(Editor’s Note: IndieWire has partnered with DIRECTV and Lionsgate to present the premiere of Leatherface – now available exclusively on DIRECTV and in theaters October 20th.)
With the October 20th release of Leatherface, the new Lionsgate prequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, let’s lurch back in time and appreciate the beloved and feared franchise for what it is: A good-and-bloody, and bloody good, icon that has shaped the horror genre – and popular cinema at large – for over 40 years.
So grab your farm tools and running shoes (and hope that your car is tanked up), because we’re putting the whole The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise in the rearview mirror…if we can.
THE ORIGINAL FILM
Don’t you just love the smell of gasoline and cannibals in the morning?
The original 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by the late, great Tobe Hooper and co-written by Hooper and Kim Henkel, still stands alone as one of the grisliest and most groundbreaking horror movies ever made. Set in—you guessed it—rural Texas, the film follows a group of attractive young people in town to visit their grandfather’s family homestead. After picking up and kicking out a mysterious, violent hitchhiker, the motley (yet pretty) crew arrives at Grandpa’s home and makes themselves comfortable—swinging on tire swings and checking out the local swimming hole, as care-free, still-breathing teenagers tend to do.
When the group ventures into a nearby home looking for gasoline, however, they get more than they—and contemporary movie audiences—bargained for, setting off a bloody circus of events that includes meat hooks, chainsaws, dinner with dead grandparents, and semi-helpful semi drivers. At the source of the murderous madness, of course, is Leatherface, the skin-masked, cross-dressing psycho killer who remains one of the greatest and scariest murderers in cinematic history.
While the original film was marketed as a “true story”—one of the first movies to recognize the appeal of such a tactic by capitalizing on the audience’s morbid curiosity—Tobe Hooper only loosely based his film upon the highly-publicized exploits of real-world serial killers Ed Gein (who also partially inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) and Elmer Wayne Henley.
The rest of the film’s “true” horrors were far more real and terrifying to audiences. The original movie essentially invented many of the now-ubiquitous horror tropes that audiences have come to love and expect, including…
- The disfigured serial killer who takes sadistic pleasure in hunting and killing young victims
- The perverse terror of mundane tools used as murder weapons
- The uneasy isolation of middle America that mirrors the feelings of many restless teenagers
- The “final heroine” battling against both her male tormentors and the society that enables them
- The evil “system” that can’t be trusted (the original not-so-accidentally coincided with the Watergate investigation and close of the Vietnam War)
- Themes of vegetarianism that subtly compare the barbarism of cannibalism with that of factory farms and slaughterhouses
All of these were brought to bear on audiences with lasting, staggering effect, and have continued to echo through other horror franchises ever since.
Upon its release, the film was outright banned in several countries, and many American theaters stopped showing it after receiving complaints from audiences. Today, however, the movie is recognized for what it is: One of the best and most influential horror films in cinema history. It has been listed in numerous lists of Best Horror Films, Best Cult Films, and even Top Films in History, plus has been cited by genre giants Rob Zombie, Wes Craven, and George A. Romero as a major influence on their work.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE FRANCHISE
The original 1974 film was so successful—grossing $30.9 million on a $300,000 budget—that it spawned a number of subsequent movies in the franchise, each different, each riotously bloody, and each of which (while not quite able to recapture the commercial magic and shock of the first) managed to further the legend of Leatherface in the minds of moviegoers.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986)
Both set and released twelve years after the events of the first movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II took a different approach to the teen-murdering parade established in the first film. The sequel is a true black comedy, making excellent use of over-the-top gore, hormonal lasciviousness, and bonkers practical special effects provided by Hollywood makeup guru Tom Savini—all adding up to a movie nearly as insane as Leatherface himself.
If you like watching cocky jocks get their hilariously violent comeuppance (and the added “bonus” of Leatherface literally swapping faces with a victim), this X-rated romp is for you.