Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The
There are very few DVD releases that I’d consider perfect. Even some of my favorites, like the Halloween: Limited Edition, Evil Dead: Ultimate Edition and Suspiria: Limited Edition, have glaring omissions, be it the Criterion commentary, Within the Woods, or original audio. Despite the eleven year age of the format, I’ve only seen a handful of releases that I’d dub absolutely perfect. Anchor Bay’s Dawn of the Dead is one of them, Grindhouse’s The Beyond is another. On a good day I might even say Code Red’s Don’t Go in the Woods. The one I’d consider, at this point, the absolute best though, is Dark Sky’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Ultimate Edition. Bar none the best restoration I’ve ever seen on the format, and packed with hours upon hours of diverse extras that literally leave no questions unanswered. Well, apparently it wasn’t perfect. We have a new format now, and once again The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is seeing release, but this time in high definition and with even more extras. Has the perfect DVD become even more perfect on Blu-ray?
What I’d give to have the naivety where a synopsis of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre actually served me purpose. For those experiencing the film for the first time though, here’s the rundown: Six hippies, crammed into a green panel van, drive through the deep Texan south to visit an old gravesite. Therein used to lie the grandfather of the blonde and beautiful Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her invalid brother Franklin (Pat Partain). There has been a recent slew of grave robbings however, so Sally, her brother, her boyfriend and another horny couple all go south to pay their respects. Before they make it there, they run into a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who gives them a little taste of how their night is to play out. Franklin talks to him about slaughterhouses, and the hitchhiker complains about the new methods of slaughtering cows, how the new mechanical way has put many out of jobs, but more importantly, they used to “die better” the old fashioned way. After the hitchhiker gets excited and cuts Franklin with an old flip razor, he is kicked out of the van, his arms flailing savagely.
The group continue on their way, hoping to coast on fumes to the next big gas station. They end up running out prematurely, but the station they stop at won’t have fuel until later on in the night. Although still a little spooked from the previous events, the group, under Franklin’s leadership, decide to visit the old Hardesty house while they wait. While Sally and Franklin catch up on old times, Pam and Kirk decide to skinny dip in a dugout not far off. When they get there the water has dried up (much like the economy), but they see an old house that could potentially lend them some gas. Kirk goes inside first, where he is violently clubbed by a portly man in a mask of human flesh. Pam, looking for Kirk, soon follows, and becomes victim number two to Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).
After boyfriend Jerry is also made into meat, Sally and Franklin are forced to leave the van and find out just what has happened to their friends. They shuffle through the dark woods, and finally Franklin has an encounter with the weapon of the title. Sally is left alone, where she will endure a night of torture. The meat she will eat will not be from a cow, and the family she will meet will be as far removed from a Norman Rockwell painting as is physically imaginable. Leatherface, the hitchhiker, the cook and their 150 year old grandfather will show Sally just what they mean when they say: “The Saw is Family”.
Before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there had been other low budget masterpieces, namely Night of the Living Dead and The Last House on the Left, but Chainsaw was the first where every element, from the production design to the cinematography, was perfection. Night of the Living Dead had canned music and some uninspiring cinematography, The Last House on the Left suffered from a lack of coverage and narrative clarity. Pick out any aspect of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre though, and it is likely to be revered as some of the best of the genre.
Robert A. Burns’s art design: Never have bones and entrails come so close to approaching art as couches, chandeliers and lamp shades are all given a bizarre bodily décor underpinning the fragility of the flesh.
Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper’s sound design: There isn’t much of a score here, but the flashing sounds on black at the beginning and the random moments of jarring grinds laced into the film are some of the most identifiable sounds in the horror lexicon.
Daniel Pearl’s cinematography: Summed up basically by his iconic under-the-swing dolly shot, Pearl’s photography captures the clash of the ass-busting hippie strut come under fire by the rigidity of an old house with even older family values.
The acting: With Hansen’s lumbering and screaming, Neal’s ticks and tocks, and Siedow’s condescending broom pokes, you’d swear the chainsaw family were all murderer’s in real life.
Dorthy Pearl and W. E. Barnes’ make-up: The grandfather’s pale, wrinkly face seems too real to be a mould, just like the hitchhiker’s facial aberrations and Leatherface’s teeth seem culled from a southern wasteland.
Hooper and Kim Henkel’s script: So quick and succinct you almost overlook the potent social commentary and the deconstruction of what family, hippies, life and death all meant to post-Vietnam society.
And of course, Hooper’s direction: A masterwork of tension and foreboding, it boldly holds on black and silence as much as it does on death and action.
There are a few horror films I enjoy more than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween¸ Shivers, The Beyond, but there are none that achieve such an amazing demonstration of greatness in every department. Every bit of Chainsaw is cut from greatness that it is still tough to believe that everyone involved in the film, from the sound to the direction, were all cutting their teeth for the very first time. Even Halloween had the benefit of veteran acting to its disposal. Texas Chain Saw is a Texan brew so pure and so potent that no matter when or where you watch it, now, ten years from now, at home, at the museum of modern art, it will always deliver on the “terrifying nightmare” of its tagline. It is a masterpiece done on first attempt; something filmmakers work their life for and never achieve, quietly thawed on a hot summer in 1973. The world was never the same after Vietnam, like the horror film never the same after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Well, the best DVD restoration just got better. Encoded in VC1 1080p, this improves once further on the exemplary transfer used on the DVD. I mentioned in my DVD review how the grain structure, and there’s a lot of it since it originates on 16mm, looked very natural on the new DVD. Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually these grainier films that benefit most from restorations and higher bitrates, because there is so much textured grain movement on screen, without the bandwidth, it could become blocky artifacts very quickly. That was the case in the old Elite release, and the Dark Sky DVD finally made it feel like film. This Blu-ray, though, makes it feel like reality.
I was concerned that the prevalence of grain would deaden that “window” effect that Blu-ray can have, where it looks like the surroundings aren’t just on the screen, but inside of it in a three dimensional space. Faces of Death was a film where, despite the quality of the transfer, the source material was just too patchwork to really ever come across as life-like. Here though, it’s like stepping back into 1974. Granted, there are times when the image is still occasionally soft, or subjects are underexposed, which ruins the effect, but more often than not, it feels like you are actually there. Even the dark night scenes, which have always suffered worst of all, look at times like they have real depth. Daniel Pearl did some groundbreaking work with his cinematography, and with every resolution bump that each new medium offers, the genius of his work makes itself more apparent. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre looks good. Damn good.
Liberated are the reds, which were always trouble in NTSC, and when it comes to horror, and this film in particular with Leatherface’s bright red freezer room and Teri McMinn’s bright red butt huggers, red is always the most important. There were instances in the solid reds on the DVD where you could tell there was color compensation and slight smearing. In HD though, that problem is gone and man, do these 16mm colors look vivid. Basically, this transfer is everything you love about the Ultimate Edition DVD, but with greater color detail, increased contrast latitude, finer grain, sharper detail and that all important 3D effect. Honestly, how can this get any better?
Like the DVD, three sound options are presented: a 5.1 remix, a 2.0 stereo remix, and the original mono restored. The only real difference are in the codecs, with the 5.1 mix on the Blu-ray in DTS versus the Dolby Digital on the DVD, and the 2.0 track PCM Lossless on Blu and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo on the DVD. It doesn’t really matter though, because honestly they all sound more or less like mono anyway. There are a few nice bits of directionality, like when Leatherface whizzes around his chainsaw at the end of the film, but really, the sound stays mostly centered throughout. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has fantastic ambience throughout, and with all the stingers and surprises from outside of the frame, this really could have made for an amazing surround track. As it is though, it’s a crisp, clean and hiss free stereo track masquerading as something more. The mono track sounds fabulously cleaned up, and that’s all we should care about. All the extra speakers and codecs here are just a bunch of filler that doesn’t really add up to much.
Considering how most catalog Blu-ray discs these days are barebones, it’s refreshing to see that every single extra, right down to the still gallery, has been ported over from the Dark Sky DVD release. What’s better, though, is a Blu-ray exclusive 17-minute interview with the original lady to be hung on the meathook, Teri McMinn. She’s quiet but personal in this typically well produced Red Shirt Pictures extra, never afraid to say her opinion good or bad. She blushes a bit when talking about the film’s iconic low-angle dolly with her behind, saying how she couldn’t watch the film for years because of that shot. She also talks about how the film negatively affected her career, and how in the film she and her boyfriend were engaged. Filled with anecdotes, this is yet another perspective into the infinitely intriguing and in-depth history of this horror masterpiece.
Before we look back over all the original extras (and there are a lot of them), the menu structure on this new Blu-ray deserves mention. The opening menu is striking, perhaps a bit too jarring when it comes to sound and shake, but never the less a fitting presentation. Better is the pop-up menu during the film, which shows up as a giant chainsaw and navigates perfectly. All the standard definition extras even have a simple pop-up menu, proving once again that Dark Sky will go right down to the nitty gritty to make a quality disc.
So what was on the original DVD? Try six hours of supplemental material, which includes two commentaries, two feature-length documentaries, and a handful of other little video-based supplements. The trailers and the Hooper commentary we’ve seen before in the previous Elite DVD release, but the new commentary with stars Marilyn Burns, Paul Partain, Allan Danziger, make-up and set decorator Robert A. Burns and moderator David Gregory. Although so much of the film has been documented at festivals and on the two lengthy documentaries on the second disc, they still manage to cull together an entertaining track that still has a number of new and interesting information. Partain and Burns are both encyclopedias on the film and its history, and every little tidbit that Gregory brings up usually gets a thorough answer. The whole track is tinged with a sad sense of nostalgia, since both Paul Partain and Robert A. Burns lost their lives to cancer not too long after its recording.
The second commentary is the same that was featured on the Elite release of the film, with Gunnar Hansen, Tobe Hooper and Daniel Pearl all present. The three are united for the first time since making the film, and all project an exuberance throughout, both to each other and the little film they made. It is an incredibly informative track, but laid back at the same time. Funny bits include Hooper talking about wanting to get the film a PG rating as well as Gunnar Hansen's regret the film's title was changed from the original "Leatherface". It's a great listen.
David Gregory’s feature-length “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth”, which has had a standalone release before, is included here and it paints an interesting portrait of the film. Since it has been indoctrinated as such a classic it is rare to find dirt on Hooper’s film, but Gregory exposes the darker underbelly surrounding the film, how much of it was exploited, like the other big breakout early-70s Vietnam allegory Deep Throat, by corrupt investors. The 75-minute film benefits also from its assembly of such a large portion of the cast and crew. The whole Family is featured, with memorable bits with Edwin Neal and Jim Seidow, clearly close to death. The doc covers the first film in depth, but also covers the sequels with surprising intimacy. The documentary was done in 2000, although much of it looks far older, but still holds up as an involving and academic look at the legacy of the saw.
The most surprising additive to this new release is the “Flesh Wounds” featurette, which seems slight on the packaging and menu screen, but in fact holds its own as the best extra in the set. It runs a robust 70-minutes and features lengthy interviews from six different people, most of which were not prominent on “The Shocking Truth”. Daniel Pearl speaks of his career and breaks down some of his classic shots in the film, ending with comparisons to his work on the remake. The official TCM fan club founder, Tim Harden, talks of the mythology of the old house, which is something that would further be fleshed out in the next featurette. W. E. Barnes talks of being a plastic surgeon and how he had to do the opposite for making Grandpa. Edwin Neal lets a screw loose as he does impressions and reflects goofily on the making-of. Gunnar Hansen, the most featured on this set, again talks about the film, but offers some tidbits not yet explored. There’s a memoriam for Seidow and Partain and some interviews with various convention heads. Although the banjo music tends to grate, what everyone has to say is so welcomed and overdue, that like “The Shocking Truth” you’ll be unable to turn it off. Directed by former Anchor Bay head, Michael Felsher, this doc proves that Felsher should have a promising career behind making extras rather than marketing them.
The deleted scenes from the original release are ported over here, although this time they are presented in a 25-minute continuous reel. There is some noteworthy footage here not in the film, including outtakes of rotting cadavers and an alternate version of the armadillo shot, this time done with a dead dog. Some footage is also surprisingly amateur, considering how accomplished the actual film looks. It is interesting to see that even a masterpiece like Chainsaw was culled from imperfections. There is a 2-and-a-half minute blooper reel as well, with some humorous moments of Seidow attacking Hansen for missing a line or Franklin falling over in his chair. Bloopers from “The Shocking Truth” are also included, some of which are technical snafus and other just mumblings and stumblings.
An 8-minute tour of the original house is done by Gunnar Hansen, and although the camera focuses more on Hansen talking than showcasing the house, it is still The second disc is rounded off with a couple galleries. The first is a still gallery with a number of pictures from promotional items and behind-the-scenes snaps. The other is misleadingly called “W.E. Barnes Presents ‘Making Grandpa’” and really is just a gallery documenting how Grandpa’s makeup was applied, from start to finished product.
After two commentaries, two documentaries, a plethora of excised footage, a tour of the legendary house and the original promotional material, and now finally an interview with Teri McMinn this really, truly is the last word on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Not only are there so many different kinds of extras, but they all come from so many different voices involved in the film that there really is nothing left uncovered. Who knew a little Blu-ray disc could house so much love?
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that perfect horror film that demands a place in every film lover’s collection. It’s already in the Museum of Modern Art, so what’s stopping you? There certainly wasn’t anything wrong with the previous DVD. By all accounts, it was perfect. This Blu-ray, though, makes everything even more perfect. Perfecter, even. The added resolution and color space surprisingly make the film almost three dimensional at times…quite the feat for a grindhouse flick shot on 16mm. The audio is about the same as the previous disc – a super on channel mono restoration that just happens to exist in a DTS six channel sound space. The extras, with the additional 17-minute interview with Teri McMinn, are now, without a doubt more comprehensive and essential than just about any other home format release. The best DVD release has just now become the best Blu-ray release. Even if the format is still young, it’s going to take companies a long time to top Dark Sky’s work here on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!
Again, as with the ANOES review, I believe, the colors look washed out and the contrast looks shallow. Perhaps this is how they chose to grade it, but if I had to pick a winner based on those criteria, I'd say the SD DVD looks better.
Look at the red wall in the close-up of Leatherface and then the center back door in the shot of the family at the table. The Blu-ray has a realistic wall texture in the Leatherface shot, whereas the DVD is filled with chunky blocks of red. In the DVD of the other snap, you can't even tell there is a door there, just a black blob of nothing. In the Blu-ray, though, the detail is there to give the room an added depth. Same thing with the shot of Leatherface pulling in Teri McMinn, the Blu-ray retains way more picture information inside the doorway. Really, though, it's such a difference in format that the snaps can't just be taken at face value.
Couldn't agree more, rhett.
The contrast on your actual TV will look much better. But this is the way films look. You're just used to NTSC, which always made movies look too dark. The blu-ray has much more depth, and restores the film's contrast.
I have both discs, and I must say the Blu-Ray is pretty friggin' amazing in terms of picture quality. Blows away the regular DVD release. Nice review Rhett.
even though i don't even own a blu-ray player...i am tempted, very tempted by this release!
i want it!! for this also: Blu-ray exclusive: Interview with actor Teri McMinn
lucky blu-ray owners!
I just got this in the mail today, It's awesome!!
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