While The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) is iconic and well regarded as a whole, the film does not pride itself on flashy presentations or slow builds. Neither of these should be considered flaws in regards to the film though, as one of its strengths is its ability to instill a fear of the unknown. As the film progresses and the monsters of the film are revealed, it becomes apparent that were the film to slowly build up these creations then much of the shock value of the film would be lost. As the monsters appear, each of their respective appearances brings with it a new form of mystery and a lack of understanding that brings with it a new form of fear. This is not to say that the monsters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should not be feared, but that a majority of the fear surrounding them is brought on by how little is revealed about them within the film. Whether it be the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), the iconic Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), or any of the other members of their cannibalistic family, the lack of information that is provided about them prior and after their respective reveals makes them much more fearsome. Were the film to build up any of these creations, much of their fearsomeness would not be present. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre builds its horror around fear of that which cannot be understood, and by revealing as little as possible about its monsters this effective brand of horror is achieved.
The most context for any of the monsters of the film is provided to the hitchhiker. This figure, which is picked up in a poorly conceived attempted act of kindness by the victims of the film, serves as the film’s harbinger. Though he never directly warns the young adults of the film of the danger that they are heading into, his actions are more than bizarre and dangerous enough to serve as a warning as to things to come. Whether it be his burning of the photograph of the soon to be victims, or his assault on Franklin (Paul A. Partain), the hitchhiker’s actions are provided with little to no context, and this makes him all the more bizarre and as a result, menacing. And though he does not return until the third act of the film, the hitchhiker looms large over the entirely of the film as his behavior is never fully explained. This is not to say that the behavior of anyone is explained outside of the general blanket of what has to be done to maintain a cannibalistic lifestyle, but the hitchhiker is mediated on the most by the characters within the film and likely also by the audience as the film essentially starts with his actions. Though Leatherface is much more iconic and memorable in terms of appearance and actions, the hitchhiker still looms larger in many scenes because of his placement in the film. It is only when Leatherface is in action that he is the focal point of the film, but prior to this he is not present in the film in any way.
Leatherface himself is one of the more impactful achievements of the film. Aside from the obvious iconic status of the character, his appearance is not alluded to prior to his sudden appearance and killing of Kirk (William Vail). But once he appears, the film does not pause to give him any context. Even once it is revealed that his actions are in service to the cannibalism of his family, there is still much about him that is not explained or contextualized and as a result his character maintains his alien fearsomeness. Even once the film ends, Leatherface is still nothing more than a chainsaw-wielding murderer whom wears a human-skin mask. The details of him, such as why he behaves the way he does in comparison to the rest of his family or why he seemingly has more than one mask, are never revealed. But if Leatherface’s father (Jim Siedow), or anyone else for that matter, were to stop and explain to Sally (Marilyn Burns) or anyone else why his son is the way he is, not only would it break with the overall tone of the movie but it would also take away much of the enigmatic status of the chainsaw-wielding monster.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leaves much up to the imagination of its audience. While this technique does not always work, nor is it always effective, it works in the case of this film. When Leatherface first appears, there is not any sort of warning prior to his hammering of Kirk to death. Soon after begins the same process on Pam (Terry McMinn) and throughout all of it no context is given. The entire sequence takes much too long for it to be considered a jump scare, even Leatherface’s sudden hammering of Kirk, and as a result all of the horror of the scene is derived from the audience not fully understanding what they are witnessing. Much like Pam when she stumbles into the bone room, which also contains a lone chicken, what is being seen is not necessarily meant to be understood, and horror is the result. Were the film to show Leatherface going about his murdering process on any random victim prior to the deaths of Kirk and Pam, then the mystique of the scene would not necessarily be completely lost; but the scene would be viewed as Leatherface going about his process yet again, as opposed to a scene where the new and fearsome monster does terrible things for unknown reasons.
By the conclusion of the film, there are more questions than answers for the audience about what they have just witnessed. Though Sally does ultimately escape her captors, the audience is left with the knowledge that a majority of the tormentors are still alive. This ploy may be one that exists for the purpose of (ultimately successfully) setting up sequels, but it serves the rest of the film’s tone well. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not concerned with its characters in the sense that they actually accomplish anything, but more so that they stumble through the events that befall them. Kirk, Pam, Franklin, and Jerry (Allen Danziger) are unceremoniously killed with Franklin’s death being the most memorable in many ways as he is the only one shown to be slain by a chainsaw in the film. Sally serves mainly as a vessel for the audience once she becomes the only remaining survivor, but prior to this she mostly exists in the background. Such is the case with all of the victim characters in the film as the camera follows them only when they are about to be killed or when they are openly wondering about the status of the hitchhiker. In this way, Sally is not featured until she is the lone survivor, mainly out of necessity. Likewise, once Sally is out of danger, the only remaining feature for the film to focus on is Leatherface, as he is the only one doing anything the film considers interesting. Sally is out of danger and no longer a figure of conflict, and so the film turns to the last figure of conflict it has in Leatherface.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre presents events simply as they happen without necessarily building up to anything that is happening next outside of what its characters are experiencing. Such is the reason that the camera stays with the characters that are going to be in danger the soonest in most situations, as they are the ones that will move the film forward. Because of these stylistic choices, the film’s monsters become others in the sense that no explanation is ever offered for the state of them. Leatherface and his clan maintain their enigmatic status throughout the entirety of the film, and in the end they are all still fearsome because of it. None of this is to say that the cannibalistic family of the film should be attempted to be understood, but their alien status keeps them far enough removed from the realm of human understanding that it becomes a feature of why they are so fearsome. The monsters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are not given any history or real motivations, and by way of this otherness the film is able to craft horror that could not be achieved otherwise.