When the horror movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974, it garnered legendary status among horror films. There was a cult following and obviously, there were strings of merchandise that followed the movie.
As with all horror movies, people watch it mainly because they have a subconscious desire to be frightened. More than anything, horror movies bring us closer to the things that we fear the most and we are given a way to contemplate our fears in the safety of our home or theater.
Leatherface, like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, represent the extremes of humanity. Of what would happen if morality or society broke down somehow and anarchy just reigned over the land.
The menacing figure of Leatherface, the deranged murderer with the mechanical killing tool, was somewhat of an anti-hero for a burgeoning 1970s. Obviously from the standpoint of these movies and the villains within, anarchy is murderous, frightening and truly criminal and that’s why people who are in highly disciplined societies like the US embraced it because it showed them the other side of the fence, no matter how frightening or unbelievably anarchic it was.
TCM on the Atari 2600
The Atari 2600 was the badass console of its time. It was not very expensive, middle class families could afford it and gaming developers took the technology and tried to squeeze the market of a budding gaming industry.
Obviously one of the easiest ways to make cash back then was to take inspiration from popular or infamous movies.
Leatherface in the TTCM was quite the unforgettable figure. He was the quintessential maniac on the loose, the kind of horror that you wouldn’t want knocking on your door for any reason. Thus, the Atari 2600 game was born.
The original tagline for the 1974 movie was “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” So there you have it – at the core of the movie was human destruction in its purest form.
To the American society that was still reeling from the moral implications of World War 2 and involvement in the Vietnam War, Leatherface laid bare a part of the human psyche that people tried to avoid or ignore completely: the anti-human side or in Freudian parlance, the death drive/Thanatos.
Charles Band, B-movies and the TTCM on Atari
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre game was released in 1983 by Wizard Video Games. It was the first TTCM-inspired video game (many soon followed as the slasher genre gained acceptance) and was released for the Atari 2600 platform.
According to Lifewire, B-Movie maven Charles Band took the opportunity to distribute horror flicks to a growing market. He owned Wizard Videos that rented out VCR tapes and eventually, he decided to go into developing video games as the market was desperate for new content. Wizard Games developed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as it wanted to capitalize on the reassessment of the movie and its cult status.
However, things didn’t play out exactly as Charles Band had hoped. Around that time, other game developers were already creating video games for the Atari 2600 (this was a relatively new concept) and the market was convinced that these newly brewed games were all bad, despite the demand for quality games.
To add insult to injury, the rather conservative stance of American society as a whole to video games barred The Texas Chainsaw Massacre game from being widely distributed. Many video game retailers refused to carry it and those who did had to remove the title from the front shelves and sold it in a clandestine manner.
Why was TTCM game culturally shunned?
It all boils down to its theme, which was enough for parents to just turn away from it. On the cover of the video game was Leatherface, brandishing his chainsaw. To a decade that is still relatively new to video games, TTCM for Atari gave off all the red flags for “stuff you shouldn’t buy your kids.”
Of course, there were teenagers that were buying their own video games at that time and these were the folks who would eventually come out in their thirties and forties to say hey, this video game is a part of video game history precisely because it focused on the core of what made the franchise so horrifying in the first place, which was again, unadulterated destruction of humans.
Game plot and analysis
Like other side-scrolling games that became vogue in the eighties and nineties, the 8-bit rendition of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre had simple, addictive game-play.
In the game, an enraged Leatherface chases after tourists on his property and cuts them down continually with his weapon of choice. The tourists are running about so Leatherface has to move left and right to find them and then chase them. There are a few obstacles in the game like cow skulls and weird wheelchairs (a reference to the character of Franklin in the movie and possibly Leatherface’s own wheel-chair bound Grandfather) but all in all it’s a very simple game.
The downside to the game was it didn’t really have a narrative so the gameplay is static. The only variable that change in the game is the fuel level of the chainsaw that cannot be increased by any means. The game decides the reduction rate of the fuel.
I think for the most part the developers ended up creating the game this way because one, Wizard Games was a very low-budget “sticks and stones” kind of game producer and second, they wanted to trigger the player’s rage response by limiting the fuel and basically just giving the player free reign to kill as many characters as they want during the course of the game.
Each time Leatherface comes in for the kill, the victim screeches (well, that’s how I hear it anyway) and the game gives a brief pause to signal the success of one kill. Though that may be just the console lagging or the graphics script shifting, we can’t be certain.
Due to the limited nature of the Atari console back in the day, some interesting inversions have been noted in the game as well. For one, Leatherface is wearing green (or blue in some versions) and there are no distinctive marks the pixels onscreen represent the movie-inspired Leatherface. Second, there are no actual “wins” that you can tally since the game will eventually end no matter how good you become in sawing down those pesky tourists.
The game eventually ends when fuel runs out (remember, you can’t do anything about this) and the screen blacks out and one of the tourists that you’ve been chasing around like crazy will kick Leatherface in the ass.
Why is this out of character for Leatherface?
In the movie, Leatherface does brandish a chainsaw as it is his preferred weapon. But here’s the thing – even without the chainsaw, this guy is brutal – and effective. He’s not Leatherface because he has access to a chainsaw. He’s Leatherface precisely because he’s a murderous, psychotic fellow who has been out of touch with reality for so long that he can maim anyone he wishes, even with his bare hands.
The Atari Leatherface on the other hand, is dependent on the chainsaw and the fuel. When the fuel runs out, Leatherface is incapable of defending himself and all it takes to end his reign of terror is a swift kick in his behind.
But let’s not forget: at a time when Captain America was one of the most patriotic characters in the comic universe, someone dared to break the mold in the parallel universe of video games.
When every child, teenager and adult in the United States had this firm idea that movies and video games were supposed to have heroes with uncompromising morals, here comes Leatherface with his chainsaw in a video game of all things and you’re supposed to be the murderer!
In this video game, you’re the bad guy and everyone else is just cattle fodder for the maniac with the chainsaw. That’s what made this title that badass and ultimately, that dangerous to the psyche of America that time. It was deemed dangerous because it acknowledged that it was possible for someone with such power and capability to be something other than the sterling standard of morality and heroism.
And in the context of the Vietnam War for example, no one liked to remember that the US was one superpower who at one time or another, had exhibited geopolitical behavior that didn’t follow the mold of uncompromising heroism. All of these things trickle down to the broad masses as they are continually exposed to politics. Movies and video games are all expressions of the collective condition of society that create them.