The slasher subgenre of horror isn’t something that you sorta like or have no opinion on. You either love it or you hate it. Personally, I love it. There’s something about the classic slasher films that I used to watch when I was younger that fills me with both nostalgia and just simple reminder of why I love horror movies. It can be said that Alfred Hitchcock kickstarted the slasher genre with Psycho in 1960, although Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, also from 1960, can be said to be the start. But that’s not what we’re talking about. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the proto-slasher films that came out before they were even really a thing, and it still holds up as one of the best horror movies ever to be made.
In a rural part of Texas, Sally (Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and their three friends are on a trip to find Sally’s grandfather’s grave to see if it has been vandalized. Things begin to get strange when they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who cuts his hand open, injures Franklin, and nearly lights the inside of the van on fire. After kicking him out they find Sally’s grandfather’s old house, and begin to explore the area around it. This area just so happens to be inhabited by a family of murderous cannibals who begin picking off the friends one by one. Sally soon comes face to face with the violent, chainsaw wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) who brings her back to the family home to have dinner, and be dinner for Leatherface and rest of the family.
Tobe Hooper, the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has gone on to become a prolific horror director. His other crowning achievement was the 1982 horror classic, Poltergeist, but this is where he really found his stride. One of the most amazing things about this movie is its almost complete lack of budget and experienced cast and crew. The cast were just friends and acting students from the University of Texas, and the budget was so limited that Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel had to keep selling their shares of the movie. Even with these limited resources, they were able to create one of the most iconic horror films of all time.
One of the first things you may notice on your first run through of this movie is the image quality. It looks very cheap and almost like a documentary, which actually helps the film because it solidifies the fact that all of this could really happen. That’s what really makes the film so terrifying. There aren’t any superhuman killers or ghosts or vampires. The family of cannibals make my skin crawl so much because they are completely human and can exist in the real world. In fact, I’m sure there are people just like this family that exist in America today. I can guarantee it. That’s infinitely scarier than any spooky creature you can throw at me.
Something that actually separates The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from the slasher films that came after it is that it is almost completely bloodless. It’s weird to say that a movie is so unflinchingly brutal without a lot of gore, but this one is. There are a few gory scenes, but overall, it’s pretty bloodless. The aesthetic tension that this film creates more than makes up for it. The editing can sometimes become completely chaotic which has a bigger effects on my comfort level than you might think and the set design by Robert A. Burns is excellent. Robert Burns would go on to be a big name in horror art direction, working on films like The Hills Have Eyes and Re-Animator.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t just a horror classic. In terms of film as a whole, it is a classic. In a time when drive in theaters and exploitation films flooded the film world, a lot of what was seen was trash. Fun trash, maybe, but nothing too memorable. But there were a few gems, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being one of them. It helped redefine horror as a genre and was a testament of Tobe Hooper’s and the rest of the cast and crew’s talents. It’s an awesome horror film that has a spot in film history, which may seem odd considering the subject matter, but it is rightfully earned.