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When Despair Meets Hope: Framing “THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE” in 2020

Thursday, October 1, 2020 | Opinion


Blumhouse’s Halloween (2018) and Nia DaCosta’s forthcoming Candyman (2021) are not only part of horror’s new direct-sequel-from-the-original mini-movement; they’re vehicles for updated sociopolitical subtext, enriching decades-old franchises for modern audiences’ eyes. While little is known about the upcoming, direct sequel to 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (with its former directors scrapped for a new one allegedly due to “creative differences”) it’s plausible to think this installment could follow suit, providing some sort of subtext or commentary for the franchise’s framework that the original film always had. In fact, Tobe Hooper’s original film itself is just as pertinent to this very specific moment in Trump’s America of 2020 as it was to Nixon’s in 1974.

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, once described by critic Christopher Sharrett as a “statement about the dead end of American experience,” represents the ultimate political divide between the right versus the left–a split that has only exacerbated 46 years later during one of the most crucial election years of our time. When five young, hippie friends (Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Allen Danziger, and Teri McMinn) drive through uncharted (to them, at least) territory in the Texas boondocks, they unknowingly invade the property of the Sawyers, the disenfranchised, working-class sector, who relish in the opportunity to destroy (and consume) those who embody everything they are not and don’t believe in. It’s the generational clash between an old, backward-thinking America and a new one, in which ethics and decency reign: an ongoing battle that has never been so resonant.

In cliché fashion, Hooper uses the seemingly liberal-leaning hippie friends to represent the Left. One expresses disdain for killing animals for meat and follows astrology; others show kindness and sympathy for a lone hitchhiker on the road in the blazing, Texas heat. Collectively, they all exhibit contempt for violence, either through each other’s storytelling or things that happen right in front of their faces. Conversely, when The Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) comes on board, he explains how the invention of the air gun has put his family out of work in the slaughterhouse business and attempts to wheel and deal them, taking unwanted pictures of them for potential cash. He longs for the good old days when technological advances didn’t render his family’s business obsolete. The Hitchhiker then turns aggressive and violently lashes out, cutting one of the hippies and marking their van, offended at their privilege and dismissal of him. The friends immediately regret their goodwill, indicative of the ending of hippie-era optimism in the midst of Vietnam-era despair.

For different reasons, a similar despair feels present in 2020, with yet another generation led and betrayed by a crooked administration. While Hooper’s film captured the public’s distrust of their then-government, there exists now, instead, a sector of loyal Trumpist Americans who place their distrust in media, naysayers, and everything else aside from the administration: blaming everyone else for their disenfranchisement but the man-in-charge himself. If time-warped into a 2020 landscape, The Hitchhiker and the rest of the Sawyers would personify the MAGA-hat wearing, QAnon-defending, blue-collar branch of conservatives that lobbies for another four years of 45.

The family–made up of the worst kind of insecure cis, white male egoists–remain anxious of any form of progressivism, as they feel it doesn’t apply to or help them; in their eyes, it hinders them. Like certain powerful men in charge of us now, their own incompetence fuels their resentment: one is incapable of doing the killing; another injures himself with his own chainsaw; Grandpa is physically weak. Likely nationalistic and jingoistic, the Sawyers are vehemently against outsiders, and when presented with the opportunity, they opt to literally eat them, as if they view them as bottom feeders on the food chain. They’d never be able to comprehend or support 2020’s ongoing human rights protests, (and, in the strangest of ironies, the leatherfaced one himself would likely be an anti-masker, too.)

With that said, 2020 has one more chance for redemption before year’s end: voting the current administration out. And THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, despite its deranged villains and bleak look at the worst kinds of Americans, also provides some semblance of hope, in the form of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns). She kicks, screams, fights, jumps, runs, and outsmarts her way out of a seemingly hopeless situation, tattered, injured, and bloodied, but alive. Sure, the villains survive as well, and they’ll probably always exist within our society, but they don’t hold power in the end. Sally, the remaining right-thinking character, does. If the Sawyers can have their power stripped from them, and, depending on the results of November’s election, perhaps there is hope for these monsters in power to have theirs stripped from them too. If Sally can survive the TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, we can make it to the other side of 2020.

Here’s hoping the future of the TCM universe won’t balk at the chance to return to its roots and channels the pain of its own historical backdrop to give us yet another poignantly terrifying film.

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