Everyone and their mothers know that the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a horrific and ground-breaking experience that influenced the genre for decades to come. Not only did it put audiences through a gauntlet of Texan cannibalism and surprisingly subtle violence, but it also enhanced the scares by taking advantage of a near-documentary aesthetic and claims that the film was based on a true story.
This ingenious approach to marketing and presentation (which almost certainly influenced future productions like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch project) led many audiences to believe that the film was adapting a real-life murder case, which I think is fascinating when you consider what actually happens in the final act of the film.
Dragged into the Sawyer homestead by Drayton, our final girl Sally is forced to join in on a memorable family dinner, with the movie offering a glimpse into this insane family dynamic. Watching Leatherface, Nubbins and Drayton torture Sally in what amounts to a Thanksgiving celebration from hell is terrifying enough, but the movie soon embraces the madness of its antagonists by revealing that the ridiculously ancient Grandpa Sawyer is somehow still alive and has a taste for human blood.
This odd character is the most ridiculous part of the film and I absolutely love him for it.
Played by John Dugan, who would later reprise the role in the opening scene of Texas Chainsaw 3D, the original TCM depicts Grandpa as a possibly undead corpse who awakens only to feed. Earlier in the film, Nubbins talks about his legendary abilities at the slaughterhouse where he was eventually made obsolete by industrialization, which is likely the reason that the family turned to cannibalism in the first place. Sally actually stumbles onto Grandpa before that horrific dinner scene, but rationally assumes that these are simply the dried up remains of the family’s original patriarch and leaves him behind.
Having the family take care of a vampiric grandfather seems like a strange creative decision for a film that was marketed as a down-to-earth retelling of a real tragedy, so why exactly did Hooper include this pulpy bit of supernatural horror in his masterpiece?
Well, one of my favorite descriptions of the film comes from Red Letter Media’s Jay Bauman, who once claimed that the movie works because it feels like it was shot by the cannibal family, and I think that’s a great explanation for why Hooper would dial up the insanity to 11 towards the end of the flick. This addition also gives the movie a bit of an urban legend feel, adding a single drop of speculative horror.
There’s also the argument that, since the finale is told through Sally’s subjective point of view as she goes through a traumatic experience, these final scenes take place in a heightened reality and may just represent the poor girl’s mind snapping after enduring so much horror. This interpretation might also help to smooth out the timeline, as it accounts for the inconsistencies in between sequels.
Of course, Grandpa would show up again in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (this time played by Ken Evert), with Caroline Williams even running into his undead better half during the flick’s absurd climax where she snatches a priceless family heirloom (read: chainsaw) from her mummified hands. At the end of this entry, Grandpa Sawyer appears to perish alongside Drayton and Leatherface in a grenade blast, though he would still return for more sequels.
In the next few movies, Grandpa would be played by an animatronic corpse and then Grayson Victor Schirmacher, with Schirmacher’s younger and rambling take on the character being a radical departure from the rest of the series. The character was unfortunately absent from Platinum Dunes’ remake timeline, which I think is one of the only inexcusable flaws in those movies. While he would resurface in both TCM3D and 2017’s Leatherface, it’s clear that the franchise doesn’t really know what to do with the old man beyond giving him glorified cameos.
I believe this begs the question: why do all the sequels and prequels refuse to address the vampire in the room? Don’t get me wrong, I respect the hell out of Hooper for randomly adding a semi-supernatural character to his film and then refusing to elaborate, but since the TCM franchise has since always been so obsessed with backstories and recreating the glory of the original film, why do other filmmakers avoid focusing on good old gramps?
It might just be because modern audiences are more prone to nitpicking outlandish story elements in otherwise grounded horror yarns, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that. This franchise has always had trouble letting go of its love affair with Leatherface, as the sequels increasingly focus on him as a lone killer instead of acknowledging that the heart of these flicks lies in having a whole family of deranged antagonists.
If it were up to me, we’d already have seen a Leatherface-less TCM prequel that dives into how Grandpa originally set up the Sawyer operation and got them started on cannibalism, with the anti-hero becoming a Texan vampire by the end of the flick. That being said, I’m aware that a TCM film without the franchise’s leading man might be a bit controversial, so I’d even accept a sequel where an aging Leatherface settles into the Grandpa role of his very own crazed family, maybe going so far as to explain that frequent cannibalism gives the family long life at the cost of their sanity.
The way I see it, the supernatural route might actually be a much-needed blast of fresh air for the franchise.
Either way, Grandpa Sawyer remains one of my favorite side characters in all of horror fiction, proving that a throwaway scare can help to add a bit of crazy flavor to a nightmarish story. He’s also living proof that the TCM movies are more than simple Leatherface vehicles, and if David Blue Garcia’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre manages to warrant a sequel, I’d love it if the writers would allow themselves to have a bit of fun with this bizarre franchise.