The Texas Chain Saw Massacre deserves its reputation. For grisliness, for nastiness. And for excellence. It’s a rare movie that not only lives up to its notoriety, but that still remains shocking and unsettling nearly 50 years after its creation.
The first feature film by Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was filmed over a hot Texas summer. in 1973. All of the dryness, the heat, the discomfort, and stink is on the screen. A group of teenagers go on a trip through Texas. They want to visit one of their grandparent’s old house. On the way they stop by the cemetery where the grandparents are laid. There are police all around. Several crypts had been raided and body parts stolen. Our eventual final girl (spoilers) Sally is relieved to find out her family’s plot is untouched.
But that’s just the beginning of the strangeness of their trip. On the way they pick up a hitchhiker, who first seems weird. Then crazy. Then, when he pulls out his straight razor and cuts Sally’s brother, wheelchair-bound Franklin, a complete menace. They get him out of the van, but they can’t get that far away. Gas is running low, and the nearest station is all out. They’ve got about enough to make it to the abandoned house, and then maybe back to the gas station.
The five kids, two couples and the hapless Franklin, aren’t so much drawn as characters as sketched. The other girl, Pam, is into astrology. Her boyfriend Kirk seems like the alpha of the group but he doesn’t push anyone around. Jerry, Sally’s guy, pokes at Franklin, but Franklin deserves it. He loudly resents his crippled status and everyone around him resents him. We don’t get any background, no hopes, wishes, or dreams, but just a sense of normalcy from them. They don’t have to say anything about it.
And when they meet the family next door, they don’t have to say anything about their background, either. The contrast is clear in the human skin mask Leatherface wears, and that his immediate reaction to encountering someone he doesn’t expect is to bash his head in with a hammer.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t build up suspense like a more traditional horror film. There’s no jump scares or POV shots that ratchet up the tension with clever camera work and editing. Instead, it builds up its atmosphere through disquieting detail and absolute relentlessness. When Pam stumbles into a room filled with bones, feathers, and furniture made from body parts, there’s no shocking sounds or jumps. The camera roves placidly from horror to horror, letting us take it in like she does. It doesn’t need movie trickery for this sick stuff make us feel sick.
There’s very little plot to the movie. Teenagers visit a house and are picked off one by one. The point isn’t the plot, it’s the meat grinder that these undeserving young people are thrown into. There’s a (kinda lame) theory about slasher movies that they’ve a social conservative bent: teenagers having sex are the ones that get killed. In this film, there’s no rhyme or reason to the murders, no lesson. No message. They came to the wrong place. The world punished them for existing.
What sets the cannibalistic villains of Texas Chain Saw apart from many other horror movie villains is the almost naïve casualness of their evil. In the famous “dinner” scene, where the family sits with our final girl, they’re giggling and fidgety. They’re irritating. They’re aren’t daunting or intimidating: they’re creepy yokel bullies, which makes them all the more menacing.
Without cinematic tricks, Tobe Hooper makes a naturalistic horror film that is all the more horrible for it. It’s not particularly bloody. The killings are horrific but not that graphic. They didn’t have the budget for complicated practical effects. What gives the film its immense and persistent power is the atmosphere of nastiness. Ugliness. Once the horror gets going (and the film is a slow burn, with none of the real horror taking place until about 40 minutes in) the most impressive bits aren’t the violence but the décor. Everywhere you look, there’s some new ugly detail. Chair arms made from human arms. A lightshade made from a stretched out human face. Without a big budget, and with very little gore, the film becomes a vision of some kind of hell.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a pretty film. It’s not meant to be. It was shot on 16 mm blown up to 35. There’s no way that process could not be grainy. Nothing would make this film look pristine on modern systems, nor would one want it to be. The grime is part of the film. Still, this 4K presentation is probably the most filmic the movie has looked on home video.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, thanks largely to its lurid title has become a kind of by word of extreme cinema. But extreme cinema tends to be cheap, gross-out exploitation. This film is not that. It’s a grimy, disturbing vision of a world gone to hell, where innocent youth can be expected to be destroyed for nothing other than existing. It’s grim, hellish, and always effective.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been released on 4K UHD by Dark Sky Films in a steelbook and standard release. Note that the release does not include a Blu-ray of the film. There is a Blu-ray disc with the copious extras. On the film disc, there are four commentaries: one with Tobe Hooper, Leatherface actor Gunnar Hansen, and cinematographer Daniel Pearl; one with production designer Robert Burns and actors Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, and Paul A. Partain; a solo track with Tobe Hooper; and a final track with Daniel Pearl, editor J. Larry Carroll, and sound recordist Ted Nicolaou.
There’s hours and hours of video extras, as well. Many of them have been previously released, but there’s one that’s brand new: “The Legacy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (83 min), a new retrospective documentary about the film and its impact; “Friedkin/Hooper: A Conversation about ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘” (54 min) between directors Tobe Hooper and William Friedkin. Archival extras include “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth” (73 min) another retrospective documentary; “Flesh Wounds: Seven Stories of the Saw” (72 min), a third documentary about the making of the film; “A Tour of the TCSM House with Gunnar Hansen” (8 min); “Off the Hook with Teri McMinn” (17 min); “The Business of Chain Saw: An Interview with Production Manager Ron Bozman” (17 min); “Grandpa’s Tales: An Interview with John Dugan” (16 min) who portrayed “Grandpa;” “Cutting Chain Saw: An Interview with Editor J. Larry Carroll” (11 min); Deleted Scenes & Outtakes (26 min), which are all silent due to missing audio; Blooper Reel (3 min); “Outtakes from “The Shocking Truth” (8 min); “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds: TCSM” (20 min); “Dr. W.E. Barnes Presents ‘Making Grandpa'” (3 min). There’s also a still gallery, trailers and radio spots.