While it is increasingly becoming a year-round treat, when the calendar roles over to October, horror takes center stage and becomes the focal point for audiences across the country. We embrace our fears and dress up as our favorite monsters, go to haunted houses and pay money for the desire to be frightened by a stranger in a hockey mask, and most commonly, we watch scary movies. As Halloween closes in, we venture into the realm of taboo and revel as we watch people get terrified, mutilated, possessed, and suffer all manner of gruesome fates for our entertainment. There are many theories as to the appeal of horror ranging from cathartic satisfaction to deeper psychoanalytic analysis, but the most common theme is that is indulgence; horror allows us to expose ourselves to and soak up things that we are not supposed to see or be attracted to. When watching death, gore, personal invasion and the supernatural all torment the actors on screen, we allow ourselves to take pleasure in aspects of life which we would otherwise find revolting and terrible.
There may not be a single more indulgent horror sub-genre than Slashers. Though lacking much of the artistic value that other sub-genres can pack, slashers make up a disproportionate amount of horror’s identity in popular culture. There are few horror icons that are as famous as or more identifiable than the villains in slashers, and we will continue our journey through horror films with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Watching menacing killing machines mercilessly make mince-meat of attractive and promiscuous teenagers used to be their height of popular horror back in late 70’s and early 80’s with a brief resurgence in the mid 90’s, but the slasher film has fallen on hard times in recent years. The failed attempts at making the next killer slasher series far outnumber the successes, but there are always new attempts being made at revitalizing the sub-genre in the same way that Scream did more than 20 years ago. Despite this, slashers remain ubiquitous in popular culture. They have a history that dates back decades, and many of the films that have defined the genre are still well-known today.
One of the most infamous and earliest slashers is 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even while growing up 20 years after its release, there was always an air of mystery and taboo around Massacre that other slashers did not have. That it was, “based on a true story,” gave it an even greater legacy on the playground, through it was really based on some grave-digging wacko from Wisconsin. For a kid, its reputation was the equivalent of a snuff film: something that you were not supposed to see, and even getting your hands on it was tricky, or at least that is how it seemed.
This is one of the earliest forms of the slasher, predating the reigning slashing king, Halloween, by four years. Being one of the earliest ones, it is not weighed down by many of the clichés that would eventually come to dominate the genre. Chief among the major differences between it and later slashers is the point of the kills. By the time slashers rose to their cultural peak and beyond, the kills themselves had long since become more important than the reasons or nature of the kills. We didn’t care necessarily how or why Jason killed someone, for we just wanted to see some poor bastard get a machete to the face. With Massacre, however, director, Tobe Hooper, put far more effort into setting a frightening and sinister atmosphere for the film and the kills. After an earlier encounter with a bizarre and dangerous vagrant, the cast and audience are both a little on edge as a pair of the teens stumble onto a strange house. It is here that we have our first encounter with one of the primary antagonists, and the most famous icon of the film, Leatherface. His introduction into the film is as sudden as it is shocking.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a film that seeks to thrill its audience with gore, instead opting for unnerving imagery and characters to bring more classical horror elements to the film. There is a room furnished with the skin and bones of previous victims, an in-home slaughter house complete with hooks and freezers large enough for the purveyor’s human slaughter, and a more secluded room where the family’s decrepit grandpa rests. All of this culminates in a slasher that is about as far from stereotype as possible. The slow building dinner scene is the kind of uncomfortable horror that would be difficult to find in more modern slashers without having a jump scare type of pay-off.
Among it’s peers, Texas Chainsaw Massacre stands as a unique member of the slasher family. It has more cultural relevance than many of its predecessors, while also managing to hold its own with a reputation that differs from the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Halloween. While the latter three have in part become defined by their clichés, sequels and sillier moments, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still mostly defined by the initial film, and its infamy. It has even produced one of the most well-known “final girls,” a trope that the genre seems unable or unwilling to escape. It is not without its hokie moments, but it is still the perfect type of film to watch in the dead of night in Halloween season for those who don’t mind sleeping with the lights on.