The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) 40th Anniversary Edition DVD Review: The Best It’s Ever Been

I’ve seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre twice in my life now. The first was sometime in the 1990s, as I was watching a slew of horror movies with friends at the time. It was okay, nothing special, and certainly didn’t seem to warrant the hype surrounding it. I simply watched it and moved on.

The second viewing was of the new 40th Anniversary Edition a couple of days ago, and while my opinion remains that about two-thirds of the movie is cheesy, trite, and even at times boring, the last 15 or 20 minutes is still a serious head trip. This is the kind of movie that can get under your skin if you let it.

For those not familiar, the story centers around two groups of people. The story opens in a cemetery in Texas that has been recently vandalized by grave robbers seeking body parts, not traditional valuables. A group of five teenagers travel to the area to verify whether their grandfather’s grave is among those vandalized. Afterwards, they pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be not entirely right in the head. After the hitcher attacks one of the group members, they throw him out of their van and speed away to continue searching for an old family home in the area.

Upon finally finding the home but no one in it, a couple of the kids head to the house next door by a country mile. When they don’t return, the third goes looking for the first two. When he doesn’t return, the last two kids go out searching. Only one of them makes it out alive.

This is where the second group comes into play. We’ve got a deranged family of grave-robbing cannibals that like to kill passersby, cook and eat their bodies, and use their bones to build trinkets and furniture. Some of the skin goes toward making masks, lampshades, seat covers, you name it. By the time you meet the whole family (father, two kids, and what appear to be the father’s deceased parents kept in a room upstairs), things have gone kind of insane and move fast enough that you don’t stop to consider the nuances and personality quirks of the family members.

I didn’t realize how much I’d breezed over until I started watching the bevy of special features, documentaries, behind-the-scenes bits, fan analysis, interviews, deleted scenes, outtakes, blooper reel, and more packed into the two-disc set. The actor who played Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) went to a home for the mentally disabled to watch how people communicate non-verbally before donning the iconic mask of his character. Behind the mask, it’s impossible to convey facial expressions, and since Leatherface never really speaks beyond yelling and groaning, Gunnar had his work cut out for him. Apparently, after spending a month at the facility, the staff could no longer tell whether he was a visitor or a patient.

There’s often something to be said for the hype surrounding a movie being directly related to when it comes out and the evolution of movies up to that point in time. Having watched TCSM after seeing Sleepaway Camp, the Friday the 13th movies, the Halloween movies, the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Critters, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Se7en, and countless other newer horror flicks, this seemed pretty by-the-books to me. However, at the time it was released, scary movies were primarily based on ghosts or aliens or monsters or some otherworldly force. Nobody had dared make a movie about people doing horrific things to one another. In walks Tobe Hooper with the idea for TCSM, based off the real-life crimes of Ed Gein in the 1950s. The cast and crew knew they were doing something different. Curious audiences settled in for the 83-minute ride, and film history was made. Looking the other direction through the lens of time, it now becomes apparent the influence that this movie had on scores of horror flicks that came after it, and how many of them wouldn’t even exist if not for the ground broken those steamy summer days shooting outside Austin, TX back in the early 1970s.

Some other features delve into the current-day status of the sets from the movie, how the horror house has been relocated and turned into a real working restaurant that serves *gulp* sausage, steak, and barbecue. There are four feature commentary tracks including the likes of writer/producer/director Tobe Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, production designer Robert Burns, editor J. Larry Carroll, sound recordist Ted Nicolaou, actors Gunnar Hansen, Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A Partain. The new 4k picture scan and 7.1 audio looks and sounds good. There’s still some grain to the picture quality but almost no artifacts, and the audio is clear as a bell. This is a definite upgrade from the original mono source material. Some of the swooping around of the chainsaw really has some good surround sound tied to it.

If you’re a fan, go buy this immediately. If you’re into horror but have never seen this industry-shaping romp, check it out. If you’re on the fence but a little squeamish, this lacks much of the stomach-churning graphic gore modern horror movies and the TCSM remakes are known for — it’s more implied violence than literal.

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Mark Buckingham

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