Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the seminal works within horror cinema. It kick-started the slasher genre, with a grotesque masked killer picking off a group of unassuming and otherwise sunny teens one by one. Without it there’s no Halloween, no Friday the 13th, and no Nightmare on Elm Street, but it rarely gets the plaudits it deserves. Fortunately, this 4K re-release from Second Sight Films finally gives this horror masterpiece its moment in the sun.
The premise is simple, which is no surprise given how this film paved the way for the slasher genre, known for its lack of narrative nuance. We follow a group of teens led by Sally Hardesty (the original scream queen, Marilyn Burns) and her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) as they head to rural Texas, checking in on their grandfather’s grave after reports of a spate of grave robberies. Once there the teens – having already dealt with a crazed hitchhiker – stumble upon a seemingly derelict house, wherein Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibal family lurk.
It’s a simple premise, but even 50 years later The Texas Chain Saw Massacre holds up due to its narrative clarity but sheer subversion of expectations in all other fields. Tobe Hooper, who famously made the film on a shoestring budget in the heat of the Texan summer, imbues the first half with a slower pace that lulls newcomers into a false sense of security, which is ripped apart in one of the most iconic villain reveals in all of horror. Audiences used to high-octane thrills may find the first 40 minutes meandering, but it’s perfect at luring you in before all hell breaks loose.
And hell it really is, because Leatherface and the rest of the Sawyer clan really are some of the most monstrous antagonists ever put to film. While sequels, prequels, and reboots may have padded out the lore surrounding the Sawyers (or Hewitts, depending on the continuity you’re watching), this original thrives off of the burning questions the eponymous massacre arouses. Who are these people? Why are they butchering innocent teens with perverse cannibalistic abandon? Why is their a near-ancient grandfather in their attic, wheeled out for a ceremonial meal from hell? The questions alone are far more terrifying unanswered than with any kind of exposition, making the film even more shocking.
From start to finish, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is brimming with social commentary, witty satire, and a ceaseless sense of foreboding. John Larroquette’s ominous opening monologue sounds more like a news report than anything else, already toying with the film’s ‘true-to-life’ marketing, which at the time hadn’t really been seen before. From there the film always has a slight cloying undercurrent of the inevitability of something bad happening, from the run-in with the hitchhiker to a gas station all out of fuel. It never shows its cards too early, making for a true all-timer of a second half. Filled with tense chase sequences, kills that were deemed brutal in the seventies, and killer sound design to emphasise those scares, it’s a bona fide classic.
This remaster from Second Sight Films is a beauty, too. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has never looked this good, even if the vocal track is still quite muffled at some points – to be expected from a half-century-old film, of course. Colours are brighter and details much clearer, allowing the Ed Gein-inspired set design and hideous bone-constructed furnishings of the Sawyers’ house to flourish on the big screen.
Even now, having loved the film for years and knowing it and its various sequels inside out, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still makes me wince at parts. There aren’t many other horror films quite this devoid of hope, going into such dark territory at a time where it took incredibly brave filmmaking to do so. So many years on, there aren’t many contemporaries this shrill and filled with dread, from the terse, ominous opening to an absolutely perfect final shot. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a masterpiece from start to finish, and it’s finally getting the plaudits it deserves.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is out on 4K and Blu-Ray from Second Sight Films on April 10, 2023.