THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974, Director Tobe Hooper)

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most notorious horror films ever made, a film known for breaking new ground in the representation of graphic violence and lurid subject matter. In this, it exercised a considerable influence on the films that came after it, becoming one of the crucial influences on both the slasher subgenre and the subgenre that has sometimes come to be known as “hillbilly horror.” Moreover, the considerable commercial success of that first Chain Saw film (more than $30 million in box-office receipts against a production budget of around $130,000) was an important milestone that encouraged the development of additional low-budget independent horror films. The original Chain Saw also became the founding text in its own media franchise, which has by now come to include a total of eight films, involving sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots. All of these subsequent films have sought to improve on the production quality of the low-budget original, yet that rough-hewn original remains, nearly half a century later, the most effective of them all[1].

The Texas Chain Saw massacre is not a subtle film, and it’s a bit rough-hewn, but it is not without artistry. For example, the film expends considerable effort in building an air of tension and expectation before the truly gruesome action begins. As the film begins, on-screen text (read by a narrator, future sitcom star John Larroquette) warns us that bizarre and macabre events are about to be depicted, involving five young people in Texas. Central among these are Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her wheel-chair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who have traveled to the area with three of their friends—Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn)—to check on the gravesite of the grandfather of the Hardesties, given reports of recent grave-robbings in the area, just outside the small Texas community of Newt. These reports are relayed via a radio news report, accompanied by fleeting shots of parts of decomposing bodies that flash on the screen between periods of blackness (presumably because they are being photographed in darkness by crime-scene photographers using flash bulbs), creating a disorienting and ominous effect.

As if this report were not enough, the film proceeds as further news reports play over the opening credits on the screen, reporting a series of grim events occurring around the U.S., especially in Texas. These events include such things as an industrial accident, a cholera outbreak, a suicide, a deadly building collapse, and a gruesome murder/mutilation. The first shot after the credits shows the body of a dead armadillo lying on its back, a particularly Texan form of roadkill. The five young people at the center of the film then stop their van by the roadside so that Franklin can relieve himself into a coffee can after his wheelchair is rolled into the weeds. Then, just after we hear a radio report about violent battles over oil reserves in South America, a large truck speeds by and sends Franklin careening down an embankment, in what looks like a possible disaster. He is not seriously hurt, as it turns out, but the incident does help to establish a sense of danger, yet not without a dose of comedy.

As the group drives on, Pam informs them all that astrological signs are suggesting that cosmic evil is afoot, again adding to the air of menace, an air that approaches the apocalyptic. Most viewers might not take this latest information very seriously (even the other hippie types in the van tend to dismiss it), but ominous signs continue to build. However, a quick stop at the cemetery shows that the grandfather’s grave appears to be okay. They then decide to visit the old Hardesty farmhouse, which is nearby. On the way, they pass a foul-smelling slaughterhouse, which triggers some horrific discussion of the gruesome ways in which cattle had once been killed there by being bashed in the head with sledge hammers, possibly multiple times. This information, as it turns out, will turn out to be more relevant than is immediately obvious. Meanwhile, things get significantly more serious when the young people stop to pick up a hitchhiker (played by Edwin Neal), who turns out to be a bizarre and apparently deranged individual, again reinforcing the sense that something very bad is about to happen. He first regales them with more ghastly slaughterhouse stories (his family long worked in the business), then turns out to be physically dangerous, though the young people manage to boot him out of the van before he can seriously injure anyone. He does, however, manage to slash Franklin’s arm with a straight razor, the disabled young man continuing to be the focal point for most of the dangers seen thus far.

What the characters (and we viewers) do not know at this point, though, is that the hitchhiker, unnamed in the film[2], is a member of the grotesque family (when Franklin first hears about them he calls them “a whole family of Draculas”) of murderous cannibals that will soon turn the film’s horror from atmosphere-building into graphic, murderous violence. Meanwhile, after booting the hitchhiker out of the van, the young people stop at a Gulf Oil gas station to refuel, only to learn that the rather ominous-seeming station itself is out of gas, which surely would have resonated with audiences who had recently experiences shortages at the pump due to the Arab Oil Embargo of October 1973–March 1974. Meanwhile, the proprietor at the station (played by Jim Siedow[3]) seems pretty ominous himself, while this whole scene would ultimately become the progenitor of a stock scene in hillbilly horror films, any number of which feature a group of young people traveling off into a remote locale, stopping first at a nearby gas station with a strange proprietor (often one who warns them against going further)[4]. In this case, it turns out that the proprietor (aka “Cook,” aka “Old Man”) is also a member of the cannibal family, though that will not be revealed until somewhat later.

The young people decide to travel on to the Hardesty place, hoping to make it back to the gas station once it has been resupplied with gas. The rundown Hardesty house looks a bit creepy (“it looks like the birthplace of Bela Lugosi,” one of the characters notes), though, perhaps surprisingly, nothing bad happens there. Dark omens continue to accumulate as Kirk and Pam wander onto a neighboring farm, where they hear a chugging generator, suggesting that the owners of the farm have a supply of fuel. They also encounter, uncomprehendingly, a sort of automobile graveyard, presumably the vehicles of their victims, though also suggesting America’s stranded autos in the midst of a gas crisis. However, when they locate the generator, it has a large barrel of fuel suspended over it, dripping a steady supply of fuel into the generator’s fuel tank. As they investigate the scene further, they encounter a number of bizarre artifacts, many of which seem like macabre works of art made from bones or other body parts, perhaps with occult purposes. These artifacts are also, as Worland discusses, reminiscent of the works of surreal artists such as Salvador Dali, as when a shot of a watch impaled upon a large nail recalls Dali’s well-known 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory (218–19). Indeed, this is a film (beginning with the opening sequence) that is filled with such omens and portents and strange objects, all of which contribute to the atmosphere of horror that dominates the film. At the same time, as Mark Bould has noted, all of these omens tend to confuse the overall atmosphere a bit, because they sometimes tend to suggest an air of supernatural menace that is somewhat at odds with the down-to-earth, slash-and-grind, fundamentally economic material that seems to be the heart of the film (97–98).

A bit of surreal cannibal art.

Then, just over thirty-five minutes into this eighty-three-minute film, all of this preparation comes to a sudden and shocking culmination as a hulking, masked figure, wearing a butcher’s apron, steps into a doorway in front of Kirk, then bashes the young man in the head with a small sledge hammer, linking back to all that earlier talk about the traditional killing method of the slaughterhouse. This action then initiates a virtually nonstop chain of violent assaults that constitutes the remainder of the film, half of which will be devoted to the murder of four of the young people and half of which will be devoted to the extended horrors endured by Sally until she comes out on the other end, alive but decidedly not undamaged. By this time, we have seemingly witnessed some of the most shocking violence ever put on film, made all the more shocking by the fact that the victims of this violence are being slaughtered for food.

This hulking figure who kills Kirk, of course, is the now-notorious Leatherface, who would go on to become one of the great horror icons, in the company of such figures as Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Leatherface, we will learn, is the brother of the hitchhiker we saw earlier. Large and powerful, he is also stipulated to be mentally disabled. Leatherface (who takes his name from his mask, which is made from skin stripped off the faces of his victims) is certainly a frightening figure, especially when he is wielding his trademark chainsaw, which serves even more overtly as a phallic substitute than the weapons of most slasher figures. This aspect of the film neatly links up with the feminization of Leatherface within the family. He is thus almost a figure of sympathy, partly because of his apparent mental handicap (which gives him a certain innocence) and partly because of the abusive way he is treated by his family members, who not only make him do most of their dirty work but also habitually batter him, both physically and verbally. In any case, Leatherface is not presented as a figure of evil: he seems truly to love his chainsaw, but he bears his victims no more malice than that which slaughterhouse workers bear toward the cattle they process.

This slaughterhouse association is one of the elements of Chain Saw that makes the film seem so bloody, while at the same time presenting us with a critical reminder of just how horrifying the entire meatpacking industry really is. It is worth noting, though, that Chain Saw does not contain nearly as much graphic violence as most viewers seem to recall, largely because its characters and situations are so horrifying. The actual violence, though, is mostly hinted at, with low-key lighting and frenetic editing making it difficult to see in detail even when the violence is shown on screen. Perhaps the most notorious scene in the entire film, for example, is the one in which Leatherface, having bashed Kirk in the head with a sledge hammer, impales Pam on a meathook, leaving her hanging on the wall, still conscious and looking on as he sets about butchering Kirk with his trusty chain saw. And yet, we never actually see the hook entering flesh, nor do we really see Leatherface’s chain saw cutting through Kirk.

Pam hangs out with Leatherface.

Leatherface, meanwhile, is also such an over-the-top figure that there is a certain absurd, black comedy to his characterization. This is especially the case when he performs his trademark, weirdly joyful, whirling, cavorting dance with his chain saw, an antic that is made even more absurd because it seems celebratory but does not particularly seem to be related to any particular cause for celebration. Indeed, there is an oddly comic touch to Chain Saw as a whole, partly because some of the dark material is so excessive and partly because so many of the characters (especially the cannibal family, but also some of the hippies, especially Pam and Franklin) are themselves comically excessive.

Of course, the comic elements in The Texas Chain Saw massacre are slight enough in comparison to the gruesome elements that one is tempted to wonder if they might have been unintentional, perhaps accidents resulting from the hurried making of the low-budget film. That Hooper, at least, saw a strong streak of genuine comedy can be surmised from a look at the film’s first sequel, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, which did not appear until 1986. Here, though there is even more bloody violence (including more shots of chain saws actually cutting through flesh) than in the original, the tone is darkly comic throughout. Even the cannibalism theme becomes comic when it is revealed that the cannibal family (now amusing named the Sawyers) has won a local chili contest with a recipe that features human meat as a main ingredient. The film is, in fact, filled with a number of over-the-top scenes that push its grotesqueries into the realm of the comic. Much of this effect is achieved by the inclusion of an avenger character, the uncle of Sally and Franklin Hardesty (played by, who has been hunting Franklin’s killers all this time, and finally finds them in this film. But this uncle, former Texas Ranger Lefty Enright, seems about as deranged as the Sawyers, and even ends up winning a chain saw battle against Leatherface himself. Meanwhile, this film also includes a Final Girl, in the person of radio DJ Stretch Brock (Caroline Williams), who is the only major character to survive the film, dispatching the last Sawyer with a chain saw in hand, then replicating the insane chain saw dance made famous by Leatherface at the end of the first film.

Leatherface’s final chain saw dance.

Meanwhile, in what is perhaps the most memorable scene in Chain Saw 2, Hooper puts to rest any possible doubt that Leatherface’s chain saw is meant to serve as a surrogate penis. In this scene, Leatherface corners a cowering Stretch, then slowly moves his chain saw between her parted legs and toward her crotch. She desperately tries to save her life by talking to him seductively, suggesting how “good” he must be. The chain saw momentarily stalls, and Leatherface’s shuddering reaction might cause one (as Clover does) to take this moment as an orgasmic one for him (Clover 26). In any case, Stretch manages to escape before he can restart the saw, and Leatherface decides to spare her, reporting back to his family that she has been killed and thus momentarily ending their pursuit of her.

One aspect of Chain Saw 2 that links back to the original film is the economic dimension of the family’s cannibalism, which also now extends to selling human meat products to others for income. There are, in fact, a number of dimensions to this family that go beyond the obvious, even in the original film. The family is struggling to survive because technological advances in the meatpacking industry has made the traditional family occupation (bashing cattle in the heads with sledge hammers) obsolete. Cannibalism is one of their strategies, though they presumably also receive income from that Gulf Oil station, a recognition that potentially links the struggling oil industry with the gruesome meatpacking industry, and even with cannibalism. Therefore, the family has been victimized by the same forces of capitalist modernization that hippy types like the young people in the van would presumably, within the political context of 1974, automatically oppose. To the extent that the opposition between these hippies and the working-class cannibal family replicates the famous “hardhats vs. hippies” battles of that era, then Chain Saw suggests the misguided nature of these battles, which turned out to be conducted between two groups that actually should have been allies. In particular, this aspect of the film suggests that the hardhats who seemed so angered by the protests of young people against the capitalist establishment, were themselves exploited by that establishment and should, by all rights, have aligned themselves with the hippies against the establishment.

The cannibal family can also be taken as a commentary on patriarchal structures, given that their leader, Grandpa (John Dugan) is an ancient, dried-up near-corpse who is barely alive, yet still rules the family through a combination of tradition and habit. Grandpa is a legendary figure, virtually worshipped in the family for his ability to wield a sledge hammer so mightily that he could virtually always kill cattle in a single stroke. Now, of course, Grandpa is so feeble and senile that he can barely lift a hammer, nor is it clear that he even understands what he is doing when he attempts to do so. Yet his current state of decline and disability seems to go virtually unnoticed by his all-male[5] family, the members of which, not all that functional in their own right, continue to view Grandpa with veneration. On the other hand, Grandpa is so dysfunctional at this point that this patriarchal family structure can only function because Cook essentially assumes the role of father for the family, a role that he assumes by gleefully abusing both Hitchhiker—who functions, according to Rose, as a “wayward teenager” in the family—and Leatherface, who assumes, according to Rose, essentially the role of mother for the family[6] (77). This family, of course, is more a grotesque parody of patriarchy than a direct image of it, suggesting the way in which patriarchal structures, though they continue to function in the 1970s, do so long after they have been demonstrated to be archaic and oppressive, perhaps even obscene.

The film’s figuration of Leatherface as a sort of surrogate mother is, as Rose points out, part of the complex characterization that makes him such an interesting figure. further. “Instead of being fixed as simply the narrative’s monster, his masks, clothes, actions and status within the aberrant family unit creates a confusion of possible identities that ultimately remains unresolved: he is, at any given time: a savage protector of the family property, a frightened child who speaks his own fabricated language, a skilled butcher, a housekeeper, a cook, and a mother” (78).

Of course, another thing that makes Leatherface a standout character is his weapon of choice, a spectacular tool of destruction that seems designed to gain attention—though it should also be noted that, of the young people in the van, only Franklin is killed with a chain saw. Indeed, the only time in the film that we seemingly see a chain saw cutting flesh is when Leatherface accidentally cuts his own leg near the end of the film. Worland describes the symbolic effectiveness of the chain saw: “Star of the show, the chain saw itself connotes the urban/agrarian conflict as a tool commonly used by the rural working class for small chores, as well as one that can be employed for destruction on a mass industrial scale in logging—or the slaughterhouse industry to cut up carcasses” (211). I might also point out that the chain saw runs on gas, adding another element to a thread involving the oil industry that runs throughout the film and that surely had a special meaning at the time of the film’s production in the wake Arab Oil Embargo.

Chuck Jackson oddly fails to mention this embargo, though he does see the film as reflecting geo-political events in the early-to-mid 1970s the ramifications of which are still being played out in the twenty-first century. For him, the Texas setting crucially points toward the oil industry and the oil shortages of the 1970s (note that the really bad events of the film are set in motion when the hippy van runs out of gas and then goes to a gas station that is also out of gas) as a crucial background to the film. In particular, “the film smartly tracks a concatenation of geopolitical events that emerged during the early 1970s, including the drying up of Texas oil fields; the strengthening of a corporate-controlled, transnational oil economy; oil wars in the global South; and the creation of a more urgent demand for the oil-based products in first-world countries like the United States” (48).

Ultimately, Jackson’s central argument is that the ways in which various elements of the film can be associated with corresponding elements in the system of late capitalism help the Gothic and monstrous elements of the film reveal the Gothic and monstrous elements of capitalism in the age of globalization. Jackson might stretch some of his readings of the film as centrally informed by the oil industry, and his analysis suffers from the fact that he ignores the Arab Oil Embargo, which was still very much on the minds of Americans at the time the film was made in August 1974. This event, meanwhile, occurred just as the initially rich Texas oilfields were beginning to run dry and created a strong national sense of emergency with regard to possible fuel shortages.

Of course, any consideration of the figuration of gender in this film must pay special attention to the role played by Sally Hardesty as an object of abuse in the latter part of the film. Indeed, if the cannibals have a strong comic dimension, while the young people mostly seem bland and uninteresting, the one major exception to this trend, is Sally. Indeed, the striking figures of Leatherface and the other cannibals notwithstanding, Sally emerges as the centerpiece of this film, the only one of the intended victims who survives her initial attack long enough for audiences to begin to identify with her and share her torment. Comically excessive touches aside, the spectacular, extended enactment of screaming terror that marks the performance of Marilyn Burns as Sally in this part of this film adds a serious element indeed.

On the other hand, there are comically grotesque elements even to Sally’s ordeal, which begins in earnest with almost exactly half an hour left in the film when Leatherface suddenly appears as she is pushing Franklin through the bushes looking for their companions. Franklin is then run through with a chain saw, thus becoming the only character in the film actually to be killed with that weapon, despite the title. The presentation of this attack, though, is still quite demure. Shot partly from behind Franklin’s wheelchair and partly from behind Leatherface, the scene does not show the chainsaw slicing through flesh—or even show any significant amount of blood. It does, however, show Franklin’s flashlight dropping to the ground as a sort of substitute severed limb. Sally, screaming uncontrollably, runs away into the bushes with Leatherface in hot pursuit, taking a beating from the bushes themselves and finally arriving at the cannibal house, where she runs upstairs to find the horrifying scene of the desiccated bodies of Grandpa and Grandma sitting opposite each other—though Grandpa will turn out to be alive, despite his cadaver-like appearance. The preserved bodies of animals dot the room as well, perhaps in a nod to the taxidermy skills of Norman Bates—or to the macabre activities of Ed Gein.

Sally, understandably, runs from the room; she is then chased through the house (decorated with things such as animal skins) by Leatherface, still wielding his chain saw. Sally crashes through a second-storey glass window in a desperate attempt to escape, tumbling to the ground below. She struggles to her feet and runs away from the house back into the bushes, with Leatherface still in pursuit. At one point, Sally crashes headlong into a tree limb and is nearly knocked unconscious, but she again manages to struggle to her feet and run away, just as Leatherface arrives. Then she makes her way back to the gas station seeking safety, only to be roughed-up and captured by Old Man, who is thus for the first time revealed to be in league with the cannibals.

When he tosses Sally, bound and gagged, into a burlap bag and drives her back to the cannibal house, it soon becomes clear that he is, in fact, one of the family. And the fact that they are a family is a crucial part of the characterization of the cannibals. Soon afterward, we see the film’s most striking and direct parody of American family life as the cannibals gather around the family dinner table to munch on what is surely human flesh, possibly derived from one or more of Sally’s friends. Sally, the guest of honor, is placed at one end of the table, strapped into an arm chair (made with real arms, in a sort of visual pun that emphasizes the grisly humor of this dinner scene). As Worland puts it, this dinner scene is “as if Norman Rockwell were gang-raped by Dali and Hogarth” (222)[7].

Prior to the meal, Leatherface, suddenly seeming far less sinister and dangerous all dolled up in a wig and a mask with makeup, putters fussily about like a housewife worried that her special dinner might not go over well. Meanwhile, the family members batter each other like something from the Three Stooges. Then the dinner itself begins on a ritualistic note as Old Man slices Sally’s finger while Hitchhiker holds his straight razor to her throat. Her blood is then dripped onto Grandpa’s tongue, seemingly bringing him back to life as he then sucks on Sally’s finger to get more blood in a move that seems to have clear sexual connotations. Sally, recognizing this connotation and attempting to interpret what is going on within a logic of desire that she can understand, will soon plead for her life by offering whatever sexual favors any of them might want. But this is a family whose desire does not obey any identifiable sexual logic because it has been shifted completely from sex to violence, so they greet this offer, as Worland puts it, “with virtual incomprehension” (218).

Leatherface and (especially) Hitchhiker spend much of the dinner taunting Sally, including issuing a chorus of animal-like howls in response to Sally’s screams—though Hitchhiker also spends much of his energy berating Old Man, who does not share their enthusiasm for tormenting Sally. Then they decide to finish off Sally by having Grandpa bash her in the head with his trusty sledge hammer, just as he had dispatched so many cattle back in his glory days. Of course, the feeble, nearly-dead Grandpa is repeatedly unable to wield the hammer properly; unable to lift the heavy hammer, his arm simply flops downward in what amounts to an obvious parody of male impotence but also can be seen as a broader send-up of patriarchy in general.

Grandpa attempts to wield the hammer of death.

In the same way, the entire cannibal family can be seen as a grotesque parody of American families in general. Rick Worland notes that Chain Saw clearly identifies “the American family as the locus of monstrosity and terror,” something that he sees as “perhaps the most crucial and disturbing development” in the horror film of the 1970s (209). And this trend has continued to this day, with one film after another—from The Shining (1980) to Hereditary (2018)—locating the family (especially the American family) as a source of horror, rather than as a haven from danger.

Eventually, the cannibals become so self-consumed with their own activities that Sally is able to get free and run away, crashing through still another window and then running to a nearby highway, the proximity of which suddenly makes the cannibal house seem far less remote than it had until now. Sally manages to flag down not one, but two trucks to come to her aid, while Leatherface pursues her with his trusty chain saw. Finally, she escapes in the bed of a pickup, bloodied and laughing insanely, and one wonders if she will ever be sane again. Leatherface, meanwhile, emphasizes the fact that he, at least, is definitely not sane, reacting to her escape with his whirling chain saw dance, even though his own leg has just been sliced open with the saw.

Sally’s “escape.”

At first glance, the protracted mistreatment of Sally in the final third of the film seems so excessive that it can only be explained in terms of sheer exploitation, placing Chain Saw in the company of near-contemporaries such as Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), butalso identifying it as a sort of early example of torture porn, in which deaths are often much more protracted than in the typical slasher film. Of course, the other deaths, except that of Pam (whom we don’t actually see die), are very sudden, while Sally does not die at all. In this sense, Sally does anticipate one important figure in the slasher genre—that of the “Final Girl.” The Texas Chain Saw massacre, in fact, is one of the key texts explored in Carol J. Clover’s important account of gender in the horror film, especially the slasher film. Clover describes her 1985 viewing of the film in a theater as a key event in the formulation of her ideas about the genre and as “the most startling moviegoing experience I’ve had” (xii). Among other things, Clover regards Sally Hardesty as the first “full-blown” example of the Final Girl—the terrorized female character who serves as a sort of surrogate for the film’s viewers (importantly, including male viewers), witnessing the deaths of other characters and being seriously threatened in her own right, but surviving to the end. Clover describes Sally’s experience thusly:

“For nearly thirty minutes of screen time—a third of the film—we watch her shriek, run, flinch, jump or fall through windows, sustain injury and mutilation. Her will to survive is astonishing; in the end, bloody and staggering, she finds the highway, Leatherface and Hitchhiker in pursuit. Just as they bear down on her, a truck comes by and crushes Hitchhiker. Minutes later a pickup driver plucks Sally up and saves her from Leatherface” (36).

Sally’s final salvation does little to mitigate the apocalyptic atmosphere of doom that runs throughout the film, an atmosphere that was very much in tune with the American mood at the time. As Naomi Merritt has noted,

“the film’s theme of ‘cannibalistic capitalism’ plays out the tensions borne of the historical and political circumstances of the period of the film’s production. The far-from triumphant end of the Vietnam War, the loss of confidence in political authority and integrity following the Watergate scandal, the oil crisis (which disrupted the lives of ordinary car-driving Americans) leading into a major stock market crash and recession, were among a number of challenges to the American ‘way of life’ in the early to mid 1970s” (Merritt, 202–203).

Merritt’s suggestion is on point. We might add the Arab Oil Embargo to her list, but it is certainly the case that it is crucial to consider the historical context of Chain Saw when seeking to understand the film[8]. It is also true that the highest-profile events that provided background to the film were the then-recent war in Vietnam (U.S. involvement ended in August 1973) and the ongoing Watergate scandal, which peaked during the filming of Chain Saw,leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 9, 1974, just five days before filming was completed[9].

Merritt’s suggestion, in fact, is part of a rich strain of political readings of Chain Saw, a strain that was begun by the noted critic Robin Wood. Wood was one of the first important critics to view the horror film as an important and serious genre. He also sought to understand the genre as structurally founded upon a situation in which normality (usually placed within a family, or at least a monogamous couple) is threatened by an invading monster (or monsters). He was also one of the first enthusiastically to embrace The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that he regards as a genuine work of art and that, for him, has “the authentic quality of nightmare.” On the other hand, he argues that, in this film, his own horror-film formula is partly reversed, with the young people in the van (representing normality) invading the space of the monsters (represented by the cannibal family) (80). As is often the case with Wood, his view of the importance of this film is based largely on what he sees as its political implications. For one thing, he sees the cannibals as “representatives of an exploited and degraded proletariat,” bringing the issue of class into the film (82). Further, he sees the film’s cannibalism theme as a commentary on the workings of capitalism as well. As he notes, the cannibal family “only carries to its logical conclusion the basic, though unstated, tenet of capitalism, that people have the right to live off other people” (84).

Building directly on Wood’s reading, Mark Bould notes Wood’s famous characterization of the horror film as normality invaded by a monster. He suggests, though, that Chain Saw shifts this formula in a way different from the one noted by Wood himself. For Bould, the invading “monsters” are the young people from the van, who win our sympathies because it is here family normality that becomes truly monstrous. In other words, the hippie “monsters,” who represent nonconformity, are caught, when they encounter the cannibals, in “the grinding wheels of Normality (the slaughterhouse family and the bourgeois capitalist order they represent)” (100). Bould goes on to note some of the ways in which the action of Chain Saw makes the cannibal family an obscene parody of the typical patriarchal bourgeois family structure, including the attempt to incorporate (both figuratively and quite literally) Sally into their number. In particular, by this reading, the ritualistic bringing of her into their all-male circle at the dinner table suggests the misogynistic violence that lies at the heart of patriarchy in general.

Comparing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, Peter Hutchings notes that both films “give us proletarian monsters that are a product of US society, they both share an iconoclastic take on sacred social institutions such as the family, and generally they offer a powerful sense of society tearing itself apart” (120). Later he notes that the “shared emphasis” of these films “on monstrous families, and on savage violence erupting from within American society, becomes in this respect a way of bringing into question a whole set of American values and ideals” (123). But Hutchings also cautions that theses are horror films that work according to a particular horror film logic. As a result, whatever their political implications, it is also the case that such films are not simple “political manifestos bearing a cohesive ideological message; they are horror films designed to provoke emotional responses from audiences, and whatever social-critical elements they might contain tend to get mixed up, often in a very messy way, with the sadistic-masochistic thrills that the films are also offering” (123).

It is certainly the case that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre does not deliver a clear and simple ideological message. It is also the case that it is rather messy. The Texas Chain Saw massacre is a strange film that contains a number of disparate elements, many of which don’t make sense in any obvious way. Indeed, Bould describes the film as “incoherent,” though (unlike Hutchings) he ultimately regards this incoherence as political statement in its own right, helping it to reveal the incoherence of bourgeois ideology and to demonstrate the irrationality at the heart of capitalism itself (109)[10]. Among other things, the film includes aspects of a number of different subgenres of horror (the slasher film, hillbilly horror, even supernatural horror), but it also even includes elements from outside of horror. For ea,ple, Bould notes the way in which the film can be seen as a sort of road movie, a favorite countercultural genre in American cinema. However, whereas films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) suggest the still-thriving energies of the 1960s counterculture, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre appears at its end. For Bould, this film, “made after the collapse of the Movement, and after McGovern’s New Politics and almost-daily Watergate revelations somehow failed to prevent Nixon’s second term—must be its end-of-the-road movie” (103).

This sense of appearing at a moment when the countercultural revolution of the 1960s has collapsed might also helped to explain what some have seen as the unremitting negativity and nihilism of this film. For such critics, the film is less a specific political commentary than it is a metaphysical statement about the meaningless and pointlessness of life. Mikita Brottman, for example, notes that horror films in general have a number of structural and thematic similarities to fairy tales. The same is the case for Chain Saw except that, for Brottman, this film reverses the normal messages of both the horror film and the fairy tale, delivering not instructive messages about how to deal successfully with maturing in a social world, but a message of pure negativity. She thus notes that, in this film, the

“sustained inversion of the symbolic rituals and motifs of the fairy tale creates an apocalyptic narrative of negativity and destruction, wholly unredeemed by any single element of plot, mood, or characterization. … The Texas Chain Saw Massacre functions not, as do most horror films, to acculturate its adolescent audience into the difficulties of adulthood and the inconsistencies of human consciousness; rather, it serves to mislead, misdirect, and confuse its audience in a bewildering nightmare of violence and bloodshed” (97–98).

The image of Sally, laughing incoherently in the back of that pickup (and who know what intentions the driver of that truck really has), certainly does very little to mitigate the apocalyptic tone of negativity that so many viewers have found in the film. I would note, however, that the film ends, not with Sally’s crazed laughter, but with Leatherface’s near-ecstatic chain saw dance, informed by zany folk energies that perhaps suggest his unsophisticated view of life, but that also perhaps suggest a sort of zany folk energy. The whole cannibal family will be killed off by the end of Chain Saw 2, but for now, at the end of Chain Saw 1, Leatherface endures, and his family finds ways to survive, despite it all.


Brottman, Mikita. Offensive Films. Vanderbilt University Press, 2005.

Bould, Mark. “Apocalypse Here and Now: Making Sense of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana. Ed. Gary D. Rhodes. McFarland, 2003,pp. 97–112.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Updated Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. London: Pearson/Longman, 2004.

Jackson, Chuck. “Blood for Oil: Crude Metonymies and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).” Gothic Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, May 2008, pp. 48-60.

Lanza, Joseph. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Film that Terrified a Nation: A Cultural History. Skyhorse Publishing, 2019.

Merritt, Naomi. “Cannibalistic Capitalism and other American Delicacies: A Bataillean Taste of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Film Philosophy Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2010, pp. 202–231.

Murphy, Bernice M. The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. Bloomsbury, 2011.

Rose, James. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Auteur, 2013.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Zinoman, Jason. Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. Penguin, 2011.


[1] Of the various subsequent films in the franchise, only the 2003 remake of the original, starring Jessica Biel, could be considered a major commercial success, grossing more than $107 million in box-office receipts, against a production budget of $9.5 million. This success triggered a whole stream of remakes of classic horror films in the following years. It also inspired its own prequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006), which grossed over $51 million against a budget of $16 million. In any case, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre films constitute more of a cult phenomenon than a mainstream Hollywood phenomenon.

[2] In the subsequent development of the franchise, this character has come to be identified as “Nubbins Sawyer.”

[3] Siedow returned to play the same character, now identified as “Drayton Sawyer,” in the 1986 sequel.

[4] More than such specific scenes, Chain Saw is important in the subgenre of hillbilly horror for the basic use of a rural family as a group of degenerate monsters. See Murphy (148).

[5] The only female member of this family who appears in the film is Grandma, and she appears only as a long-dead, desiccated corpse, who nevertheless continues to exercise a certain influence, somewhat in the mode of the mother of Norman Bates in Psycho.

[6] Whether Cook is in fact the father of Hitchhiker and Leatherface is not made clear in the film. He might merely be their elderly brother or some other form of relative, though some sort of family relationship is clearly implied.

[7] The American artist Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) was well known for his wholesome paintings of ordinary American life, often featuring families. Salvadore Dali (1904–1989) was a Spanish surrealist artist. William Hogarth (1697–1974) was an English painter known for his satirical caricatures.

[8] See Lanza for a book-length discussion of the film within its historicakl context.

[9] See Zinoman for details about the difficult production of this film in the heat of a Texas summer.

[10] Worland makes a similar point, noting that, when watching the film, “the search for coherence and logic in what we witness is largely frustrated throughout, much to the enhancement of the film’s overall effect,” though Worland does not link this aspect of the film to a critique of capitalism (221).