Despite paving the way for many, many imitators, the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by Tobe Hooper is just that — original. As many imitators as the original Chain Saw (1974) has (and I won't deny the film inadvertently helped create an endless assembly line of tiresome, mean-spirited and witless slasher films and franchises), no one has ever been able to capture or come close to recreating the malevolent magic of that relentlessly terrifying film. Not even Hooper himself, who went on to helm the first sequel in an effort that could charitably be described as unfortunate.
So what makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so effective in all the ways its copycats aren't?
I suspect that it has something to do with a complete lack of self-consciousness. There's an utter lack of pretention from its filmmakers and its cast, particularly from its leading actress, Marilyn Burns, and Gunnar Hansen, who plays the mentally challenged cannibal Bubba "Leatherface" Sawyer. The original Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn't designed to be part of a never-ending franchise. It was made long before horror films were considered big business.
In addition, its low budget and lack of glamor gives the movie the unsettling aura of a snuff film — that feeling that what you're watching is either real, or as close to real as possible. Like the case of the hillbilly rapists in John Boorman's Deliverance, there's a sense that Hooper engaged in some "stunt casting" with the cannibalistic Sawyer family (even though that's not the case). Not unlike Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, in some regards, some of its amateurish aspects lend to its raw and intense power.
It's also — and this may seem like an odd claim — not a mean-spirited film, which separates it from the Friday the 13ths and Saws of the world. When Leatherface grabs poor terrified Pam and hangs her up on a meat hook, not only does the camera not reveal any substantial bloodletting or linger on her being impaled, but Leatherface himself is not doing this to torture her, or to be cruel. As an out of work slaughterhouse employee, he's doing what he knows how to do — keep the livestock from roaming free. (In many regards, Leatherface and his brothers are no more malicious than a pack of wild and ravenous wolves.)
Of course, this lack of malice from Leatherface makes him all the more terrifying.
In fact, all of these elements — the lack of pretension, the low budget, lack of cynicism — manages to make The Texas Chain Saw Massacre something that none of its imitators are — scary as all hell. It's not about delivering cheap or false "Boo!" moments, or piling on the gore, or adhering to cliches. It's about scaring the hell out of you for the final 40 minutes of its runtime, and not letting go until after the credits roll.