The 1970s saw the end of the reign of Hammer horror. That studio had kicked off its long-running success in 1957 with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein, which was followed the next year with Horror of Dracula. The studio built itself on updating classic monsters and stories, largely the already-iconic Universal Monsters, but branching out to everything from Fu Manchu to Sherlock Holmes and—in the case of The Gorgon (1964)—even Greek mythology. They ushered in a return to moody, lavish, gothic horror throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s. Dracula and Frankenstein launched their own franchises, which continued those gothic traditions but still became increasingly more interested in updating them for modern times as the series went on. In the midst of the Vietnam War, it became increasingly harder to keep horror at a distance.
That’s really what it had always been, for the most part. At least on a wide scale, horror had been relegated to its supernatural and fantasy elements. Even Spider Baby (1967), a strong precursor to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, had its own bizarre elements to separate it from reality. There were, of course, always movies like Peeping Tom (1960) and Psycho (1960). But gothic was the trend, and had been for some time. After all, it was easy to keep horror relegated to being an outside thing. Dracula (1931) was about a foreign nobleman invading “civilized” society, The Invisible Man (1933) and Frankenstein (1931) both dealt with men crossing the boundaries of science to become that other, by either creating something new or transforming themselves. Even Frankenstein was still, like Dracula, largely signified by a distant country and an isolated castle. These films were meant to scare people, but as safely as possible. The audience would know going into them that they would have to go well out of their way to get themselves into the same kind of trouble that befell the characters on the screen.
And, of course, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changed all that.
Tobe Hooper and crew did not set out to change the landscape of American horror. That was, if anything, a happy accident. And there had already been films in the decade that went for realism and went even harder at it than Chain Saw, like Wes Craven’s powerful debut, The Last House on the Left (1972). But few films have perfectly captured the fears and paranoia of their respective time, or the distilled essence of raw dread in general, like this one. The film is essentially a Rorschach test. Everyone can look at it and see something different, some theme, some point or metaphor that might not have been intended but is visible all the same.
Hooper often went back and forth on whether any of the easily noticeable meat industry commentary was intentional or not. Many also saw it as a commentary on the horrors of Vietnam, which was not intentional, but the cultural influence of the war is still felt. The constant news footage of horrific, real violence brought horror into the American home, which Texas Chain Saw Massacre very clearly reflects.
One of the greatest thing about Texas Chain Saw Massacre, especially as a cultural milestone and turning point for the genre, is that it actually doesn’t break too far from the gothic traditions of the past. The template still lines up with the traditions laid out in the Universal and Hammer movies, and so many other films in between. Those often dealt with weary travelers abroad, going somewhere that they shouldn’t, stumbling across an old castle or mansion in which they ultimately meet their end. These were stories about the dangers of straying from the well-lit path, about being mindful of foreign territory, and stories that often dealt with themes of classism as well. Almost all of the protagonists—and most of the victims—of the Hammer films were much wealthier than the people they would encounter in whatever towns they happened to get lost in or stumble through.
All of these elements are at play in Tobe Hooper’s film, but they’re all reinterpreted and portrayed differently thanks to the change in setting. This is even only one small part of why the movie is an indisputable masterpiece. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre turned a gothic mansion into a rural farmhouse and brought a family of ghouls out of the wilds of Eastern Europe and into the American Southwest. You didn’t have to be traveling abroad anymore. Or even cross-country. Here, one wrong turn down one wrong road could be enough to end your life. It no doubt felt more real to American audiences at the time and that had to have been the point.
Our protagonists in Chain Saw are not exactly wealthy, but they are clearly more clean-cut than any of the local rednecks they interact with. They’re young and hip and modern, even into astrology, which was booming in popularity at the time. These are not backward-thinking or regressed people, by any stretch, with perhaps the possible exception of Franklin. An impish presence, he has more in common with Fritz of Whale’s Frankenstein than any of the leading men of the Hammer era. He’s much more of a Renfield figure, even though he is a member of the main group and even winds up a victim himself. Still, he fits the trope. Everything Franklin says is antagonistic. He leads Kirk and Pam down the path toward the old farmhouse, which gets them killed, even if he does it unintentionally.
He’s still a doomsayer. In fact, part of why Franklin and Sally (and her friends) can’t get along is because he actually feels like a much better fit for the other family. He has an obsession with his knife, no social skills to speak of and shows a great deal of fascination in the slaughterhouse and even an affinity for headcheese, something that the Hitchhiker actually begins to bond with him over before marking this group of friends for death.
That marking is significant as well. The Hitchhiker paints the van with a strange symbol drawn in his own blood. He also burns a photograph of them. These are things that aren’t really seen in most backwoods horror of the ‘70s and ‘80s, nor slashers that followed Texas Chain Saw Massacre. They are, if anything, leftovers of gothic and even folk horror. Elements that feel strange and pagan and definitely reflect the same things that the gypsies in The Wolf Man (1941) and villagers in Dracula were meant to convey: that the main characters had gone beyond where they were supposed to go and were being introduced to cultures and concepts entirely alien to them. While this is primarily a realistic film, The Hitchhiker almost appears to be putting a spell on the young cast and, in a way, that is entirely what he’s doing. He’s marked them to be delivered into an experience that they cannot possibly understand. Even if it’s not magic, even if it’s not at all supernatural, in the victims’ eyes it might as well be.
There are many inversions and subtle choices made in the film’s locations as well. Like countless classic horror films, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opens in a cemetery. Unlike most of the early gothic thrillers, though, this cemetery is not covered in mist under the light of a shining moon. It’s actually the opposite. This cemetery is soaked in sunlight. That’s one of the most interesting things about the film as a whole. Despite being one of the scariest movies of all time, very little of Chain Saw actually takes place at night. Most of the horror happens in broad daylight. There are still classic, old-school shots of a bright, fat full moon, but that shot comes after so much grueling horror has already taken place.
Leatherface kills Kirk and Pam in the middle of the afternoon and the only time we really see him in darkness is not when he’s creeping up on an unsuspecting victim, but when he’s alone. Like Frankenstein’s Monster before him, the camera actually lingers on Leatherface even when he’s not killing someone. Unlike the Wolf Man and Gill Man, who were always shown to be stalking their prey if they were showcased on their own, Leatherface has these small moments by himself that echo what Whale did for his monster in Frankenstein.
Even though his debut scene is horrific and unnerving, Leatherface does have much in common with the Monster, which becomes clearer and clearer throughout the movie as the audience is gradually introduced to this cannibal family dynamic. There’s something not quite innocent about Leatherface, but certainly childlike. When he’s in the darkness alone, he looks overwhelmed, even scared. He does not know who these people are who keep coming into his home and his actions are erratic and almost appear surprising even to himself. Really, everything up until he kills Franklin and chases Sally appear to be his own way of defending himself.
There’s no particular explanation as to why the Sawyer family are doing what they do, although there’s a lot to be construed from details given in the film about them being former slaughterhouse workers who were put out of work by the new automated systems. This culture clash of the “Old Way” vs. the presumable “New Way” make the gothic template stand out that much more. The film pits the mood and atmosphere of the ‘30s and ‘40s against the rawness of the ‘70s, while at the same time that clash of “Old vs. New” plays out in some ways in the narrative itself. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is by all accounts a work of gothic horror, but it is still a transitional one. It adheres to many gothic tropes inherent in the Hammer films all the way back to the Universal era and even the early schilling shocker gothic novels. Yet it reinterprets and re-evaluates all of those genre elements through a distinctly 1970s lens.
The cannibal family depicted here is still by all accounts an Other, but for all of their attempts to hide and lure stragglers to their backwoods farmhouse, they are almost assaulted by the very idea of modernity. They are Americans of a very deeply ingrained and likely inbred family, a true patriarchy in that there are no women in the household, yet these things that largely depict what could be considered a conservative fantasy only accentuate the family’s strangeness. Sally and her friends represent a new generation.
Yet they are still classical gothic protagonists. They’re travellers who have gone somewhere they shouldn’t, who have not heeded the warnings against going there—and it’s interesting to note that in this case, the warnings actually come from one of those responsible for their eventual deaths—and who find themselves at a strange and isolated house in which they are confronted with ghoulish horrors. All of the ingredients are there. But the seasoning is entirely different. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels like the furthest thing from gothic horror, even though it still falls into that category, because of how strongly it presents itself.
It is such a visceral, utterly raw experience that it’s easy at times to forget you’re even watching a film in general, because of that key difference. So many of the classic gothic horrors were heightened melodrama—and very intentionally so—but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels real. No one wants to classify it as gothic, or a slasher, or a cannibal movie even though it is all of those things, because it only feels like itself. Not just a seminal horror movie. Not just a movie, but a moment in cinematic history as a whole.