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Of all the excessive horror films of the 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is probably the most worthy and artistic. Although constructed to bring out audiences looking for transgressive, gut-wrenching horror, it demonstrates considerable restraint, generating almost an hour of creeping dread without resorting to a single cliché. It's a quality film that faces its subject matter -- latent human savagery -- square in the eye. The film has been over-analyzed for decades, but the extra content addresses most of the key questions: Who made this picture? How horrible was the filming? Where did the idea come from?
Dark Sky's 2-Disc Ultimate Edition came out almost two years ago to the day; collectors who already have multiple copies of Tobe Hooper's horror classic will be interested in discovering what the film gains in the Blu-ray format. The answer is that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre looks darn good, almost too good to have been filmed on 16mm Eastman reversal film.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's horribly expressive opening links portentous narration to half-seen glimpses of a gory disinterred corpse, followed by a sickening reverse tracking shot on a profane sight: In the dawn light, we see a rotting corpse wired to a gravestone. Someone is opening graves and playing ghastly games. After that opening, everything that happens to our college-age cast is a tense waiting game. The basically nice kids in the van are tolerant toward Sally's somewhat obnoxious wheelchair-bound brother Franklin and are ill prepared to deal with the hitchhiker's irrational, demented behavior. The guy has a mental problem and is obsessed with cutting things -- like his own hand. With this kind of build-up, anything might happen. Audiences in 1974 were well aware of the film's ominous tagline: "Who will survive ... and what will be left of them?"
The protagonists in most haunted house movies lose our sympathy when they react to a blatantly menacing environment by ignoring obvious threats and wandering alone into dark corners. The same basic gag has been in everything from silent spook comedies to the outer space movie Alien. In Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the kids have no reason to expect murderous maniacs. They are unaware of a lonely house's connection to the grave robbing. Harmless weirdos almost as twisted as The Hitchhiker are not that unusual. 1 And in rural Texas, knocking on a neighbor's door in the daytime is friendly behavior, not an invitation to bloody death.
The second half of Chain Saw is an unrelenting nightmare. Perhaps inspired by John Boorman's Deliverance, the teens run afoul of a degenerate family of ex-slaughterhouse workers living an insanely depraved existence playing Ed Gein games with pieces of people either dug up from the bone yards or plucked alive off the highway. The Hitchhiker did invite the kids back for dinner, after all.
Chain Saw can be distinguished from other horror films of the time. It's part of the sudden wave of commercial viability for independent horror that followed George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which was still a big draw five years after it first appeared. Kids would flock to grisly midnight shows, especially ones bearing an aura of taboo transgression. Television was still dominated by inane shows like Family Affair, feel-happy pap that denied the reality of Vietnam. Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left is energized by rage against the complacent middle class, but outside a core of intensely sadistic scenes it's largely incompetent. Last House was a re-think of Bergman's violent art film The Virgin Spring and its follow-up The Hills Have Eyes affected a folk-fairy tale source, yet both were at heart transparently commercial. Then Halloween came along and reduced the scares to teen ghost-story nothingness. We just accept Michael Myers and his imitators for what they are. Their traumatic backstories are irrelevant.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is as commercial as any of its ilk but remains the superior production. The acting is faultless and Tobe Hooper's direction is frequently inspired. Pam's slow approach to the horror house has a dread factor equal to Alfred Hitchcock's. The sense of menace grows with every reveal of nasty little clues. Mobiles made of animal bones and a human tooth -- with flesh still on it -- leave us in no doubt that things are going to get ... intense.
Shocking as it is, when the horror comes it's fast and mostly free of blood and gore. Our focus is on the experience of the terrorized Sally and the agonized Pam. The masked maniac Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is the first of the implacable mad killers in these post-Vietnam horror films. He's a mindless thug that can't be reasoned with and the center of a pack of deviates that survives only because it is so removed from civilization. At one point one of the kids observes a horrid nest of crazed spiders in the corner of the abandoned house. They seem to represent the family of monsters, festering out of control just by being neglected and ignored.
By now the collected critical analysis of Chain Saw would probably fill several books. Screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (on the set of 1941) were vocal in their enthusiasm for Chain Saw and lobbied to interest director Steven Spielberg in Tobe Hooper. Zemeckis and Gale argued that Hooper's movie explained the end of the American Dream: with the closing of the frontier, the pioneers had no place to exercise their skills in conquering nature. Killing and eviscerating animals to survive had satisfied man's feral needs. Modern life deprives 'atavistic frontiersmen' of basic savagery: The depraved bounty hunters in The Wild Bunch wade into a street littered with bloody corpses, and one shouts in glee, "This is better than a Hog Killin'!"
Zemeckis and Gale's argued that when corporate consolidation took away hundreds of thousands of jobs, Middle Americans had to take their dreams elsewhere. The days of a paycheck and a new car every five years were over, and some of the dispossessed turned to the Bible or to survivalist anti-government movements. Chain Saw shows one feral family that has regressed to practicing the pioneer skills it knows best: Living off the Land. With Ed Gein as a precedent, there's nothing impossible about the story idea. Heck, in the general mood of alienation, mass murderers are coming from almost every background except the wealthy. 2
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has good filmic architecture in the sense that form follows function. There are no extraneous scenes, filler or sidebar diversions; the camera hones in on the events without a let-up. Considering that most of the second half is non-stop screaming, the movie is indeed relentless in its aims. Hooper eventually works his movie into a frenzy that makes us feel we're going mad along with poor Sally. She survives yet seems to suffer more than her unlucky friends and brother. When Hooper cuts to giant close ups of Sally's darting, blood-soaked eyes, they look like the frantic eyes of an animal in the slaughterhouse, completely overwhelmed by the experience of death.
The most frequent note about Hooper's film is that "so little is shown." Since we feel and identify with the agony of its every slaughtered victim, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still one of the most violent films ever made.
Dark Sky's Blu-ray gives The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a classy treatment. The new HD transfer is said to be made directly from the film's 16mm camera original, and it looks very clean. The remixed track highlights Hooper and Wayne Bell's remarkable audio design, with its interesting musical presences that meld with odd tones and soundtrack rumblings.
Most of the extras are repurposed from earlier DVD editions. Three actors and the art director are on one commentary track while the director, the cameraman and the actor playing Leatherface are on another. I sampled big pieces of each and both seem to cover interesting material; the participants sometimes argue over details blurred in memory. Blue Underground is the source for the comprehensive long form docu, Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth. The story related of the filming of Chain Saw is the familiar tale of woe. A group of young hopefuls practically kill themselves to make the movie, and then watch it take in millions of dollars for predatory distributors while their promised profit participation never surfaces. A few claimants later make some money from the defunct Bryanston Pictures, but most of the cash probably went to lawyers. A few of the key players can at least say that the movie helped them launch careers.
A second and newer docu, Flesh Wounds: Seven Stories of the Saw, finds some new details in the same material. The deleted scenes and outtakes back up some of the stories told by director Hooper; Gunnar Hansen takes us on a tour of the house used in the movie. Other menu items cover the expected bases of a full Special Edition: Stills, trailers, tv spots.
A blooper reel is followed by outttakes from The Shocking Truth. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a new featurette with reminiscences from "the girl on the hook", Teri McMinn.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. 1971. Staying my first summer in a rented UCLA frat-house room, I encountered a drugged-out young guy who was apparently sleeping behind the building. He once came to my door asking if he could borrow a shoe. He was holding one shoe that he'd peeled apart, as if looking for something. Fellow film student Randy Cook stayed a week or so in the frat house too. He said he went down to make some tea late one night and found the guy in the kitchen grinning and chuckling to him self while pushing pieces of newspaper into a stove burner. When Randy asked what he was doing the guy grinned at him like Dwight Frye and hissed, "Fire ... that's my business." Randy went back home not soon after that. A couple of weeks later he wrote me a letter. On the envelope he'd sketched a cartoon showing this drooling maniac looking at a running, burning guy in the background -- Me. "Fire ... that's my business!"
2. I've probably said this before and I don't intend this to be an "I'm important" story. I heard that Zemeckis and Gale were screening Chain Saw for Spielberg on an October evening in 1978, and I just showed up, as I did to many 1941 meetings where I wasn't invited on the pretext of writing the making-of book. Tobe Hooper was there along with John Milius. The only print available was a slimy greenish copy that was missing the opening. The screening room was cold and Hooper's movie seemed almost intolerably unnerving. At the end it was obvious that the movie was some kind of horrible masterpiece. The group had a spirited discussion after the show that was probably the start of the Spielberg-Hooper deal that led to Poltergeist.
3 3. Some background information on Texas Chainsaw Massacre - TST from its director, David Gregory:
Hey Glenn. Although I'd done a couple of interviews for VHS releases in the UK prior, it was Texas Chainsaw Massacre - TST which really started my 'making of' career. It was one of the most fun projects I've ever done, not least because it was just me, my credit card, a couple of pals and a camcorder (and a uni-pod -- we couldn't even afford a tripod!) spending a few days in Texas and LA. My sister lived in Austin at the time so we crashed at her apartment. The project came about because Carl Daft (still my partner in Severin) and I had done a deal to buy the rights to Chain Saw in the UK while we were still both in college, he in London, me in Boston, MA. But the UK censor had told us that the film would not see a release in the UK anytime soon no matter how many cuts were made to it -- it had been forbidden on video since the 1984 video nasty scandal -- so we cancelled the deal. When that censor retired we re-approached the owners but another company had beaten us to the punch. Sure enough they brought it out and made a fortune. As it was my favorite film I was very disappointed and determined to do something Chain Saw related. We met Gunnar Hansen at a film fair, shot an interview with him and got to talking with him about other Chain Saw personnel who he was still in contact with. I decided I wanted to make a feature length doc about the making of the film.
Initially we still had no response from Tobe Hooper so the first cut of the film did not include him. I had a three-week editing turnaround between the shoot and our street date. At the end of the second week, in the middle of the night at the edit suite of the small video company I was working for in Nottingham, a fax came through with a handwritten note saying: "This is Tobe Hooper. Call me. 818 ..." And I did and he said okay! So I booked a flight back to LA the next day, shot the interview, then came back the next morning and completely restarted the editing of the doc! We missed our street date, but only by a few days.
We filmed Marilyn Burns in Jim Siedow's living room. I asked her if she could still scream like she did in the movie, and she replied she hadn't tried it in a while so wouldn't be willing to do it on camera. It was Siedow who insisted she try it on camera. She did it a few times for us too, which was cool as can be!
Texas Chainsaw Massacre - TST was originally released in the UK in 2000 without movie clips because we couldn't afford them. That's why we have a bunch of Super-8 footage in there of Texas. That shot of the fly-covered dead armadillo in the road was a tough one. We were told by the locals that dead armadillos just aren't seen any more so on our way from Austin to Houston (Siedow and Burns lived in Houston) we stopped at a number of very dodgy antique and taxidermy stores at the side of the road, most of which looked like they could have been in Chain Saw. The proprietors gave us some quite frightening looks when we asked if they had stuffed armadillos! None did. But as we were nearing Houston on particularly desolate stretch of highway, we all spotted the armadillo carcass at the side of the road and simultaneously squealed: "Armadillo!" The car spun around and the cameraman Nathan thoroughly risked his neck lying on the hot asphalt getting those shots. Just a few miles further down the road we found the disused drive-in, another thing we were told we would struggle to find in that part of Texas. Anyway, I believe we added the movie clips for a second version in 2002 along with the interviews with Dottie Pearl and Bill Mosely.
The whole thing was just so much fun: eating Texas BBQ for the first time with Paul Partain, visiting the locations with a guy called Tim Harden who runs texaschainsawmassare.net and most of all going to Bob (Robert R.) Burns' house in Seguin, Texas, home of the world's largest Pecan. Burns was such a fascinating character that we filmed with him for a couple of hours.
Very glad that a couple of years later I got to do that commentary track with Burns, Burns and Partain. It was recorded the day before Jim Siedow passed away, but it was even more poignant that both Burns and Partain would no longer be with us within a year of that recording.
Anyway, it was around this time that I became friendly with Bill Lustig. He saw what I was doing (he's in the doc and we shot the Hooper interview at his office on the Universal lot). As he was producing all of Anchor Bay's DVDs at that time he asked if I'd do a doc on The Wicker Man. I went out to LA to edit that and they were so pleased with it that they asked me to stay on in the US and become their 'making of' guy. And the rest... etc. Best, David
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