Thirty years of horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Title Thirty years of horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Author Tom Chick and Chris Hornbostel
Posted in Movie reviews
When October 15, 2013

Tom: This artless trash has paved the way for hundreds, maybe thousands, of copycat movies about the slaughter and occasional torture of vapid teenagers. There's no one to care about, no one to root for, no one even remotely interesting..

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Great, I've got to try to drum up some counter argument from my inarticulate ass because I've always been a fan of this movie and I'm a little surprised at the scorn being piled up here. I can't help but feel like you guys are looking for some other movie, and you're holding it against Chainsaw that it's not that movie. I feel like it's a pretty tight visual nightmare, not really a linear plot of events, but terrible things that happen on young people in the wrong place at the wrong (any) time. I'm always amused at the reputation this movie has for gore despite having virtually none, especially by current standards. And I think it's probably a mistake to look from much characterization from the young people - they aren't really the protagonists of the movie anyway. More like wild game.

I'll take that bait! I can buy into the kids as wild game here. I can buy into them as fodder for Leatherface's kill score. But if I do that, I need something back. I need a reason to care, or at least be fascinated by, with the family. And...I just don't. They might as well be wild game themselves. I just wasn't moved or motivated to fear or hate them, as I mentioned. I was motivated to hate watching much more of this.

This came out when I was about 6. It held great mystique and dread over me for years. When I finally saw it, I 'was' horrified... by how empty it was. I felt nothing for anyone, neither the victims nor the crazy, murderous family. Tom's dead-on especially with two remarks. This a fetishization of suffering with no point or finesse. AND the only lasting moment in the film is the first kill w/ the door slam. The kill is sudden, dispassionate and abruptly hidden. I never watched any of the follow-ups or sequels, and I honestly don't plan to watch this again.

Also, Chris has it right, the grandfather was the worst makeup ever. Was it supposed to be another skin mask, or could they just not find an old dude to swing the hammer?

I've read some people describing this one as a classic that the countless torture porn imitators didn't understand or didn't successfully emulate, but yeah...I just don't get it. There's not really characters, there's not really gore, there's not really much that's clever or interesting or in any way memorable. I didn't understand, after watching it, why it was so successful or why it -had- emulators.

Hell, I think Rob Zombie's House of a Thousand Corpses, which owes a fair bit to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and is certainly the least interesting of the four of his films that I've seen, has way more to offer. And I don't know that I'd recommend -that-. (The Devil's Rejects, though...)

Also, Tom...I don't want to speak for anything else he's made, most of which I haven't even seen and don't particularly intend to, but Wes Craven knew how to make at least one good movie - A Nightmare on Elm Street is still incredibly effective, in my book. (I also vaguely recall enjoying Scream but I think more interesting playing with the genre has been done since, such as You're Next.)

I can't argue with how you feel, of course. But your mentioning that you need a reason to care about the characters is exactly what I mean. It strikes me as being uninterested in accepting the movie on its own terms. I don't think Hooper really cared how they got there or why they have such a nice little house out in the middle of nowhere. That you care is your prerogative, but I suggest that it's missing the point. Leatherface is the boogeyman, the teenagers are, you know, teenagers. It's not deep and it's not broad, and it's more than a little unpleasant. But it still always strikes a nerve in me, enough that I had to chime in.

Surprised you can see a point to Martyrs, Human Centipede and A Serbian Film, but completely miss the boat on this. The movie is about factory animal farming and this luckily sums it up better than I ever could -

Hate the movie if you wish, but dismiss it as artless and themeless and you only show yourself to be a lazy viewer. I can't disagree that the dialogue and acting can be extremely amateurish, but I think for certain moviegoers who don't require character arcs (I'd say there most certainly is one for Sally, but not every story requires one and it's the poor critic who thinks it does), emotional connections (I find myself rooting for Sally's escape, but there are plenty of wonderful directors who've garnered success by removing emotional connections to characters) or are generous enough to not question why such aspect of the house is maintained in such and such a way (I'd also argue reasons for the grounds to be kept and the sliding metal door are central to the theme as well).

Personally, I consider this one of the few horror movies I actually like - a low budget piece of disquietude with moments pulled from nightmare logic and an intelligent parable on its theme - warts and all. Critics above all need to be generous enough to at least begin with the mindset that the director isn't out only to titillate or mindlessly entertain or else that is all we will ever end up with.

Let's see, linking to someone else's article because he's unable to articulate his point? Check. Making absolute declarations about what a critic should and shouldn't do? Check. Easy accusations such as laziness and "missing the boat"? Check. Yeah, I can tell this is a discussion waiting to never happen. Dude, I've avoided more of these than you'll ever have in your lifetime!

Which is a bit of shame, because I'd love to have a conversation with a fan of this movie who's capable of having a conversation without being butthurt that someone else doesn't like it. Oh, look, we have one of those posting in this thread! I'm going to go talk to him. But I did enjoy your "intelligent parable on its theme" line. You sound like a guy who had to write a lot of papers in college.

Pogue, hope you don't mind me butting into your exchange with Chris.

I don't really know how to get around your bit about "accepting a movie on its own terms" without churlishly proclaiming "nuh-uh". I watch a metric ton of crappy horror films, and I'm capable of enjoying many of them. Even adoring some of them. Get me started on Chupacabra Terror at some point, which is all about accepting a movie on its own terms. So I have to say I understand the terms Tobe Hooper laid down here, and their legacy for horror movies. That doesn't help me. Accepting Texas Chainsaw Massacre and liking it are two very different things. I don't know how you think me or Chris is expecting it to be something its not, any more than anyone else who doesn't like a movie.

But more to the point, I'd compare this to Devil's Rejects, which Barac mentioned in his comment. That's another movie where the victims are just game, and the movie is about the murderous clan, and they're interesting to me. Devil's Rejects, a grim movie, doesn't just fetishize suffering because it offers a set of fascinating and somewhat fleshed out anti-heroes. But I don't get the sense that early Tobe Hooper had any idea how to do what Rob Zombie did in Devil's Rejects. I just get the feeling that he's flailing clumsily, and I'm surprised that people accept it as craft.

So rather than me defending why I don't like it -- there's plenty of that here! -- I'd love to hear more about why you do like it. I like that you call it a "tight visual nightmare", because I can understand that (although I would take issue with "tight"). But I'd love to hear more. What else do you like about Texas Chainsaw Massacre? What makes it work for you?

I suspect a lot of Texas Chainsaw Massacre's success had to do with its reputation.

And by the way, I'm not dismissing all of Tobe Hooper's or Wes Craven's movies. Craven in particular did some really nifty things with Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, although I can't help but wonder how much of Scream's smarts belong to the writer, Kevin Williamson. As for Tobe Hooper's later career, the conventional wisdom about Poltergeist is that Spielberg was the driving creative force behind it. But I like The Funhouse. I think Lifeforce is junk, hot nekkid space vampire chick aside. I should probably see Invaders from Mars again, but I don't remember really liking it. At the very least, Tobe Hooper got a sense of style at some point.

I'm definitely not butthurt the two of you didn't like it - I just think you all give it short shrift and misread it completely. Any attacks were on you as a critic and not as a person. I haven't seen the film in about 3 years (have seen it a few times), so it was easier to use someone else's words instead of coming up with half-remembered specifics. So we both think the other is lazy and a poor critic and dismissed the other with lazy, poor criticism, fine - on to the movie.

Obviously, with how strong your reactions to the film were, I don't think you two will ever like it. I think most of that is due to your expectations from movies (mentions of a need for a character arc and emotional connection) differ from mine and part is due to the poor qualities that are part of the film (dialogue, plotting, acting). My only goal will be to open up the possibility that this is a film "about meat" as the director says - dismiss it as poorly explored, but don't be closed off to it just for missing it in the first place.

To quote the article:
"Toward the beginning of the film, to set all this up, the character Franklin (an eventual victim) describes in horrifying detail how animals are killed. Everything he describes soon happens to the Sawyers’ victims:
They bash ’em in the head with a big sledgehammer. It usually wouldn’t kill on the first click. … They’d start squealing and freaking out and everything, and they’d have to come up and bash them two or three times. And then sometimes it wouldn’t kill ’em. I mean they’d skin ’em sometimes before they were even dead.
One of his friends responds, “Well, that’s horrible. People shouldn’t kill animals for food.”"

This establishes the theme (I believe they're eating hot dogs by the van either during or close to this discussion). The whole rest of the movie is the tables turning on our protagonists with Sally literally taking the part of the animal in the sledgehammer killing, becoming just a screaming animal trying to escape incomprehensible murderous butchers. That our killers take care of their lawn not only provides the horror movie moment of quickly crossing over from the normal to the horrific, it gives them a slight human quality as well - they are a family looking for a meal. The cannibal family are human (the exterior of the house is fairly normal), butchers (the hooks, bones, sliding meat locker door, aprons), and monsters (their appearance, actions). They treat their meat as we treat ours, without emotion towards the living thing. The close up of terrified Sally's eye is reminiscent of what we see in every animal slaughtered on film from Apocalypse Now to Franju's Blood of the Beasts - their staring eye, providing a bit of human connection. If you don't connect with her, the movie won't be very effective, but the theme is still present.

That a character describes the killing of animals for food and then that happens for the rest of the movie should be enough to establish the film is more than just violence for violence sake. It's not subtle. Whether or not you find it an interesting/effective exploration of that theme, entertaining, or gratuitous is up to you - just don't exclude it from the ranks of Martyrs, A Serbian Film or any other horror film using the genre to explore an outside theme. To do that is to miss the sledgehammer they've been beating you over the head with. I mean c'mon, many times when one of our victims is being hurt, we literally hear cows and pigs as the sound effect - to see the film as solely violence porn without a message is just such a lazy viewing. Hate it for the right reasons, not the wrong.

I’m a fan, and I’d like to have a conversation : )

Texas Chainsaw is one of those great horror movies that can still clear a room, and while I was psyched for this to come up on the list and pretty disappointed by both Tom and Chris’ thoughts, I think I can understand the reasoning behind hating it. Before I get into why I love this so much first a story: many years ago my wife and I had a little horror movie marathon for our friends, friends that really weren’t into horror movies. We started with Night of the Living Dead, then Halloween, and capped the night with Texas Chainsaw. As soon as the guy in the van cuts himself everyone got uneasy, and by the time that metal slaughterhouse door slammed shut and you hear that sound, that sharp buzzing sound, everyone got up to leave.

And they didn’t get up to leave because they thought the movie was artless trash, they got up to leave because they were horrified.

Texas Chainsaw may have beget torture porn (but even there I’m not so sure, for all of killing there is very little gore, and not a lot of torture) but it also gave birth to masked freaks, groups of terrorized teenagers, explicit slasher movies, dirty low budget visuals, mute antagonists, and multiple generations of scream queens that get away in the end.

And Tom, while you did go all ad hominem on the guy who brought up the slaughterhouse/vegetarian angle, there is something to that. Tobe Hooper was making a point when he made the deaths and suffering so empty. To leatherface the kids are just pieces of meat. More animals to slaughter. That’s why that first death is so shocking. He treats that kid like he would an animal. He does not distinguish. There is something sickening about a slaughterhouse and the people who do those jobs. And these kids, to their misfortune, are in an abattoir. Leatherface is conditioned against seeing any suffering, he’s blind to it. When he picks the kid up and puts the body on a hook, he does so as he would a side of beef. He does not hear the protest. It’s horrifying. And that the whole thing happens in broad daylight makes it more so.

Leatherface is something out of a nightmare, but not from the supernatural nightmares of the 50s and 60s. It’s a very 70s kind of nightmare. A world where horror comes from actual people who do actual jobs in the real world. An industrialized and alienated nightmare. People like Hooper didn’t care about those old monster movies, or the atomic bomb. He cared about Vietnam. About the meaningless slaughter of innocents (animals and humans). About the way the minds of men can break and lead to brutal results.

We have to wait till Carpenter comes along to actually have the eyes of the killer, but with Texas Chainsaw Hooper was trying to do that, to put us in the shoes of the killer, to make us see the meaninglessness of death. We’re not supposed to be on the kids side, just like you’re not on the side of the cattle. There are no sides.

It’s a dirty, disgusting, weird, heartless, disturbing piece of trash. The best kind.

When I say not accepting it on its own terms, all I mean is that I can't help but feel that you guys spend a lot of space in this discussion talking about how the movie doesn't give you any reason to care about either the young people or Leatherface and his family as characters. And I can't help but feel if Tobe Hooper were in on this, he'd ask why you even care about them as characters, because I doubt he did. But that's enough about that.

So yeah, why I like the movie. When I say tight, I mean it kind of abandons the stuff, like characterization, that doesn't matter. It's not like Jaws, where you have downtime on the Orca and the three protagonists get fleshed out - it's just boom, boom, boom, one incident after the next. It doesn't have a plot, or a story, just oh man, this is sick. That's the nightmare part, the fever dream aspect. It feels very unreal.

The weird thing about all this is, I'm not even really sure how much I like Chainsaw, but I definitely respect it, which is why I'm chiming in at all. I think you've got to give Leatherface his due as an iconic "movie monster" with Jason and Pinhead and the like. I don't know whether to call the movie a classic - I don't know if just doing what it does well is enough, partly because it abandons characterization and plotting. It doesn't stand up with Alien, Night of the Living Dead, Jaws because they do make you care. But, like I said, I don't think Hooper aimed that high. He wanted to freak us out, and I think he succeeded. So on that standard alone I'm willing to call Chainsaw Massacre a success.

I'm quite fond of the movie as well and for many of the same reasons. I doubt many victims in horror movies understand the motivation or care about their attackers as much as they're, well, horrified. The confusion and sudden violence of it all creates the drama/horror. Also, that dude in the wheelchair had it coming.

I love the final scene. I don't care how many Star Wars kid references you make.

Lifeforce was awesome when I was 15

Reading today's entry made me realize how complex my thoughts are about this utterly un-complex film are.
First of all, I think it's important to look at this film as kind of a dividing line between the pre-Vietnam war horror film and the post-Vietnam one- there are definitely cultural forces at work here, and by 1974 Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, and a maybe-maybe not ghost weren't particularly frightening. So what you see happening here (and to a lesser extent in Craven's Last House on the Left two years earlier) is a move from the "horror" film to the "terror" film. I would argue that there are differences, particularly in that the terror film seeks to directly inculcate and in some ways indict the viewer in what is occuring on screen. We're a long away, by 1974, from men in waistcoats being "horrified" by Dracula's lack of regard for Victorian manners.
It was mentioned in another comment that this is a shift away from supernatural horror toward a more "real" (or possibly even industrial) kind and I think that holds true. The meta-analysis of the film as a vegetarian polemic holds up. It is also in fact, a vile and reprehensible picture that inspired lots of utter dreck over the years. It isn't as gory as the title suggests- and it's one of the best titles ever, possibly accounting for half of this film's notoreity and ongoing popularity. Nothing that Tom and Chris said isn't true or worth mentioning. Its defenders have vaild points too.
What I keep coming back to when I think about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is how transgressive it is, but not in a particularly artful or contextually significant way. It's a blunt force tool, like grandpa's hammer. There is no glamour in this film, for all of its fetishization. There is no pretense. It does not pretend like the audience is sitting in a seat to see a film called "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" for any other reason than to see a woman hung on a meathook. The transgression against the viewer is ultimately revealed to be that the film _isn't entertaining at all_. And reading some of Tom and Chris' comments, I can see them railing against that aspect of it, and possibly rightly so. But by the same token, I admire this picture's boldface honesty.
The events depicted in the film are not fun and are not shown to be fun. Maybe one of the messages this film is conveying, whether Hooper intended it or not, is that we _shouldn't_ be engaged in or enjoying this kind of film.
Should a film called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with all of its possibility vegetarian subtexts and extreme terror inflicted not only on the cast but the viewers, be "entertaining" to begin with? Should it have "likeable" characters and compelling subplots to keep our attention? Why do we watch films like this, especially terror films and not horror films where the agents of death and suffering come from a realistic setting and not European folktales and superstition? Why do we watch films where unlike Psycho, the knife does enter the body? Why do we court terror and proximity to images of death in these kinds of pictures.
There are a lot of terror elements in this film that i think are shockingly raw and effective. Everybody remembers the door. That totally works because a) why do they have an industrial door in their house b) what goes on behind that door and c) it's LOUD. Sound is such a big factor in this film in terms of generating terror- not horror- in the audience. I haven't seen it in a while, but in my memory the screams, the chainsaw, and other meaty sounds resonate more so than any sounds in any other horror film. I remember playing Resident Evil 4 the first time (still probably the best console game ever made) and climbing up that tower in the first village to hide from the Ganados. From down below, you hear a chainsaw rev up. You should be thinking "oh, they're going to cut some firewood". But because of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you know that this is not the case.
For all I've just written (and thought about) this movie, it is easy to overthink it. You can find subtext, authorial intent, and value in utterly anti-human garbage like any given Eli Roth film or Human Centipede. At the end of the day, what I come back to with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that it is what it is- polarizing, difficult, not entertaining, unremittingly grim, and empty.
I think that's the most powerful statement anyone here has said about it, that it's just empty. Thank you for that Joshua. That's what shocked me the most when I first saw it, after years of hearing the title and thinking "oh man, I bet that movie is just blood and gore constantly flying at the screen for 90 minutes". That it was just nihilistic, bleak, and hollow without redemption. But those qualities in itself are what give this film is dark weight.
And then they went funny for the sequel and undid all of that work. C'est la vie.

BTW, I would REALLY be interested to see what you guys had to say about Cannibal Holocaust, but I would feel morally wrong recommending it if you haven't already seen it.

Why is Leatherface iconic? What makes him stand out for you? After years of unspeaking Jasons on one hand and quipping Freddies on the other, to me, he strikes me as not enough of either. And he looks silly. Plus he's slow and inefficient.

Leatherface got there first! Come on, that's got to count for something. Plus, come on man, chainsaw. I may be carrying baggage from a traumatic experience I had as a young boy from a time I went to a popular haunted house attraction. While people were lined up to go in, this dude in a mask ran through the crowd with a chainsaw. I didn't know you could take the actual chain out and render the thing harmless but still really freaking loud. I don't like chainsaws much.

Dude, asking people to sit through Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the end of a night of classic horror movies? That's just mean. I'd leave, too! :)

Again, I get that the deaths are empty. That's a key ingredient to this kind of horror. But why not make them meaningful? Wolf Creek, for instance, is a horrifying movie that I can respect for that. You can still protest the slaughter of teenagers in Vietnam or the industrial dehumanization (heh) of killing animals in a slaugherhouse by making the deaths meaningful. But Tobe Hooper didn't do that. He made a movie with, as you say "no sides". But I don't agree a) that there's any craft there, or b) that there are no sides.

You attribute a lot of it to craft, but I don't see it. I can name a lot of other directors and writers who didn't care about old monster movies and the atomic bomb (see the other movies we're writing up this month). Compare Hooper to another first-time director named George Romero.

For instance, the characters in Texas Chainsaw Massacre aren't developed not because Hooper doesn't spend time with them. He does. A lot of time. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is clearly trying to develop its characters, and it fails. Hooper's direction, script, and actors simply aren't up to the task. That laborious scene with the hitchhiker isn't terrifying. It's just bad. Amateur hour bad. The crawl is ridiculous. The time spent trying to create an emotional connection with the brother in the wheelchair isn't at all some statement about how "there are no sides". I don't see that. I just see inept storytelling. Unfortunately, that's how I feel about a lot of the movie.