It happens without fail on every long car trip: you venture outside the limits of a major city, it’s dark and quiet, and maybe you even see a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Of course, you knew to fill up at the last town, you avoid all possible tire-puncturing hazards, and you definitely cruise right past that hitchhiker. These are lessons instilled in you not by driver’s ed, but instead by folks like director Tobe Hooper. As the sixth film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D, slices its way into theaters, we are reminded not only of what we learned from Hooper’s seminal horror movie, but also, unfortunately, how the genre has been woefully beholden to these same lessons.
Even before the last gasp of Leatherface’s iconic weapon had faded in the original film, other studios and movie companies began scrambling to piece together their own version of this landmark slasher. Affectations became so prevalent that something bizarre began to happen: the very standards of horror started to shift. Hooper gave us a nightmarish tale about a band of teens on a doomed road trip, the definitive tale in this vein, in fact. But that did not stop imitators from trying to caravan behind it. So many iterations of this same plot setup appeared in Texas Chainsaw’s wake that it became its own genre cliché.
Probably the most notable rehash of Tobe Hooper’s classic is Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Here again, the focus is on a group of unfortunate souls on a road trip across the country. While the group is altered from a cadre of teens to an average nuclear family unit, another facet of Texas Chainsaw that turns up in The Hills Have Eyes is the idea of a bickering family of hillbilly antagonists; Craven’s desert mutants is quite reminiscent of Hooper’s Sawyer clan. Hills wasn’t the only wannabe that emerged prior to the end of TCM’s own decade. Tourist Trap, starring Tanya Roberts and Chuck Connors, also revolved around a group of teens on a road trip who stop at a mysterious house off the beaten track. The mask the killer wears in Tourist Trap smacks of Leatherface’s hideous namesake.
The ‘80s were a veritable font of low budget horror, and the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still quite present. Then, 1980’s Motel Hell centered on a psychotic backwoods farmer who enjoyed making traveling teens part of his macabre crop, noting that “it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.” The road-trip-gone-awry device appears also in 1985’s The Mutilator, which also revels in repurposing various tools and hooks for murderous designs. The best of the decade has to be 1986’s The Hitcher starring Rutger Hauer. A young man on cross-country drive picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a psychotic killer who then stalks him over miles of highway. The terrain, the viciousness of its antagonist, and the cautionary tale warning against picking up rambling pedestrians all add to the similarity of the horrifyingly harrowing road trip.
Ironically, one ‘80s film that feels very divergent from the formula laid down by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is…The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Hooper returned to direct this tale of a former Texas Ranger, played by Dennis Hopper, tracking the remnants of the Sawyer family that murdered his nephew Franklin and tortured his niece Sally Hardesty. Hooper crafted TCM 2 as a black comedy that could not feel more tonally converse to the first one. In fact, the only flash of familiar material in the sequel is an opening slaying of a pair of drunken Texas frat boys as they are, big surprise, on a road trip. The straying from the elements that defined TCM may account for the icy reception that the sequel received. It may also be the reason the franchise installments of the ‘90s, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Texas Chainsaw: The Next Generation, both went running back to the road-trip-gone-wrong conceit.
The new millennium didn’t offer much innovation in the realm of horror movie construction. Jeepers Creepers, Cabin Fever, and Joy Ride again focused on traveling protagonists whose journeys take rather unfortunate turns. In fact, 2003’s Wrong Turn, about a group of road-tripping teens whose vehicles are sabotaged by a horde of inbred hill people, seemed bent on re-establishing the trend; somehow seemingly unaware that it had never gone away. However, it was rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie’s House of a 1,000 Corpses that seemed most reverential toward Hopper’s classic. Not only does the plot involve an ill-fated road trip, but the group of central characters is furthermore traversing Texas… in the ‘70s. As if that weren’t enough, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Bill Moseley has a prominent part in the film.
Over the years, there have also been many cinematic derivations of Texas Chainsaw, or at least movies largely indebted to it, that focus on recreating other elements beyond the road trip. For one thing, every other power tool in the shed became ripe for its own movie: Nail Gun Massacre, Microwave Massacre, to name a few. There were even movies that simply tried to capitalize on the title. Claudio Fragasso’s 1990 film Night Killer was released in Italy as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 despite having nothing to do with the franchise; not surprising given his 1989 film Troll 2 had nothing to do with 1986’s Troll. There is also a potential argument to be made for the connection between Texas Chainsaw’s fictive true-story factor and the later utilization of this gimmick for the burgeoning found footage subgenre. Is The Blair Witch Project merely the extrapolation of John Larroquette’s opening TCM narration?
Of course, the road trip does serve a function beyond capitalizing on the success of one watershed film. It’s a product of the need to sever your victim set from the safety and protection of being surrounded by the masses. Still, it seems batch after batch of horror films since Texas Chainsaw have leaned so heavily on this conceit as to transform it into a lackluster foregone conclusion. The two Texas Chainsaw remakes, and the new sequel, naturally reinstated this setup, but you can hardly chuck a tire iron without hitting a new horror film, be it theatrical or direct-to-video, that reheats this cold story device. It may be time for us to leave doomed road trip fright flicks by the side of the highway like a discarded flat tire.
[Photo Credits: Justin Lubin/Lionsgate; Bryanston Distributing; Vanguard]