History, and memory, have been exceptionally kind to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and yep, that's how they spelled "chain saw," as two words).
In our collective consciousness, Leatherface and his chainsaw have become as iconic as Freddy and his razors or Jason and his hockey mask. And it's all thanks to a goofy and only occasionally scary low-budget horror vehicle that started it all in 1974 (making Leatherface the ancient grandfather of his contemporaries). The story has been widely copied in the following decades: Hippie teens run out of gas and seek refuge at a backwater gas station; too bad a family of psychos are waiting in store for them. (In the last year alone this premise was copied nearly to the letter in both Wrong Turn and House of 1000 Corpses.) Over the years the film would spawn seven sequels or remakes (to date), including versions starring Dennis Hopper and Renee Zellweger.
Chain Saw has a couple of quirky twists, the most amusing being the fact that the Sawyer family serves its victims as barbecue to patrons of the gas station. And of course, Leatherface's home-grown mask isn't exactly made out of cow leather...
Chain Saw also pioneered the "based on a true story" idea. In this case Leatherface is drawn from serial killer Ed Gein, who butchered his mother and made lampshades and kitchen accessories out of human body parts. (Psycho Norman Bates is also based on Gein.) Still, this hardly merits the narration and title card at the begining of the film, which sells them as much more "true" than they really are. If nothing else, Gein lived in Wisconsin, not Texas. Still, the way would be paved for other faux documentaries like The Blair Witch Project. Give Chain Saw credit for directly inspiring, by my count, at least 30 other movies.
The one thing Chain Saw is lacking is any real sense of terror. The biggest problem is that too much of the film takes place in the dark -- not to the point where it's scary or suspenseful, just to the point where it's hard to tell what's going on. A lot of the stalking is funny -- intentionally or otherwise -- which also robs the film of its fright factor. Most notably, one of our heroines is beaten senseless... with a broom. The chainsaw barely comes out at all, and it's most memorable in the end, with Leatherface waving it around like a maniac for no apparent reason (and cutting up his own leg in the process). He's not scary, he's retarded.
But credit must be given where it's due. Director Tobe Hooper made Chain Saw on a shoestring, and it's finally been cleaned up on DVD to the point where the video and audio quality are on par with a typical 16mm production. Hooper and others also offer a commentary track (revealed: original title was Head Cheese), plus the disc offers deleted scenes, a gag reel, and trailers for the original Chain Saw and many of the sequels. For any fan of horror or cinema history, it's a must-own disc, even if the movie isn't aging as well as it should.
Aka The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.