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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

(1974) *** 1/2 R
83 min. Bryanston Distributing Company. Director: Tobe Hooper. Cast: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn.

People often misremember Rex Reed's review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, casually misquoting him as calling the film the scariest movie he had ever seen; in fact, he called it "the most horryifying picture I have ever seen," and it's the difference that defines the split in the film's audiences, whether they be casual moviegoers or film buffs. (To be fair, Reed also called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre "more frightening than Night of the Living Dead.")

Dated though it may be, and low-budget as it is, Tobe Hooper's seminal horror film can be scary, even deceptively so, as the director works divergent styles. Deliberately overooked forays into sick humor give way to unsettling suspense and, once the shoe drops, a skin-crawlingly claustrophobic mania. On the other hand, some "horrified" culture watchers identify The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—bookended as it is by Wes Craven's 1972 The Last House on the Left and 1977 The Hills Have Eyes—as instrumental in the bottomless degradation of mainstream horror cinema.

At every opportunity, Hooper emphatically and misleadingly claims that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a nearly bloodless film, and mocks the MPAA's wisdom in not granting his film a PG (the MPAA cited pervasive intensity). It's true that Hooper's film suggests more horror than it actually depicts, but the ol' chainsaw does spectacularly meet flesh twice on camera. The raw immediacy of the film's budget-dictated 16mm film stock and documentary-styled proximity of camera and subject elevate tongue-in-cheek schlock to moments of genuine terror. Nevertheless, the film's most famous shot remains DP Daniel Pearl's invention of a tracking shot beneath a yard swing and up to the looming principal setting, a historic, late-1800s house.

The horror within is a brain-damaged family with a disrupted legacy in the now-automated local slaughterhouse. Burned by society, they've beat a retreat into squalor and cannibalistic madness, emerging only when hapless trespassers serve themselves up as fresh meat. The larger-than-life performances of Gunnar Hansen (as the now-iconic simpleton Leatherface), Edwin Neal (the addled "Hitch-Hiker"), teenage John Dugan (heavily made-up as "Grandpa"), and the inimitable Jim Siedow ("Old Man") have fired the imaginations of generations of horror fans to fill in the horrible blanks.

Perhaps especially in the post-Psycho era, the often dimwitted, insufferable, or shrill victims tend to inspire less audience affection than the "you'll love to hate them" villains. Paul A. Partain turns in a one-of-a-kind performance as maddening, wheelchair-bound Franklin (an arch, implied reminder of Vietnam's unwelcome returnees), but it's Marilyn Burns who earns a top rank among scream queens for infusing the grueling role of Sally Hardesty with such utterly convincing terror.

Given its whiplash stylings, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre probably shouldn't work as well as it does, but the experimental soundtrack of industrial stingers and recklessly over-the-top humor balances with subtle satirical flourishes and the stripping away of much of horror's conscious artifice. In his laughing-outlaw way, Hooper pointed a new direction for horror cinema, but his implosive career and the over-stylized Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake testify that his mad genius was a swift lightning not easily trapped in bottles.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, 2.0, 1.0

Street date: 9/26/2006

Distributor: Dark Sky Films/MPI

Dark Sky Films is quickly building a reputation as a savior of offbeat horror classics. On the heels of a magnificent DVD edition of Magic, Dark Sky brings us a brand-new DVD "Ultimate Edition" of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Before you double and triple and quadruple dippers fire up your whirling weapons, know that Dark Sky's two-disc set makes fair claim to its ultimate handle with a brand-new, freshly scrubbed hi-def anamorphic transfer from the notoriously difficult 16mm elements and a battery of exhaustive extras.

The new transfer is undoubtedly the best the film has seen on home video. However, if the screening copy I received is representative, it's hardly flawless. At several points in the film, the generally excellent image blocks, or pixelates, harshly; though it's a relatively rare occurence, it's noticeable in real-time play (watch carefully, for example, as Franklin's wheelchair takes a dive into the underbrush early in the film). If not for this intermittent issue, the transfer would pass with flying colors. Happily, Dark Sky includes excellent Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital stereo, and original mono mixes.

Disc one also includes two trailers, three T.V. spots, and two radio spots, as well as two attentive screen-specific commentaries. On one, Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger and Robert A. Burns hazily reminisce with moderator Daniel Gregory (filmmaker of Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth, included on disc two). The second track is sharper and more revealing, with Gunnar Hansen, Daniel Pearl and Tobe Hooper covering nearly every aspect of the production.

Disc two is encyclopedic in its breadth—if it's not retold here, it's probably not worth retelling. Feature-length doc Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (1:13:45) provides a thorough and honest accounting of the film's context in horror history, casting, art direction, production (including the infamous twenty-six-hour shooting day), soundtrack, and notorious release (the Mafia-tied distributor contributed to slippery and disappointing profit-sharing among the producers, cast, and crew). Gregory also touches on the film's censorship and each of its problematic sequels, with dissenting opinions on the often-unfinished products.

The affectionate 2006 documentary "Flesh Wounds: Seven Stories of the Saw" (1:11:37) is also feature length, and presented in anamorphic widescreen. Six stories come courtesy of Pearl; Tim Harden (president of the official TCM fanclub), who tours the TCSM house and tells its history; "undiagnosed schizophrenic" Edwin Neal; Dr. W.E. Barnes, special make-up designer for "Grandpa"; promoters Ken Kish and Loyd Cryer, Tom Savini, and others on the convention circuit; and Hansen (who explains why he turned down a role in Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. The seventh "story" is an "In Memorium" [sic] segment for Partain, Jim Siedow, and Burns.

Also included on the bonus disc are "Deleted Scenes and Outtakes" (25:22), some soundless and with varying picture quality but of historical interest (one shot has commentary by Neal). "Gunnar Hansen's Chainsaw House Tour" (8:02) includes a bit of 1993 footage then Hansen's 2000 walk-through. There are some very interesting "Outtakes from The Shocking Truth" (7:40) and a short "Blooper Reel" (2:22) from TCSM. Rounding out the disc are an 82-shot gallery of the exhibit "Dr. W. E. Barnes Presents 'Making Grandpa'" and a 67-still gallery of promotional art, stills, candids, and the like.

Clearly, Texas Chainsaw Massacre fanatics will find this set impossible to resist, and those who have passed on earlier, shoddy editions have no excuse for not snapping up Dark Sky's version.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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