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When Tobe Hooper’s low-budget slasher film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, opened in theaters in 1974, it was met in equal measure with disgust and reverence. The film—in which a group of teenagers meet a gruesome end when they stumble upon a ramshackle farmhouse of psychotic killers—was outright banned in several countries and was pulled from many American theaters after complaints of its violence. Despite the mixed reception from critics, it was enormously profitable at the domestic box office and has since secured its place as one of the most influential horror movies ever made. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times, cultural critic Joseph Lanza turns his attentions to the production, reception, social climate, and impact of this controversial movie that rattled the American psyche.
Joseph Lanza transports the reader back to the tumultuous era of the 1970s defined by political upheaval, cultural disillusionment, and the perceived decay of the nuclear family in the wake of Watergate, the onslaught of serial killers in the US, as well as mounting racial and sexual tensions. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times sets the themes of the film against the backdrop of the political and social American climate to understand why the brutal slasher flick connected with so many viewers. As much a book about the movie as the moment, Joseph Lanza has created an engaging and nuanced work that grapples with the complications of the American experience.
When people ask, “What is the best horror movie of all time?” there are usually two answers. They are Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I might be partial in reviewing this book because I am strongly in the corner of Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the best horror movie ever made. I might be partial in saying that without The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is no Halloween. Most of the reason for my love of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is because the quality, the way that it is shot, and the way that it feels like a documentary exploitation film instead of a movie. There has been many book and films that delve into the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the struggles during filming, and the culture impact of the distribution and reaction to the film. Joseph Lanza hits on these things but his exploration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a little different than any other I have read.
Joseph Lanza makes a strong case that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not so much a horror movie as it is a reflection of the things that are happening in the world at the time of filming. From American politics to Texas serial killers, Lanza argues that a film like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre coming out in this time only made sense. This is a movie that gained traction because it is nothing more than a mirror to the way America was living and this terrified the audience the most. Honestly the horror of the movie starts with a hitchhiker. Lanza mentions that at this time, there is a fear of picking up hitchhikers, that something that was seen in the 60s as a culturally acceptable thing has turned into something dangerous. So the whole idea of picking up the man was something that was a new danger. This is just an example of the depths of the fear that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre explores. For the modern horror fanatic, this is a great history, showing that what we see as a great movie actually has so much cultural nuance and importance that it makes it even scarier. I might be partial because I love this film and will just about read anything about it. I can see where some people just might not be into it, but for anyone who loves horror movies, even if Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not your favorite film, this is mandatory reading.
I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I find this interesting, but it also makes me think that many of the newer movies are using this same formula, not even in such a subtle way. One film that comes to mind now is Assassination Nation. In this movie, all of the data from phones are hacked and made public. This turns everyone in a town against each other and all hell breaks loose. This is classified as a horror movie because the entire idea is one of the most frightening ideas that I’ve ever seen. At the beginning of the film, I thought that it was going to be about a group of obnoxious teenagers, but as the story unfolds, the culture significance becomes so strong and the movie turns into a great example of the way that people react to events and conflict in today’s culture. This movie feels like Texas Chainsaw Massacre in some ways. Most of the film is a reflection on the ways that we are failing as a nation, and even though there is no real solution in sight, films like these are important as markers in the way that society is changing and becoming more and more frightening.