The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: when you're wrong, you're wrong

Ah, shoot, so long for my theory!

Oh, it’s possible that Tom previously watched his own copy that was lower res. I’m honestly not sure!

Funny how this happens. A lot of people don’t remember this about Leatherface or the fact that it’s mama who is the killer in the original Friday the 13th. Likewise, the Cenobites aren’t even the villains in the original Hellraiser (Frank is). It’s been awhile but Freddie isn’t quite the “tee hee hee” quipster in the first Nightmare as he is in most of the later movies is he? Michael Meyers began life as a Category 5 hurricane, but later became just another unkillable killer who chops up teens and 20somethings. For a variety of reasons pop culture lays claims to things like that and so they change.

The subsersive/different is ever absorbed by /caught up by/etc the mainstream. It’s the circle of life.

Box Quote: “Artless Artful trash”

Yeah, but I blame this on the fact that it’s such an old series and there’s not much to distinguish one Friday the 13th from any other. Those of us who grew up seeing the 1980 version probably remember very well that the mother was the killer. It’s one of the rare memorable touches in that whole series, which is mostly just a morass of schlock. The one that surprises me – because I sure don’t remember it this way – is that he wasn’t wearing a hockey mask until the third movie. How can you have a Jason Voorhees movie where he’s not wearing a hockey mask?


Sure, and what you say applies to the Texas Chainsaw series as well. There’s nothing to distinguish any of them from each other beyond the first. And maybe arguably the weirdo McConaghey/Zellwiger one, which features not only the two future stars but a rando sadomasochism cult (I guess, I was never sure hot to interpret that). But that certainly features a stock Leatherface (who is sadly outshone by McConaghey’s cyber leg) and cannibals and all that junk. It’s just very weird about it.

Of course some remember. Some forget. Some never knew but absorbed just enough knowledge via osmosis to be dangerous (but ultimately with some incorrect notions).

Man, I haven’t seen Razorback in ages. I tried to watch a more recent outback giant Boar horror movie whose name escapes me but I was prettyu bored early in and didn’t continue. I may need to watch Razorback soon.

I’ve only ever seen this movie once, as a teenager, and I remember it making me so uncomfortable I never wanted to watch it again.

I gotta watch it again.

Thank you both for the corrections! I’m not sure why I assumed Archie was a post-war invention. @nijimeijer, I realized I was thinking of Eaten Alive, the 1977 movie that Hooper and Henkel did right after Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s a godawful piece of junk, and it made me wonder if perhaps there was some clue as to why Texas Chain Saw Massacre was so good, but Eaten Alive was so bad. Maybe Hooper loses something without Henkel? But Kim Henkel is credited with Eaten Alive’s screenplay, so that theory doesn’t hold water. I was conflating Eaten Alive and the 1986 Chainsaw Massacre sequel.

I suppose I should check out Henkel’s 1994 version with Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey. I’m going to be disappointed, aren’t I?

I’m glad you brought this up, because it’s a consistent failure in so many horror movies, and especially in slasher movies that imitate Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Caring about characters is such a fundamental part of storytelling and yet all these horror movies proceed as if they just can’t be bothered, as if their work is done once an attractive actor is cast in the part.

A couple of recent movies that immediately come to mind for me – I suppose it’s just a coincidence that they’re both Australian? – are Wolf Creek and Black Water. Both movies really give the characters time to breathe and develop before introducing any kind of horror, and what makes them effective is that they’re so uncompromising once they do introduce horror. Those are two movies that really understand the formula that brutality is only as effective as whatever empathy you can earn from the audience.

This is where I hope you’ll check it out again at some point, because my recollection was the same as yours. Why would I care about any of these characters when I could barely remember anything about them? Except that there was an annoying guy in a wheelchair?

Because I now think Texas Chain Saw Massacre is in the same category as Wolf Creek and Black Water when it comes to giving the characters time to breathe and working to establish empathy. Not so much for Kirk, Pam, and Jerry, who are pretty quickly dispatched (although I do think Pam’s earnest explanation of astrology is incredibly endearing). But the brother/sister relationship between Sally and Franklin is given a decent amount of time and attention. The way she cares for him, but is annoyed by him. And especially when she makes a decision to leave him alone at the van to go find Jerry, but then Franklin falls apart, terrified at being left alone. At that point, Franklin isn’t just a weird sidekick; he’s a burden, and they both know it, and it’s agonizing to them each in their own way.

This, too, is where you start to see how much Tobe Hooper expects from Marilyn Burns, who plays Sally. And of course, it’s only going to get worse. Much worse. It’s exhausting watching her power through the last third of that movie, and it’s hard not to feel sympathy not just for Sally as a character, but for Burns as an actor.

But more to the point, I think my biggest problem with horror movies lazily expecting me to care about their characters is that I have a hard time tolerating bad actors. I love watching actors work, but most horror movies don’t give the actors much to do, and they certainly don’t care enough to cast actors who are good instead of just good-looking. But I think Hooper pulled together five good actors to be his victims. Keep in mind this was 1973. An indie production. A dramatic break from traditional filmmaking and traditional presentational acting. The five actors playing the victims in Texas Chain Saw Massacre were drawn from theater arts programs in Texas rather than a casting call from the vast pool of wanna-be celebrities in Hollywood, which is where so many modern horror movies will fail before they’ve hardly even begun.

When the van pulls up to Sally’s grandfather’s house and everyone piles out to explore the house, Hooper uses the scene to show how Franklin feels excluded. He has to struggle to pull his wheelchair into the house because everyone else ran ahead, and you can hear them giggling and running around upstairs, reinforcing Franklin’s feelings of isolation. The scene is mainly about Franklin, but while Hooper shows everyone else exploring the house, there’s some nice improv from Marilyn Burns. I think this is where Hooper starts to really lay the foundation to make you care. And where you can see just how comfortable and naturalistic she is as an actor.

On a strictly biographical/personal note, I think I have some built-in empathy for the characters. I was talking with some friends last week about where we each grew up. In talking about growing up in Arkansas, in the 70s and 80s, it occurred to me that part of my fascination with the kids in Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that this is what older kids looked like to me when I was young. In 1973, I would have been nine years old, having just moved to Arkansas after years of moving around among different places. This is what teenagers looked and sounded like to me when I was at the age of being simultaneously terrified and fascinated by them. My first crushes were on girls who looked like Pam and Sally. The older boys at summer camp I admired and wanted to be like, the older boys who bullied me after school, the first older boy to give me a beer, and so on…they all looked like Jerry and Kirk. For guys like me of a certain age, I wonder if there’s a built-in empathy for the victims in Texas Chain Saw Massacre.


I probably haven’t seen it in ten years, but I remember it’s the plot structure of Jaws with the production design of Road Warrior. It’s also one of the earliest examples of a music video director trying his hand at movies; Russell Mulcahy has been trucking along ever since. And, of course, it’s an Everett De Roche script! The original Long Weekend is one of Australia’s best kept secrets.


Depends. If you go in wanting a good movie, yeah, you’re bound to be disappointed. If you’re watching it wanting to see McConaughey just losing his mind as a young actor that hadn’t quite figured out his method, then you’re in for a goofball time.

I mean, dude. :) We come from the same place in eerily similar ways. I grew up in Missouri mostly in a single-parent household in the 1970s, with three older brothers who were 13, 15, and 17 years older than I and had long hair and listened to loud music… and I hero-worshipped them. My memory of that mid-1970s time frame is people who looked like characters in Texas Chain Saw Massacre playing horseshoes and softball and fishing and drinking Busch beer and “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils feeling like an almost ubiquitous soundtrack to that entire years-long era.

So yeah. I will give it another shot, I think, but I think I want to have some of the other Aussie films you mention in my frame of reference and movie vocabulary first.

Oh, and for this, I keep thinking that my low view of TCSM when we viewed it, especially on this particular point regarding character development, might’ve had something to do with the experience of seeing other films with so close together and right alongside it.

And sure enough. We reviewed The Exorcist right before. Which, whatever else folks think about that film, even coked-up Billy Friedkin made us care about the mother and daughter and at least one of the priests VERY much. And we saw Don’t Look Now, too. Which, same. If you’re not empathizing with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland there, then I dunno what to tell you. And then right after TCSM, we watched Jaws, which again, GREAT characterization. We care so much about the characters in that film.

And in the middle is Texas Chain Saw. Where it was situated likely did it few favors.

I love the Scooby-Doo comparison. And yes, Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t artless trash, it’s artful trash, the best kind of art or trash.

I think the movie makes a lot more sense if we assume the villains are habitual killers. The derelict cars under the camouflage netting, their joy at the dinner table, letting the grandfather suck on Sally’s blood, it seems obvious this isn’t the first gang of teenagers that stuck their noses where they didn’t belong.

The cannibalism, that’s more ambiguous. But like you said, the movie treats humans as meat, so the question is sitting there, staring us in the face.

Nonsense, everyone knows teenagers were invented in the US in the 1950’s.

Holy crap, that takes me back. My mom loved that song, played it constantly.

I remember the Road Warrior aesthetic, mostly (it’s one I mostly associate with Australian Cinema although that speaks more to what/how few Australian films I have seen obviously). Although when I saw it back in the 80s, my point of reference always started at classic monster movies. Not Dracula, but Godzilla or Tarantula or Attack of the Gila Monster (my first ever “horror”/monster movie). It wasn’t until later I started drawing mental lines differently (Razorback is very clearly Jaws inspired, but through that particular Australian lens).

Much like @triggercut I also have queued up some of those movies I you mentioned (I have seen Picnic at Hanging Rock and MadMax but not the others). I really dig that Australian aesthetic (in the same way I love that certain 70s one in films like Body Snatchers, or the one shared in many Carpenter films).

This is worth saying twice.

It is not good.

But McConaughey’s effort in the movie is something. And while the formula is clear and well used, it’s a bit weird as formula efforts go.

Also, Bionic Knee.

I am actually ashamed of myself for missing that.

This should be titled “Ode to the Chainsaw from Texas” because this review (I guess it’s a review? Or more like a pining for a love that wasn’t there but was recently found?) reads like a tome here, with paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph praising it. Of course, it deserves every bit of a praise, but…it was just too long. Anyway, it’s my favorite horror movie of all time. The Steelbook blu ray edition is where it’s at.

@ArtVandelay, I’m glad you’re bringing this up, because I want to have this conversation. One of my favorite discoveries re-watching the movie is that there’s no evidence the family has done this before, or that they’ll do it again. And if I’m wrong about that, if I’m missing something, I want to know.

Maybe it makes more sense to a modern audience. I would agree with that. But I think if you take the movie on its own, if you accept its initial premise that the universe is tilting malevolent, that the world is in the throes of weirdly apocalyptic calamities and gruesome misdeeds, it makes perfect sense.

Consider also the historical context. In 1973, serial killer families weren’t a trope. So if Tobe Hooper wanted to make a movie about a family that has killed people over the years and gotten away with it, he would have to be pretty clear about it. We didn’t have a hundred other hillbilly cannibal movies to help us fill in the blanks. Now, sure, it might make sense. But back then, I don’t think it did.

Great points! Let’s consider them:

  1. The cars. In my experience, it’s not unusual in rural areas like that to find derelict cars sitting outside somewhere. Also, the family owns a gas station, so it’s even less unusual that they might have some old junkers hanging around.

  2. The glee at the dinner table. I think the central fact about the family is that they have no empathy. The grandfather and Leatherface have made careers killing cattle and now they’re out of work (note that the father works as the proprietor of the gas station, so he’s probably telling the truth about not liking killing, or at least not liking having to do it himself). All of them are sadistic, and as we know by the bones and body parts, they have no aversion to death and mutilation. There’s clearly something wrong with them, and it all spills out during that dinner scene. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve done it before. In fact, the glee could just as easily make a case that they haven’t killed people before and they’re glad to be back in the killing business.

  3. Sucking Sally’s blood at dinner. There’s some weird blood ritual voodoo going on with the hitchhiker. He cuts himself. He cuts Franklin. He uses his own blood to make a symbol on the van. Perhaps this was passed down from the grandfather. The hitchhiker is the one who initiates cutting Sally’s finger for the grandfather. But again, it doesn’t mean they’ve killed people.

As for whether it’s obvious that they’ve done this before, remember that the crawl implies what we’re seeing – “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history” – is singular. The crawl doesn’t imply there were other crimes revealed.

And I’ll just go back to how the murders unfold. The first three really are a kind of comedy of errors. The hitchhiker isn’t home to watch Leatherface, so as people come into the house and get killed, there’s no one to stop it. It’s only after Leatherface, still unsupervised, freaks out that he leaves the house and confronts Franklin and Sally as they’re yelling and coming toward the house.

So if this is a movie about a family of habitual murderers, it’s also a movie where the victims repeatedly deliver themselves to the murderers’ doorstep. That makes even less sense to me.

I actually don’t think it’s ambiguous. I think there’s zero internal evidence of cannibalism. It’s sheer inference based on Sally looking at the barbecue during the radio broadcast. Again, if I’m missing something, please let me know.

As for treating people as meat, my guess is that’s more a commentary on Vietnam than cannibalism. If Tobe Hooper wanted to invoke cannibalism, wouldn’t he have been more explicit about it?