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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 it was positioned to bring out the curious 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.
Dark Sky's 2-Disc Ultimate Edition follows a number of releases on laserdisc and DVD; this may be the best-appointed edition yet. 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?
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre starts with a horribly expressive opening that 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 the extent of the grave robbing. Harmless weirdos almost as twisted as The Hitchhiker are not that unusual. 1 And in rural Texas, if you don't come across a No Trespassing sign, 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 see grisly midnight shows, especially ones bearing an aura of taboo transgression. The media was still dominated by fare 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 transparently commercial at heart. Then Halloween came along and reduced the scares to nothing more than teen ghost-story nothingness. We just accept Michael Myers and his imitators for what they are. Their traumatic back stories 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. The slow approach to the horror house has a dread factor equal to Alfred Hitchcock's. The sense of dread grows with every reveal of new 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. The screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (on the set of 1941) were vocal in their enthusiasm for Chain Saw and tried to interest director Steven Spielberg in Tobe Hooper. Zemeckis and Gale argued that Hooper's movie explained the end of the American Dream, that with the closing of the frontier, the pioneers had no place to exercise their skills in conquering nature. Killing and eviscerating animals to survive satisfied man's feral needs. The point is the denial 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 argument was that when corporate consolidation took away the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Middle Americans, they 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 regressed to doing what they knew best and combined it with pioneer skill #1: 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 gets into a frenzy that makes us feel we're going mad along with poor Sally, who survives yet seems to suffer more than her unlucky friends and brother. When Hooper cuts to giant close ups of Sally's darting, bloodshot eyes, they look like the panicked eyes of an animal in the slaughterhouse, completely overwhelmed by the experience of death.
Violence isn't in graphic detail alone, and 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 gives The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a classy treatment. After its quality renderings of less well-known pictures like The Flesh Eaters, the label moves up to the Special Edition niche frequented by boutique specialists like Anchor Bay, Blue Underground and Synapse. The enhanced transfer is clean and steady, allowing us to appreciate fine details in décor and shots in which heat waves make the horror house seem to shimmer in the Texas sun like a mirage. The remixed track highlights Hooper and Wayne Bell's remarkable audio track, with the interesting musical presences that meld with odd tones and soundtrack rumblings.
Several of the extras are repurposed from earlier editions. A commentary is from an old Elite presentation and Blue Underground is the source for the comprehensive longform docu. The story told of the filming of Chain Saw is the familiar tale of woe. A group of young hopeful professionals practically kill themselves to make the thing, 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.
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. The deleted scenes back up some of the stories told by director Hooper. Other menu items cover the expected bases of a full Special Edition: Stills, trailers, tv spots.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre rates:
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. Friend 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 himself 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.