The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 3 Disc Seriously Ultimate Edition Review
The FilmLarge parts of the review below are the same as for my recent review of the recent Blu-ray release. You will find the main differences in the technical and extras section
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
In my review of the Dark Sky Blu-ray, I noted how the basic materials for this film are always going to look grainy if they are treated properly and this release uses a standard definition version of that same transfer. The result is rather good and a huge improvement on the old R2 releases such as the old windowboxed Dolphin disc. Less light and bleached, with stronger contrast and much more detailed this is quite sharp with colours that aren't quite as vibrant as the Blu-ray. I have included a screenshot from the Blu-ray to show how good this standard def image looks but do note that space limits how I can show the improved detail on the Blu-ray.
The sound again comes with the choice of a stereo surround track, the original mono and, this time, a DD 5.1 mix. As with the Blu-ray, 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 5.1 and stereo tracks will make more of your modern a/v equipment and the 5.1 track is well designed to create the surround experience with a solid sub woofer track, but the roughness of TCM is its strength and the remastered mono track included here is clearly the best option on offer.
Discs and Special Features
This ultimate edition comes in a metallic case with disc one on inside front cover, and discs two and three encases in an overlapping figure of eight on the inside back cover. Underneath the discs there is a black and white still of the family at meal time. I would state again that I far prefer leaf casing than figure of eight affairs because of the increased likelihood of scratching the discs in the latter arrangement.
Disc one contains the main feature and the two commentaries with the menu using parts of the front titles of the film. There are two commentaries, 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 Disc two 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.
Also on the second disc is 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. The new extra of an interview of an interview with production manager Ron Bozman is not included on the Blu-ray, but is here. Bozman explains how he met Hooper first as an actor and got involved with TCM. He explains that many of the cast and crew carried out a couple of jobs on the project with himself being AD for a lot of it, and he mentions the difficulties with receiving their share of the film's box office. The out-takes from the Shocking Truth conclude the disc.
Flesh Wounds begins disc three, it 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.
This is then followed by two interviews not on the Dark Sky release. First up is Tobe Hooper saying that the film represented how he saw America at the time, and the family as an analogy for families generally. Kim Henkel is interviewed next and both of these pieces seem to be longer footage from Gregory's documentary. The TV spots and trailers are put on one five minute reel and the radio spots are included as a one minute reel, and the final filmed extra is a compilation of all the deleted, alternative and blooper footage that appeared as two separate extras on the Blu-ray. Two picture galleries complete the disc with Making Grandpa being a record of the make-up required to create the family patriarch and almost 70 stills, photographs and lobby cards make up the second gallery which seems to include material not on the Blu-ray release.
Rejoice if you can't do Blu-ray as this is a comprehensive release packed with even more extras than the Dark Sky option. For the film itself, the transfer is very impressive and if you don't own this disc already or are a completist then this region free option represents good value for a great film.