The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Review
Some years ago, the satirical puppet programme Spitting Image presented a sketch parodying both Citizen Kane and its director. The joke went that Orson Welles was a man who lived his life backwards, a man who achieved everything of greatness in his life at the very beginning of it. A man whose early brilliance gave way to experience that made him less commercially and critically successful. He is not the only film-maker to whom this criticism can be applied, and without question the Orson Welles of horror movies is Tobe Hooper.
Hooper made an untouchable film that had an impact that still is felt today, but his most recent works struggle to be good business or artistically novel, or even plain coherent. If you are unfortunate enough to have witnessed his contribution to the Masters of Horror series, then you will know just how far the mighty have fallen.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre was made with little budget and very little artistic pretence. It was created and imagined as thrill ride, a misadventure into a hell that followed the example to some extent of more mainstream projects like Deliverance. Its more appropriate spiritual forebear is of course Hitchcock's Psycho, where the audience is hijacked en route to its presumed destination of a crime thriller, and plunged instead into a seemingly inescapable torment of a twisted psyche(s). Hitch and Hooper used the same role-model for their movies, the real-life serial killer Ed Gein.
The basis of misadventure movies is that once you have taken a wrong turning, humanity must survive by becoming beast as it battles for food, sex and dominance. For instance, in a film like Deliverance, the big city boys must find their inner hunter gatherer to survive the inbreds and the whacked out country folk they disturb. The townies' original need for adventure and escape from their mundane lives is turned on its head when the world they escape to proves much too animal for the domesticated holiday makers. In TCM, Tobe Hooper takes this idea much further with his lost sophisticates being cool hippy kids who soon learn how out of their depth they really are when they find themselves hunted by the uncouth and unspeakable locals.
Hooper's film is at once more fantastical than Deliverance, but also much more convincingly constructed. He manages to create the interior life of a family of cannibals and plunges right on in, rather than make simple stereotypes of rednecks or serve up the embodiment of urban myths, Hooper presents a fully functioning tradition of hick flesh-eaters. Hooper paints the world of the family vividly - they are self-sufficient and proud of their culture, they even re-use and recycle the parts of their prey that they can't eat. Their living room collects together skeletal furniture and cranial objets d'art. This family are neither ashamed or lost, they are too happy, too involved in the rituals of their kinship, and they will fight to keep their homelife going.
Crucially, Hooper achieves terror through the iconography and the blasphemous twisting of the domestic idyll. Where he was later to re-tread these characters using extreme gore and by placing them in other people's worlds, here he keeps it local, restrained, and implied. The outrage his film caused all those years ago was because of how effectively it reminds us of the obscene, and if modern directors may be keen to bi-sect a man in all its gory detail, here Hooper only hints at it and leave his audience to fill in the blanks.
Before the endless sequels of Freddy, Jason or Michael, there was the monster of Leatherface, and in the sequels that followed this monster came to front the franchise. In the original, he is simply the physical element of this lethal family rather than a juggernaut smashing through society. In the sequels he would lose his impact as he became little more that a chainsaw jockey where here he is the bestial consequence of this vile and far too plausible way of life.
Hooper would later become obsessed with theatrics, shows and the big top when the understated and the insidious served him so well here. He would make the gloriously OTT Lifeforce, but his film making would deteriorate as his subject matter widened its scope and ideas were taken to excess. He would never achieve the sheer visceral force of this film's climax, and he has never shown how close beast and human are again. With his proper début, he created perhaps the best horror movie of all time, and a simply terrifying piece of cinema. In doing so, TCM became his Citizen Kane and like Welles he has been overshadowed by it ever since.
Transfer and Sound
Now any transfer of this film faces some major disadvantages. The low budget of the original shoot, the fact it was shot on 16mm, and the wear and tear that's taken place over the last 30 years, all of these factors mean that the transfer is limited in terms of how good it can look. Dark Sky have created this transfer from the original camera negative and they have thankfully opted to not noise reduce too far or boost the image beyond what is reasonable. The presentation here is very sharp with a fine amount of detail, it does lack some grading in terms of the contrast and some shadow detail is not as apparent as you would like but the image does retain a lovely film-like appearance. The main feature is encoded using the VC-1 codec and presented at 1.78:1.
The sound comes with the choice of an uncompressed stereo track, the original mono and a DTS 5.1 mix. For all of the joy of the technologically superior options I do have to say that I was happiest listening to this in flat functional mono. The DTS and stereo tracks will make more of your modern a/v equipment and the DTS track is certainly smooth and well designed to create the surround experience, but the roughness of TCM is its strength and a great mix or lossless treatment of anything other than the original track can't improve on that.
Discs and Special Features
The Disc used is all Region encoded and a BD50 which heralds a booty of goodies. The extras are exactly the same as the forthcoming R2 three disc set from Second Sight, except that here they have high def encodes with uncompressed sound. The disc menu is some chainsaw roaring moments with Marilyn Burns at the mercy of Leatherface and the extras are stacked over three sub-menus. This makes it a bit of a trek when you finish one extra and then have to go back through two or three menus to find the next, and I think the design could have been more user-friendly in this respect.
There are two commentaries which accompany the main feature with the first being actors Marilyn Burns, Paul Partain, and Allen Danziger joined by designer Robert A Burns and compered by David Gregory. They provide some insights into the film with those of most interest coming from technical bod Burns as he explains how the film was designed and how certain effects were put together. His namesake explains that the sequence with Grandpa sucking on her finger was actually done with her finger getting cut as Hooper gave up on effects for that shot due to time.
The second commentary is the one recorded for the Elite disc and is much more interesting with Hooper, Gunnar Hansen and Daniel pearl marvelling at their work whilst seeming to kick back and shoot the breeze. The explanation of Pearl's shot that sweeps under a garden swing before the second attack is great stuff and we learn just how difficult it was to shoot the family meal scene with Hooper's demands on the actors, composition and the appalling heat that followed the shoot.
David Gregory's The Shocking Truth kicks off the rest of the extras with the whole story of how the film got made intercut with interviews from cast and crew. It's a bit fanboyish in places with large claims made for the film's influence which are not properly supported by evidence, I wouldn't deny the truth of the film's influence, I just think that there is much more to say in terms of effects on the current wave of French Horror films for instance. The film is placed in historical and political perspective, the end of Nixon and post Manson family, and there is enough titbits on casting to satisfy casual observers. The piece talks about the sequels and Hooper's problems with Canon, and it wisely suggests that the sequels are fun if a little driven away from the original virtues of the film.
Flesh Wounds is a documentary film in seven parts which considers people whose lives were caught up or inspired by the original film. They include Daniel Pearl, the cinematographer, Gunnar Hansen, Edwin O'Neill who played the hitch-hiker and a tribute to a couple of the late performers and technicians involved. In addition, we get pieces about the house and the conventions and fan culture the film has inspired.
A short piece follows Gunnar Hansen as he returns to the house where they filmed TCM, and Terri Mcminn is finally tracked down to give her thoughts on the film in an interview. Mcminn has avoided being involved with the cult of the film and she talks a little on the film before talking about moving on to modelling and her flower business.
Twenty five minutes of deleted scenes and out-takes are provided next, some with cast or director commentary and some with sound and without. Most interesting among these scenes are the extended version of one character's death and the interior shots which add even more eeriness to this house of cannibals. A very short blooper reel follows before additional scenes from Gregory's documentary are included as well. The Shocking Truth out-takes like the nearly 50 photo picture gallery are the only extras encoded in MPEG-2.
Two trailers, three TV spots and two short radio spots conclude the extras.
It is difficult to imagine that this film should or could ever look perfect, and I am glad that this transfer hasn't tried too hard to restore or reduce a pretty scratchy piece of cinema anyway. There are extras by the bucket load and this is one of the greatest horror films ever made. This does trump the coming Second Sight disc, but that release will be a hell of a purchase for those without hi-def capability, for Blu-ray owners though this is a fine purchase.