When it comes to slasher horror films, there have been many weapons of choice. From simple kitchen knives to machetes, axes, bladed gloves, and even surgical shears for you Exorcist III fans. However, there is only one true horror weapon, one that helped create the slasher genre and would come to define it through its terrifying presence and effectiveness, both in creating carnage and fear. Yes, the perfect horror instrument has to be the one and only, gas-guzzling gadget of butchery, the chainsaw.
Before we can go into detail about why the chainsaw is king, let’s talk about the runners-up. The most obvious choice would have to be the kitchen knife, due to its historical ties to the genre through films like Psycho, Halloween, and Scream. The biggest problem with the classic kitchen knife is… it’s just boring. Sure the base image of a knife could come off unsettlingly to some, but many ordinary people will casually use these in their everyday lives for things that are just not scary, like cooking. Plus the amount of damage a knife can cinematically inflict is pretty minimal. Usually, they can only do two things: Slash or Stab. While these are effective, they don’t rarely cause the audience to be physically repulsed or look away. Other larger-bladed items are usually more effective in this like the go-to sidearm of Jason Voorhees, the machete. While the blade might be longer and cause more effective gore, this can only be felt when the machete makes contact, unlike the chainsaw.
So there are 3 factors that make the chainsaw the ultimate slasher weapon. The first is its ability to create a terrifying atmosphere without even making contact with another person. Visually, chainsaws are big. They usually require two hands to manage, unless one of your hands happens to be a chainsaw, like one Mr. Ash Williams. Along with being larger, the design of a chainsaw with its long neck covered in sharp metal teeth is already rather nerve-racking. Then you watch as your assailant grabs the ignition cord and with a pull the chainsaw begins to growl, small at first then grows until it becomes a continuous load roar of a small gasoline engine rotating that chain full of teeth at such a high speed. Just the sound of a chainsaw could send shivers down someone’s spine, especially when someone is being chased by one.
Sound is one of the chainsaw’s strongest features as it can create it’s own jump scare opportunity without the need for nondigetic sounds. The only other weapon that can produce the same effect is a firearm. Now a good sudden gunshot will make any audience member jump, but a chainsaw creates an extended soundscape that the audience is forced to deal with until someone escapes or is chopped up. This entire effect is amplified when the chainsaw makes contact. In the hands of a talented sound designer, the roar of the saw now blends with the gross sounds of flesh being ripped and torn apart. For reference, go play Doom (2016), a masterclass in chainsaw sound design.
Now, while the sound and visual presentation are some of its strong suits, the real aspect that makes the chainsaw the absolute peak of horror props is the ability to create extremely cinematic and effective gore. Chainsaws create this aura of industrial butchery, where instead of being chopped piece by piece, victims are continuously shredded with blood and guts being launched from the point of impact until the saw either runs out of fuel or completely cuts through the victim.
Now that we’ve explained the why, let’s talk history of chainsaws in film, starting with the slasher that started it all and is still the most effective showcase for this claim, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Upon release, this low-budget film quickly became a smash success at the box office and grew into one of the most influential horror films of all time. Loaded with intense gore and violent content, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was actually banned in some countries and taken out of some theaters in the US. This in turn led to the film becoming a sort of urban legend as this film was so gory they wouldn’t even show in it, which only increased its notoriety. The pinnacle scene that showcases how effective the chainsaw can be in this film has to be the scene where Leatherface, the film’s antagonist, attacks Franklin in the woods. The way Leatherface suddenly jumps out and immediately shocks the audience with his horrifying presence and the deafening roar of his chainsaw is one of the all-time jump scares in horror history.
As other horror franchises began to pop up, few would attempt to replicate the use of a chainsaw until 1981, when a young Sami Raimi and company would film the soon-to-be cult classic, The Evil Dead. In this film (and all of its sequels), the chainsaw was not the weapon of the enemy but a tool for our hero to combat the dead which happened to be evil. This is most notable in Evil Dead II, where the lead character Ash Williams, not only uses a chainsaw to slice up the “deadites” but eventually uses one as a prosthetic limb. This excessive use of chainsaw violence would be used in further installments of the franchises and would grow more and more violent as the years go by. See Evil Dead (2013) or the recent Evil Dead Rise for examples of that.
The last film to truly show off how horrific the effects of being “chainsawed” can actually be found in not a horror film, but one of the legendary crime dramas directed by Brian De Palma, Scarface. While performing what was thought to be a routine drug trade, Tony Montana and his crew are quickly captured by a rival gang. They are forced to either give up their cash or suffer a gruesome death by chainsaw. Tony refuses and is now forced to watch as his friend is horribly shredded in front of him, with his blood being splattered across the small hotel bathroom they are held up in. Shortly after, Tony is tied up and told he’s next if he doesn’t give up the money. He still refuses. The camera slowly pulls back, and we watch as the rival drug dealer attempts to start the chainsaw again. The tension in this scene grows with each pull of the cord until it is interrupted by Tony’s friends arriving on the scene to save him. This scene exemplifies how terrifying the chainsaw can be, and how every aspect, its look, sound, and ability can create a terror that few other items can.
Few items have the immediate cinematic gravitas that come so naturally to the chainsaw. From its immediately uneasy look, its terrifying soundscape, or the results of its carnage, the chainsaw stands as one of the most iconic props in horror history. So, if you haven’t yet, go watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and remind yourself of the terror that can come from a simple power tool.