When you think of iconic horror villains, the chances are Leatherface isn’t the first one that springs to mind. Bloodthirsty killers like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers hold more sway in the horror zeitgeist, with more cinematic appearances, crossovers, and reboots. But Leatherface — also known as Thomas Hewitt or Jedidiah Sawyer, depending on the continuity of the film you’re watching — was the horror icon to start them all.
Yes, Tobe Hooper’s spine-chilling The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came out in 1974, four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween, six before Friday the 13th, and more than a full decade before A Nightmare on Elm Street. So why doesn’t the chainsaw-wielding cannibal get the credit he deserves for pioneering this type of horror staple?
A lot of it, simply put, is that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came out before horror cinema reached its apex. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist released a year earlier to a hugely controversial reception, with oft-told stories of crowds falling unconscious, or sprinting out of screenings, due to the film’s brutality. Audiences simply weren’t as out-for-blood as they are now: there’s no way, for example, a film as gruesome as Saw would’ve flown with audiences – or classification bodies, for that matter.
In fact, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned from exhibition in Britain by the BBFC a year after its release, due to its violent content. American censors were more reluctant to ban the film entirely, with the MPAA giving it an X rating until it was cut down to achieve an R certificate. The notoriously strict Australian Classification Board refused to classify the film until 1984, a full decade after its release. While the British ban finally lifted in 1999, bans in other countries like France, Brazil and Ireland meant the film’s reach was incredibly limited.
By the time the film was accessible to wide audiences — even getting a screening on Channel 4 in 2000 — the horror genre had simply changed too much for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to gain traction. Sequels to the original weren’t able to capture the visceral, home-made brutality of the first, and faced similar struggles with censors. Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 only received a UK release in 2001, and its subsequent sequel Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 were finally approved in 2004, nearly fifteen years after its release.
Stuck in a realm of censored purgatory, Leatherface was unable to stake his claim for being the first bona fide horror icon. While he was kept under the boot of the BBFC and MPAA, Jason Voorhees and Friday the 13thmade $59 million at the box office, and Freddy Krueger made $57 million in 1984 with A Nightmare on Elm Street. These films, while iconic in their own right, lacked the nuance and subtlety of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which masked much of its violence with atmosphere, tension and build-up.
Horror in the 1980s moved in a very different direction than the 1970s. While a film like The Exorcist pushed boundaries of religion, profanity and bodily fluids, most others from that decade — like Alien and Suspiria — favoured atmosphere and mystery over straight-out gore. The eighties, unsurprisingly, did something very different. Films like Evil Dead, The Thing and Videodrome mixed atmosphere and scares with previously unprecedented litres of fake blood, giblets and bodily insides. While revered in its own right, horror cinema of the 1980s didn’t covet the sort of bloodless tension and anxiety conjured up by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – meaning by the time the film was finally unbanned, it was seen as a relic of a bygone era rather than the trailblazing horror it is.
But despite the franchise never quite taking off in the 20th century, the bevy of reboots, sequels and prequels in the years since 2000 haven’t quite brough Leatherface up to the level of his contemporaries. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the 2003 reboot produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, was directed by Marcus Nispel to moderate success, making an impressive $107 million despite missing the mark with critics. Its performance was enough to spawn a prequel, 2006’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which tanked the franchise, earning just $51 million.
Leatherface was put on ice until 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D, a pseudo-sequel set after the 1974 original, while ignoring all other films in the continuity. Starring Alexandra Daddario as an orphan with a mysterious link to the Hewitt family, it earned even less than The Beginning. While disliked by critics, it earnestly attempted to bring the franchise back to its roots, with a cameo from Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, and flashback scenes taking place just after the original film ended. This commercial flop was the final straw for the franchise, though, with the most recent entry, a 2017 prequel called Leatherface, going straight to DVD.
On top of the franchise’s battles with the censors, this lack of widespread commercial appeal is what has stopped Leatherface claiming his spot at the pinnacle of horror iconography. For some, the material is just too gruesome to gravitate towards: the films are based on the real-life crimes of cannibal serial killer Ed Gein, and aside from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, they lack any substantial levity to offset the dour subject matter. While Freddy and Jason embraced their campiness and humour, Leatherface’s status as a near-mute cannibal butcher made him a hard sell. Yet his beauty comes from what makes him different: the fluidity of gender roles his character embodies, the childlike nature of his personality, and the moral conflict that underpins his motivations and actions. He’s one of horror’s most nuanced and layered killers, even without much dialogue, and it’s a shame that no film since 1974’s original has really captured that.
This could all change, though. 2021 is set to reinvigorate the franchise, with a new reboot, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, due for release later this year. Directed by David Blue Garcia, it takes place after the original, and looks set to correct the course of failed reboots and sequels. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes down, but Leatherface has another shot at redemption – and he certainly deserves to take it.