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We’ve Never Gotten Over the Original ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

With a new Netflix sequel coming out Friday, let’s salute the 1974 horror classic, whose brilliant simplicity, resonant themes and unfathomable evil are still impossible to shake

It’s always annoying to go to a revival screening and listen to oh-so-hip audience members laugh at what’s archaic or dated about some classic film. This tendency by some people is supposed to signal to the rest of us how much smarter they are than the movie: Look how silly this film is with its odd-speaking characters and their antiquated attitudes! There’s nothing lazier or more smug — yes, not everything in certain masterpieces holds up, but that doesn’t mean you need to let everybody else in the theater be aware that you realize it.

I’ve never seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on the big screen, but I have a feeling that irritating phenomenon doesn’t occur at repretatory houses when it’s showing. Sure, there are some awkward performances and a few other elements of that 1974 horror film that haven’t aged well. But where other movies — especially horror movies — lose their vibrancy as they get older, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre refuses to let you mock it. If anything, the film is even uglier and scarier now than when it came out. And with a sequel arriving on Netflix on Friday, which I haven’t seen yet, now’s as good a time as any to reflect on a movie that’s like a raw wound, a nasty little piece of business that feels unholy, downright evil. That it also happens to be relevant to so many of our modern concerns is merely icing on the cake of a truly disturbing, visionary work.

The story of its making is the stuff of legend, how director and co-writer Tobe Hooper had crafted dozens of documentaries — as well as a trippy experimental film, 1969’s Eggshells — when he landed on the idea of a horror movie about a family of cannibals. “A lot of people have phobias about death,” he once said. “I used to have them as a child, because our family was rather large and there was always someone dying. They would always take me to the funeral parlor and everyone was looking toward the end of the room, at this big box. So I asked why everyone was looking at the box. And all they told me was, ‘You remember Aunt so-and-so. Well, she’s in that box, asleep.’ That was all the information I got, until one relative of mine told me that everyone dies and the world will end.”

Technically speaking, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t a post-apocalyptic film, although you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. At first, it’s merely the saga of five young people on a road trip in Texas. They’re mostly nondescript, and it’s not even clear which of them is the main character — that only happens by default once Sally (Marilyn Burns) outlives the rest of her crew, including her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who uses a wheelchair. They and their buddies venture to the family’s old rundown house in the middle of nowhere. Stories of graveyard-robbing are all over the news, and an edgy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) attacks them along the way. But the real terror starts once they get to the family home, noticing another house nearby.

“I really was trying to make a film that I wanted to see and hadn’t seen before,” Hooper said. “My sensibilities had been finely attuned to what I wanted to see as an audience member.” In the early 1970s, the horror genre had been goosed by the innovations of George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead, but Hooper lamented that Romero’s successors made films that “were so Hollywood-looking. A slick look and the musical score was predictable. They were always trying something that they just weren’t pulling off. … I studied what made horror films work and I decided to place a story in the ambiance of death. An important factor was setting the audience up with kind of a creepy, gooey atmosphere. After that first scene at the graveyard, the movie starts building veils of … ooginess. That’s a good word, although I don’t even know if it is a word.”

Anyone who’s seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre knows what he means. Shot on 16mm, the film looks cheaply-made, hypnotically so. Nobody would confuse the movie with a documentary, but Hooper’s experience in nonfiction perhaps informed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s stark, unfussy images. You feel like you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to — that the scenes are uncensored, unpolished, cobbled together. Even before the really horrible stuff starts happening, you’ve got a knot in your gut. You can’t quite say why, but you sense a general unease. Bad things are coming.

Film scholars will tell you how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, inspired by works like Psycho, was one of the first slasher films, influencing every sociopathic monster slicing up teenagers in movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th. But often, the films that arrive after the originators are more sophisticated, more expensive, more ambitious, making what came before look small and quaint by comparison. So what’s remarkable about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that its low-budget aesthetic remains its great strength. Future slasher films were bloodier and more elaborate, and yet they can’t compare with the simplicity of Hooper’s vision. Essentially, this is what happens: One of Sally’s friends goes into this mysterious house and is killed, then another, and another. There really aren’t jump cuts and not even that much gore. (When the malevolent Leatherface wields that chainsaw, we don’t see the carnage.) His victims don’t have backstories or rarely anything interesting to say. Other than Sally, I struggle to even remember their names.

In other words, this movie shouldn’t hold up — we should laugh at it the same way we goof on 1950s horror and sci-fi films with their rubber monster costumes. Instead, its primitiveness taps into what’s so untamed about its terrors. It’s not just the dilapidated, bone-strewn house that feels trashy — it’s the sometimes clumsy staging and the amateurish acting, the way the editing is occasionally rough and the score sounds like it consists of rusty machine parts clanking around. On a script level, this movie is rudimentary in its plotting, and traditional narrative requirements like engaging characters and plausibility are nonexistent. 

But all the things that are wrong about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are what keep it so shocking. (Even the title is wrong: It should be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) The entire movie violates our notion of how films are supposed to operate — especially viewed from the perspective of 2022, when slasher films have grown uniform and stale, lacking the elemental fright that infuses The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s like a wild beast Hooper unleashed into our collective consciousness, infecting our psyche the same way that Leatherface slices into his victims’ young flesh. 

American movies of the 1970s were awash in politics, their outsider, rebellious characters representing a growing defiance and disillusionment within the country in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. It’s impossible not to see those societal currents flowing through The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but that’s an intellectual response to a movie that mostly attacks your nervous system. And despite its crudity, the film is stunningly prescient, laying out the cultural ills that have defined the ensuing decades. Most pointedly, the finale’s portrait of an imperiled woman fearing for her life — the threat of rape and death as close as that gag in her mouth — while being pure exploitation is depicted so viscerally that it’s genuinely moving and upsetting to watch Sally battle to stay alive. (Like Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis and The Shining’s Shelley Duvall, Burns is such an extraordinary screamer that her shrieks seem to communicate something deeper about trauma and assault, all three female characters linked by the fact that they’re tortured by malicious men.) 

But the film’s blunt examination of sexual assault is just one layer of this wrenching cinematic onion. Disgustingly but forcefully, Hooper draws a connection between barbecue — that most American of meals — and the gruesome slaughtering of animals going on inside the house, not to mention the dead human bodies in the fridge. (It’s fair to say that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has convinced more viewers to become vegetarians than probably any other horror flick.) And anyone with an aversion to red-state America will find in this film a nightmare scenario: Hooper does nothing to downplay the idea that Leatherface and the rest of his family are unreconstituted hicks, the worst aspects of this backwoods, vulgar country that revels in its violence and cruelty, destroying innocents indiscriminately. Two years after the flyover scares of John Boorman’s Deliverance, Hooper made rural Texas the epicenter of our fears about ugly Americans doing unspeakable things, laying in wait to kill and devour the rest of us.

If Hooper was highbrow about any of this, his commentary would be obvious and forced. Instead, it feels accidental, like so much of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, whose slapdash quality makes its horrors more pronounced and unpredictable. After decades of knowing how slasher films are supposed to play out, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so scary because it exists before the genre rules were ironed out. Anything could happen, and no one involved in its making seems concerned about it being remotely tasteful or respectable. Maybe that’s why it’s also upsettingly sexual, with Grandpa’s sucking on Sally’s bloody finger among the most creepily erotic things in any horror movie. Hooper just keeps pushing buttons, ratcheting up the tension until it becomes unbearable. Everything in this film defies logic, which is one definition of terror.

In his negative review, Roger Ebert declared, “[The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is] without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose. And yet in its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted and all too effective.” I’d argue that the movie isn’t actually that well-acted — or well-made from a purely technical/craft level. But no film I can think of goes straight into your bloodstream the way this one does. It feels like a miracle, which is a strange thing to say about a movie this aggressively dark and fearsome. 

Hooper only had a few successes after this watershed film — and one of them, Poltergeist, has long been assumed not to be his but, rather, his producer’s, Steven Spielberg. (It’s a long, complicated story.) But the fact is, Hooper’s inability to ever match The Texas Chain Saw Massacre again only adds to its mystery and power. There have been sequels and reboots — including Hooper’s own The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986 — but the original stands alone. 

At the end, Sally somehow gets away, barely, while Leatherface stands in the middle of the road, his chainsaw still buzzing maniacally. But we’ve never really escaped him. What The Texas Chain Saw Massacre represents about our culture, how it speaks to the ineffable paranoia around us, the way that it depicts faceless evil as an everyday reality — all of that remains unresolved. Sally watches Leatherface get smaller in the distance, but she still has to live in the same terrifying world as the rest of us.