Who will survive and what will be left of them?

40 years of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dedicated to the memory of Marilyn Burns (1949-2014)

This text contains spoilers. Lots of them.


In 1974, a movie was released that quickly gained notoriety for being a gritty, scary film that got under your skin and stayed there. The title – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – probably helped in gaining that notoriety too. Growing up in Sweden, the Swedish title Motorsågsmassakern – which somehow sounds even more frightening – would throughout my upbringing appear every now and then, especially during debates on video violence. But it was not until I was in my early 20s that I actually sat down to watch it with a friend and it changed me from preferring action to horror and I have been a horror film fan ever since.

There is something special about this low-budget film shot in the warm Texas summer in 1973. It gets to you, you become part of the madness and the film is not only violent towards its characters, it is violent towards the viewer as well. It is as if the security and filter that the TV or movie screen normally is, no longer provides that protection. At least that was what I felt the first time I watched it and I still feel the exact same way when I watch it today, which is a remarkable thing to pull off for any movie.

Now, 40 years later, the movie is still relevant and praised by old fans and gaining new fans. It is still screened at cinemas every now and then and a new 4K HD transfer is heading to blu-ray after a tour of US cinemas this summer. So what can be said about the film and its place in history?

Plot synopsis

After an opening shot of a desecrated grave in the hot Texas sun, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre continues with Sally, Franklin and three other young people in a van on their way to a small rundown Texas town to make sure that the graves of Franklin and Sally’s grandparents have not been desecrated. Before coming into town they pick up a hitchhiker who tells them he used to work at a slaughterhouse nearby, killing animals with a sledgehammer, but now he and his entire family has been laid off due to newer technology and the recession. Taking a photo of Franklin, the hitchhiker then proceeds to demand money for it. When he is denied he becomes hostile, burns Franklin’s photo and cuts his and Franklin’s hands. Once they have managed to get him out of the van they continue into town. After stopping for fuel – and finding out that there is none – the group decides to visit the old house just outside of town where Franklin and Sally used to spend their summers with their grandparents. What they do not know though is that nearby to that house live the hitchhiker, his father, his grandfather and his brother – a huge man who wears masks made of human skin – in a house decorated with human remains, some from the graveyard and some from people they have cooked and eaten. Upstairs the remains of a long-dead older woman keeps the grandfather company.

Looking for fuel, two in the group find the house and the man wearing the skin mask, referred to as Leatherface. What follows are the deaths of the young people by sledgehammer, meat hooks and of course chainsaw until only Sally is left and is forced to participate in a frightening and bizarre family dinner where she is to be killed by a blow from the sledgehammer by the very old grandfather in a drawn-out scene where he can barely hold the hammer and tries again and again to swing at her head, which is held down over a bucket by the rest of the family. In the middle of the commotion Sally manages to break free, jumps through a window and runs for the passing road with the hitchhiker and Leatherface running after her. A big truck accidentally runs over the hitchhiker before it stops and the driver gets out. Panicking, the driver still manages to throw a wrench at Leatherface who falls and cuts into his own leg with his chainsaw. As the driver runs away from the scene Sally, who cannot catch up, is left behind with Leatherface who has got back up on his feet. Luckily a smaller truck drives by and Sally manages to get on to it. As the car drives away, we see Sally on the back of it with a bloody face laughing maniacally, her eyes wide open watching Leatherface frustratingly swing his chainsaw back and forth in what almost looks like dancing.

Real-life inspiration

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with a text claiming that the movie “is an account of the tragedy which befell upon five youths” often leading to people believing that the film is based on true events and to a certain extent it is, but the main story is fictional. There are certain elements of the film which are based on the crimes committed by murderer and grave robber Ed Gein (1904-1984), also known as the Butcher from Plainsfield, who in the 40s and 50s plagued his Wisconsin town by digging up bodies and even murdering two women before being caught.

Having grown up with a very strict mother and, after her death, fascinated by stories of head hunters, cannibals and Nazi war crimes he begins to decorate his house with human remains from the local cemetery. He sews lampshades and masks – and a full female body suit – out of human skin, he makes cups out of skulls, belts out of nipples and much more. When he is arrested, the body of the last woman he killed is found hung up by her feet with her head and insides removed.

Ed Gein’s crimes and his life has been the inspiration for some of horror’s most famous villains, including Norman Bates in Psycho (the relationship with his mother and dressing up as a female) and Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs (the female human skin suit and the desire to be female). There have also been films made about Gein himself where Deranged tends to be seen as the best one.

It was the desire to wear masks made out of human skin and to decorate the house with human remains that were the most obvious influences on director Tobe Hooper when creating The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, it can also be argued that a mother is nowhere to be seen in the all-male cannibal family and the remains upstairs of what might be the grandmother also were influenced by Gein’s life.

A movie of its time

Apart from the apparent and admitted inspiration from Ed Gein, the film is also very much a product of its time. Filmed and taking place in 1973, the US recession of 1973-1975 can be seen both in the people sitting outside the gas station but more so in that some members of the cannibal family have lost their jobs at the local slaughterhouse. While it is fairly clear that the twisted moral values of the family have long been present, it is not at all too far-fetched to claim that the acts of cannibalism may be a result of a loss of income.

Furthermore, the oil crisis of 1973 is also very much affecting American lives and it is ultimately this that leads to the young group’s encounter with the cannibal family. Having been told that there is no fuel available at the local gas station, the youths still head to Sally and Franklin’s grandparents’ old house and there two of them come across the house where Leatherface and the rest live and go inside hoping to be able to buy some petrol from them, but instead they are killed. Of course, without fuel it is also impossible to escape the fate that awaits the rest of the group and they are forced to move around on foot. So the actual situation in the US in 1973 both lends credibility to the film and adds documentary-like qualities to the story.

In addition, due to budget constraints the film was shot on cheaper 16 mm film stock instead of the standard 35 mm used on bigger-budget films. The choice of film stock, the fact that the film was shot on location in the blistering Texas summer and cinematographer Daniel Pearl’s photography give the film a gritty, almost documentary look as well, which – along with the story – probably has added to the belief that the film is based on real events.

A video nasty or not?

Despite its reputation for being a very gory and bloody film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is actually not as gory as people seem to remember. In fact, Tobe Hooper toned down the violence hoping the film would get a PG rating (Parental guidance suggested – some material may not be suitable for pre-teenagers) in the US. Instead it received an R rating (Restricted – under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) and it is not hard to understand why when watching the film.

Though toned down regarding the onscreen violence directed towards the characters, the film is very much a violent assault on the viewer. From the soundtrack consisting of for example slowed-down camera flashes run through a filter instead of actual music, to the intrusive close-up and first-person photography that puts us as viewers in the film both as victims and perpetrators, the film not only allows us to see the madness going on but also truly feel it. In other films, we feel for the characters as well, but that is more through empathetic emotions. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the screaming, the background sound effects and camera work makes us terrified and mad as well.

It was this general atmosphere along with the title which contributed to the movie gaining its notoriety. It was banned in several countries upon release in cinemas and sometimes again or for the first time once countries began to apply a rating system to home video in the 1980s. In the UK it was actually not on the famous “Video nasties” list created in 1983 under the Obscene Publications Act, which saw 72 films on the list before becoming somewhat obsolete with the Video Recordings Act of 1984 where the British Board for Film Classification (BBFC) finally were given responsibility to rate films released on video and not just in cinemas. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was however not released uncut in the UK until 1999.

In Sweden, who underwent a similar debate as the UK on the damaging effects of video violence on children, the film became the main representative of violent films on video and as a result was banned completely in 1984, released cut in 1994 and finally uncut in 2002. It should be noted though that the film probably could have been released uncut earlier if someone had bothered to resubmit it for classification.

Since then, the film has received what appears to be more and more praise over the years. It is seen as one of the classics of horror cinema and a very good example of American low-budget horror in the 1970s. To this day it is still screened during film festivals and other occasions, most recently in selected American theatres in a 4K HD restoration which is also due for blu-ray disc release later in 2014. Make no mistake though, the film is still controversial and not for everyone, but nowadays the controversy is at least not overshadowing the masterful piece of moviemaking that it is.

“The saw is family” – sequels, remakes, prequels and new sequels

After the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974, Tobe Hooper went on to direct most notably a TV mini series adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, big-budget horror Poltergeist and the space-vampire movie Lifeforce before finally in 1986 releasing the sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (note the spelling). Just as the first film is clearly set in early-70s America, so is the second one a product of the shallowness and capitalism of the 1980s. More a dark comedy at times than a horror film, the film is more superficial and we follow the now-named cannibal family – the Sawyers (most likely pun intended) – as they have moved and set up home in an abandoned amusement park. Drayton Sawyer, the father, is now a fairly successful entrepreneur and cook, famous for his barbecue and chili, of course containing meat from the victims of new chainsaw killings happening in the area.

In 1990 and 1994, two more sequels were made of which the latter one is most famous for starring Renée Zellwegger and Matthew McConaughey before they became stars.

In 2003, blockbuster director Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes released a remake of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, entitled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (spelling again). The remake shows all the usual problems of remaking a 1970s film in the 2000s. Since the original film is to such a large extent a product of its time, it is virtually impossible to recreate that atmosphere and although set in the 1970s, the cast and the production make that quite difficult to believe. The remake depicts a group of young people on their way to a Lynard Skynard concert in Dallas who run into the family of chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, now named the Hewitts and we also find out that the reason Thomas ‘Leatherface’ Hewitt wears masks is due to a skin condition instead of what might have been a mental condition implied by Hooper in the original.

What the movie lacks in grittiness and authenticity it tries to make up for by showing as much of the violence as possible and also making it more sadistic, changing the whole atmosphere of the original to more resemble that of the more sadistic horror films of the 2000s such as Saw and Hostel.

Though at times quite effective, the soul of the original is lost in the remake, which often is the case when moviemakers try to cash in on the fame of older films. A film made in the 1970s or 1980s will never feel the same if remade today due to a number of factors; most prominently that movie-making today is different and since millions of dollars are spent on these remakes, they have to cater to the audience of today, which is also different in its expectations. Furthermore, very few remakes are made based on artistic motifs, which often was the case of the low-budget originals.

The remake made enough money though to spawn a prequel in 2006 and in 2013 a sequel to the original was released in 3D. Marketed as taking place immediately after the events of the original film, the story quickly changes its setting to the present and becomes as complete mess of inconsistency and poor story telling, with its only merits being the 3D-converted scenes from the original used in the opening credits.

Sally – remembering Marilyn Burns (1949–2014)

Known as one of the original scream queens, Marilyn Burns’ in her portrayal of Sally and the character itself deserves more praise than only that of a screaming victim, because Sally is so much more.

The group of young people whom we meet in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre share some characteristics with groups of young people we come across in horror films later on, like the Friday the 13th series or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Most notably, there is no clear hero in the film and it is not even certain that there is one at all. If there is a hero, that person will have to emerge during the course of the film as if the horrible events are a rite of passage. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, that person is Sally, but whether or not she is a true hero or not is debatable.

She is clear proof that women can handle themselves as she is the only survivor and that is not because the cannibal family lets her off easily. She watches her brother die and is forced to flee for her life only to end up at the house where she is supposed to meet her demise as a guest of honour placed at the end of the dinner table and subjected to the taunts of the family who mocks her tears and screams. Her placement at the table is similar to the treatment of people who are about to be sacrificed by savages in older stories. They are treated like royalty right up until they are thrown into the volcano. Here, she is a sacrifice to the grandfather who will get to use his sledgehammer just like in old times as a gift from the rest of the family which they think will cheer him up.

Luckily the bludgeoning does not go as well as planned and in the commotion that ensues, she manages to break free and flees, first running in to the man in the big truck who is of little help to her as he escapes the scene on foot. The second smaller truck that arrives slows down somewhat so that she, by the use of her own strength, can pull herself up on the back of it. As the truck speeds off we see Sally with a bloody face laughing hysterically as if completely overwhelmed with emotions which most likely is not that far from the truth. She may have survived, but at what cost?

Marilyn Burns’ portrayal of Sally shows her as a strong woman whose will to live overcomes the most savage of circumstances, which probably would leave the rest of us completely paralysed and accepting our fate. Even though she does not kill anyone, the fact that she manages to flee is what makes her a hero in a movie where no one else is able to escape death. That she also probably is scarred for life is what makes her human.

Written by Mattias Danielsson, 2014-08-28