visit his now run-down old farmhouse. It’s at this old house that they stumble upon a neighbor, a neighbor who proves to be not as friendly as they had hoped. In between that time, they pick up a hitchhiker who causes mayhem in their van, discuss astrological signs, and meet a crazy drunk guy spewing nonsense at the cemetery. Each one seems unrelated, and in a sense, they are, but together they serve one purpose, omens of death. The drunk is a classic slasher trope called the harbinger of death. This is often a crazy person who warns the characters of what’s to come. He’s almost always the first sign that something is amiss, but the way he is presented always has characters ignoring him. He is the first omen the characters witness and his fair warning is dismissed as drunken rambling. Even we as the audience, though unnerved, do not recognize this warning until the two others corroborate his message of doom. Subsequently, the Hitchhiker and their astrology signs imply imminent danger as well. All of this is being said without posing any true danger to the characters (outside of the Hitchhiker’s outburst). This creates a palpable sense of unease. We know that danger is bound to arrive at any minute, and the film’s structure of a hangout movie betrays our expectations. It’s like when a cartoon character walks off a cliff and doesn’t fall until he looks down. We feel like the characters are meant to be fighting for their lives, but this reckoning is late to the party. The result is a very anxious experience, one in which every new turn could spell disaster, and every single one feels as though it should.

Atmospherically, we’re also given warnings. The Texas backcountry reeks of death. Corpses, dead animals, bones, rotting wood, the only living things are our characters. The lighting and film grain emulates this feeling of decay. The color grading makes it a very hot movie. Framing as well makes it claustrophobic. Shots of our characters are close, shots of the landscape are gross, the sound is dusty, it is established that this is not a welcome environment. It makes the viewing experience very uncomfortable, rarely, if ever, do we have the opportunity for reprieve. This can be attributed to Tobe Hooper’s masterful direction, a constant corkscrew into hellish depravity all without spilling a drop of blood. Texas Chainsaw’s first half is unrivaled discomfort, it’s an intense heat crushing upon the viewer tantalizing us with the spark that will set off the whole thing. And that spark comes in the form of an open door at the end of a hall.

Jerry and Pam are exploring the area when they discover a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. Pam waits outside but Jerry decides to check out what’s inside, to see if anyone’s home. Upon entering, the film takes a very different form. The sunny, loud outdoors of Texas becomes a silent and dark hallway. There’s some natural light, but majority of the setting is submerged in shadow, Jerry included. Jerry’s entrance immediately establishes something is different. The shot of him coming in isn’t the POV shot later introduced by Black Christmas, but it implies he is not alone. The low angle at which he’s often shown reinforces the death motif, close to the ground, perhaps foreshadowing perhaps not. The reverse shot, that of the open door at the end of the hall is a different beast entirely. The rotting house is interrupted by a doorway with a distinct interior. A blood red wallpaper is adorned with various animal skulls and busts. These two door shots juxtaposed with one another finally let the audience know that the danger is no longer a concept, it is fully realized.

The music is gone, the sounds of the Texas country are gone, all we hear is Jerry, and something else. Jerry’s curiosity is spurred by the sounds of a squealing pig, emanating from within the doorway. The sound of the pig would be unnerving on its own, but it harkens back to an earlier motif of the meat industry. The film has conditioned us to associate animals with meat, meat with slaughter, and slaughter with death, a brutal and horrible death. Of course, all the signs are telling Jerry “Don’t go in there!” a classic horror trope. But just like Jerry, we’re hypnotized. Violent red, mysterious sounds, the doorway is so different from the Texas landscape we’re used to, we have no choice but to see what’s there. Jerry approaches safely, and tension is racking up, until one little misstep, Jerry trips.

Jerry hits the ground and looks up to see his demise. The scene cuts to Leatherface, hammer raised, and the camera zooms in as he brings his hammer down. This shot of Leatherface is horrifying for several reasons. The framing makes him more than human, he’s a monster. He takes up the entire frame and the camera still pushes in. We, in the presumed safety of the audience, are being attacked by the camera movement. The design of Leatherface is also ingenious. He is warped and contorted, but he is human. He looks like a human, doubly so with the mask of human skin. He’s in a dress shirt and an apron. He’s a butcher, the face behind the slaughter that has been alluded to for so long. The scene cuts back to the first shot of the doorway as Leatherface viciously slams his hammer into Jerry’s head. It cuts back to Jerry as he violently twitches, covered in blood, the pig squealing louder than ever. Leatherface hits him one more time, the twitching stops, he drags Jerry into the doorway and closes it with a vicious slam of a stainless-steel door. The shot lingers as a deep and ominous hum breaks diegesis of the entire sequence.

Beyond being scary, the door slam represents so much more. A clear moment of climax, the slam is the biggest turning point of the film. It’s not a major change in the character’s emotional journey, but it completely flips their position in the story. In the scene, Jerry goes from a bold and adventurous man into a twitching animal, complete with deafening pig sounds. His humanity is stripped by a man with a hammer. This scene establishes that in the Texas backcountry, our characters are simply animals, and nothing is held sacred. The speed and brutality of the scene doesn’t lend Jerry a moment of emotionality. He gets no send off, no fighting back, he is killed swiftly, from this point on none of the characters deaths are given humanity. They are pigs for slaughter, their deaths are not events, they’re things that simply happen. Leatherface’s steel door is that of a slaughterhouse, and although it is shut, it represents us entering the slaughterhouse that is the rest of the film.

Death in horror has not been the same since that door slam. Hooper’s new vision for horror stripped away cinematic conventions and presented murder as a vicious and swift attack. Pre-70’s horror was as dramatic as it was horrifying. Many of the most iconic horror kills were punctuated by drawn out suspense, musical stings, and a heightened sense of melodrama. The Psycho shower scene is a prime example of this. A masterful scene, but it embodies a very archaic presentation of horror. It uses cinematic language to evoke horror. The quickfire editing, the shrill, pulsating strings, the drawn-out ending fading from the drain to Marion’s lifeless eye. This distinguished horror is still very effective, but I personally find Hooper’s inversion of this to be more horrific. His ability to strip back the formality exposes the blackened heart of the scene. The lack of score, the sparse sound design, the ending of the scene that doesn’t invite closure but more danger, it’s condensed and pure horror. It’s a horror that recognizes the lack of humanity in killing. The scene isn’t empathetic or sad, it is visceral. Jerry is no longer Jerry by the end of it, he's a piece of meat, just like so many others.

Since then, horror has moved away from the melodrama of the pre-70’s. The door slam rewrote the rules of horror and pushed filmmakers to elicit fear above all else. Horror no longer needed to serve a greater theme, it could act as that greater theme and remain as rich and compelling as any high-brow drama. Horror evolved into a genre that lived up to its name. It wasn’t necessarily a scene that strived for hyperrealism, but its artifice is expertly hidden. Reflecting the emerging movement known as “New Hollywood”, it brought cinema into the new era, and hundreds of films, horror or otherwise, owe their success to the door slam. It’s a scene that strives, and achieves, pure terror and in doing so invented a new language in cinema, true horror. It’s fair to say that even 48 years after its release, the door slam is still as impactful as ever and that ominous hum will reverberate through the film world forever.

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