“I’m Paul Barlow, and this is my daughter Jo.”

“Malone.”

“You got a first name?”

“Yeah.”

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I think this was the cover art when I first fell in love with THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE

Happy Halloween, everybody! As is sometimes my tradition, I have managed to do a write-up of one of my all time favorite movies that I haven’t done an official piece on. In 2016 I finally got the balls to do THE THING, and in 2017 I did INFERNO. I guess when I did DAWN OF THE DEAD it was a month after Halloween, but that’s the type of review I’m going for here.

One Halloween I just compared the Fresh Prince unofficial Freddy Krueger song to the official Fat Boys one. You can only do that once though I think.

These reviews of the classics are intimidating because there’s such a risk of saying the same shit that’s already been said, but I’m tired of linking to my Ain’t It Cool News review of a DVD release every time I mention it, which is inconvenient when I seem to compare half the movies I watch to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. I remember I even compared the Kathryn Bigelow racism drama DETROIT to it. Incidentally, even though I’ve been thinking about HALLOWEEN movies all month the world is feeling more TEXAS CHAIN SAW to me these days.

In other words, be warned: this is one of the ones where I relate the movie to the politics of today, so if you hate that, please don’t read, and go have a happy Halloween. If not, please do read, then have a happy Halloween.

* * *

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. One of the greatest horror movies since they started makin’ ’em. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that before, but it’s true.

It’s a movie that has grown on me and with me. When I first saw it I was probly 13 and I thought it was dumb. Just some crappy footage of a dude chasing people around in the dark. I was a Freddy guy. Saw it again in my twenties and it became pretty much my favorite movie. Back then it was VHS (not sure if it was even letterboxed) and I really believed that the raw quality of the footage was part of its magic. That it felt like a documentary, one made by crazy people.

After believing that for years I got that remastered edition that Dark Sky Films released, the one in the steel case (which I took these screengrabs from). It looked so much cleaner I wasn’t sure if I should accept it at first. Now I watch the way-more-pristine-than-that Blu-Ray and I love the movie even more as the controlled, artful craftsmanship it had always secretly been. For the moment, forget “drive-in” or “grindhouse” and think “great American film of the ’70s,” even if it’s all of those things.


It came out in October of 1974. In the world of horror, THE EXORCIST was less than a year old. Stephen King had only just published his first novel. Slasher movies weren’t a thing yet – it would be a couple months until BLACK CHRISTMAS, and several years until HALLOWEEN. Hammer Studios was still running, though their releases that year, CAPTAIN CRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, were attempts to put new spins on their brand of gothic horror as its popularity was fading. In the real world Nixon had resigned and been pardoned, the IRA was bombing buildings, a global recession was causing gas shortages and price increases, smallpox was killing thousands of people in India, drought and famine scourged Africa, shit was looking bleak.

And in the middle of all that, this feverish indie masterpiece exploded out of Austin, Texas.

The opening scenes set a hell of a mood considering nothing really happens. The bizarre metal scraping sounds and camera flashes, close ups on rotten flesh. Then the slow pullback of the body that somebody dug up out of a grave and wired to the top of a tombstone in a strange pose. It’s almost pretty the way it glistens in the sun. On Blu-Ray you can see a drop of… something fall off the teeth.

And you have what sounds like clanging pans (courtesy of Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell), and a fuzzy news radio broadcast. A movie pet peeve of mine is news broadcasts that aren’t written or read in the style of the real ones, as if the filmmakers have never seen the news before. This one is Levie Isaacks, who would go on to become a director of photography (including for TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, but mostly mainstream stuff like Malcolm in the Middle), but I would swear they just hired a real radio man. After telling us about all the missing bodies from this graveyard, where Sally and Franklin Hardesty and their friends are going to check that their grandpa’s grave wasn’t messed with, we get to hear what else was in the news that day: oil fires, buildings collapsing, people attacking each other or jumping out windows.

I’m not gonna claim Sally and friends are our best and our brightest. But they seem to be nice people. They’re not up to anything nefarious. When they see a hitchhiker there’s immediate concern for his welfare on such a hot day.

“Should we pick him up?”

“Yeah man, he’ll asphyxiate out there!”

It’s that hippie love for their fellow man.

They listen to a song about “I spend most every day / in the sidewalk cafe / drinking coffee and watching women go by,” and by outward appearances that’s pretty much the laidback vibe of their day trip. But they know why they came, so something is out of whack, some bad mojo in the air. Pam tries to explain it with the zodiac. We see solar flares and a full moon. When the hitchhiker flips out and cuts open his own hand, Franklin seeks meaning even in the blood smear the guy leaves on the side of the van. He asks Kirk if he thinks the stain on his knife is blood, if he thinks he could do something like that to himself, trying to understand this person who’s so different from him. Trying to get out of his bubble, reach across the aisle, etc.

It has become conventional wisdom over the years that Tobe Hooper’s first masterpiece is about the anger of the Vietnam and Watergate era – not necessarily by Hooper’s intent, but by the chaos of the times bubbling up in the work, as often happens in horror. I would like to add to that theory that it feels especially alive with meaning when revisited in times like this of rampant corruption, chaos and institutional failure. One minute you’re just looking for your friend, the next minute a big dude making pig noises wearing a skin mask bashes you over the head with a hammer and drags you into his butcher room and then your girlfriend falls on a floor covered in feathers and bones and turtle shells and shit and gets hung on a meat hook and your friend finds her in a meat freezer and her body jerks like she’s still alive and WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?

Compared to the minimalism of low budget horror hits of subsequent decades, the amount of detail is incredible. Art director Bob Burns, a rookie who went on to do THE HILLS HAVE EYES, TOURIST TRAP, THE HOWLING and RE-ANIMATOR, turned the house interior (including the dinner table) into a sicko’s fantasia of bones and animal parts built into mobiles and wall hangings, and just literring the place. There’s something so ominous about the red wall with all the skulls on it that we only see from outside of the room where most of the killing takes place. I wonder if that’s what Ridley Scott was talking about when he said his goal with ALIEN was to make “the TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE of sci-fi”? With passion and a little bit of lunacy these young Texans built a killer’s den that drags these kids into a Hell they’ve never even imagined, inhabited by devils brought to heinous life by the unglued performances of Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow and Gunnar Hansen.

(Man, even if they were gonna be nice to you, who would want to visit this place? How long would it take you to get the smell off after you got home?)

So here we are, this van full of young people, probly from Austin or somewhere, a little smug, a little naive about what we’re getting into. We think you know, it’s cool, we can hang in the boonies where our family comes from, but then maybe we really can’t. Instead we fall into the lap of this crazy fucked up evil that has apparently been brewing out here for years and we just didn’t know it. This mix of regressive family traditions, sexual repression, violent aggression and misogyny. Of course it’s upsetting to us.

Where did this come from, this man with another man’s face, dragging us into his inferno? How can this exist? This depravity, this joyful cruelty, this absolute annihilation of societal norms? How can people really be like this? How can they get away with it?

They beat us and drag us around in a burlap sack and nail us to a chair and then when we react they mock us.

Look at that. That’s every online redhat stormtrooper, blue-check-marked right wing pundit, cable news white nationalist, disbarred teen hedge fund manager, Russian troll masquerading as very very American mother of veteran who loves Trump and emojis more than could possibly be healthy, White House Press Secretary or sitting congressman who ever proudly “owned the libs,” or called a victim a liar, a crisis actor, a false flag, or mistaken but it’s important that women are heard. It’s not about an ideology, it’s about domination and humiliation, about getting a stiffy from your suffering.

Keep in mind, Franklin and Sally’s grandpa owned this place. He lived next to these absolute peaches of down home country charm. Sold cattle to the same slaughterhouse where their finger-sucking grandpa worked. I wonder how Grandpa Hardesty felt about them? Did they seem like good neighbors? Did he wonder where they got all those cars? Before things go totally south Franklin is obsessed with his connection to this rural life, trying to show off that he’s morbidly interested in how animals are slaughtered, that he’s eaten headcheese. He doesn’t want to be the tourist, he wants to belong among these people. But that won’t save him.

Our relatives who support Trump, in most cases, are not cannibals, in my opinion. And maybe the people who think the answer is to reach out and understand each other and find out what we have in common are right. I hope they are. But I tell you as an illustration of our deepest fears, the metaphor fuckin works. I literally can’t comprehed the people I know as nice, loving aunts and uncles being okay with the bullying and racism and dishonesty, with the white nationalism and racist code words and demonizing of refugees and immigrants, with the smearing and humiliation of rape victims, the heartless responses to tragedies, the abandonment of Puerto Rico, the daily cruelty, crassness and dishonor, with the consistent do-the-opposite-of-what-I-was-taught-America-and-Christianity-were-about – any more than I can understand a fuckin skin mask. They make about the same amount of sense to me. Both bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.

Of course the people who are wreaking the havoc in our politics are not salt of the earth, they’re silver spooners condescendingly trying to trick poor people by wearing stupid hats. Nobody in the Trump administration ever lost their job at the slaughterhouse because of automation. What the two have in common, though, is sadism. I mean, you can’t tell me that Trump, Bolton, and some of these other assholes don’t agree with the hitchhiker’s opinion that hitting animals with hammers is more fun than doing it quick. “They die better that way.”

Like Trumpists, the Texas Chain Saw family are not exactly masterminds, in fact they’re almost completely incompetent. Hitchhiker calls attention to their string of over a dozen grave robberies by creating that “grisly work of art,” meanwhile leaving his brother alone, allowing him to kill Kirk, Pam and Franklin, plus mess up the door. And then Sally gets away and gets help and hitchhiker gets run over by a truck and Leatherface falls down and saws his own leg. And there’s all kinds of in-fighting – the cook calling the other two half-wits and bitch hogs, the hitchhiker belittling him as “just the cook.”

The cook is just as depraved as his brothers, but he knows how to put on a public face. He owns the gas station, he talks to people, and to his credit when he finds out the kids are headed near his house he attempts multiple ways of convincing them not to go there. Probly more to simplify his life than out of the kindness of his heart. He’s just trying to get through his day at the gas station (with no gas) without worrying what mischief Leatherface will get into.

“Yep, them girls now they, they don’t want to go messing around no old house.”

(Side question: Does his employee, the guy who washes the windshields, know what’s cooking in that barbecue?)

As much as the cook claims to “take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do,” when he has Sally in a bag in his truck he can’t help but keep jabbing at her with his broom handle, clearly getting off on it. Then he pretends to talk to her all calm and reasonable like.

And still they get away with it because of the vast extravagance of their sins. Nobody wants to face that this madness is going on here in Newt. They might even have people covering for them. The first radio report on the grave robberies mentions the sheriff having “strong evidence linking the crime to elements outside the state.” An update at night says he “hinted at” links to a “large and well organized west coast jewel theft ring.” Yeah, blame it on the big bad west coast. And don’t even have the balls to come out and say it. Just imply that it’s true. People are saying L.A. hipsters dug up and played with our dead relatives, who knows if it’s true? Pretty familiar format of bullshit these days.

But like I said about the HALLOWEEN series recently, there is hope in this confrontation with insanity, because Sally gets away. To me, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE illustrates as well as any the appeal of that Final Girl template. She goes through Hell and she just barely scratches her way out of there. And I imagine when we get out of this we may feel as bloodied and hysterical as Sally. But we’ll be back on the road toward somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Happy Halloween everybody. But celebrate TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE year-round.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 31st, 2018 at 10:48 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”

  1. Every October there are two horror movies I *have* to watch: THE THING and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.

    There are few things in cinema that define evil like the glee on Jim Siedow’s face when he’s poking Marilyn Burns with that stick in the truck. It’s sickeningly perfect.

    I consider this one of the best films ever made.

  2. Your analogy holds up pretty well. This movie has always contained a certain political undercurrent but I think you’ve tapped into something else entirely. Good review.

    Also the part where the cook is poking her with the stick has always been the creepiest and most disturbing scene to me. It’s such a good lesson in sadism in horror movies. It’s not just that it’s not violent, it’s that the relative non-violence of the scene amplifies the sadism, thereby forcing the viewer really consider what violence is.

  3. Hey, here’s a good TEXAS CHAIN SAW/Halloween story. One Halloween maybe eight, nine years back, I was having a party at my place in Brooklyn. I’d upgraded my classic wood-paneled TV to a newer (but still already obsolete) model, which, redneck-style, sat right on top of the old one. The old one still worked and had a VCR attached to it, so I figured I’d play horror movies on both all night. Then I realized I had TCSM on both VHS and DVD, so I tried playing them both at the same time. By sheer dumb luck, they synchronized perfectly. Like, to the second. I couldn’t stop or pause with fucking that up, so instead of getting ready for the party, I took the never-to-be-repeated chance to watch TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE on two screens at the same time. It got the night started on the right note, leading to possibly the last fun Halloween party I ever went to.

    I think that’s the year I dressed up as my nom du internet. I managed to use the line, “You ever kiss a guy with a mustache before?” It did not work but I don’t think that’s the line’s fault. Please feel free to try it and let me know if you have more success with it.

    Anyway, greatest horror movie of all time, true American work of art, “Look what your brother did to the door!” is the funniest line, etc.

  4. It is so much fun watching this movie with people who have never seen it before. Reactions are all over the place. Some people are disgusted, most people say “what they fuck is this”, many crack up laughing at how over the top bat shit crazy it is. And for the most part, the people who haven’t seen it by now are not really horror fans, so they have an even more hostile reaction to it.

    I love this movie for a million reasons. But the main one is, without fail, every time I watch it at some point my jaw drops and I think “how the fuck did someone come up with this?” There are plenty of movies out there now that are crazy and out there, but not original. I really don’t think there is a single film that came before Chain Saw that you could say it borrows/steals from. It is a true original.

  5. I don’t have much to add to this great piece of writing about the greatest horror film ever made, other than that “Fool for a Blonde” is still the most disturbing piece of music I’ve heard in a movie, even though it wasn’t intended to be.

  6. Hell, you barely need to see it as metaphor. Think of those photos of the Trump sons proudly posing in front of slaughtered animals.

  7. Terrific piece, by the way.

  8. This is one of my favorite movies to watch with groups who haven’t seen it yet. They usually start out laughing at the goofy acting but once Leatherface shows up they are in it. The atmosphere in this movie is just unparalleled, it’s oppressive and horrific and sort of funny all at the same time.

    One of my all time faves, tied only with Dawn of the Dead.

  9. This and CARRIE are the only two horror films I’ll probably always mention when asked my favourite movies. But it wasn’t until I went to a midnight screening four years ago that I realized how funny it is. Only the first sequel sort of captures its punk-comic sensibility. Like, yeah, the Chainsaw Family are backwoods maniacs who would vote Trump if they voted at all, but conversely, they’re also an inexplicable counterculture that “normal” civilization fears.

    Did you guys see that recent Slant list of the 100 Best Horror Movies? Those things usually make me shake my head, but this one was pretty good and TCSM topped it.

  10. Do you have a link to the slate list? How would you compare it to the Time Out list? (Which I think had THE EXORCIST listed #1)

    It’s started to be written and video-essayed about ad naeseum, but the TCM as pro-vegetarian interpretation really sticks with me whenever I’ve revisited this movie in the last 3-5 years. That’s quite similar to how whenever I re-watch HIGH NOON, despite all the blacklist background, text, and subtext there to do, I can’t help but also see a Korean War commentary with reds, isolationists, and interventionists as the stronger (or at least more complete) interpretation of the text.

    Good work, Vern. Your new interpretation/analogy to me seems right, and now I’ve got to re-watch TCM tonight before Halloween ends. Happy Halloween everyone!

  11. Brian B. -www.slantmagazine.com/features/article/the-100-greatest-horror-movies-of-all-time

    I’ll check out the Time Out one. I respect The Exorcist but have never found it as scary as most, maybe because I wasn’t brought up with religion.

  12. This one is SO overdue for a rewatch from my side. First and last time I saw it must have been something like 15 years ago, when my local videostore suddenly had an import DVD of it. (Which is something that they normally never do.) While I liked it, I was of course a biiiit dissapointed by its lack of actual hardcore gore. It’s not just that the movie basically became synonymous with extreme splatter, based on the title alone, it was also downright BANNED in Germany! (And as you might know, a brave label battled a few years ago the courts to get it successfully unbanned)

    Late Happy Halloween, y’all! I hope yours was better than mine! (Nothing tragic happened, I was just too occupied to even watch one more movie and went to bed at 10)

  13. And I forgot: The movie’s original German title was BLOOD COURT IN TEXAS (Blutgericht in Texas), which definitely sounds more like a Western in my opinion. But nobody calls it that anymore. These days it’s usually referred to and released as the classic TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

  14. Great movie, great article on it. I know some may roll their eyes and groan about Vern “reading too much into it” and “getting political again” but there truly is something very….TODAY about this movie, you really don’t have to squint too hard to see it. I remember just a few years ago, my “Who DOES that???” reflex would pop up maybe a few times a year, now it literally goes off on a daily basis and I’m already used to it. Man’s inhumanity to man (and man’s OKness with it) has never been more out in the open.

    As for the movie – I bingewatched the entire series last year (eventually including the Platinum Dunes movies, the 3D sequel, the prequel, Nocturnal Animals, and Nothing But Trouble), and much like the Rocky Series, I should totally say the first one is my favorite but I just can’t when the sequels are so outrageously entertaining (and full of iconic characters and images). I would probably have to be in the right mood to watch Part 1, but I can watch Part 2 and Part 4 anytime.

  15. I guess I’m a blasphemer, but TCM2 is my favorite of the series. Maybe my favorite film of all time, depending on the day.

  16. Just rewatched it the other day but this makes me want to watch it again right now.

  17. Mentally, for no discernible reason, I often link Texas Chainsaw Masacre and Mad Max in my mind. Vern’s review pointed out why: Shit was falling apart in both movies. Sure, it was more apparent in the Mad Max world, but there was still that feeling of barely-restrained chaos in TCM, due largely to those news reports.

    Great review. It made me miss Tobe Hooper all over again.

  18. Also- thanks for the great write up, Vern!

  19. I have never seen any Texas Chainsaw except the one with Alexandra Daddario, and I think I watched most of it with the sound off. I am going to have to correct this. My wife loved EXORCIST so I think a mostly non-gory horror movie will go over well. I was under the impression that this was blood and guts.

    I appreciate the dark take Vern, but unfortunately I have to disagree somewhat. The majority of Trump supporters are not backwoods Hicks who like to torture animals, that’s just what you see at Trump rallies and Reddit posts. Most Trump supporters are just unhappy with how their lives have turned out, left behind by a changing world, and they see Trump as a way to restore their former glory at the top of the heap. 30-60 years ago Americans were living on easy mode, and globalization, technological progress, the collapse of the manufacturing sector, and the increasing giveaway of rights to people who previously had best stay put in their place have made the world not theirs any more, but everybody’s. When they really didn’t have a whole lot going for them to begin with but at least had America’s shining star to hitch a ride on, at least they felt superior by association.

    Now they are coasting on their retirement funds but not too happy about the future of the country, and it is a lot easier to blame it on what has changed than the sad truth, which is that America had a giant head start in 1945 and while every other first world country on Earth was rebuilding from the rubble of WW2 we just switched our factories from war mode to fun mode and made out like bandits. That lasted 30-40 years until other countries caught up, and in some ways finally surpassed us. Now what?

    Personally, I have it pretty good. I work for a big internet company and make good money, and I work side by side with Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, you name it. A good portion of them are not American citizens. If the US cracks down on foreign work visas like it seems they are going to, the company is NOT going to hire ten thousand Americans to replace their lost workforce. Those jobs will move to Canada or Europe or wherever.

    You can say the exact same thing about these tarrifs, and manufacturing jobs here in USA. And coal mining. These jobs are never coming back in force, to any degree that will raise the quality of life here. The sad thing is that even if these jobs did come back, and they managed to eliminate illegal immigrant workers, and Americans were even willing to work these jobs, they would all be lousy $20 an hour at best jobs that we would all hate. This is no way to improve our country.

    So these Trump supporters lash out and blame everybody in sight and pretend that Trump’s policies (if you can call xenophobia, nationalism, and race baiting “policies”) will somehow turn the ship around, when everything he has said and done does not hold up to the smallest amount of critical thinking.

    But it easier to believe the lie than to accept the truth: America is no longer the powerhouse it once was, and its standing and influence in the world is only going to decrease for decades to come. China, India, and the EU are rising. The obvious pathway was to strengthen NAFTA and be the fourth big boy in the room. But that seems tenuous now.

    I don’t think most Trump supporters are sadists who love to lick liberal tears. Some certainly are. But most of them are just fat dumb and unhappy Americans who can feel that our country is not alone at the top of the heap any more, and they attribute this to blacks, gays, Hispanics, liberals, feminists, Clintons, and Obamas. They are scared, stupid, self-righteous bigots.

    That doesn’t make it any better.

  20. Very powerful essay. My personal enjoyment or emotional connection to TCSM is nowhere near many of yours, but I do like it and think it is an objectively great film and have watched it again in the last couple of years.

    There is something post-PSYCHO and especially post-1960s horror where the genre really tapped into the specific terror of wandering outside of the social order or normal civilization into a pocket of space where credible oversight and protection don’t exist and where monsters are free to remake the social order and its norms according to their own primal urges. A place where we are stripped of our niceties, norms, identities–where we the strong surrender their humanity and then strip us of ours. A place where none of our comforting virtues, stories, aphorism, ideals, or heroes can save us. Where they become utterly impotent abstractions and we are reduced to animals. Predator or prey, pure and simple. This is the horror that gives such raw psychic power to animate films like PSYCHO, TCSM, HALLOWEEN, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, HILLS HAVE EYES, WOLF CREEK, as well as non “slasher” films like THE ROAD or the ROMERO dead films. These are films where a pocket of inhumanity, a reversion to nature red-tooth-and-claw has reasserted itself over what it regards as our safe, soft, pussy society. A world where the laws, norms, institutions, and appointed protectors aren’t minding the store or no longer exist.

    TCSM is a pure expression of that, and the MAD MAX comparison is right on point. It’s what happens when no one gives a shit about your pussy ethics, norms, and values. Where those just make you a weak a little lamb. That’s fundamentally terrifying and horrifying.

  21. Speaking as someone who’s not really into horror movies, I have to say that there’s no getting around the fact that this one is a great piece of art.

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