The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Bloodbath

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Bloodbath

Jun 4, 2024 | Blog

“We are living in a land where sex and horror are the new Gods.” So pronounced Holly Johnson, lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, on the song Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, somewhere back in 1984 (an appropriate year for such a prophesy). He wasn’t far wrong.

We now live in an era where a week rarely goes by without, what passes for a horror film these days, being screened at your local multiplex. They’re cheap to make; appeal to “da kids” and generally make a profit. Indeed, there have been several impressive ones over the last few years – Jordan Peele’s Get Out is currently residing on the current Film A Level syllabus (as is Rose Glass’ debut Saint Maud); Ari Aster (whose excellent Midsommar is screening at the UPP in June as part of the Summer Horror season) is certainly “one to watch,” (even if Beau is Afraid suggested he might be a spent force); last year’s Smile had an interesting premise (I’m certainly looking forward to the sequel) and Talk To Me definitely found new ways to chill its audience.

However, like all things, it was not always thus.

Of course, in the 50s and 60s, low budget horror films were doing well at the drive in market in the USA (it’s where recently deceased producer Roger Corman made a lot of cash and audiences “discovered” George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – another film you can now find on the A Level syllabus); Hammer were knocking them out at a rate of knots and there was a lot of interesting stuff coming out of Italy (Mario Bava, Argento et al.). But Hollywood’s main studios were slow cashing in – horror was seen as a risky genre – best avoided in a country where the Catholic League of Decency still held sway and religion dominated the airwaves, especially in the Deep South.

However, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby had been a surprisingly big hit in 1968 so, in the 70s, the studios began to wise up to the box office appeal of horror with The Exorcist, The Omen and hybrid horror Sci-Fi film Alien all becoming smash hits.

It would be fair to say that the video and home rental market also played their part in the popularisation of horror films and, in the UK, the fact that the cinema industry was once again seriously under threat from both TV and the new-fangled video cassette, meant that three screen cinemas were often putting on schlocky horror films (alongside smutty softcore – often on the same bill) in order to give punters a bit of a thrill – and draw in “the dirty raincoat brigade.” This meant that David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis, Joe Dante, Wes Craven and the afore-mentioned George A Romero were all getting their films screened, making money and further fuelling the new-found taste for horror and gore (something the American magazine Fangoria clearly understood). It would also be fair to say that in a post-Punk world, attitudes and standards were shifting and the taboos of the horror film were far less likely to cause ripples (although, of course, the Video Nasty outcry in the mid-80s showed that the establishment certainly hadn’t ignored the “concerns” raised by the genre).

Arguably, the popularity of horror author Stephen King, whose best-sellers Carrie, Salems Lot and The Shining all straddled the decade, also played their part in making audiences more receptive to the genre during the 1970s.

The Shining by Stanley Kubrick

In the midst of all this, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is therefore an interesting film contextually. Here was a film that UK censors could not agree on and which caused the BBFC all sort of headaches when they effectively “banned it,” by refusing to grant it a certificate.

Certificates are a legal obligation in this country and age restrictions must be seen to be enforced. However, local councils who licence cinemas can (and sometimes do) usurp decisions made by the classifiers (this happened, somewhat bizarrely with Mrs Doubtfire). And this was also the case with Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which some high ups in London (who probably believed in freedom of speech or some such Leftie nonsense) thought had merits. Thus, the film was released in the UK with a GLC (Greater London Council) X certificate – meaning that it was officially possible to screen it at cinemas in the part of London run by the GLC. No one else in the country could see it, however. Only those fortunate enough to be able to make it up to The Smoke and catch it in some Soho flea pit, which is where I finally caught up with it, somewhere around 1978 (at a small membership cinema club in Wardour Street in Soho – where ages were not checked, mercifully).

I’ve not seen it since. Even when, in 1999, it was finally granted a certificate, after years of floating around on video bootlegs; screened at cinemas everywhere (“At last!”) and was eventually shown uncut on Channel 4.

I thought it was a grubby little film, nowhere near as “controversial” as its reputation suggested; poorly acted and disappointingly bloodless, in spite of its title. Romero had satire plus zombies; Cronenberg was pushing body horror; Carpenter was having fun with a steadicam; Landis and Dante were creating amazing SFX and makeup in a pre-digital age; Craven was creating a new iconic movie monster – Freddie Kruger. Hooper, however, seemed intent on making something raw and brutal and almost documentary-like in its blunt stylings. And, probably therein, lie the film’s strengths. Certainly its admirers find it to be an overwhelmingly primal piece of film making – its relentlessness considered to be unmatchable.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed seeing its “influence” live on in Ty West’s excellent X but, given Hooper’s subsequent output (Funhouse; the did he/didn’t he direct Poltergeist; the insane nudie vampire film Lifeforce and the Invaders from Mars remake) and the fact that he more or less drifted into mediocrity as the years progressed, dare I suggest that he was not quite in the same league as his peers? But what do I know?

Hooper passed away in 2017, his reputation based almost entirely on …Massacre. Whether it’s held up is something you can find out for yourselves when it screens in its brand new 50th anniversary print at the UPP in June.

“Enjoy,” he says – choosing his words with some caution.

Dr Andrew C Webber is a Film teacher and examiner with over 37 years’ experience. He currently contributes to both the Cinema of the 70s and 80s magazines (available on Amazon); cassette gazette fanzine (available from cassette pirate on e-bay) and the Low Noise music podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.

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