Often imitated, never equalled, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre provides the DNA for every slasher film to come after.
Quentin Tarantino calls The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a “perfect film.” Often imitated, never equalled, it provides the DNA for every slasher film to come after it. Ruthless, vicious, and scarring, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, loses none of its punch nearly 50 years after its release.
If you love horror and have never seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you need to drop what you’re doing and watch it now. If you think horror is lame because all you’ve seen is crap, please watch this movie and speak to me afterward. If you refuse to watch horror because you get frightened by scary movies, well, OK–lock this one away and throw away the key.
Personally, I am a jaded horror fan. I’ve seen too many crap horror films that blatantly ape this film (House of 1000 Corpses, Saw, X, etc.) lionized simply because it seems that we all want to pretend someone has come up with a new, fresh torture-film scare. That isn’t to say that excellent horror films have not existed since (Halloween, Suspiria, Evil Dead I and II, the Babadook), yet none of these is a direct descendant of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
To me, the biggest problem of horror movies is when what’s on the screen can’t frighten me nearly as much as what I imagine the film to be capable of. It is rare that my expectations are met or subverted with horror, and it is difficult to say why. Perhaps what we must acknowledge is that for a horror film to deliver what it promises is just as hard as the same task is for a film of any genre. We mistakenly think it’s easy because many horror films are done on the cheap.
With this in mind, I agree that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect film because it delivers what it sets out to: chills, disturbance, empathic sensation, panic, and, one prays, exquisite relief should Sally (Marilyn Burns) escape her nightmare. It is a rare film that is able to pay off fully what it sets up. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre admittedly doesn’t set much up, but what it does set up it pays off in spades.
The plot of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so basic as to be nearly irrelevant: five teenagers go for a trip and end up running out of gas; after they knock on the door of a nearby house attempting to barter for gas, they are picked off one by one until only the Final Girl, Sally, remains to be terrorised.
Crucially, we don’t know much about the characters, nor do we care. There is no B-story nor any pretension of one. We are thrust into the story and forced to deal with the characters as they are: not lacking in any sense, but we have to live with them in situ. We don’t get any sort of judgment on whether this is “the one who’s too interested in sex, so he’ll die” or “this is the one who’s annoying, so he’ll definitely die.”
In fact, in contrast with many of the films that come later, even Sally has come with a boyfriend, Jerry (Allen Danziger), whom we assume she would eventually have run off with to cavort in the dark had circumstances not taken a somewhat unfortunate turn.
Reflecting on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one begins to see how much modern horror loves to moralize, telling us who deserves to die because of his or her behavior. In contrast, in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one is struck by how innocent the victims are. They’re just kids messing around, trying to have a good time. Rather than putting the viewer in an omniscient position, eager to pass judgment, the film suggests to the viewer “there but for the grace of God go ye.”
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre follows a classic Aristotelian three-act structure to a T: creepy opening, inciting incident with the hitchhiker, action rising to the death of Kirk (William Vail), the first victim of iconic psychopath and amateur sausage-making enthusiast Leatherface, and various machinations to kill everyone else until Leatherface attacks Sally and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) at the midpoint. At this point, Leatherface chases Sally through an excruciating Act IIb until she finds apparent salvation at the gas station we saw in Act I. Soon enough, we realize that she’s jumped from the frying pan into the fire as the Old Man (the gas station attendant, Jim Siedow) drags her back to the farmhouse…
If you ever needed proof that Aristotle was on the money, this film is an excellent example. It is remarkable in its ability to increase the stakes. It is chilling enough after the inciting incident with the hitchhiker, and the floor keeps dropping from under us for another 60 minutes. Things can, it seems, only get worse.
With regard to the ending of the film, it makes sense to conjecture that there is no dramatic payoff unless Sally survives this ordeal. However, one of the key joys of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that the viewer is never quite sure whether Sally will make it out alive.
Even upon rewatching, my visceral sense is that Sally may not survive, even though intellectually I know the ending. The ability to inspire such a feeling is a mark of genius.
Hilariously, director Tobe Hooper was concerned about distribution rights for the film and tried to get a PG (roughly 12+ in the US/PG in the UK) rating for the film by cutting almost all of the blood out of it. When the film was given an R (17+ in the US/18+ in the UK) rating, Hooper was upset because the adult rating would cost him distribution money. A similar ratings concern repeated itself throughout international territories. However, it is worth asking whether Hooper’s self-imposed restrictions made him go for the frightening and disturbing in creative, daring, and ultimately more impactful ways.
Note how unfathomably skin-crawling the film is. Presumably in deference to the ratings boards, the film does not have a huge amount of blood. However, it does have a woman hung on a meathook right in front of us, a man bludgeoned with a slaughterhouse killing hammer on-screen, copious taxidermy, animal skeletons, incredibly disturbing wax corpses, furniture made of human skeletons and severed limbs , lampshades made of human faces, and consistent mention of butchery, slaughterhouses, smoked meats, and organ meat delicacies such as head cheese . Even if it isn’t real, none of it is CGI, and that pays off dividends for its ability to make the skin crawl. This may also have hurt the child-friendliness of its BBFC rating.
Perhaps the key point about the violence that Hooper did not see (or chose not to see) is that it is matter-of-fact: fast, brutal, and realistic, it is not fetishized as one might expect from a modern horror. There is no slow-motion chainsaw work. You see the chainsaw eviscerate Sally’s brother, the wheelchair-bound Franklin, as rapidly as it would actually have happened. You see Sally jump from a second-floor window to the ground to escape Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the chainsaw-wielding maniac wearing a mask of cured human skin, in as much time as the actual fall would have taken.
Yet it makes sense. Wouldn’t you jump, too? There is no pornographic, fetishistic aspect to the depiction of violence. It’s fucked up, and that’s OK. Of course it’s fucked up. That’s the point!
If we’re trying to decipher what bothered the ratings boards about this movie, I think it’s pretty clear. We needn’t worry about the fact that the film is loosely based on the exploits of real-life creep, weirdo, and serial killer Ed Gein. Rather, we need to concern ourselves with the fetishistic enjoyment that the antagonists express as they inflict pain and torture upon their victims.
There is no sexual violence in the film, per se, yet we consistently find ourselves on alert, expecting the next corner to reveal degradation, violation, a retreat to the familiar narrative that the existence of the patriarchy can explain everything wrong in the world. Except when it can’t.
Rather, the patriarchy, real as it may be, cannot explain explain the repeated association of the body with slaughterhouses, sausage, or head cheese. It cannot explain the disturbed frisson one feels watching Leatherface thrust and penetrate with his massive chainsaw. It does not explain the film’s fetishistic reverence for body parts, whether attached to their owners or liberated in service of home decor. The patriarchy definitely cannot explain the psychopathic glee evident in the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), and the Old Man as they torture their victims.
In theory, nothing obviously sexual is proposed in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the buzz of sexual pleasure is evident in the action–as if we should be concerned that we are witnessing something inappropriate. In point of fact, we are, but it is nothing sexually untoward. It just seems as if it is.
Note particularly the scenes where Sally, wrapped in burlap, is beaten by the Old Man; Marilyn Burns, Jim Siedow, and Tobe Hooper agreed that the strikes would be real as no fakery looked convincing enough. Burns was severely bruised and fainted after eight takes. Unsurprisingly, the sadism and torture appear so real as to make the viewer exceptionally uncomfortable. We experience pain along with Sally because the violence, to an uncomfortable degree, was real.
In short, the monsters in this movie fetishize killing in a way that not even Norman Bates could hope to copy. Sexual violation is irrelevant because they already have full power over Sally. She is in their clutches, subject to whatever they desire. In fact, in the one quasi-sexual moment in the film, Sally, desperate to escape offers the Hitchhiker, Leatherface, and the Old Man “anything [they] want.”
We need not explore Sally’s implication here, but rather how the men react: they choose to double down on violence against Sally rather than embrace sexual opportunism. Freud is still rubbing his van Dyke over the lack of over sexual content in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre . These monsters are somehow incomprehensible to the modern mind. They aren’t into vanilla sex; their fetish is killing folks.
Unfortunately, much modern horror plays too much on the psychology of its characters. These films often have bones to pick, engineering whether we can or even should like these characters given their missteps, neuroses, or personality flaws. More often than not, modern horror films choose to shoehorn in motivation and character arc, yet the writing is too poor or the actors too inept to portray either of these aptly . Ultimately, it just makes it easy to guess who gets picked off and in what order, and that makes for a boring horror film.
Ultimately, however, Hooper proves that we don't need the psychology of a killer to find one scary. If anything, the realism is that if you were faced with a killer you probably wouldn’t know his psychology, either.
It is rare for a script to have the chutzpah to examine the thoughtlessness, ridiculousness, or, yes, even the banality of evil that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre describes.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is mainlined slasher-horror. Contrast this with John Carpenter’s Halloween, another nearly-perfect film. In Halloween, the first three minutes notwithstanding, Michael Myers doesn’t kill until after the midpoint of the film.
In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the midpoint is when Leatherface kills Franklin. The second half of the second act is nothing more than Sally running breathlessly away from Leatherface in one way or another. By this point, Sally is clearly the audience’s avatar. The very realness of Sally’s frustrations tell us that this is what we, too, could expect in a real situation when pursued by a crazed killer.
Crisis erupts when Sally, squeezing through a thorn patch, traps her flowing hair in these same thorns: how banal a way to be caught by the madman–unless she can struggle out. We experience her trials and tribulations in real time from this point forward, and it is breathtaking–in its own hyperventilation-inducing way.
Bearing this in mind, I challenge the viewer not to root for Sally because she is “better” than the other characters. At best, she grudgingly helps her invalid brother; in fact, they hardly seem to like each other. Presumably, Sally does so because she has been raised to be the kind of person who is “good to others.”
(Recall that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween is presented as the measured, meek one among her group of over-sexualized friends. While Carpenter has spent over 40 years denying any latent sexism with regard to these choices , said choices are on display for anyone who wants to watch.)
Still, Sally’s grudging attention to Franklin hits home. We could all be better people and could stand to take a lesson from Sallybe good to other people, even if they are annoying (and, more frustratingly, even if they make shitty horror films).
As you watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I defy the viewer not to identify with Sally, for she is not the clichéd Final Girl we have become so inured to. She is a person we hardly know, with human desires, human frustrations, and, but for the grace…she could be us.
With this, I challenge you not to feel Sally’s pain, her injuries, her terror. I’m sure the family has a seat at dinner for you, too.
 This is much harder to achieve than it might seem, and an art unto itself.  Horror-speak for the last remaining victim, usually female, usually a mild-mannered, “virginal” type.  Today’s first victim, that is.  This film was made in the era before plastic skeletons in anatomy class, where human skeletons could be purchased for clinical use. Although I could find no documentation, there is a fair chance that the ones in this film are real. On the same odds, I would venture that the severed limbs were not real.  If you’ve ever had the pork brawn, congratulations: that’s the Middle Class name for head cheese.  Ti West called: he said his version would have more sex.  In the case of Ti West’s X, evidently both; it’s curious how the otherwise solid Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega both managed to get involved only to be hamstrung by the pretentious, second-rate script.  I am inclined to side with Carpenter here that it wasn’t intentional, but against a modern backdrop it’s hard to argue that such an interpretation is entirely without merit.