The Texas Chainsaw Massacre premiered 44 years ago on October 1st, 1974. With the sequels and remakes, it’s hard to believe that Tobe Hooper’s original movie was banned in several countries. I grew up in the videostore era of the 1980’s, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was not a video cassette cover I readily recall. In fact, I didn’t see it until I was in my mid-20’s. I can still remember picking up the video cassette at a local videostore and still felt like I was going something ‘dangerous’ by watching it. That first viewing experience did not disappoint.
Few horror films will retain their power to engage and shock like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Tobe Hooper’s classic has been remade and retconned with sequels. None of these films come close to replicating the feel or cultural impact of this horror film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains the rare example of a horror film that is more than just the sum of its parts.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 70’s Horror
By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, horror was undergoing serious changes. The Gothic horror of Hammer Film Productions and American International Pictures (AIP) was losing its grip on the box office. Of course, horror wasn’t the only genre of film experiencing a shit in audience interests. The 1970’s witnessed the rise of the ‘director’ and creatively-driven, gritty films like The Godfather and Taxi Driver. Hammer Films tried to keep up with their audiences by introducing more lurid sexual material to their 70’s entries. But the sea change left Hammer Studios and its counterparts behind.
…The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a uniquely 70’s horror film.
In this regard, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a uniquely 70’s horror film. After all, the 1970’s was the decade that saw cutting-edge fare like The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now get released. Director Tobe Hooper took cues from earlier films that pushed boundaries. Alfred Hitchcock’s sexually lurid (for the time) Psycho and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead pushed, if not erased, the boundaries dictating what could and what could not be shown.
With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper followed suit and crafted a very raw, stripped down horror film. Kim Henkel and Hoopers’ story could not have been further from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe film series. From John Larroquette’s opening narration to the grainy film quality, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the early horror films to accomplish an almost documentary-feel to its violence. Like the street-level crime audiences found in The French Connection and Death Wish, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre rooted its horror in the ‘real’ proceeding the pending slasher wave.
Tobe Hooper Paved The Way for the Slasher film with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The slasher sub-genre was a uniquely 80’s horror innovation. Contrary to grindhouse splatter films, the slasher film combines Grand Guignol gore of giallo films with the mystery of an Agatha Christie novel. John Carpenter’s Halloween properly kicked off the subgenre, but its roots go further back.
Many critics have pointed to Psycho and lesser-seen Peeping Tom as the starting point for the slasher film. Both films introduced horror fans to the psychosexual killer that would frequent most slasher films. To some extent, Romero carved out new ground in what could be shown on screen. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the horror film where more of the slasher elements would coalesce and take shape.
In her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover outlined the common characteristics of the slasher film. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced the ‘terrible place’ and an early version of ‘The Final Girl’. It also cemented the role of the psychosexual killer in horror. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is and is not a slasher film. Nevertheless, it certainly paved the way for what would follow.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is And it’s not a slasher film, but it certainly paved the way for what would follow.
“My Family’s Always Been in Meat”
What sets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from so many other horror films is the potential of its subtext. Henkel and Hooper deserve a lot of credit for writing a movie brimming with more intelligence than its subject matter suggested. Its concept of a family displaced from their jobs by industrialization now cannibalizing victims offers a lot to ‘chew on’. At the time Hooper made his horror masterpiece, much of the optimism of the 1960’s had faded. Whether it was impending economic crises or the drawn-out conflict of Vietnam, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released at unique time. By the early 1970’s, pervasive disillusionment with capitalism and Western advances was growing.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Remains a Feat of Horror Film-Making
Perhaps the best test of the quality of any form of popular culture is its staying power. From this perspective, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a rare cultural artifact that has stood the test of time. Look no further than its remake from 2003. Marcus Nispel’s remake is a slicker horror film with high production values, better actors, and more violence. Yet it falls short of Tobe Hooper’s original in every way imaginable. After 44 years, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains a feat of horror film-making.