To get a sense of the anxieties and preoccupations of a certain era, it's usually instructive to look at its horror movies. For example, official reckoning on the Vietnam War wouldn't come until years after the fact, but the ugly extremes of human atrocity were on display at the drive-in, where horror films were making a dramatic shift away from the supernatural and into the real. Though George Romero and Wes Craven had broken ground with Night Of The Living Dead and The Last House On The Left, respectively, Tobe Hooper's 1974 movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains the Vietnam era's definitive horror classic, if only for its unvarnished, documentary-like images of humans led to the slaughterhouse. With it and its sequel 12 years later—both recently released on reverent new DVD sets—Hooper had the misfortune of making films simultaneously of and ahead of their time.
With the current wave of realist horror fare like The Devil's Rejects, Hostel, and Wolf Creek finding an audience—same shit, different war, perhaps?—Hooper's original film may have finally infiltrated the mainstream, but that hasn't muted its power. Inspired by Ed Gein's fetishistic exploits, Massacre has the raw look of a home movie, but it's far from amateurish. As five young Texans on a Sunday drive get stalled at the wrong farmhouse, the film never loses its intensity from the first moment Leatherface's sledgehammer drops. It's horror without a safety net: Survival isn't guaranteed for anyone, heroism and struggle are often futile, and as the old adage says, you can never come home again.
Any sequel would have probably met with extreme skepticism, but by waiting more than a decade, then attempting a wacky Grand Guignol comedy, Hooper was setting himself up for a fall. Released in the middle of the Reagan '80s and set conspicuously apart from its slasher contemporaries, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was miserably received, but it's earned a passionate following in the years since. The revisionism is at least half-deserved: Hooper's abrasive satire on yuppiedom and excess, centering on a brilliantly deranged Dennis Hopper as a Texas ranger looking to avenge the death of his invalid brother, stands out for its unbridled gore and comic mayhem. It just isn't terribly fun to watch.
Key features: A comprehensive feature-length documentary directed by David Gregory joins two commentary tracks and other extras on the two-DVD original; Gregory joins Hooper for one of two commentaries on Chainsaw 2.