As we roll into October, what better way to kick off the Halloween season then with one of the genre’s classics. Believe it or not, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre premiered 46 years ago on October 1st, 1974. With all the sequels and remakes, it’s hard to believe that several countries outright banned Tobe Hooper’s original movie. Growing up in the videostore era of the 1980’s, it wasn’t always easy to find. Watching the movie for the first time almost felt ‘dangerous’. Few horror movies will retain their power to truly shock like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Look no further than all those aforementioned sequels. None of these movies have come close to replicating the cultural impact of what Hooper accomplished. Today, it remains the rare example of a horror movie that is more than just the sum of its parts.
Hooper and Henkel Brought the Horror Genre into the 1970s
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 box office grip. Of course, horror wasn’t the only genre of film experiencing a shift in audience interests. Indeed, 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 and flashy violence. But the sea change left Hammer and its counterparts behind. Not even putting Christopher Lee’s Dracula into swinging 70’s London could save the old-school approach to horror.
…The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a uniquely 70’s horror film.
In this regard, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a uniquely 70’s horror movie. 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 movie. Kim Henkel and Hooper’s story couldn’t 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 a documentary, or cinema verite, vibe.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Paved The Way for a ‘New’ Type of Horror Movie – The Slasher
As horror entered the 1980’s, a new monster replaced vampires, werewolves, and witches as the new genre ‘heavy’. Masked, psychosexual killers, horny teens, and generous helpings of gore and nudity made the slasher sub-genre a uniquely 80’s horror innovation. Contrary to grindhouse splatter films, the slasher combines the Grand Guignol gore of giallo films with the mystery of an Agatha Christie novel. Yes, 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 move where more of the slasher elements would coalesce and take shape.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is And it’s not a slasher film, but it certainly paved the way for what would follow.
In her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover outlined the common characteristics of the slasher. Like Psycho, 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. While this specific element surfaces more in Hooper’s sequel, Leatherface took the slasher antagonist more closely in the direction of future subgenre installments. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is and is not a slasher film. Nevertheless, it certainly paved the way for what would follow.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacres Has “Always Been in Meat”
What sets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre apart from other horror films is the potential of its subtext. Henkel and Hooper deserve 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’. Much of 1960’s optimism had faded by the time Hooper made his movie. Whether it was impending economic crises or the drawn-out conflict of Vietnam, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released at unique time. Even as the ‘director as auteur’ was flourishing much of the counterculture movement was losing steam. By the early 1970’s, pervasive disillusionment with capitalism and Western advances was growing. And Jaws and Star Wars would soon shift Hollywood back to more big-budget, studio-driven projects. But Hooper’s movie, in many ways, foresaw the socially conscious horror of the last decade.
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.