Texas is a unique place, full of crazy but true stories. It also has some demonstrably false ones that say a lot about Texas as a state. It’s a larger-than-life state, full of legendary characters and strange circumstances the give rise to the most bizarre stories. As such, Texas is the kind of place that easily lends itself to artistic expression, particularly in novels, paintings, TV, and movies. The horror genre is no exception, and there are some exceptional Texas horror movies.
In keeping with my Texas-themed posts this month, I decided to compile a list of some of my favorite Texas horror movies. These six films all take place in Texas and examine certain facets of Texas life and identity in one way or another. These films deal with religious doubt, big city vs. small town tension, criticisms of Texas culture, and lots more. These Texas horror movies are as imaginative and violent, just like Texas.
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Obviously, I can’t make this list without talking about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is a classic horror film for a reason. Perhaps the seminal slasher film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shocked audiences and critics alike for its no-holds-barred approach to horror. This film dispensed with supernatural ghost stories and went straight for the jugular with its depiction of real-life, earthly violence.
It’s also a really interesting Texan film that subverts various parts of Texas life and identity.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a truly Texan film through and through. Nearly all of the cast and crew were raised in Texas. Tobe Hooper, the film’s director, almost certainly manipulated his cast with the scorching heat and unforgiving natural environment in order to draw out crazed, raw performances. And it skewers those unique Texas sensibilities, from our love of beautiful sunsets to our relentless obsession with brisket to our taste for furniture made out of horns.
Seriously, I caught myself admiring the natural scenery during gory chase scenes on more than one occasion. While watching the end, I found myself really impressed by how the film had captured the brilliance of the early morning Texas light. I thought, Y’all my state is so pretty. Never mind that poor Sally, cut to ribbons, barely escapes her nightmarish ordeal through this whole scene.
It also took me an inordinately long time to suspect that the “brisket” from the gas station probably did not come from cows. I just figured, this is Texas and a gas station in the middle of nowhere, ‘course this guy has brisket.
And it took me longer than it should have to realize that all the furniture in the cannibal family’s decrepit living room was made from human bones. In typical Texas fashion, I at first assumed much of the furniture was made from cow bones.
I think we Texans forget how weird the rest of the world finds us, and for good reason. Consequently, it’s interesting to see this film, the very Texan film, examine and criticize Texan identity. It’s really a testament to this film that it captured a great deal of Texas-ness and made it horrific. The film is a fine example of “Texas gothic” that is equal parts sinister, weird, and downright absurd.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre demolished film limits, got right up in everyone’s face, pissed everyone off, and made buckets of money doing it. Hell, it was even accepted into the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight section.
Eventually, this film won near about everyone over in the end. Just like Texas.
- The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Unlike The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this movie is based on a true Texas. Texas has had its fair share of serial killers, and the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, committed by the Phantom Killer, are some of the most disturbing unsolved crimes in the state’s history. So I had to include the film version of the murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
In the town of Texarkana, in the spring of May 1946, a masked assailant attacked eight people, killing five of the victims and severely injuring the other three. He was vicious, mostly attacking young couples that went parking in secluded areas. From the beginning, the police knew they weren’t dealing with an average murderer. This guy was too smart to leave clues and the cops had nothing. The town descended into a panic. With no leads whatsoever, the Texarkana police called in the Texas Rangers. (The real-life counterpart to the film’s Ranger Captain J.D. Morales was Ranger Captain M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, a certified, Grade-A Texas badass.) But not even the Rangers could crack the case, and eventually the murders stopped altogether.
All that being said, I have to shoot straight here—this isn’t a good movie. It’s very much a product of its time, meaning that it is full of dated hallmarks of 70s cinema, like over-the-top acting, unnecessary narration, and a hokey score. Additionally, the movie has a really bad problem with tone, swinging from distressing scenes to slapstick comedy without rhyme or reason.
For example, one scene is a frantic car chase where the police feel that they may have found their suspect, and one police car goes too fast around a curve and lands straight in a lake. This is played for laughs, which no one asked for ever because 1) why? And 2) it wasn’t funny in the slightest. In another scene, a young teenage girl begs for her life as the killer ties her to a tree and then murders the girl with her trombone. A TROMBONE.
Now, I love a good comedy horror movie, but that is not what this movie was. Instead it was a bizarre mixture of brutal (for the time) violence with wacky “comedic relief” thrown in. It almost felt like two different movies spliced together. Instead of creating a nuanced film, this approach undermined any suspense and tension the film had going for it.
HOWEVER, I still recommend this movie on the strength of the masked serial killer as a character. He’s great! Very intimidating, menacing, and brazen. The killer is fearless and shows no sign of hesitation or remorse as he terrorizes his victims. Bud Davis, the actor who plays the Phantom, does a wonderful job creating the character. The Phantom Killer terrifies with his physical presence, utilizing everything from his burning eyes to his heavy breathing to his frenzied blows. It is to his credit that he made the trombone murder scary at all.
On the whole, the killer outshines everything about The Town That Dreaded Sundown. It’s a pity too, since a much better, scarier movie could have been made out of this true story, where a whole town was thrown into a panic and not even the Texas Rangers could catch the serial killer. At the very least, this film is an entertaining cult-classic, something good to watch after a few drinks with friends.
- Race with the Devil (1975)
I love horror movies. I love action movies. And I love them both together.
Enter Race With the Devil!
This is quite possibly the most 70s movie I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in the best way. From the cultural obsession with motorcycles, to the wardrobe choices, the tricked-out RV, the far-reaching satanic cult, and Peter Fonda, this movie is delightfully cheesy.
The plot is simple enough—two couples depart from San Antonio for a vacation in Aspen, Colorado. They’re driving a totally sweet and totally self-contained RV, fully stocked with modern amenities and plenty of booze. It even has a microwave oven y’all! FANCY!
Things quickly go south when the group accidentally witnesses a bunch of Satanists sacrifice a young woman during a black mass. This pisses off the Satanists, will stop at nothing to murder the couples in order to protect their devilish secret. With the Satanists in hot pursuit, the friends find themselves in race for their lives, unable to trust anyone and unsure of whom is a member of the cult.
I really enjoyed how Texan the movie was. It was shot in Texas, specifically San Antonio, the hill country, and a handful of small towns. Consequently, the cinematography really captured the natural beauty of that part of Texas while documenting how isolating it can be. Luxurious RVs won’t do anything to save you once you’re out of your element and in the country, especially when your RV becomes more and more of a burden.
I also appreciated the depiction of small towns versus the big city. These small town folks don’t mess around and they don’t care who you were in the big city, especially if you’ve intruded on their private affairs. There are two very different kinds of Texas, and they don’t really like each other, truth be told.
I will say one thing about this movie that is decidedly un-Texan is the lack of guns. It’s not realistic that Texans would have gone on a long road trip to Colorado without a rifle or handgun of some kind. That’s not how Texans operate. The vast majority of Texans, when planning the 17-hour drive from San Antonio to Aspen, would certainly bring a gun or two. They wouldn’t wait for trouble to go buy one on the road, which is what happens in this movie.
Aside from that, this is a supremely entertaining movie, especially once the car chases finally happen. It’s not very scary, but there are plenty of thrills and suspense. There is some impressive stunt choreography (for the time), and Peter Fonda is a hilariously 70s badass. He goes from being timid and a terrible shot to full-blown commando who throws bikes off the RV at Satanists and can hit anything from atop the speeding RV. Seriously, he throws motorcycles at other cars.
Definitely a cult classic worth your time.
- Frailty (2001)
What an underrated, tragically unknown movie!
I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for this movie based on the trailer, which made it seem like your average, boring late 90s thriller. That, and the fact that film fans mostly forget this movie, led me to believe there was a reason this movie was so obscure.
But I was wrong. It’s actually a very thoughtful, sad little horror film about doubt, both in one’s religion and in one’s family members.
It all starts when a man walks into the Dallas FBI regional office and claims that not only is his brother the notorious God’s Hand serial killer, but his father was the original God’s Hand killer. The man insists that his father believed God was speaking to him through angels, commanding him to destroy demons masquerading as innocent people. Not only did God instruct the father to destroy demons, but also He chose the whole family for this holy mission, and the father must involve his sons in his work.
I love this movie for the Texas setting, just as I love how deep the film goes into exploring the kind of all-consuming, hardline religion that inhabits huge swaths of the state. The screenwriter, Brent Hanley, born outside of Dallas, said one of the influences on his script was his upbringing as a Southern Baptist Texan:
“I grew up in Texas, the Bible belt, grew up in church, kind of raised by my grandma who was a Southern Baptist. So I kind of sat in the back of the church flipping through the back of the Bible to read about all of the dark things that were going to go on there and also all the dark things that went on in the Bible in the Old Testament. That had a lot to do with it.”
Much of the movie is rooted in the children’s experience, because even though they might have their doubts about their father’s conviction, they don’t really have a choice but to do as he says. Is their loving father telling the truth about ridding the Earth of demons? Or has he gone mad and resorted to cruel manipulation to coerce his children into helping him kill people? Does their father even know the difference?
The film asks, is this what faith means? Obeying a trusted authority figure that demands you to commit what is, in your eyes, an unforgiveable sin? How do you believe when you are not convinced?
I highly recommend it. Frailty asks more questions than it answers. It will leave you gutted.
- Planet Terror (2007)
Now this is a fun movie. A fun, bloody, disgusting movie. And made by San Antonio native Robert Rodriquez too!
Planet Terror is the first half of Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 Grindhouse project, where each director contributed a film styled after 60s and 70s exploitation films. Both directors grew up watching exploitation films and have talked at length about how such films have influenced their own directing styles. Rodriquez and Tarantino are frequent collaborators; thus, it seemed only natural that they would have eventually created a double feature grindhouse “experience”, featuring Rodriquez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof, complete with splashy trailers for fake upcoming exploitation films.
Planet Terror tells the tale of a small Texas town and the Army base located next door, which is pretty common in Texas. When a biochemical weapons trade goes horribly wrong on the base, the town finds itself suddenly overrun with flesh-eating zombies. The ever-multiplying zombies start eating people left and right, and the town descends into full chaos. Among those who must fight for their lives are stripper Cherri Darling, her resourceful boyfriend El Wray, lesbian doctor Dakota Block, and a pair of badass twins, and other colorful characters. Together they must beat back the zombie hoard, escape soldiers who have been exposed to the biochemical weapon, and flee to Mexico.
While both movies are good homages to exploitation films, Planet Terror is certainly the one that I think of as being more of a “sleazy exploitation” film. This is mostly due to the fact that Planet Terror is gleefully over-the-top, reveling in gross-out gags, twisted black comedy moments, hot girls in compromising positions, and ultra-violent scenes. All it wants to do is create a fun, messy zombie movie with creative kills and pretty girls. It’s a very honest and straightforward film.
It’s also amazingly weird, like the part where Rose McGowan’s leg is ripped off by zombies and her loving boyfriend makes her a machine-gun prosthetic to replace it.
Planet Terror knows exactly what it’s doing and the absurdity only adds to the exploitation experience.
While the movie gets kind of goofy and cartoonish with how ridiculous it tries to be, it has some great horror moments. In addition to your conventional zombie-apocalypse fair, of which there is a lot, Planet Terror does not shy away from being really, really gross. Rodriquez pushed his make-up department to the limits. Zombies devour Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. Quentin Tarantino makes a cameo as a soldier suffering from the nasty side effects of the biochemical weapon. Every gash, every decapitated head, every oozing boil on Bruce Willis’s face is gag-worthy.
Planet Terror doesn’t aim to insert some underlying truth about Texas into its story, but it does a lot of work to recreate exploitation for a new audience to enjoy. And there’s enough Texas Charm sprinkled throughout to make this one of the great Texas horror movies.
- Death Proof (2007)
Death Proof is the second half of Grindhouse, and while this isn’t as bloody as Planet Terror, it’s just as violent and disturbing. I would argue that it is more so, given the more realistic approach of this film compared to Planet Terror.
Death Proof is the terrifying tale of Stuntman Mike, a retired Hollywood stunt driver. He’s also a nasty piece of work who spends his days stalking and murdering young, attractive women. His methods are far from ordinary since he uses his tricked out and virtually death-proofed 1970 Cherry Nova to murder these women.
He first starts off with a group of pretty, foul-mouthed, independent Texas ladies enjoying themselves as they cruise around Austin, Texas. Eventually Stuntman Mike inserts himself into their evening, as creepers often do, and when no one will go home with him, he decides to take his revenge. And when he’s done with those girls, it’s on to Tennessee to stalk the next group of pretty, foul-mouthed, independent ladies.
Yes, Death Proof has some nasty bits, but Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to Grindhouse is more of a slow burn compared to Planet Terror, which rips right into the gore. In this way, the two films compliment each other. Where Planet Terror is slaphappy with blood and guts (literally), Death Proof is restrained until the tension erupts, when foreheads go crashing into dashboards and limbs come flying off. With Tarantino’s emphasis on character and context, the violence is more horrific and thus more effective. Where Planet Terror’s shock starts to wear off, Death Proof will have you clenching your gut until the end.
It’s not conventional horror by any means, but if we want to get into definitions, horror is anything that inspires fear, dread, or disgust in its audience, right? And Death Proof does that very well. The scene where Kurt Russell tortures Rose McGowan’s character is awful to watch. The scene where he murders his Austin girlfriends is savage and brutal. And the iconic “ship’s mast” game gone wrong is full of jolting suspense that makes me genuinely afraid that Zoe Bell will not survive. Every time I watch it.
While only half of this movie takes place in Texas, Tarantino does his best to pack as much Texas as he can into each frame. The first half of the movie takes place in Austin, and hell if Tarantino didn’t make Austin look damn good. I went to college in Austin, so I really appreciated how Tarantino incorporated Austin institutions into his film, like Guero’s, Texas Chili Parlor, and South Congress. I appreciated how fierce all the ladies were, even if the Texas ladies didn’t survive, given Texas’s long and storied tradition of badass women.
I’ll be honest and say that Death Proof is my favorite of the two. I prefer slow burns, but I think Death Proof is a better film in general. Tarantino manipulates us by making us care about the victims while refusing to delve into Stuntman Mike’s background. The film is grounded in a gritty realism that we can easily place ourselves in, which makes the horror all the more real, especially if you’ve ever lived and partied in Austin.
What did you think of these films? Are there any awesome, terrifying Texas horror films I’ve left off? Let me know in the comments!