Retrospective: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Let’s be clear: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is in a masterclass of its own. Director Tobe Hooper found genius in presenting horror as documentary. Well ahead of the found footage boom, he predicted the modern undercurrent of horror, that what is real and grounded can also be the most terrifying. Famously, the film begins with a scroll suggesting this is all based on a true story. Amplifying that with gritty guerrilla-style filmmaking elevates the material to a frightening new threshold.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper.

What’s stood out in the most recent viewing is that the first half is a different movie. Half of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a road movie. The group is off on vacation and exploring the terrain of Texas country backroads. We get a deep backwoods feeling from everyone they meet, a suggestion that maybe we have ventured too far into the sticks. The film insists on movement this way, creating a journey that provides foundational material for so many horror films to follow. It has been credited as a signature inspiration for Alien, what is essentially a trucker film done in space.

The reason The Texas Chain Saw Massacre works is its grounding in grit and reality. It was brilliantly marketed around its correlation to the true story of Ed Gein (who was also the basis for Psycho, 1960). The film is exceptionally loose in its treatment of a real life monster. Framed as a documentary—the characters at a distance with an objective lens—it holds elements of truthfulness. The point is not whether this could have happened but the constant suggestion that every element of evil exists within our world. It has a bleak aesthetic, especially for the time, creating a dark fixation on genuine horror. Every object feels like it will give you an infection just by looking at it. Leatherface and the family themselves feel like credible real-world monsters. That the film is informed by an existent evil permeates every corner of its second half, separating it completely from other horror films of the moment.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper.

There are few shots more haunting than that of Leatherface sucking his teeth and licking his lips. We feel his sensual connection to the violence in such an impactful, filthy way. The treatment of victims as meat for slaughter absolutely chills the senses. People get hung from meat hooks like cattle. The family eats away at humans as a means of sustenance. What could be more terrifying for any prey than to be dehumanized and only holding the potential of food for your predators? This is all to say The Texas Chain Saw Massacre earns its grit full stop.

In the catalog of great horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still holds superior standing. Its influences course through the veins of the genre. The horror remains ever present, never dampened on repeat viewings. It is layered with dirt and realism in a way that few others rarely achieve. Because it perfectly captured its sense of time and place, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has not aged a day since the 1970s, a storied and properly placed film in the canon of all-time greats.

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