A simple tag line that appeared on the original film poster for Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974.
Just enough to make people think what they’re about to see is rooted in truth.
Then there’s the title The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Five words that conjure up bloody, gruesome, and depraved images of torture and death.
And it happened in Texas.
Images of banjo-playing rednecks. Wrong state, I know, but the TV media and newspaper press have long indoctrinated the public into thinking anything south of the Mason-Dixon Line is inbred red necks who pork their sisters and shoot guns for breakfast. And you wonder why people don’t trust the media?
Four words and the whole film is sold before you’ve even bought a ticket.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was more than just a clever piece of marketing, it was and is one of the greatest films ever made, one of the most influential films ever made. And there was a lot of competition in the 1970s with The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars. But where these films all followed the genre tropes–gangster movies, attack of the giant beast, or Saturday morning movie serials like Flash Gordon, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre broke new ground and created its own genre.
Hailed as the first “slasher” movie there is (surprisingly) hardly any blood on screen. Director Hooper excelled at suggesting visceral horror through camera setups and editing. We believe we see a woman impaled on a hook–but it’s two different shots beautifully edited together by Sallye Richardson and Larry Carroll. Great horror is what we imagine, not what is made explicit. An open door in a darkened bedroom is more terrifying because of what it suggests.
Hooper’s film is the bastard offspring of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both movies use cross-dressing, cannibal serial killer Ed Gein as their source. Though as Hooper’s co-writer Kim Henkel admitted Gein wasn’t the only influence:
I definitely studied Gein … but I also noticed a murder case in Houston at the time, a serial murderer you probably remember named Elmer Wayne Henley. He was a young man who recruited victims for an older homosexual man. I saw some news report where Elmer Wayne … said, “I did these crimes, and I’m gonna stand up and take it like a man.” Well, that struck me as interesting, that he had this conventional morality at that point. He wanted it known that, now that he was caught, he would do the right thing. So this kind of moral schizophrenia is something I tried to build into the characters.
Elmer Wayne Henley was one of two boys (the other was David Owen Brooks) used by serial killer Dean Corll (aka the Candy Man) to lure male classmates and friends to Corll’s house where he raped, tortured and murdered them.
Henley killed Corll in 1973. He is currently serving “six consecutive terms of 99 years for his involvement in the Houston Mass Murders” described as “the deadliest case of serial murders in American history.” Brooks was also sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in 2020.
It wasn’t just serial killers that inspired Hooper and Henkel. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with radio chatter reporting graves being robbed and desecrated. It was like the TV news reports screened grim footage of the brutal war in Vietnam every night for over a decade. Death was everywhere. Carnage was normal. Every day the U.S. Government and the media justified the horrors of war. The real monsters it seemed were hidden in plain sight on the TV screens, disguised with masks just like Leatherface.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t a great success on its first release. It was a slow burn that gathered cult status then became notorious when it was banned by British Board of Film Censors after its initial UK release. They had a problem with the words “chain saw”. The film was eventually passed for UK release in 1999.
H/T The Dead Still Alive.
Would you like to support Flashbak?
Please consider making a donation to our site. We don't want to rely on ads to bring you the best of visual culture. You can also support us by signing up to our Mailing List. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For great art and culture delivered to your door, visit our shop.