We all have a different idea of what’s scary. Most people I’ve talked to always cite The Exorcist as the scariest film ever made. While that may be true for some, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the film that I believe rightly earns that title. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic was controversial for its time and is regarded as a major influence on the horror genre and numerous filmmakers that followed thereafter. Released on October 1, 1974 this landmark film is now forty-five years old and still packs quite a punch. So, why does this movie have the reputation that it has? What’s good about it even though the film is a grisly slasher? And how can a movie from the 1970s give me so many nightmares even to this day?
This was prior to the massacre in Haddonfield, Illinois. Long before the counselors were slaughtered at Camp Crystal Lake and definitely too early for Freddy to start haunting our dreams. Before all of those iconic slashers filled us with fear, we had the pleasure of meeting the Sawyer family and the man they call Leatherface. This man who wielded a chainsaw and wore the flesh of the victims he killed is an image that I will forever remember as striking fear into my heart.
Given the history of slasher films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre set the template for the genre, although it was Halloween that defined it. With Tobe Hooper’s film, it’s not so much the violence that’s terrifying but rather the psychological horror that we’re subjected to, much like the ill-fated young adults who fall victim to this deranged Texas family. The script smartly builds tension so when the third act arrives, the audience is terrified and seemingly can’t look away from what’s unfolding. So, how did it all begin?
Much like the title suggests, we are in Texas. A series of graverobbings have been reported and Sally (Marilyn Burns), along with her brother and a group of friends, investigate to see if her grandfather’s grave has been vandalized. It’s a very hot day and they pick up a hitchhiker they see along the country road. Events occur that change these young kids forever. They stumble upon a home located in the back woods off the main road and discover something that they never thought possible.
I won’t get into much of the plot details here simply because this is a film that must be viewed to be fully appreciated. One thing to note is the lack of on-screen violence compared to films today, which seem to revel in it. The violence is more heavily implied than shown until the third act, in which the revelation of truth is revealed. Yes there were more sequels that followed, but nothing comes quite close to the impact this film had.
Upon its release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a shock for audiences around the world and was even banned in several countries for a number of years. One clever thing about this movie is the way it was marketed. It opens with a narration that would lead audiences to believe that what they were seeing actually happened. This would bring audiences to the theater and boy were they in for a shock of a lifetime. The idea of seeing a large killer wearing a mask made from flesh chasing people down with a chainsaw is something no one wants to imagine could ever happen. In truth, the movie does unfortunately draw some inspiration from real life.
The flesh mask, furniture made from human bones and lampshades that look eerily similar to the very skin we wear were inspired by the Ed Gein story that occurred in 1950’s Wisconsin. While not a sadistic killer, Gein was a troubled man who lived under the rule of his domineering and manipulative mother. His crimes shocked a nation and prompted a study of mental illness that Ed suffered from. He did murder two women but the rest of what was found in his home would later be identified as deceased individuals dug up by Ed after they been buried in the local cemetery. His story and what was subsequently found by investigators were correctly represented in Tobe Hooper’s film. There was no family of murderers, no chainsaw wielding maniac and no evidence that Gein committed any acts of cannibalism.
Still the very idea of this movie being based on real-life events is shocking enough and I have to give credit to both Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel for making a script that was horrifying, but nonetheless creative. Despite the shocking reception from critics and audiences, this movie would spawn the slasher genre as well as influence notable directors. Wes Craven crafted his 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes as a homage, Ridley Scott drew inspiration for Alien and two others horror directors- Alexandre Aja and Rob Zombie- have credited this film as influences on their career.
It’s rather ironic that since the slasher genre has grown over the past forty years, the level of violence and gore have increased. Tobe Hooper’s film relies on the audience’s imagination of horror to imply what is happening, something that I think makes the film all the more effective. Even the actors are convincing enough in their roles to feel believable and, while it’s not professional acting, their performances sealed this movie in horror fame.
What I appreciate most about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is how believable the story feels. Think about it. A group of kids goes missing and the worst possible scenario has happened to them. Watch any I Survived, Unsolved Mysteries or Forensic Files to see how evil people can be in this world. While I appreciate Halloween and Friday the 13th, it’s Hooper’s vision that makes this movie the slasher with a memorable plot. Yes, we remember Michael breaking out the hospital and Mrs. Voorhees exacting revenge on the camp counselors, but the story that unfolds in Texas is one that has always stayed with me.
There have been only two horror films that scared me and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still does even to this day, simply because of how the pacing leads up to its shocking third act revelations. Everyone in the Sawyer family is insane but they believe their behavior and treatment of victims to be completely normal. Watching Sally (Marilyn Burns) sitting at the dinner table and seeing the family for the first time sent chills down my spine and still haunts my dreams. Even though Gunnar Hansen portrayed Leatherface once, he’s the one that terrified me the most throughout this long-running franchise. I will give credit to Andrew Bryniarski (who played Leatherface in the 2003 remake) as his sheer size and truly effective mask worked for the otherwise lackluster reboot.
Whether you’re a fan of horror or not, the impact of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a landmark for cinema. It introduced the world to a masked killer who uses a power tool to hunt down his victims and the horror that befell a group of young adults one hot summer afternoon in Texas. I can understand why people were outraged by the film’s level of violence (remember this was a time when on-screen violence wasn’t as pervasive) and, while critics like Roger Ebert admitted the film was well made, even he couldn’t recommend it to audiences as entertainment. I will concur on that point, but nevertheless The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains an effective horror film unlike anything the world had seen before.
Sure, the sequels added some black humor to lighten the mood but still the original film packed quite a punch in 1974 and still does to this day. It doesn’t feel like your typical slasher film, if one were to study it more closely, it feels like a student film that would be presented in a film class. Truth be told, this film has been studied and analyzed over the years by film students.
There are few movies that actually scare me but this one sure did. From its pacing, the Sawyer family’s appearances and behavior, the iconic dinner table scene and last but not least, the memorably haunting musical theme. Leatherface and his family have had many outings and a lot of people enjoyed the reboot but I think one thing is certain: Tobe Hooper’s original outing is the one that everyone should see. It may not be the best horror film for everyone, but it’s impact on cinema is legendary. With Hooper’s passing in 2017, horror fans lost an icon whom we must thank for giving us something to truly fear.