Unlike vampires and zombies, cannibalism isn’t science fiction or fantasy. It’s something that happens in the real world, which makes movies about it even scarier. But one movie, in particular, defines the subgenre and kicked off a veritable boom of cannibal B-movies while establishing the career of one of horror’s greatest and most underrated directors.
I’m talking, of course, about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is streaming for free online right now. But before you grab the popcorn and begin your movie night, here’s what you need to know about this classic ‘70s slasher.
By all accounts, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shouldn’t exist. Directed and written by Tobe Hooper and released in 1974 on a minuscule budget of roughly $140,000, the film was a challenge for almost everyone involved.
Every member of the cast was injured during production, temperatures on set regularly exceeded 100-degrees, Hooper seemingly faked his way through the actual film shoot, and they ran out of money before the editing process even began. But despite all that, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre just works.
The plot is simple but effective. A group of young adults traveling through Texas for reasons that don’t ultimately matter come across a group of cannibals. A lot of murder ensues. It’s violent, terrifying, and extremely awesome.
It might be an exaggeration to say Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspired an entire subgenre, but it might also be true. The movie premiered in 1974, dovetailing perfectly with the start of the “Cannibal boom,” a wave of Italian horror movies primarily released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Horror master Wes Craven also released his own cannibal thriller, The Hills Have Eyes, in 1977, with Craven calling Massacre one of his favorite films.
Meanwhile, Hooper himself was inspired by another titan of horror: George Romero. In a 2004 interview with Texas Monthly, he recalls how he was influenced by 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.
“They were lined up to see it,” Hooper says. “And I thought, ‘This is it. This is the way to get attention two thousand miles from L.A. and get noticed. If I could only raise the money.’”
Of course, Texas Chain Saw Massacre also gave us Leatherface, one of the greatest horror villains of all time. Like much of the movie, the chainsaw-wielding 6-foot-4-inch-tall killer was inspired by real-life horror stories.
“The idea actually came from a doctor I knew,” Hooper told Texas Monthly. “I remembered that he’d once told me this story about how, when he was a premed student, the class was studying cadavers. And he went into the morgue and skinned a cadaver and made a mask for Halloween. We decided Leatherface would have a different human-skin mask to fit each of his moods.”
The legacy of Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been somewhat sullied. While the 1986 sequel (also directed by Hooper) is a classic that blends the original’s horror with legitimate comedy, subsequent films failed to reach the same terrifying heights. The 2003 reboot, in particular, is a rough watch. But thankfully, you can still catch the original for free online right now.