One of the most haunting images of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre happens in daylight. Leatherface, a masked butcher with a bloated wrestler's build, wildly swings a roaring chainsaw before a fiery morning sun. His prey, a teenaged girl named Sally (Marilyn Burns) whose blonde hair is coated in blood and sweat, makes a daring escaping on the back of a pick-up, her own hysteria leading to laughter. In swinging the saw, Leatherface's violent frustration morphs into a graceful dancer's spin. The indeterminable madness of the moment permeates the picture even as it cuts to the black relief of the credits.
I know I just spoiled the perfect ending to a 45-year-old horror movie. But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, an enduring American masterpiece from the late Tobe Hooper that spawned one of the first horror franchises ever, is leaving Netflix on February 21. So if you've not yet subjected yourself to its delightful darkness and traumatizing artistry, now is your chance.
Released in 1974 and produced on a conservative budget of $140,000, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is Hooper's metaphorical treatise on the American cultural temperature of the mid-'70s. Traumatized by the manmade violence broadcasted on television, Hooper borrowed from the real-life crimes of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein to illustrate a portrait of nihilistic isolation.
He told horror magazine Rue Morgue in January 2005, "The lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things...showing brains spilled all over the road. Man was the real monster here, just wearing a different face, so I put a literal mask on the monster in my film."
Angered by the misinformation campaigns carried out by President Nixon over Watergate, the '73 oil crisis, and the Vietnam War, Hooper purposefully misled his audiences and advertised Texas Chain Saw as a "true" story.
“Man was the real monster here.”
Filmed in a 1900s farmhouse near Round Rock, Texas, the film shot over an unbelievably humid summer where temperatures peaked at 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The combined stench and misery both in front of and behind the scenes — conditions that would make production an absolute no-go today — made production "intolerably putrid." For continuity, the actors wore the same clothing, sweating in them all throughout production. The film's story also called for dead dog and armadillo corpses to litter the floor; those are real, found by art director Robert A. Burns from driving around the countryside. There were vomit breaks.
I'm hesitant to say the misery endured by the crew was worth it. I remain conflicted due to its numerous behind the scenes incidents, such as one revealed in Joseph Lanza's 2019 book The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Film That Terrified a Rattled Nation. The infamous dinner scene, where Marilyn Burns' Sally wakes up tied to a chair to see cannibals eating her dead friends, had a broken knife prop. The knife contained a tube of fake blood that was to be licked by actor John Dugan from Burns' finger. But the knife broke. On-set tensions with getting the scene completed rose to the point that Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, cut Burns for real. This also meant Dugan sucked Burns' real blood.
But the scene exists. The film exists. And it endures all these years later, remembered today as a profoundly influential classic of American horror up there with Edgar Allan Poe and the Universal Monsters. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre alone influenced the likes of Alien, Halloween, and Blair Witch.
In addition to its political allegories, the film is remembered for its unexpected tasteful artistry. Numerous critics have remarked upon its lack of explicit violence, instead showcasing Hooper's skill (utilizing European and Russian-style montage) to allow viewers to fill in the blanks themselves.
It also created the Final Girl.
It is also anti-meat. As film critic Rob Ager remarked in a 2015 video series, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre vilifies the meatpacking industry, putting humans into the same process of bondage and murder as cows, pigs, and chickens. Acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro told TMZ in 2013 that watching the film made him a vegetarian, for a time.
As Netflix puts an increasing focus on original content -- the company invested $15 billion on original programming in 2019, and is expected to spend another $17 billion this year in 2020 -- there may come fewer opportunities to enjoy and experience film history from the ubiquitous service. Which is why now, on its 45th anniversary, is the perfect time to experience The Texas Chain Saw Massacre if you haven't yet already. Even if it isn't available to stream tomorrow, the nightmare will endure.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will end streaming on Netflix on February 21.