Okay, I’ll come clean. I wasn’t sure where to begin when talking about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not only is it one of my favorite horror films of all time, but there’s already been a lot written and said about this film. Then I found the above clip of the movie’s intro, and as soon as the narrator’s voice started, I got the chills. My memories from the first time I experienced Tobe Hooper’s horror classic came back to me: its reputation preceded itself. I’d heard it was the goriest movie ever made. I’d heard it was trashy, exploitative, over-the-top. I’m sure most of this is due to its drive-in worthy title. My stepfather picked up an old VHS tape of it at a garage sale and insisted that my brother and I had to experience it. My mother felt differently, and little did I know, she hadn’t even seen it either. I knew about Leatherface, but my love of horror was still somewhat new. If horror fandom were Catholicism, you could say I was baptized with viewing Stephen King’s Silver Bullet, and received my first communion with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I had yet to be confirmed. I had yet to become devout.
I like to think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helped with that process. As my brother and I watched it we didn’t see the campy gorefest that we were expecting. In fact, Hooper was aiming for a PG rating. There’s very little blood in the movie. Instead we found ourselves immersed in Tobe Hooper’s vision of hell. It was surprisingly subtle and extremely effective, but never stopped being fun. There was a tribal, meanness to it, one that documented an uglier world than the one we’d come to know. The film continues to stick with me today. I remember it more as an experience than as simply watching a film.
So, why? Is it because I viewed it at a somewhat impressionable age? Not entirely unlikely. Is there more to it than that? You bet.
I believe that in order for a piece of art to be effective, whether be it a film, a book, a song, whatever, it needs to be one of two things. It either needs to touch on a universal psychological issue, like Phantasm and Alien do, or it needs to capture what’s in the water at the time the work is produced. I’m not talking about chasing trends. I mean that the work should channel the fears, the issues, of the time it’s produced. Take a look at this interview with Tobe Hooper from 2000 upon the release of the documentary The American Nightmare:
The Onion: The chief assertion of The American Nightmare is that the ’70s horror films were largely a response to the social unrest of the time. How much do you think that applies to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
Tobe Hooper: Well, 100 percent. We were out of gas in the country at the time, and it boiled up out of those times. It’s all true, the content of the film, actually. People were put out of jobs, they were out of gas at the gas station. It was actually pretty amazing that my consciousness was there. When I saw the documentary, I was really surprised to see that Romero, Carpenter, and Craven were all there, in that mindset. It all bubbled up out of that. Personally, I found that really incredible.
One almost gets the impression from this quote that maybe Hooper wasn’t even 100% aware that he was capturing so much of the cultural mindset at the time of filming TCM. Yet he was. He mentions the gas crisis, but that’s really a small part of what makes the film a piece of history. The murderous family calls to mind the Manson family. The hostile locale in which the youths find themselves stranded and violence could both easily be viewed as metaphors for Vietnam. The grainy quality of the film, whether intended or forced upon the filmmakers for budgetary reasons, really contributes to the vibe that we’re watching a documentary that is chronicling something that is so incredibly dark, yet hauntingly familiar.
Now, I didn’t grow up in that time. I was born long after the troops were pulled out of Vietnam, Manson was in prison, and there was no gas crisis. So, why does this film continue to be effective, even as the generation it was geared toward gets older? The less cynical answer is that people are naturally fascinated with history and that because of that we aren’t doomed to repeat it. The other answer, which may make me sound doom and gloom, is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t just a piece of history. It touches on the societal unrest that seems to repeat itself every generation or so, the scars of certain events tearing open and setting our civilization a few steps back in the healing process. Therefore it remains relevant as a powerful and often scary social study. Don’t believe me? Turn on the television or read the news.