What can I say about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre* that hasn’t been said and reiterated several times over? The film has been studied and analyzed more times than most any horror movie I can think of. Why? Aside from its decidedly brutal and torturous filming circumstances, there’s another reason The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so heavily studied and universally regarded as one of the best horror films of all time. It represents something exceedingly rare—not just in horror, but in film as a whole.
At least, that’s my take. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect horror film. Whenever someone finds out that I write about horror films, their go-to response is usually something to the tune of “Really? What’s your favorite horror movie?” My answer is usually TCM. I’m not sure if it’s actually my favorite horror movie but it’s as good an answer as any. I have numerous “favorites” and it’s impossible to pick one, but TCM is my honorary favorite. But TCM’s status as my all-time favorite almost never came to pass.
As I said, this movie has been picked apart and analyzed to death, so I’m not going to regurgitate countless articles, books, and documentaries for this article. There are perspectives probably more astute than my own, or at best, identical to it available all over the web. Rather I’m going to look at my own perception of the film over the years because it has changed.
Now, I’ve been a horror fan since I was six years old when I caught A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge on tv during the middle of the day. I can’t remember if it was TNT or TBS but it was one of the two. I sat in the living room floor watching this movie while my grandmother sat behind me on her recliner making comments like “Well this is awful, Josh, you can’t watch this,” in her drawn-out southern accent. Despite her flaccid protests, she never enforced her desire to change the channel.
As she predicted, NOES 2 scared the shit out of me, but be that as it may—or perhaps specifically because of that—I became obsessed with horror films going forward. I watched as many as I could. My mother and my decidedly passive grandmother never really cared what I watched, so trips to the video store were often fruitful. I got my mom to rent all kinds of horror flicks. Halloween, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, Motel Hell, all the greats. Most of the time I watched them in the living room at night while everyone was in bed.
But one movie was forbidden. Banned in my home and off-limits. That movie was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. My mom refused to let me rent it, despite my repeated begging. She’d seen it and said it was too scary for me. By the time I was 16-years-old, I was becoming a pretty seasoned horror fan but there was a gaping hole missing from my heart, from which, you could see tiny angels inside, weeping. I’d still had never seen TCM. Thankfully, that was the year something finally changed. When I was 16, my mom put me on her account at the local video store. I was able to walk into the store alone and rent whatever I wanted. Not surprisingly, the first thing I did was rent TCM.
At least, that was the plan. I was so stoked to finally see the movie, I didn’t pay attention to what I was grabbing and accidentally wound up renting the documentary, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait.
To say the least, at first I was…confused. I didn’t really understand what I was watching. Then I realized this was a documentary about the movie and not the movie itself. The problem was, I wasn’t able to turn it off because it was interesting, so I wound up seeing a lot of the best parts of TCM before actually seeing TCM.
It was disheartening, to say the least. When I went back to the video store, I just didn’t feel like renting TCM anymore because I felt like I’d ruined it for myself. I watched it a couple of months later and didn’t really enjoy it as I’d basically seen clips of every scene that was supposed to shock me. I think this kind of thing happens fairly often to people who see horror documentaries discussing movies the viewer hasn’t actually seen. Or worse, the person just never watched the movie because they feel like they’ve seen all the best parts. My initial feelings about TCM were that the movie was overhyped. Nowhere near as disturbing as it was made out to be.
Some years later, a remastered steel book DVD of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released by Dark Sky Films. Despite my lukewarm feelings for the movie, the packaging was amazing and I wanted to give the film another chance, so I bought it. I went home and gave it another shot and immediately fell in love with it. I’m not sure if it was the brilliant remastering by Dark Sky or if it was just the right time, but I must have watched it four times over the next few days. I binged all the special features and somehow my perception of the movie had been completely changed. It did lives up to the hype and I was finally seeing what everyone else was seeing. It was a beautiful thing.
This is something I really want to stress to horror fans. The classics are classics for a reason. I’m not saying you’re going to love every horror movie regarded as a classic, you may well not. But you owe it to yourself to give them a fair shake. And furthermore, you owe it to yourself to give them more than one chance. Your state of mind at the time of first watching a movie can have a major bearing on how you feel about it. When I think about how much I love TCM today, and then think about how I almost dismissed it as “overhyped” I get a little sad because I’m positive there are other movies I’ve done this with but never give a second chance. And just as bad, I think about how many other people do this every day. First impressions are not always correct. In fact they rarely are.
There just aren’t many films in the world I’d regard as perfect and for obvious reasons. Making movies is hard work. So when you see a flawless film, and you’re a cinema buff, you need to know more about it. Who made this? How did this happen? Can something like this ever happen again? The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is really the gift that keeps on giving for horror fans. There is no shortage of different perspectives to check out and the behind the scenes stories are possibly the most interesting in film history.
That said, I don’t have much of an analysis for TCM. It’s not a movie that really hits me deep in the pit of my stomach or elicits some kind of emotional reaction. I know it is for many people and I love reading those perspectives, but I just see it as a gritty, intense, and fun horror film with a great aesthetic and even better performances.
Usually, I identify a perfect movie by asking myself what kind of film the filmmakers set out to create and then determining how well I think the end goal was achieved. For example, I consider Tremors to be a perfect movie because I believe the filmmakers set out to make a fun horror/action/adventure movie with giant sandworms and gratuitous Kevin Bacon. And in that endeavor, I believe they perfectly succeeded. But there’s a second kind of perfection, the kind of perfection for which no one can plan. I’m talking about a kind of cosmic perfection. Where everything is seemingly going against the film in question and by all rationale the film shouldn’t have worked but for some reason, everything just comes together perfectly. In my view, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that kind of perfection.
Its budget was horribly strained, the actors were miserable while shooting, Tobe Hooper originally conceived it as a PG horror film, which is something no one who has seen the film could ever even imagine. And yet, though R-rated, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has barely any gore. It’s the strange contradiction in terms kind of film that just works.
I’m using my experience with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as an example in this article for why it’s important for horror fans to go back and give movies another look. These days the attention span is so criminally short but we need to make time for rewatches because it’s quite possible that movie you discounted years ago might just be the all-time favorite you never knew you had.
Slow down. Smell the roses. We horror fans seem to be quick to judge movies quickly and harshly and I think it’s a detriment to our own enjoyment of great films.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake still sucks.
*Texas Chain Saw Massacre was the title of the original movie, but subsequent films and the remake used Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the original spelling has somewhat been forgotten. Nevertheless, we’ve used it here because we’re nerdy horror purists!