An in-depth analysis of one of the most terrifying chase scenes ever committed to film.
He nearly lost an eye while filming one of the greatest chase scenes in cinema history. Daniel Pearl was laying on a dolly track, filming an icon in the making chasing a helpless and terrified woman through dried and dead bushes and shrubs. The camera hit a tree, jamming the lens into Pearl’s eye. When you take a hit for the team, you want to be sure it wasn’t for nothing. Pearl was working on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, history would reward him by declaring the film to be one of the best of its genre, applauding its composition and pacing. But why do we never seem to note the importance and perfection of the most thrilling scene in this storied film? Why does a chase scene which lasts six full minutes consistently fail to be mentioned alongside the likes of Se7en and Point Break?
The general consensus is that Se7en features the most celebrated foot chase in cinema. It’s wracked with suspense, contains little dialogue, a host of camera techniques, and the broken hand of Brad Pitt. What makes this chase work is the cat and mouse aspect. Our villain, John Doe, is constantly escaping the eyesight of Detective Mills. The only time Mills has a clear shot at Doe is the moment our villain opens fire, after that he’s largely out of Mills’ line of sight. The chase starts in an apartment building with an infinite number of hiding places and ends in the close confines of a narrow alley with Doe’s gun against Mills’ temple. The antagonist controlled the entire tempo of this chase in addition to deciding its outcome. The suspense delivered to the audience was two-fold: breathless thrills from the art and design of the chase, and the nightmare scenario of a true villain deciding your fate.
Beginning to end, TCM is a masterpiece of horror filmmaking. From the opening narration with John Larroquette doing his best Orson Welles and the haunting title sequence with cameras flashing on the horrors we’re about to discover, to Leatherface’s mad-dance with a chainsaw in the rising sun. The frights are now notorious, a part of popular culture. We remember the dinner table scene, the hitchhiker, the crash through the window, the… wait. Let’s stop there. “The crash through the window” happens during the chase. We talk more about a stunt, albeit an effective one, than a chase scene that could easily stand up to Se7en? Not today film fans.
The chase happens at roughly the 52-minute mark in the film and lasts around six minutes. At this point in the picture, Sally and Franklin have been separated from their group (who have been hooked, sliced, diced, and put on ice), the night is dark and hot. Real frustrations are boiling over (the two actors apparently didn’t care for each other and genuine anger was setting in at their situation). At this moment, when our two surviving characters are at a breaking point, Leatherface and his chainsaw interrupt the eerie quiet. After he dispatches Franklin, and honestly that kid had it comin’, the chase begins.
Se7en is a cat and mouse chase: action involving constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes. Though TCM is technically that as well, it’s really more of a cat-already-caught-the-mouse-he’s-just-fucking-with-it-now chase if I can be technical. Leatherface isn’t afraid for one second that Sally is in danger of escaping, he pursues her to exhaust her, to toy with her. He’s the hind-legs of a cat kicking at his find.
A well-executed chase scene should contribute to the plot, easier said than done, but the action of the chase is only punctuated because we’ve bought into the narrative and the pursuit is now vital to our characters intentions. The chase in TCM not only is narratively important, but it delivers a visceral experience by making the viewer a participant instead of a witness thanks to fluid and impressive dolly shots matching the pace the actors.
A trope in horror films is the victim being pursued by an assailant, usually masked. only to trip and make the maniac’s job easier. TCM never falls victim to this, instead, they create tension through density and false sanctuary.
The first obstacle Sally faces during her marathon of madness is nature itself. While attempting to evade Leatherface, Sally runs into thick bushes which grow increasingly dense as she battles her way through. As she finds her way out, Leatherface cutting the dried branches with his chainsaw behind her, she runs into a home. One of two false sanctuaries she will find. But the chase briefly pauses here for a masterclass in editing that is worthy of equal praise.
As Sally is attempting to find help in the house, finding finely dressed corpses instead, we cut to Leatherface taking the chainsaw to the front door. We are cutting from one horrific scene to another, exhausting the audience as much as Sally must be. Once Leatherface is in the house and Sally, in a well-shot stunt, jumps out the second story window to evade him, the chase soon concludes at the same gas station we were introduced to at the beginning of the film. Only when Sally runs through the front door do we realize this is a second false sanctuary and the end of her escape… well, for now.
I remember when James Cameron was making Terminator 2 he said the one thing he wanted to do was to create a chase scene that would rival anything in The Road Warrior. The Wachowski sisters said the same thing about Terminator 2 when they were making The Matrix sequels. Car chases have a rich history in film, they’re far more prominent than foot chases because they’re generally more thrilling and allow for more spectacle. A foot chase has to be meticulously crafted and planned to be successful. It’s, even more, dependant upon a strong narrative to sell the chase. Perhaps that’s why filmmakers have never really taken the foot chase as a challenge. We’ve had some strong candidates pop up from time to time: Casino Royale, Hot Fuzz, that Tom Cruise movie.
Se7en is remembered for the reveal at the end, but the foot chase isn’t that far behind. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is remembered for being a terrifying trip through the macabre as opposed to being defined by a single scene. And perhaps the volume of scares is so high we forget how beautiful and thrilling that chase scene is because we’re busy trying to collect our breaths or trying in vain to not close our eyes. But the next time The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays, take note. At about the 52-minute mark, you are about to experience a masterclass in filming a chase scene. Se7en‘s chase is good, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is better. Spoiler warning I guess?