Review Date: August 11, 2006
Released by: Dark Sky Films
Release date: 9/26/2006
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
When I was thirteen or so, and finally brave enough to start watching horror movies, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was naturally one of the first one’s I sought out. I saw it first through a worn and torn Vestron VHS from the local video shop. Only about the first half was watchable, with the second half degrading into a black haze of grain and scanlines. My second exposure was when I first bought into DVD in 1999, when the Pioneer special edition ran upwards of fifty dollars. I bought it and loved it, finally able to make sense of the hallucinating third act of the film. This release came at a time when similar undisputed classics like Night of the Living Dead¸ Halloween and The Evil Dead were being given lavish restoration and revealing new transfers on the new medium of DVD.
That was 7 years ago. DVD has now been surpassed by HD-DVD and the iconic Elite and Pioneer releases from the past have been replaced by Night of the Living Dead: Millenium Edition, Halloween: 25th Anniversary Edition, and The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead Edition. Suddenly, that non-anamorphic laserdisc port of Tobe Hooper’s classic doesn’t quite stack up by comparison any longer. Naturally, Dark Sky’s new ultimate edition release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre falls on yet another milestone in my film viewing experience: it will be the first film I watch on my first HDTV. With reference quality new releases like Revenge of the Sith and The Matrix Revolutions pushing DVD to its crispest heights, I elect to pop in a grungy old 16mm classic instead to test the depths of my 50” Sony SXRD. There’s no question this new release will surpass the old one, but how does it hold up compared to today’s slate of remastered DVDs? Join me as I carve into this classic, bit by bit.
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.
There was talk when the original DVD was released that the film couldn’t and shouldn’t look much better than it did. It was painstakingly restored, and considering the elements – 16mm and poorly stored, it could only look as good as the stock it was shot on. Anything sharper or cleaner, purists argued, would go against the grainy intent of the original film. Well, not only does this new transfer look cleaner, sharper and more vivid, but it also somehow manages to seem more in tune with the grit of its original theatrical exhibition. The original release was ridden with artifacts and a lack of detail thanks to cramming the film on a supplement laden single-layer disc. This new release of the original film has the short 84-minute feature on its own disc entirely, and the results are breathtaking.
What will be noticeable immediately will be the vivacity of the colors on the new disc compared with the old. The greens of the trees that overhang the family’s house and the blues in those foreboding first act driving shots look incredible. Reds are a huge deal better than the previous Pioneer release also, which had reds that looked more like rusty browns. The picture is a deal brighter too, which is welcomed considering how dark some of those later chase scenes in the woods and outside the house get. The extra brightness brings out the grain a bit more, but this is 16mm so that’s expected. The best part is the sharpness, with everything just containing so much more detail and clarity. Sally’s facial reactions in the van ride are now clearly visible where they used to be blurred and muddled before.
Instead of this sharpening making the picture look too clean or less gritty, it actually enhances it by really bringing out the quality of the 16mm film stock. The old release had a blur and pixilation that made it look digital rather than film. Film has more of a grain structure, and this new release brings it out with real accuracy. There have been some great restorations in the past, but considering the age and type of the source material, Dark Sky really could have done little better. This looks like a 16mm print newly minted from the lab, not some grindhouse movie that has made its rounds in drive-ins for over 30 years.
Less glowing is my review for the sound. Newly remixed 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks were advertised, but neither sound any better or worse than the 2.0 track found on the original Pioneer DVD. There is little directionality at all, save for Leatherface’s final chainsaw dance which whizzes through the front left and right speakers. Otherwise, it is more or less a glorified mono track, which is also included for purists. Considering how jarring some of the sound effects and the overall sound design in the film are, I was expecting a whole lot more from the sound department here. Still, it sounds good and clean, which I guess is praise enough considering the age of the film, but still, when a new 5.1 track is advertised, you’d think it would at least be more effective than the 2.0. It isn’t, but hey, we should all probably be watching this in mono anyway.
Thought you knew a lot about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Wait until you get through the six hours of supplemental material, which includes two commentaries, two feature-length documentaries, and a handful of other little video-based supplements. The first disc contains the commentaries as well as some trailers and TV spots for the film and other Dark Sky product. The trailers and the Hooper commentary we’ve seen before in the previous 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, this really 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. There have been a few releases with more discs or extras than this release, but very few have ever been as satisfying.
The only film in history to be unanimously on gorehounds’ top ten lists and in the Museum of Modern Art, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre cuts with a blade all its own. Still sharp after all these years, it is one of the true classics of horror and of cinema in general. It should be, and probably already is, in everyone’s collection, and Dark Sky’s new release is undoubtedly the one to have. The picture restoration is phenomenal, and the extras, both old and new, have more depth than virtually any other catalogue special edition on the market. Headcheese has been made of this film in the past, but now the film will find itself on yet another top ten list this year: as the best DVD release of 2006.
Movie - A
Image Quality - A
Sound - B-
Supplements - A
- Running time - 1 hour and 24 minutes
- Not Rated
- 2 Discs
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Dolby Surround 2.0
- English mono
- English subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Steelbook Packaging
- Feature-length commentary with actors Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danzinger, and art director Robert A. Burns
- Feature-length commentary with director Tobe Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, and actor Gunnar Hansen
- Theatrical Trailers & TV and Radio Spots
- "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth"
- "Flesh Wounds"
- A Tour of the TCSM house with Gunnar Hansen
- Deleted Scenes and Outtakes
- Blooper Reel
- "The Shocking Truth" Outtakes
- Still Gallery