The Best Little Chophouse in Town

The allure of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Still from Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Leatherface in Chainsaw: a bloody ripper

The appeal of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was best explained by its director, Tobe Hooper, who declared, “This film is about meat.” In one sense, most horror pictures are about meat—they linger on teenage legs, breasts, and thighs. Chainsaw, on the other hand, wants to show us the preparation and consumption of human flesh. When Leatherface, the film’s butcher, drags a victim into his abattoir, you half expect to see the words “Paid for by the American Beef Council” at the bottom of the frame.

Chainsaw spawned three sequels, and this week it stands exhumed for a remake, directed by Marcus Nispel. But the new film is a cynical exercise in fright and disgust, where the original had a deep resonance to it. In fact, it was one of the most relentless scare pictures ever made.

The grist is this: The Sawyer family, a clan of wayward cannibals, lives a quiet life of rural isolation in the Texas Panhandle. Their farmhouse is trimmed with cattle skulls and chicken feathers, not unlike a half-dozen gift shops in downtown Austin. The Sawyers feast on day-tripping tourists and hawk the leftover victuals at a barbecue shack down the road. The family mascot is Leatherface—nee Bubba Sawyer Jr.—who serves as chief cook and executioner. Leatherface wears an opaque mask, black cowboy boots, and, most wonderfully, a ring of fat around the waist—he’s the only cinematic demon who could stand to lose 20 pounds. When he’s in full-on Julia Child mode, whipping up a batch of sweetbreads, he adds lipstick and a woman’s wig and morphs into the family’s matriarch.

The Texas Panhandle is the turf of novelist Larry McMurtry, whose cowboy protagonists have none of the hillbilly giddiness of the Sawyers. But McMurtry’s work and Chainsaw share a deep connection. McMurtry believes the underpopulated Texas landscape exerts a violent influence on its inhabitants; the Sawyers, in a sense, are the manifestation of that violence. The family includes an old man (Jim Siedow), a grave-digging hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), and wizened Grandfather Sawyer (John Dugan), a clone of the mummified mother in Psycho (1960). Their prey in Chainsaw is five nubile hippies, who have piled into a van to search for an abandoned mansion. The teens stumble into the Sawyer home, where Leatherface offs them one by one. The weapons he uses—in descending order of utility—are a sledgehammer, chainsaw, and meat hook.

Still from Texas Chainsaw Massacre
No substitute for the original Massacre

Thirty years later, nothing about the setup seems particularly ingenious—nothing, at least, to justify four additional films. The lasting appeal of Chainsaw, I think, has more to do with the organic way that Hooper and his co-writer, Kim Henkel, approach the material. Most horror films place a demon in an idyllic world; order is restored simply by throwing the demon out. Chainsaw makes it seem like the Sawyers have risen up from the Texas soil, that they’re as much a part of the landscape as cottonwood trees. When a lone teen survivor, Sally (Marilyn Burns), escapes at the end of the film, you don’t feel the relief you feel in more conventional scare pictures. You feel the Sawyers will remain there unmolested for 100 years (or 100 sequels), feeding at their leisure.

The film’s final shot lingers on Leatherface, spinning in the sunlight as his chainsaw whirs. It’s one of four or five images of great beauty here—you respond to it despite the high level of gore. Hooper shot the film in grainy 16mm, which gives the picture the look of a homemade travelogue. (Later, when given millions to make Hollywood fare like Poltergeist [1982], he lost his touch.) Much of the dialogue was composed on the fly, and the troupe of lightly trained actors was asked to improvise the rest. It’s the documentarylike quality that allowed the filmmakers—for both the original and this week’s remake—to fib in the promotional material that Chainsaw is based on “true” events. In fact, it’s based only slightly on the serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired Psycho and Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs.

Chainsaw gave birth to the multipart horror franchises that have filled multiplexes for the last two decades and may have convinced Hollywood that good money lay in bloodwork. (It has likely grossed over $100 million since its release.) In 1974, the critics were particularly unkind. Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s without apparent purpose, unless the creation of fright and disgust is a purpose.” Hooper has repeatedly shirked the charge, claiming that he made Chainsaw as a reaction to—get ready—Watergate and Vietnam.

I’d bet he had something simpler in mind, like scaring people out of their pajamas. If that was his mission, then he has nothing to be ashamed of. Chainsaw is a whirling dervish of a movie, but it takes every one of its killings seriously. It’s a counterweight to films like Scream (1996), which use horrific violence as fuel for laughs and genre deconstruction, while at the same time wallowing in gore. Since when does screen violence, if handled with skill, disqualify a film from being art? Some nights, we crave the violence. We’re hungry for it.