If vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman were to look back to the debut of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which first opened in L.A. on Oct. 30, 1974, he might be positively sanguine about the state of gore in Hollywood these days. With Massacre, audiences were introduced to a lurid combination of horror and humor that — despite some stiff competition — remains unrivaled today.
Loosely based on the 1957 rampage of mass murderer Ed Gein, which also inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho, Chainsaw didn’t mess around with artful shower scenes. Instead, Massacre’s script, written by Hooper and Kim Henkel, focused on a group of kids who run out of gas in the wilds of Texas and learn not to rely on the kindness of strangers — at least not ones who enjoy their power tools as much as they enjoy a human-corpse main course.
Working with a budget of less than $160,000, Hooper cast a batch of unknowns, and shot the film on 16 mm. The cult classic went on to earn more than $30 million, and paved the way for such future shock-franchises as the Halloweens and Evil Deads, and even The Blair Witch Project, whose sequel is currently in theaters. According to Patrick Lussier, the director of the upcoming Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000, Massacre is particularly noteworthy for its willingness to forgo redemption. ”In the end,” he says, ”good doesn’t conquer evil — good is vanquished by evil, standing in the middle of the road, swinging its chain saw.”
For all Chainsaw’s success, neither its cast or director was able to make quite the same impact again. Hooper is credited as the director of 1982’s Poltergeist, but rumors proliferated at the time that an unhappy Spielberg had taken over the reins. While both camps denied the scuttlebutt, Hooper’s follow-ups were far less successful. After striking out with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986, Hooper’s career was dismembered by flops like Invaders From Mars (also 1986), Spontaneous Combustion (1989), and The Mangler (1995).
But here’s some happy news for devotees: Even after three tepid sequels (the last of which, 1997’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, starred Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger), there may well be some fresh blood left in the ol’ saw. Unapix Films (which released the Sundance dark comedy Broken Vessels) bought the rights and is making a prequel that will focus on Gein himself. ”Chainsaw is a damn scary film, and this will bring it back,” promises Unapix Films president Robert Baruc. ”It begins with the birth of a serial killer, and it ends with him in a truck heading to Texas.” Here’s one story we know won’t have a happy ending.
Time Capsule: October 30, 1974
At the movies, Jack Nicholson learns what happens to nosy fellas in Roman Polanski’s seminal film noir, Chinatown. In music, Barry White, at his smoothest and most soulful, tops the Billboard album chart with Can’t Get Enough. In bookstores, Marathon Man, William Goldman’s creepy diamond-hunting-Nazis-in-America novel, is a best-seller. And in the news, Muhammad Ali regains the world heavyweight boxing title by knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round of the famed Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.