The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

What is interesting about John Laroquette’s iconic narration at the beginning of the film is that it references something we do not see in the film— the eventual discovery (publicization) of the Massacre perpetrated collectively by the Sawyer family in the film, which presumably occurs after Leatherface dances with his chainsaw.

This sets the tone for what makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre stand the test of time. Like all the best horror films, much of its power is derived from implying that the unseen, just-out-of-screen, elements at play in the film are the most unsettling. But on another level, it establishing the inherent limitations of a single person or group’s perspective. Our perspective is limited by the knowledge and details we are privy to. Knowledge, and lack thereof, thus powers the story. 

First, the unsettling nature of the unseen: the opening scene where the hitchhiker scuffles about in the dark, his naughtiness only illuminated by eerie-sounding camera flashes, is so unnerving because we only see just enough of his activities to understand something sketchy is happening. If it was fully lit, it would certainly not slap so hard.

Equally unsettling in the end, though, is the precarious truth value of known details. The radio news at the beginning of the film details a bunch of happenings across the country we only hear about and can only consider without ever interacting with their reality. Whether they are reflections of the true thing isn’t readily knowable. The news bulletin regarding the grave-robbing shows the authorities certainly do not have all the details. It could all be bee ess.

When the gang arrive at the gravesites to see if Grandpa Hardesty’s grave is disturbed, the drunk lying on the ground says that strange things happen and that he literally sees things. He does not need to go into detail regarding what the things are to be suitably foreboding; indeed, it would probably be less effective if he laid out the whole creepy story immediately at the beginning of the movie.

Not knowing what to expect sets the entire film in motion — from jump, interacting with multiple members of the Sawyer family should have scared them off of going near any houses in the area, but they don’t know enough to heed the warnings properly. Franklin sees the odd relics of the Sawyer Family in the Franklin house but doesn’t know the context to understand how terrifying their presence really is.

When Pam and Kirk approach Casa Sawyer, they are sorely lacking the details as to whose house they are coming up against. He enters and sees a glimpse of animal skulls on a red wall: just enough detail to entice him to come closer. Of course, Leatherface walks up at that moment and has to dispatch him with relative musslessness.

(Famously, Hooper felt that the relative lack of gore in the cut he submitted to the ratings board might earn the film a PG — and proceeded to receive an X that necessitated cuts. What few details were given were nevertheless too unnerving even for the R.)

This is not to say there isn’t shockingly gruesome violence in the film: Pam being placed on a meathook certainly qualifies. But even past the kills, the real bad juju comes from atmospheric moments like when Pam stumbles into the living room full of odd feather-and-skull decor. What is the meaning of this? It’s better to be terrifying that we, like her, don’t know. We just know it’s creepy as fuck and Not A Good Sign — and indeed it signals her demise.

Jerry, lacking necessary context, then walks directly into a murder scene and iconic horror film setting with a completely casual attitude until he opens the freezer. No one seems to know what they’re really dealing with. Leatherface, even, is stressed by lack of detail — he doesn’t know why these yutes are showing up to interrupt his day, he’s unmoored without the hitchhiker there to watch him, and his murders are spontaneous reactions to new actors he isn’t equipped to interface with.

Sally and Franklin think their friends are simply lost — indeed, Franklin never learns that murder is the case, meeting his grisly end too quickly to really internalize that. But his struggle with detail was worrying that the hitchhiker had left an identifiable mark on the van in blood he could use to track them. His nervousness was correct, but he had the details of how the Sawyers would cross paths again with them completely wrong. But how could he predict what would actually happen? (Even if the horoscopes kinda did.) Sometimes we simply can’t make correct prognostications with the info we are given.

The final half-hour of the film — Sally’s lone struggle, where she is continually ensnared by members of the Sawyer clan, is a stream of unpleasant details parceled out bit by bit. The gas station, and the old man attending it, seemed to represent safe harbor to her — but it was simply another path leading back to the Sawyers. She is exposed, briefly and semi-briefly, to an array of creepy things, none of which are deeply explained and none of which would benefit from that. The Sawyers are fleshed our more in later films, and this is exactly why the sequels don’t, and can’t, measure up. We just know that Leatherface is mentally challenged, the hitchhiker is stupid, and the old man is endlessly put upon. Also Leather and hitchy do all the work and the old-timer is just the cook. Grandpa’s whole deal? Who knows. In this film, the viewers receive the correct amount of detail in a way the characters can’t be allowed to. That is drama.

Indeed, the drama wraps up when, as the film ends, Sally is finally in possession of the exact knowledge needed to achieve her goal — she must escape, via vehicle, from the scene (and Leatherface and the hitchhiker). She does so.

Awareness of the correct details, then, is our only salvation from the cruel vicissitudes of life. The film was advertised as real — this detail was erroneous — a great big warning to the audience not to blindly trust details they are told to be sure of. When Sally is in the gas station thinking she is rid of the Sawyers, the radio news is audible again. The investigation is humming along, but the cops (and radio listeners) are bereft of the full story. Only when the titular Massacre is eventually discovered does the truth presumably out. 

Accidentally, then, correct details have been provided in a way systematic institutional examination was unable to. The truth of a thing, then, is not related to whether or not authorities declare it to be. Hooper explicitly said that his faux real story narrative was inspired because people had been “lied to by the government about things that were going on all over the world” (this was a Watergate-‘Nam reaction picture).

In a time where slavish devotion to the edicts of government institutions and “The Science” it produces is hip, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should remind us that the important details we do not know — known and unknown unknowns alike — are many, varied, and often revealed from sources we don’t even know could potentially open themselves up to us.

Sally’s dinner table freak-out, where we get close-up all the way to her terrified green eye, is the poor citizen of the world coming to terms with how shaky the edifice of civilization, and its central narrative, is. Old Grandpa — the stodgy institution — is given the chance to finish her off. Interestingly, he simply can’t swing the hammer, and this gives her the chance to escape. What does this say about our stodgier institutions?

(Also: it is satisfying every time when the hitchhiker bites it.)