August 4, 2014

40 Year-Old-Critic: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

40 Year-Old-Critic: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

the-texas-chainsaw-massacre-movie-poster-1974-1020198670In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.

See a list of all reviews

I was born in 1974, and if my parents took me to a movie that year I have no memory of the trip. In the 40 years since, I’ve caught up on many of the classics from that year such as The Godfather Part II, Blazing SaddlesThe Conversation, and Young Frankenstein. But, truthfully, none of those pictures shaped my life nearly as much as the small indie film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Of course, I didn’t see this film in its original release. I was only 19 days old when Texas Chain Saw hit theaters.  And while my parents were pretty lax with the content of movies I watched or books I read, even they would have had serious concerns about my watching teens carved up for food.  I got into true, hard R-rated horror films when I turned 12, and the constant Chain Saw references in the 1987 Mark Harmon film Summer School had me finally rent this grindhouse film on VHS.

I was unimpressed.

I had built Leatherface up in my mind as a Freddy, a Jason, or a Michael Myers.  But, in truth, Leatherface had none of the slick, commercial appeal of those later imitators.  As such, the film was less fun for me as a teen.  I later returned to Texas Chain Saw in 2010 for Now Playing Podcast’s retrospective series and, to the shock of many listeners, I gave it a red arrow.  The cacophonic score, annoying performances, and dirty, low-budget look of the film still made it a movie I couldn’t enjoy.  I labeled it “horror homework” — great for aficionados of the genre but not a film I’d recommend for the masses.

But while I may not recommend watching the film I truly recognize there are few films more important than this.  It is no exaggeration to say that without The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the horror films I love may never have come to be.
First, Texas Chain Saw was a hugely successful film, costing only $300,000 to make and grossing over $30 million at the US box office (which, per BoxOfficeMojo is more than $131 million adjusted for inflation).  This showed studios that inexpensive horror films could make bank.

tumblr_m9ss0zSwkk1rs3en5o1_1280In addition to showing studios a pathway to profit, Texas Chain Saw also inspired screenwriters and directors.  This film, along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,  provided a template for the “slasher” sub-genre of film, combining a masked killer with an iconic weapon  Later horror films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and even Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, all series that I love, took this formula and refined it for even greater success.  And Leatherface’s greatest successor may just be Hannibal Lecter, another cinematic cannibal that has captured my imagination.

More, this film launched director Tobe Hooper into the spotlight, paving the way for him to direct Poltergeist, another seminal horror film of the haunted house variety.  (And yes, we discussed how much influence Hooper had on Poltergeist in Now Playing Podcast’s 2011 Spring Donation Drive.  Those podcasts are no longer available.)

While this film doesn’t click with me as entertainment, I credit Texas Chain Saw for paving the way for later horror films I love. This film was born the same time I was, and without it I would not be the man, or the movie critic, I am today.

I do, however, stand by that red arrow. As I found out when I was 13, this isn’t a film I can recommend for those looking for the same glossy thrill given by Friday the 13th Part VI.  It is not a Hollywood production and it shows.  But while I can’t recommend it, I love it for the future films it enabled.

Tomorrow — 1975!


Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys.  You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec 

Comments 10

  1. John

    First time I watched this movie was in 2010 for your retrospective. As a Mormon missionary I served two years in west Texas and we would knock on lots of doors and meet crazy people. This movie didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.I didn’t understand all the praise Stuart was giving it. I was a fan of The movies it inspired much more. It was a memorable movie though. It has been four years since I saw it, and I still remember it well. That counts for something. Great review Arnie:)

  2. Stephen Finley

    I only saw this film once I was in my late 20’s, about a year or so before Now Playing covered it. I mostly agreed with your views and while I would have given it a slight green arrow, I’m an easy lay with my recommends. I will say I had a better time watching part 2 than part 1. Going back to the now playing archives to give that review another listen now. Great article!

  3. David

    Saw a theatrical screening of this last week. While I tend to side more with Stuart in my love of older horror such as this an The Exorcist, I understand how you may not enjoy it as much, being a fan of more modern aesthetics. But I am so happy to hear that you give it it’s due credit for what it has done to the horror genre. After all, where would Rob Zombie be with out it?

    Loving the idea for this series and I can’t wait to read more.

  4. Nathan Sevigny

    Everything in your review basically applies to me. Although, I was born just one year later in 1975. And like you, I had heard of Leatherface, built him up in my mind, and was subsequently disappointed when I actually saw this film.

    I can appreciate Tobe Hoopers influence on the horror genre. But ultimately, I have never been able to grasp this movie like so many others have.

    Everything in your review seems to express exactly how I feel towards this movie. And I’m glad you wrote it, cause now when people give me shit about my opinion, I can easily review them to your critique.


  5. Jonathan Clayton

    Great review, and I’m happy to see you still sticking by that red arrow. I’ve been a dedicated listener of Now Playing since the F13 retro, and it is absolutely the best podcast around. Keep up the awesome work.

  6. J. Warner

    I respectfully have to disagree with your stance on the movie, Arnie. As someone who is not enamored with or only a fan of “glossy” or mainstream/Hollywood-churned fare, I can more than appreciate the down and dirty, grimy and gritty aesthetics of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and that it does not follow as many of the cliches of what would come afterwards (obviously, since it came before most of what we now consider to be part of the “slasher” sub-genre).

    I don’t think it’s perfect or mindbogglingly amazing (then again, I don’t think “perfection” exists in anything), but I do think it is a stronger piece than what you find it to be, especially due to its climax and some of its viscerally striking imagery that has since undoubtedly become seared into the minds of at least many genre fans if not the wider moviegoing populace.

    In short, Stuart and I are on a more similar page here.

  7. Matt Trahan

    This movie is a seminal horror favorite of mine. I find it it’s documentary feel and sense of forbodeness irresistible to the point where things you pointed out, like the chainsaw clearly being a few feet away from Franklin or the lack of an establishing shot showing the girl being pierced by the meat hook, don’t bother me. It’s similar to movies like Apocalypse Now that take me on an escalating journey of insanity, ending with me not believing what I just saw. That being said, you made clear, excellent points in your review, and I can understand how you might not value the movie as entertainment.

  8. Jim

    I saw this movie after seeing all the f13s and elm st films. The ‘cacophonic score, annoying performances, and dirty, low-budget look’ made it more unsettling and real than those other slick (I use the term loosely) movies; almost like a ‘found footage’ film would be today. It all got under my skin and I ultimately had to turn the movie off out of fear. I was 10 years old, but still. It became one of my faves, and I also love part 2 with Dennis Hopper. Looking forward to these articles, Arnie!

    -A far out fan

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