“I think we just picked up Dracula.”
Horror fans consider Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) one of the most horrific movies to splatter across a movie screen. Critics tend to take a negative view, calling Texas Chainsaw Massacre a depraved, valueless monstrosity, a movie which never should have seen the light of day. One thing is for sure: Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those few horror movies which so effect us that we will always remember the first time we saw it and how it made us feel.
Five young people traveling along the back roads of Texas drive to a cemetery, where Sally and Franklin’s grandfather is buried. Rumors abound of a recent grave robbing wave, and the youngsters are understandably concerned about the grandfather’s grave site. Upon arriving at the cemetery, they leave handicapped Franklin alone in the van, an inhumane gesture that would be repugnant if a dog were locked inside, let alone a crippled family member. An old drunkard puts a scare into Franklin, raving on about terrible things he’s seen happen that nobody else will talk about. If the film’s dark opening monologue isn’t enough to convince you something horrible is about to happen, the drunk’s lunatic diatribe should do the trick.
Things go from disturbing to insane when they stop to pick up a hitchhiker (Ed Neal) roasting along the roadside. When the hitchhiker borrows Franklin’s pocket knife to slice a hunk of skin off his own thumb, everyone in the van begins to panic. Next he pulls a concealed razor on Franklin and slices his arm.
After ridding themselves of the lunatic hitchhiker, the group arrives at the grandmother’s house. One couple, Pam and Kirk, want to go swimming in the old swimming hole behind the house, but they find the water has dried up. Just up the path, a generator buzzes under the blaring Texas sun. Despite Pam’s protests, Kirk wants to investigate. They discover a dilapidated two-story home, within which resides a family of cannibals, including the now legendary Leatherface.
Talk to someone who has watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and she is likely to tell you it is one of the goriest movies she has ever seen. This is a typical response, though Texas Chainsaw Massacre shows very little gore on screen. In this respect, Texas Chainsaw Massacre has something in common with Halloween (1978), another largely gore-less horror classic which viewers swear is gruesome. Instead, the violence of both Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre is generally implied rather than depicted. Both movies allow the back corridors of our minds, where all the creepiest nightmares lay in wait, to fill in the details.
Director Tobe Hooper’s brilliance in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” lies in his ability to harness the power of suggestion, allowing viewers’ imaginations to venture into the darkest corners without visually leading them there. Instead of relying on graphic depictions of violence, Hooper employs unsettling atmospheres, sharp and jarring sound design, and masterful cinematography that prioritizes eerie visuals over graphic violence. The result is a film that feels more real and raw than many of its contemporaries, as it taps into primal fears and instincts.
“THE SCARIEST STORY SINCE JOHN CARPENTER’S HALLOWEEN!”
Much of the movie’s terror emanates from its relentless atmosphere of dread. From the very start, with its grim opening narration, the audience is thrust into a world that feels off-kilter and foreboding. The dilapidated house, the unsettling family, and the unending sound of the chainsaw in the distance create an environment of claustrophobic tension. Without showing much, Hooper ensures that we feel everything — every brush with Leatherface, every scream, every run through the woods. By holding back on explicit gore, he amplifies the psychological horror, letting the audience’s mind run wild with what could be happening, which is often more terrifying than any visual portrayal.
Similarly, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” uses shadowy silhouettes, the iconic and relentless score, and strategic framing to suggest violence without relying on overt displays of blood and brutality. Like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the power lies in what isn’t shown, allowing viewers to grapple with their internalized fears. Michael Myers, much like Leatherface, is not just a character but a symbol of relentless evil, always lurking just out of frame.
In a world where many horror films increasingly relied on gore and shock to captivate audiences, both “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween” stand as testaments to the power of restraint. They prove that sometimes, what is left unseen, unheard, or unspoken can be far more haunting than anything presented directly on screen. The brilliance of these films is not in their ability to show violence, but in their uncanny skill to evoke visceral fear through implication and atmosphere.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s cup runneth over with symbolism and social commentary. The characters see (and smell) animal slaughter houses, and we watch some uncomfortable closeups of the stars chewing on sausage and other meats. We see a room’s floor covered ankle deep in chicken feathers and a meat hook hanging from the ceiling. In the end, the characters meet the same fates as do animals – smashed in the head by a sledgehammer, gored by a chainsaw, hung from a meat hook – and ultimately arrive on someone’s dinner plate. I seriously doubt Hooper’s intention was to turn his viewing audience into vegetarians, but the theme of meat is murder is unrelenting and horrific, nonetheless.
Another aspect of Texas Chainsaw Massacre which makes everything so disturbingly real is the documentary style in which it is shot. The characters act like real people, not like actors, and the dialogue seems incredibly authentic. The low budget production lends perfectly to the atmosphere, making the film almost seem like the found footage from an ancient home movie camera buried at a gruesome murder scene.
Put simply, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not an easy movie to watch. Unlike the gory party movies of the 1980s (Friday the 13th Part 1 and Part 2), Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pure horror, a movie which leaves us with a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs – not due to displayed gore, but because of the horrifying image the movie paints. The horrors which the human race inflicts on each other and on animals is on full display. Even after we escape the movie, the realities linger.
If you haven’t yet seen the original, you aren’t a true horror fan until you do. You can get the 40th anniversary special edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Amazon.