The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Horror fans often times disagree about what they find frightening. I’d like to ask though, is there anyone out there who is not mortified by TOBE HOOPER’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? I mean, I know I’m old school so you have to fill me in kids, is it possible to watch that movie and not be freaked? To me it’s pretty much the cinematic definition of the word horror. I can understand someone not enjoying it, it can be a shrieky headache, and I can understand someone not finding it absolutely convincing or perhaps a tad too comical, but it is unquestionably horrifying, no? Come on, a lady is shoved on to a meat hook for Christ’s sake.

Cannibals, chainsaws, rotting corpses, a lampshade made out of human skin… what’s not to be disturbed by? Still, even with all of those obvious sources of terror flopping around there is something within the film that fills me with an even more intense feeling of dread. I can handle the physical pain and humiliation on display. It’s the uncanny elements that unbalance me; the ominous horoscopes, the solar flares, the feeling that the universe is collapsing in on our travelers. Again, I am old school. What’s it like to see this movie when your childhood did not take place in the seventies? Are such people free from the full intensity of CHAINSAW‘s morbid grip?

The thing that scares the hell out of me in T.C.M. is not the ogre known as Leatherface but the fact that it is a journey backwards to a place that is now dead. Sally Hardesty (MARILYN BURNS) and her wheelchair bound brother Franklin (PAUL A. PARTAIN) are essentially guiding their friends on a tour of their lost, corroded youth. Before they are ever aware of the vicious madness of Leatherface and company, they explore the once livable now dilapidated home of their grandparents. Sally laughs off the fact that she once slept in the crumbling shell but from where the pouty Franklin sits, his chair unable to course the terrain, her squeals of delight sound like (and foreshadow) squeals of anguish. It’s almost as if they have stumbled into some kind of Langolier-chewed history that’s disintegrating beneath them. They truly can’t go home again…there are spiders living there now.

Which brings me to the moment that inexplicably sticks out for me in the film. Sally and Franklin’s pal Kirk (WILLIAM VAIL) wanders ahead of the group and enters a room. In an upper corner near the ceiling, he finds a nest of seething and scattering daddy long leg spiders. Trust me here, I’m not one to be squeamish about spiders (they’re adorable), but there’s something about this bit that gets under my skin. It’s almost like an animated scribble, a growing negative space or a thousand cracks forming and the scratching, clattery sound applied over top of the visual is so other worldly sinister and so wildly exaggerated that it chills me to the bone. I’m sure that in the real world a psycho with a chainsaw is more upsetting than a nest of spiders, but in the real world a nest of spiders is polite enough not to act like a LOVECRAFTian tear in the universe.

Maybe I see too much in that mass of spiders or maybe it’s the potential absence of anything being there at all that riles me. Do they simply remind me of the daddy long legs I used to encounter on my back porch when I was little (and by encounter I mean rip the legs off of)? Leatherface is ultimately human and no matter what his efforts he’ll end up eventually just like his grandfather, barely able to lift a hammer. I guess to me those spiders say that time itself is the bigger monster carving through Texas and that it’s a monster that no one can outrun.

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11 years ago

Wow, Unk, what a brilliant consideration! I’ve seen TCM many times, and I never really stopped to consider the subtle supernatural/cosmic implications of the things you mention. And yet it’s those things that really get under your skin and make the movie so much more than just a maniac chasing teenagers through the woods.
I don’t know if kids today can watch TCM and get that same feeling (same with The Exorcist, sadly), but there’s definitely something timelessly disturbing about Hooper’s bleak vision here, and I’d wager that in a hundred years it’ll still be freaking people out.
Your last line here gave me the chills. Again I say, brilliant! 🙂

Andre Dumas
Andre Dumas(@andre-dumas)
11 years ago

You know that part has always tripped me up as well. I find it to be one of the least talked about moments in that movie, but still one that people can easily recall. I love your interpretation of the exploring of the old house, I also think a lot of people shake off any moments in TCM without leather face which is horrifying in itself and people often forget that it is a movie after all and that other things do matter.
Speaking of people not finding it horrifying I came across someone vocalizing that very same thought yesterday. They did NOT find it horrifying in the slightest! (they much preferred the remake) I was aghast. There is something so raw and horribly off putting about TCM that makes it impossible for me to take anyone seriously that did not feel one ounce of fear. It’s like people who claim the Exorcist is only funny and not scary- where I like to believe they are just hiding their insanely high amount of fear with laughter. Defense mechanisms meh.

micha mae
micha mae(@micha-mae)
11 years ago

the first time i saw TCM i was about 12 , and i thought it was hilarious.  it basically curied me of my fear of horror films.  after that i no longer had nightmares.  i think it must have been the production quality.  it didn’t seem very real to me, like a bunch of guys goofing off  in the back yard with a camcorder.  i also watched it from beginning to end.  usually,  i would get freeked + stop watching a scary movie, leaving the rest to my own imagination. this was really the key to watching horror films for me, always follow through for closure’s sake.
i didn’t revisit the film until  2005 [almost twenty years later].  the second time around it truly disturbed me.  i couldn’t believe i ever thought TCM was anything but mortifying.  i know i didn’t quite sleep properly that night.  i don’t remeber the spiders though, perhaps it deserves a third viewing.

Lynette Fromme
Lynette Fromme(@lynette-fromme)
11 years ago

The most amazing thing to me about TCM is the lack of gore.  If you think back on this movie, you think its one of the most gory things ever filmed. But watch it again, and you see that there is very little gore,  it ‘s all suggested. Brilliant set design, effects.

11 years ago

I think the stars in heaven were in perfect alignment when TCM was being made. A damn near perfect Horror film and one that continues to fascinate me to no end, as do the many behind the scenes stories of it’s making.

11 years ago

There used to be a long, straight stretch of dirt road near my house in Florida that I would drive down when I was bored at night (it’s been paved over now), and I think I picked that particular route to drive because it reminded me so much of Sally’s night ride to the farmhouse with the cook in TCM.  You’re totally right, there are definitely things to laugh at/mock in the movie (two words: Franklin’s raspberries), but overall the power of it seems undeniable.  Still, I’ve spoken to a couple of people who claimed that they didn’t find it scary.  To which I told them, “Okay, but don’t try to tell me that for a very low-budget horror movie, it’s not shot, edited, scored, etc. too richly and beautifully to ignore.”  (Maybe not acted that well, but whatever.)  It’s one of my five or ten favorite movies, of any genre.

11 years ago

Nice to see that someone else is very disturbed by the Grandaddy Long-legs scene. I’ve never received such horrid shivers and that SOUND?! My lord!! It’s absolutely creepy! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is and forever WILL BE my favorite horror film of all time. I’ll never forget the first time I watched it and just sitting there with my mouth open engulfed in silence. Just absolutely shocked and confused. That romantic dance with Leatherface and the chainsaw at the end at sunset is just too gorgeous to dismiss as well. All around I honestly can say it is a perfect film. Hands down.

11 years ago

I don’t think its power is restricted to the 70’s generation – I grew up in the 80’s, and that movie gets to me as well. It may not affect later generations as much simply because they’re used to slicker production values and modern torture porn, and because of all the horror movies that have since come and borrowed so heavily from TCM. Then again, maybe those kids are just too young to really feel the existential dread that permeates the entire film! I first saw it when I was quite young, and it was scary because horrific things happen. Seeing it again when I was older, the gritty and desolate feel and the raw soundtrack really put a chill into my bones that much more graphic movies like Hostel can’t even touch.
I did enjoy the remake, it has a great dirty-sweaty-grimy feel that really evokes a Deep South summer, but for all its gore and great filming, it just didn’t have the gut-twisting horror of the original. I think that can only come from somewhere within the director, and once Tobe Hooper pulled that out of himself and his actors (OMG the dinner scene), that was it.

11 years ago

Hey Unk – Your insight about the spiders reminds me of a statement Philip Kaufman made in the DVD commentary for 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If a filmmaker has done his work well at establishing a sense of foreboding, he should be able to cut to just about anything later within the picture, and it will not only sustain that unease, but magnify it. Right on the money…

11 years ago

Nice piece! Your reflection on the blackness of the spidernest reminds me of the blackness of the pecked out eyes in The Birds (where I think Hitchcock had the emulsion scratched off to create the empty socket effect).
The other Lovecraftian bit in TCM that strikes me is the symbol that the Hitch-hiker smears on the van in blood. It makes his insane behavior during the ride into a ritual so he can mark them in slaughterhouse language as meat.
Just watched Salem’s lot last night. It’s a slow build but Hooper nails the same surreal evil feeling in the decayed mansion of Kurt Barlow.

11 years ago

I was born in -73 and I live in Finland, where TCM was totally banned for a long, long time. I was in my early twenties when I first saw it from a crummy, illegal VHS tape, and I wasn’t particularly impressed: the bad guys all looked and acted like Finnish comedy actors (except Leatherface), and the violence was mostly off-screen. Considering it’s reputation, I thought it was a big dissappointment, but I’ve been meaning to revisit it.
The Exorcist was also banned in Finland, but the two times I’ve tried to watch it, I’ve fallen asleep. I guess I’m just not Christian enough. I kinda liked Exorcist III, though.

11 years ago

Just about EVERY horror movie scared me before I turned sixteen:  around that time I saw a double feature of Evil Dead II and Bad Taste, and somehow seeing those two sort of destroyed my ability to be really scared while watching a movie.  I still enjoy horror movies, though, just in a less emotional way. But if asked what movie kindertraumatized me the most, I’d have to say it’s a tie between these three: An American Werewolf In London, Communion and Theatre of Blood.  All these movies were shown on the telly (some on cable channels), and I literally couldn’t watch the first two to the end, I kept hiding behind a pillow. Theatre of Blood I DID watch through, and I have to say I think it’s way more disturbing than TCM. I don’t think I can ever re-watch it…

11 years ago

No no, I meant Communion aka Alice Sweet Alice, no aliens in that one, just a killer in a really creepy mask.

11 years ago

Jesus, you HAD to remind me of the daddy longlegs’ scene?
I found that sequence to be pretty unsettling due to a number of things. As you said, it’s as though the place is getting infected by time, as most of the county is. No one’s lived in the area for years and no one cares about it anymore. Another reminder that no one is likely to be out there to come to your aide when the Sawyer family does show up. Also… I could be a bigger scaredy-cat when it comes to spiders, but I can’t stand daddy-longlegs’ or hervestmans. Something about them just gets to me. The kicker is the sound design for them.
It all makes a trifecta of spookiness.

11 years ago

Unk, you nailed it! The remake is just kids running into a bad situation, the fodder of countless horror movies. A visual feast of horrors ensues, sure, but they were just passing through when they had the bad luck to encounter the hitchhiker. In the original, Sally is on an intentional journey inspired by familial love and loyalty, and what she ends up finding is a twisted reflection of family that, nevertheless, still has its own kind of love and loyalty, which makes it seem all the sicker. The original also has an almost complete lack of… I dunno, “visual sentimentality” about it. It’s not a pretty film, it’s very uncompromising in its presentation, and I think the lack of pretty visuals (aka the “documentary feel”), even in scenes that are supposed to build empathy with the characters, made it more effective. And the derelict nature of the setting is like a character unto itself – I spent some time in the South, and any time I’d see an abandoned building off the side of a dirt road, quickly deteriorating in the humid heat, the kudzu creeping in to devour it, I’d get a shiver….

Rev. Austin
Rev. Austin(@rev-austin)
11 years ago

Excellent call, Unk!  I completely forgot how mental the sound design is for TCM.  You also reminded me of the time when a university lecturer made us watch parts of it (as an example of how well sound design can work) and one of the sections he played was the spiders nest – almost everybody in the class looked like their brains were caving in, it was something special indeed.

11 years ago

Awesome analysis of one of the more quietly unsettling things about this movie. It’s definitely my ultimate kindertrauma–I saw it when I was 12 and was absolutely terrorized by the whole experience. There was something so volatile about it that first time, not knowing when the shit was going to hit the fan. I remember that opening scene, when Kurt is wheeling Franklin out of the van to pee, thinking that Leatherface not necessarily would, but could come out of nowhere, saw a-blazing.
I’m always tempted to believe I’m reading too much into what is possibly just an accidentally brilliant movie, but I have to agree that the movie is so much about Sally’s journey to her past to be sure it hasn’t been disturbed. Only to discover that, possibly all this time, there was this other family on the other side of the woods waiting for her to discover them. With the foreboding horoscopes and entirely random series of events leading up to the carnage, there is some sense of it all being entirely indelible in their fates what would happen on that day.
I think that’s also really well-reflected in the ending, set in stark morning daylight, when Sally breaks out of the house finally and is chased to the main road and back to civilization, where 18-wheelers and pick-up trucks zoom by. We see then how close to reality this whole nightmare exists, how shallow the pit to hell really is. Sally’s escape is as fateful as her arrival; a series of random events carried her into the belly of the beast and another just as random series of events carry her away. I’m sure one could say something about her, bloody and screaming, appearing as if she were just born into a whole different world, a life forever in the shadow of what she witnessed and more or less lived through, but then that might just be reading too far into it. 🙂

Brother Bill
Brother Bill(@brother-bill)
11 years ago

I recently rewatched this with my wife who had never seen it. The spider nest is the exact kind of creepy detail that elevates a horror movie (a comparable moment, with a different effect, is the finding of the music box in NOTLD…)

But another little moment that really put the screws to my thumbs and I haven’t seen mentioned yet is when Sally runs all the way back to the BBQ for help, and “the cook” leaves that door wide open while he’s getting the truck ready… that big, yawning doorway… what is taking the guy so long, and why won’t he close the damn door?

There is a real sense of unpredictability or anarchy in the way TCM unfolds… it lacks the neatness of your typical scripted story, one of the reasons I initially didn’t care for it, but I now realize is one of its strengths. For example, the order of events in the van after they pick up the hitchhiker. The hitchhiker takes Franklin’s knife, cuts himself with it, returns it to him… only to reveal seconds later that he also has his own knife, which he then uses to attack Franklin. When I first saw this, it struck me as just sloppy/clumsy screenwriting… why on earth would they go through all the machinations of having him take Franklin’s knife and return it only to then pull out a knife of his own? What was the point?

But on later viewings, I find that its that exact kind of random illogic that gives TCM its dangerous and unpredictable edge.