In the first installment of The Open Man’s 31 Movies of Halloween, Your Humble Author posited that the most terrifying horror exploits relatable phobias. Unrealistic characters and scenarios become genuinely frightening when they manifest in very real situations.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains, some 40 years after its controversial release, the benchmark for real-world terror in cinema.
John Larroquette’s iconic voiceover introducing the film sets the tone, making you question just how much of the story is real. The introduction plants that seed of doubt in the viewers’ mind effectively. Indeed, I remember as a kid, before having the movie, hearing friends say The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on a true story.
There’s the tiniest bit of truth to that. Elements of the Sawyer Family house, and iconic villain Leatherface, employ imagery associated with 1950s Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein. Beyond that, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a pure work of fiction. But it doesn’t often feel that way.
Platinum Dunes studio has attempted on various occasions to reboot The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it’s not a movie that can be recreated because it’s so much a product of its time. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel operated with a five-figure budget in the early half of the 1970s. Filmmaking technology has advanced to such a point in the 21st century that a budget adjusted for inflation comparable to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would look nicer.
Such was the issue with the first Platinum Dunes reboot, the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Jessica Biel-led film has some scares, but feels much more comparable to Freddy vs. Jason (produced the same year). It has a sleek, aesthetically pleasing presentation. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks grimy, which adds to the frights.
Hooper’s cinematography makes for a quasi-documentary presentation, heightening the tension of a situation in which many of us can relate.
Ever taken to the highway on a road trip and found yourself in a desolate area, wondering who lives out there — and what they do? The drive from Southern California to Las Vegas is a trek I make frequently. Once you reach the top of the Cajon Pass, looking down on San Bernardino to the south and Los Angeles County to the southwest, the ensuing three hours before coming upon the lights of Sin City are filled with such locations that inspire my foot to ease just a little harder down on the accelerator.
Having gone to high school in a rest stop kinda town, I know that these places are inhabited by hard-working people who either don’t have the inclination or the means to live in more populated areas. There’s nothing sinister in the isolation. And yet, seeing an eerie house situated a few hundred yards off the interstate between Barstow and Baker inevitably takes my mind to the Sawyer House.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre works as social commentary in this regard, too, using the same relatable elements that invoke fear to address still-relevant topics. The once-flourishing Sawyer Family lost its livelihood as a result of technology. A streamlined work process meant to increase profits for the owners of the slaughterhouse left patriarch Drayton Sawyer in dire straits.
It’s Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times” promo a full decade before Reaganomics.
Thankful, Dust had the good sense to take his aggression out on the bourgeois Ric Flair instead of cannibalizing jobbers.
An unlikely jumping-off point for animal rights also exists in the subtext of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The longtime slaughterhouse attendants view living things, including people, only as food. We have societal norms that dictate what animals can be eaten and which shouldn’t, but cultural norms change. This is a theme especially relevant in 2018, when some of the most basic fundamentals of morality and the definition of fact-and-fiction cannot be agreed upon.
To that end, the subtext of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is even more terrifying than Leatherface.