Released in October 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was unlike anything the horror genre had produced before—it was a raw, gritty, totally immersive experience; a nightmare from which viewers, like the helpless victims in the movie, could not escape.
The story is simple enough: A group of five friends on a trip through the Texas countryside stop at an old house. Unbeknownst to them, the house is occupied by a murderous, cannibalistic family, including the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. Loosely based on the true story of serial killer Ed Gein (who also, to some degree, inspired Norman Bates from Psycho and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of The Lambs), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a relentless, highly atmospheric exercise in pure terror. Director Tobe Hooper (who later went on to helm Poltergeist) shoots the ultra low-budget movie in a grainy, documentary-style and indeed, Massacre looks like the most disturbing home movie ever made.
Originally titled Headcheese, the movie quickly gained notoriety for being extremely gory, a claim that is in fact not true. While there is certainly a high body count, Hooper (like any accomplished horror-maker) knew that the movie would be much more disturbing if the violence was implied rather than shown. (Believe it or not, he apparently shot the movie hoping to secure a “PG” rating, which obviously didn’t happen). Hooper understood that what the audience imagines is much more disturbing than anything a director can splatter on the screen. The same is true for the cannibalistic family. There is virtually no backstory provided, which makes them truly scary. Nearly 35 years later, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still has the power to make viewers break a sweat—even on a chilly October night.
In 2003, a remake of the infamous movie was released, directed by Marcus Nispel (who seems determined to remake every iconic horror movie—his version of Friday the 13th is slated to hit theaters in February), produced by action-auteur Michael Bay and shot by cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who was also a DP on the original movie). The remake, set in 1973 when the original Massacre was made, once again concerns a group of friends (including Jessica Biel) who run afoul of Leatherface and his cannibalistic clan.
The original movie has remained creepy and harrowing due to its nightmarish atmosphere and the psychological torment experienced by the characters; the remake replaces all the suspense and implied violence of the former with copious amounts of gore. The only stand-out of the remake is R. Lee Ermey who gives a typically loony, over-the-top performance as a deranged sheriff.
While those who never saw the original might find the remake an entertaining diversion, true horror fans know the only authentic Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the raw, eerie little gem Hooper crafted on a shoestring budget back in 1974.