Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is entrenched in mid-70s American iconography and milieus: haunted by post-Vietnam War disillusionment and fatigue, it quivers with the trauma of a nation staring at its reflection and seeing the likes of Ed Gein and Charles Manson. These national anxieties bristle on the peripheries of a simple plot, which sees siblings Franklin and Sally Hardesty making a trip with three friends to visit their grandfather’s grave in Texas. When the group takes an ill-advised detour, they soon become prey to the cannibalistic, sadistic Sawyer family, and the film descends into a relentless, hopeless fight for survival.
Within its tight, historically-specific construction, which is visceral and close-up in terms of narrative, aesthetics and sensibility, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre gestures to ideas that transcend sociopolitical specifics. Indeed, this film, which at its basest level portrays two very different groups of people brutally colliding over the course of one very bad night, functions as an expression of cosmic pessimism. By orienting its characters within an indifferent world governed by contingency and disorder, the film highlights its deeply anti-anthropocentric ideas — most notably and most bluntly, that we are not special — and these ideas are further exemplified by its graphic, disturbing allusions to the atrocities of the meat industry. It fixes an unblinking stare on the violence that humans inflict on both human and nonhuman animals, reminding us of our fallibility and inconsequentiality. Unthinkable things happen to us without reason or consequence, our capitalist social structures cultivate our resentments toward one another and we inhabit a society designed to swallow us whole.
This bleak philosophy emphasizes the absurd cruelty in privileging human wellbeing over the rights of nonhuman animals. The film is unforgiving in its deployment of images to illustrate this point: taxidermy hybrids of human and nonhuman animals, piles of bones from indeterminate origins, methods of slaughter normally reserved for enslaved cattle now inflicted on the hapless protagonists. Hooper deftly applies visual language to convey the Sawyers’ cannibalistic practices and indifference to humanist ideals; art director Robert Burns brilliantly designs the family’s house with grotesque detail, turning it into a madhouse of grisly signifiers. Rather than offering narrative exposition to detail this clan’s practices, Hooper allows their environment and actions to convey the necessary information. Within this space, the protagonists quickly devolve into engines of survival instinct. Dialogue and reason disintegrate in the film’s final act, which is scored prominently by screams, cackles and the ceaseless buzz of Leatherface’s chainsaw. This devolution serves the film’s overarching thesis of cosmic pessimism: despite its implicitly vegan and animal abolitionist politics, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ultimately finds a void in its search for morality and reason.
The underlying thread of cosmic pessimism is further visualized by the film’s powerful use of rack focus, which repeatedly sees human characters pictorially dissolve into the sun, the moon and, on one occasion, a swarm of insects. This visual upending of scale works to diminish the human characters as puppets within an indifferent universe, subservient to a star’s subsistence. This imagistic design gestures to the terrifying concerns with physics and universal disorder found within the fiction and philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft (cosmic pessimism’s great, hopelessly paranoid godfather). While it would be a stretch to compare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s plot to Lovecraft’s trademark, sci-fi inflected horror narratives, the terror of an indifferent cosmos figures large in both. Under its brutal dissembling of anthropocentrism and customary moral divides, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre points to the terror of a harsh and uncaring universe.
Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, podcasts and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest and The NoSleep Podcast, and his film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage and The Seventh Row. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.