With movies, comedy tends to age terribly. Wit may translate well across time, and you might have a couple quick nose exhalations while watching black-and-white slapstick, but generally, laughter is hard to provoke from a distance. Fright is much the same, many old horror movies relying too heavily on stilted screams and chocolate-sauce blood. But unlike humour, age can also help horror. Classic horror films like Carrie (1976) and Halloween (1978), with all their grain and grit, often feel like uncanny records, uncovering a history that was better off buried. Studios continue to churn out remake after slick remake, and they do numbers, but no one is watching Insidious: The Last Key (2018) anymore, nor will they ever again. There is something to be said, then, for the old horror flicks that still manage to endure and unnerve.
Take, for instance, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. The original film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), was directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written by him and Kim Henkel. It follows five friends driving through Texas who, while exploring an abandoned homestead, stumble upon and are in turn hunted by Leatherface, a huge chainsaw-wielding brute wearing a mask of skin. Rather than pure bloodlust, we later learn that Leatherface is the butcher for his cannibalistic family, who cook, eat, and sell off human meat as Texan barbecue at a service station.
In one respect, it is very ‘70s. As well as the bad haircuts and hippyish bent in its anti-meat messaging, the ‘based on a true story’ prologue, while not a cliché then as it is now, feels earnest in a outmoded way. Structurally too, it’s of its time. We don’t get any lengthy backstories or narrative breathing room. At only 83 minutes, it’s a short, sharp shock to the system, unrefined and unrelenting.
Still, it's the film’s limitations, and how it uses, that make its savagery so singular. The movie’s budget was only $140,000, or $875,000 when adjusted for inflation — for frame of reference, The Godfather Part II, released the same year, had a budget of $13 million before adjustment. So Hooper assembled a cast of mostly unknown local actors, and subjected them to long, gruelling shoots to save on renting equipment, making their performances feel agitated, unguarded, raw. Similarly, the film lingers on certain key locations — the young peoples’ van, the gas station, Leatherface’s house — to lend the Southern landscapes a sense of claustrophobia. Most importantly though, the movie’s arch-villain is distinctly unelaborate. Like many old horror movies, you feel like the monster is some guy wearing a costume; apart from his mask and weapon, Leatherface is a large white man in a shirt, blazer, tie and trousers. But that is precisely the point of Hooper and Henkel’s film. Between contained socially-acceptable barbarity, by humans towards animals, and uncontained abhorrent barbarity, by humans towards humans, lies an exceedingly thin and withering screen.
Since 1974, there have been eight more films in the franchise, not one as scary as the first. The most recent, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022), is a sequel set fifty years on, with four Gen-Z-ers inadvertently inciting a 70-year-old Leatherhead to come out of retirement and start slaying again. The resolution is too high-quality, each shot glossy and extravisible, purging the film of actual darkness. As CGI shows the audience wounds closer up, it ironically draws more attention to their being synthetic, superimposed. In trying to bring psychological depth to its protagonists, the film, the same runtime as the original, drags with over-exposition. And where actors in the 1974 version sprint for their lives, 2022’s has theirs moving affectedly slow: heroes so stunned they can’t move; a villain so weighed down by villainy he must waddle to his victims.
Newer horror movies can still be unsettling: It Follows (2014), Get Out (2017), and X (2022), to name a few. But along with their pithy driving concepts and comparatively small budgets, each of those films also share with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and other old scary movies an openness towards constraint. Closing off what we can see, where we can go, what we can know, in the way old horror often had to, keeps horror horrifying.
Illustration by Jordan Anderson