Tobe Hooper’s film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is one of the most important and influential films that has ever been made. It is impossible to measure the cultural and artistic impact that Hooper’s classic horror film has had on the popular culture of the global community. Despite its many controversies and disturbing content, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is as important a cinematographic text as Vertigo (1958) or Citizen Kane (1941).
The legacy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so prolific that it is very likely that some viewers encounter imitations long before they see the original classic. From an episode of the X-Files to True Detective, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film that continues to resonate within the zeitgeist to this day. When The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was first released there had never been anything like it before. Hooper effectively grafted the perverse gallows humor and macabre familial satire of Spider Baby (1967) to the quasi-documentary stylings of The Legend Of Boggy Creek (1972) that cast rural American culture as the stuff of boogey men and nightmares.
This aesthetic synthesis was wholly of its time as quickly made regionally produced genre pictures came to dominate the drive-in movie circuits. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fit this niche so well that it became a monstrous hit, earning back more than ten times its original measly budget. Hooper, like Wes Craven and John Carpenter, took the tools of the little independent genre picture and used them to create highly sensationalist works of art that revel in the bloody excesses of American culture. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a superb horror spectacle that functions as an indictment of rural American conservatism and the meat packing industry as well as a bitingly absurdist parody of the nuclear family as it was popularly imagined in the fifties.
But what endures the most about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is its boney, cinéma vérité stylization that has gone on to function as a kind of cultural shorthand for menacing hillbillies. The 16mm grain, DIY production design, and kinetic camera movements all work in conjunction to paint a portrait of horror that feels as uncomfortably authentic as it does familiar. Hooper taps into that tension that we all feel when we leave the urban and suburban spaces we call home to venture out into the remote and unfamiliar territories of the countryside.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so effectively affecting that its notoriety as a horror spectacle has granted it a kind of “rite of passage” status that it maintains to this day. Without fail, every year that I taught film analysis, one of the students in my class would bring up Hooper’s opus. If other students had yet to see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre they were branded as phony fans of horror or as pretenders to cinephilia. While I do not share that elitist sentiment it does demonstrate how essential The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has remained for over fifty years.