Four decades after Leatherface & Co. first terrorized audiences, this sparse look at family, Americana and unrelenting violence continues to influence modern horror cinema — for better and worse.
Intro by Phil, with guest reviewer Jessica Smith
It’s easily one of the most disturbing family dinners ever put to film.
On a sweltering evening in rural Texas, three generations of cannibals play host to an unconscious 20something. She’s seated at one end of a dilapidated table, bound tightly to a homemade chair of animal bones and scavenged wood. Slowly, almost calmly, she opens her eyes to see the famished Leatherface brood staring at her bruised and battered skin. She wails and they laugh. She screams and they screech. Dinner is served.
After 40 years and countless copycats, the dining room scene from 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains one of cinema’s most iconic moments. It’s raw, bizarre and unsettling as hell.
From start to finish, Texas Chain Saw strikes a primal chord. Set during the waning hours of the Vietnam war — shooting ended just weeks after the U.S. military withdrew en masse — the film follows a group of young friends as they cross endless highways and rolling farmland to visit an abandoned family home. Crammed into a ‘70s-style van are five soon-to-be stereotypes: the lovebugs Kirk and Pam; the pretty hippie Sally; the disposable driver Jerry; and the whiney, off-kilter Franklin. Despite early run-ins with an odd hitchhiker and a backwoods barbecue chef, the group soldiers on, moaning tiredly while Franklin yammers about old-school slaughterhouses. They reach the home soon after, then wisely split up to find cheap gas and an abandoned swimming hole. From there… well, Sally has a dinner party to attend.
Pause for a second. On the surface, Texas Chain Saw sounds pretty damn familiar, from the characters to the setting to the inevitable horrorshow. And it should: Austin-based director and co-writer Tobe Hooper based his chainsaw-wielding family on Ed Gein, a confessed cannibal/murderer/grave robber who terrorized Wisconsin in the idyllic decade after WWII. The quiet, God-fearing Gein has inspired dozens of gruesome films over the years — the first was 1960’s Psycho, released just three years after he was arrested — and Hooper’s script pulls liberally from the grisly case file. Those ties to real-life events inspired the film’s untested crew, which stretched a bare-bones budget to make a primordial, hyper-real slasher some four years before the genre’s grandaddy, Halloween.
But that’s only a small part of the Texas Chain Saw legacy. A generation of thirsty young filmmakers saw this movie in theaters — icons like George A. Romero and Ridley Scott still cite it as an influence — and Hollywood was never the same. Seriously. Hooper’s unflagging portrayal of violence was on par with Romero’s own then-new film, Night of the Living Dead, and the two became blueprints for a new wave of relentlessly bleak films. For audiences familiar with bombastic villains like Dracula and Godzilla, Leatherface gave a very real, very frightening face to America’s grim underbelly.
Of course, cultural anxiety only rings true when handled with care, and Texas Chain Saw rarely tries to hide its rough edges. It laid the foundation for decades of increasingly brutal, bloody, apology-free horror films, and yet it was only rated PG when it first hit theaters. After 40 years of cinematic violence, has the relatively bloodless original lost its bite? Pull up a seat — it’s time for dinner.
Phil: Let’s start at the top: You had never seen the full, uncut, unabridged version of the original slasher film before tonight. What’s your first impression?
Jessica: First impression is definitely audible — I’d say that the final third of the film is mostly just screams and chainsaw sounds. The tension is ratcheted up so high that you don’t even need dialogue anymore.
Phil: I agree. Tobe Hooper knew exactly what he was doing from start — he briefly introduces us to a handful of characters, then becomes a fly on the wall and simply shows us what happens to a couple of fun-loving teens caught completely out of their element. The tension reaches a fever pitch, and suddenly there’s no need for anything but the visuals. I imagine that’s how things get when you’re faced with a life and death situation. So many directors try to stylize it to the point of absurdity, but Hooper does it right. The film feels like reality.
Jessica: I really do like the intro, with the teens on their way to a cross-country trip. Some of my issues with films from earlier eras, like the ‘70s, etc., is they spend SO much time on dialogue and, honestly, I’m a product of the ‘80s/’90s, and ain’t nobody got time for that unless you’ve settled in with a glass of wine for a nice Oscar-potential viewing. In a horror film, what much is there to set up?
But, I really felt the heat of the car, the devil-may-care attitude of the teens, and then appreciated the set up with the graveyard robberies and the exposition on the slaughterhouse. But man, when things get going, they GET GOING. There’s no middle part that most modern films have, with people starting to figure out the mystery and a few going missing. Kirk bites the dust and Pam not long afterward, and after a few short moments, it’s just Sally sprinting into the night.
Phil: The pacing on this film is exceptional. Like you said, Hooper wastes absolutely no time getting to the thing we modern-day horror lovers, well, love: blood and gore and chaos. This film presents you with a story everyone (or most people) recognize — a group of friends on a trip to anywhere and everywhere — then throws a major, chainsaw-shaped wrench in the gears when they are tossed into a sort of hell. Sure, the hitchhiker is the first sign that something is seriously, irreversibly fucked up, but like many youngsters, it’s a momentary hiccup on an otherwise enjoyable trip.
For all its blood and gore, Texas Chain Saw feels so true to everyday life that it doesn’t need a ton of clunky characterization. You almost know these people, simply because they aren’t extraordinary. That makes them more familiar, even when every storytelling bone in your body wants them to be unique snowflake. And I think that works for a horror film.
Jessica: I’m really intrigued by the characters of this film, because they’re so normal and yet not the fucking obvious tropes that characters in other (usually more modern) films are. Scream is an extreme example, because those characters are supposed to be tropes, because that’s the whole premise of the film. But you can watch a lot of modern, middle-of-the-road horror films and know immediately who everyone is and how they’ll react to anything. It’s actually kind of boring, and those films only grab my attention when they subvert that in some way, which most are not clever enough or caring enough to do.
But Texas Chain Saw just presents you with these people and lets the story happen around them. I’m intrigued by the character of Franklin — in a wheelchair, super annoying but also sympathetic, who seems to be slightly more aware of the crazy situation than the others, yet he’s also super innocent, getting slashed by the hitchhiker and whining like a younger brother, crying about he flashlight, etc.
And Sally is intriguing too. We don’t get much of a feel for her in the beginning, because she sits in the front with Jerry (the least-developed character), while Pam, Kirk and Franklin sit in the back with the hitchhiker and interact with him in the first part. Yet Sally is the token “last girl” and does the whole capture/escape routine at least three times with the Leatherface clan. She also doesn’t escape on any merit of her own besides being very good at screaming/flailing/running.
I don’t know, maybe there’s more to Sally than I’m seeing on first glance. What do you think?
Phil: In the realm of “last girl” types, Sally is weirdly unremarkable. Now, I know I just said this film succeeds because the characters are unremarkable, but we’ve been trained to want something more from the survivor. Look at Alien: Ripley is a strong, commanding, bad-assed presence on the Nostromo, to the point you almost expect her to live. You’re not sure how, but once shit starts hitting the fan, you know in your gut that she has the chops to survive.
Which brings me back to Sally and Franklin. I never thought Sally was the survivor. Sure, I’ve been trained by horror films to watch for the survivor — Scream reminded us that she’s sexy AND still a virgin — but, again, as the originator, Texas Chain Saw manages to subvert stereotypes it created. Sally is relatively boring, yet she lives. Franklin is by far the more compelling character, and not simply because he’s in a wheelchair. He’s also chubby, whiney and, of course, crippled. As a viewer, every PC bone in my body says he should survive — there’s no way in a hell even a serial killer would hack up a cripple, right?
But no. Franklin is berated by both his friends and the hitchhiker from the start. He becomes an uncomfortable punching bag, yet another unexpected casualty in a film that’s notorious for its brutal, unrelenting violence — and it’s all directed at characters that feel much ore human than their modern counterparts.
Jessica: I know, the characters of Texas Chain Saw are really “they are, but they aren’t” examples. I think merely by the merit of being first they get credit, though the creators really didn’t go out of their way to make them anything more than usual, everyday teens. As you said, as far as outstanding, special uniqueness, that character is definitely Franklin, not only on merit of his being in a wheelchair, but because, at times, he’s a bit more removed from the “everyday teen world” than the others, staying on the bottom floor of the house while the others are traipsing about upstairs, and being concerned about the motives/abilities of the hitchhiker. The others only care about going swimming and getting gas for the van.
But still, they fit into tropes, and you can very easily identify the people that came after them and were modeled after them. The weird thing is that Franklin, arguably, is given the most characterization out of all of the characters here, yet he is killed in the most blasé manner. Leatherface carves him up while Sally screams. Franklin doesn’t even get any last words. The only one who might have a comparable demise is Kirk, who is dispatched with a sledgehammer to the brain as soon as he confronts Leatherface.
Phil: It feels like just about everyone in this movie meets a relatively quick and gruesome death, with the exception of our unexceptional last girl Sally. It’s something I always found weirdly compelling about this movie — death is fast and grim, with none of the pomp or circumstance (or even beauty) of latter-day horror films. You’ve seen your fair share of slashers over the years. In terms of gore and brutality, how does the original Texas Chain Saw compare?
Jessica: I’d like to dig deeper into the idea of “brutality.” Brutality, to me, conveys a mixture of intent and savagery. Movies like Saw and Hostel are considered brutal and savage, but I’d say they’re less so in the psychological way because, in those movies, the tortures are specifically for those exact people.
In Saw, you are presented with your worst fear. Jigsaw looks at your life, learns about you as a person and plays to the most intimate part of you — your worst fear. On the other hand, Texas Chain Saw Massacre kills people at random. Nobody is special. Whoever is closest to Leatherface’s chainsaw gets it. Even Sally, the last girl, who is tied up at the freakin’ dinner table with the entire family, is seen as no different than Kirk, who was first dispatched with a hammer, or Pam, who was hung up on a meat hook.
The terrifying aspect of Texas Chain Saw is that no one is special, even the last girl, even the survivor. She only survives because she’s a certain distance from the chainsaw and because a truck happens to come by at the right time. If you want to draw parallels to the Vietnam War, people there (and in most wars, really) survived because of the luck of the draw. They happened to be standing here instead of there, they went on this mission and not that one, and that’s it. “No one is special,” say the cannibal movies, while the Saw movies say, “You are special, and here is the special way to destroy you.”
We recently watched Doc of the Dead (2014), which addresses zombies vs. vampires. The main difference, the Doc says, is that vampires are sensual — they are super into you, they choose you. Zombies, on the other hand, only eat whoever is closest. If they are about to eat your intestine and you step to the left, they eat the intestines of the person next to you. It’s totally impersonal and, funnily enough, even in the face of cannibals, we’re a bit offended. And that’s scary, on an extreme scale.
Phil: That’s the downfall of so many slasher imitators. They take the impersonality of something like Texas Chain Saw at its most base level — the jocks, cheerleaders and geeks from your local high school get hacked into pieces — and beat it to death. (JS: Ha!) The tropes in Scream and The Cabin in the Woods only ring true because those films decide to confront them head on and tell viewers that, yes, these are familiar stereotypes, but we’re is going to tweak them to the point of new and important meaning.
As the originator, Texas Chain Saw didn’t have to worry about metafiction or commentary, at least of the innocent media variety. I believe Hooper was more concerned with making the cinematic equivalent of the confusion, paranoia and sheer fear Americans felt watching coverage of the Vietnam War on television. You mention Doc of the Dead, which also drew parallels between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Vietnam-era America. In Romero’s flick, zombies are a faceless and irrational threat (much like communism), but, in the end, they still manage to invade and desecrate a white-fence farmhouse — the embodiment of Norman Rockwell’s America, post-World War II.
Texas Chain Saw nearly gives us the exact same farmhouse and the exact same idyllic American setting, but it’s removed from Romero’s movie by six years of war. Public support for the war and American military was at a dismal low in 1974. I think Texas Chain Saw is a bleak and brutal addition to a new era of horror that was already pessimistic. Zombie flicks like Night of the Living Dead introduced audiences to an emotionless force, while early slashers like Texas Chain Saw took things to the next level. Brutality isn’t just impersonal — it’s fucking frightening.
Jessica: Absolutely. And I’d argue that brutality in Texas Chain Saw is not only impersonal, it’s also at your fucking doorstep. It’s called “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” for god’s sake, not “Cannibals in the Jungle,” or “Cooking Flesh in the Philippines.” It’s Texas, and that’s ‘Merica, and that’s in your own backyard, and if you go on a road trip the very same thing could happen to you, my friend.
I think the triumph of Texas Chain Saw that may, ironically, also alienate modern audiences unfamiliar with things like “subtlety” and “metaphor,” is that the film makes this the kind of impersonal brutality that could happen to YOU, on your next road trip to wherever. Knock on a stranger’s door, pick up a dude hitchhiking, and open yourself up to the cannibalistic hedonism of the Vietnam era. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poet or a jock or a dude in a wheelchair — you’re what’s next for dinner.
Phil: Think about those final 30 minutes and consider the visceral, terrifying sound of a chainsaw: everyone and anyone knows what a chainsaw sounds like, at least in the good ol’ USA, which means everyone and anyone watching this film feels the immediate and bone-shaking chill that comes with the husky growl of a chainsaw. (Hell, there’s a haunted corn maze outside of Denver that makes bank every October on this concept.) That sound hits you at the gut level, just like the impersonal and brutal murders shown on screen.
And that’s what we watch — murder.
Of all the slashers I’ve seen, Texas Chain Saw feels more like a documentary than a piece of entertainment. We’re shown a collection of young, attractive, relatively enjoyable people — no different than GIs shipped to Vietnam or Afghanistan or wherever — and then forced to watch as they’re tortured, killed and otherwise brutalized. The spectacle is uncomfortable because it’s not a traditional spectacle. It’s random and violent, just like war, and even though we’ve been trained to expect certain tropes, this film doesn’t quite fulfill the stereotypes we know and love. I’ve seen it at least 15 times and it continues to be unnerving with every viewing.
That brings me to the final question: Did Texas Chain Saw give birth to an important genre — the slasher — or was it simply a spectacular prototype for lazy filmmakers?
Jessica: Hmm, that’s a tough question. I’d say it definitely inspired the slasher genre, but as we have seen, so many slasher films after it lack the, dare I say it, eloquence of Texas Chain Saw. I mean, any show about bones and cannibals and people being carved up with chainsaws probably isn’t “eloquent,” per se, but digging deeper into the themes shows that there are layers here. Take any other slasher film, say, Cabin Fever from 2002, and you have all the basic elements — attractive coeds, cannibals, chainsaws — but none of the rest.
So I guess I’d say “yes” to both ends of your question. And, sadly, it seems that the sequels and remakes have fallen into the same trap. In short — watch the original Texas Chain Saw and ignore the rest.
Phil: Agreed. Imitators are content to just, well, imitate. Take a look at the final scene with our old friend Sally. She escapes, but there’s no catharsis, no sense that she’s now better off than she was before her getaway with the Leatherface clan. She survived, sure, but she’ll never be the same. It’s yet another parallel to the Vietnam War — few, if any, soldiers returned without some kind of fundamental shift — but it’s also a devastatingly bleak ending for an equally bleak film. There’s no need for a tacked-on jump scare. It just ends.