|Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The (Special Edition) (1974)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 14 October 2003|
When this film first released, it took almost everyone who saw it by surprise. First, that anyone would have the sheer balls to give a movie a title this blatant. Secondly, by what the title promised -- gouts of blood, living victims dismembered by a roaring chainsaw, that sort of thing. Third, by the fact that it got favorable reviews. And finally, by discovering that it was NOT particularly gory.
But it was disturbing, haunting and shocking, not like any other movie ever made. The current remake, which slightly alters the title to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (big difference, right?), does wrong almost everything the first movie did right -- except that it's even more relentless. But it is edited in the current music-video style with brief cuts of blurred, hard-to-decipher shots, and does not allow the deep sigh of relief provided by the end of the first film.
I first saw "TCM" at a matinee on Hollywood Boulevard. A few rows in front of me a guy leaned back in his seat, put his feet on the seat in front of him, and chuckled, waiting for what he thought would be a horror movie he could laugh at. But when the hitchhiker slashed the guy in the wheelchair, he stopped laughing. When Leatherface caved in the skull of the first on-screen victim, the guy in front of me sat up straight. And when Leatherface hung the girl on the meathook, the guy walked out, one thought in his mind: "You win."
Tobe Hooper made the film in a sweltering Texas summer, shooting at great speed on a low budget, but also with a longer schedule than most similar Hollywood-made films enjoyed. Everything was crammed together -- the house most of it was shot in was actually inhabited by a real family all during production -- and there was one intense, insane period when they shot for 27 hours straight. This was the dinner scene, with rotting chunks of meat all over the place.
But the result was vivid and distinctive, one of the landmark horror movies of the last third of the twentieth century. Together with "Halloween," "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th," it kicked off a wave of explicitly violent tales of young people stalked by mad killers who pick them off one by one, with everything leading to an especially intense climax. All four films generated several sequels; the most recent was "Freddy vs. Jason," released this year, which combined the "Nightmare" and "Friday" series. That more expensive (but definitely not better) remake of "TCM" was also released this year. Both movies unexpectedly cleaned up at the boxoffice, so in terms of horror movies, now we probably have to live through the seventies and eighties again with better effects.
People over 18 will most likely think the followups don't work as well as the originals, but 'tis ever thus with horror movies. The first big wave was in the early 1930s, the second in the early 1940s, then the late 50s, the early 70s and so forth. And with each new wave, fans of the earlier wave cluck their tongues and shake their heads -- this stuff isn't as good as it was when I was a kid. Tough -- they're not made for you, but for the current audience. (Unlike in the earlier waves, about half the current audience for these films is female.)
It is a well-crafted attempt to scare the bejabbers out of you. There's something extremely strange about the whole enterprise, strange in a way that's hard to pinpoint. Maybe it's those solar prominences in the credits -- did the sun cause all this mayhem? The new TCM is shot in harsh, metallic colors -- it's not taking place in any world we have ever known, which puts all its horrors a little further way than the original did. Tobe Hooper's TCM takes place in the recognizable real world outside your front door, but there's more to it than that, too.
Five young people are looking for the estate inherited by Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul Partain). They're accompanied by Sally's boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger), his pal Kirk (William Vail) and his girlfriend Pam (Teri McMinn). Narration (by John Larroquette) tells us that strange things have been happening, bodies stolen from cemeteries, some being arranged into bizarre sculptures. (This doesn't really play a role in what follows, though there is a direct link.) They pick up a bizarre, scary hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who abruptly turns violent -- he slices both himself and Franklin before he's tossed out.
They get directions from Sawyer (Jim Siedow), an old man at a combination gas station/barbecue stand, and find the rundown house. But when Kirk and Pam wander off to see what's nearby, they're both killed by a big man (Gunnar Hansen) wearing a mask of human skin, and who frequently wields a chain saw. The house where he and his family lived is decorated with feathers, human bones, tanned limbs, lampshades made of human skin, and animal bones by the hundreds. It's one of the creepiest, most disturbing sets ever built, and was the work of the enterprising Robert Burns.
One by one, the newcomers are killed, leaving only a shrieking Sally to face the truth: they've run into a family of murderous cannibals, including both the bizarre hitchhiker and the old man from the barbecue stand.
The titles proclaim that this is a true story, but it was really based on Ed Gein, the Wisconsin ghoul whose proclivities were the basis for several other movies, notably "Psycho." Nonetheless, a lot of people seem to believe that TCM is the next thing to a documentary -- and it does indeed have some of the loose, improvisational feel of a real documentary, which adds to the horror.
The script is by Hooper and Kim Henkel; it's a simple, direct narrative, with the real imagination revealing itself in the characters and the incidents. Franklin may be the most obnoxious paraplegic in movie history; he's rude, bossy and whiny, his handicap giving him a kind of power over the others. The rest are essentially normal people of their time; Pam is into astrology, and they all clearly love to party. (Not so clearly as in the crude remake.)
But it's in the depiction of the bizarre family that the movie makes its most indelible impression. Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow and Gunnar Hanson give amazingly realistic performances, from Neal's grinning, giggling, birthmarked madman through Siedow, who seems reasonable at first, but soon reveals himself as an authentic, card-carrying fiend, we see the results of probable incest. But it's in the hulking, energetic murderer Leatherface, childlike but deadly, that the movie finds its most iconic expression of horror. No other movie had presented a character like this; he kills without a moment's notice, but also without any significant emotion beyond a kind of brutal excitement. He doesn't recognize danger -- he's the most dangerous individual he's ever known -- not even at the end, when we last see him dancing in the sunset with his roaring, smoking chainsaw.
The picture was so much better made than anyone expected that it instantly became a legend; none of the sequels nor the remake approach the first film in realism and imagination. Tobe Hooper has never been able to fully emerge from the shadow of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre;" his career has been very uneven, and at times he's been badly mistreated by Hollywood. But he's never given up; he did a good episode of the TV miniseries "Taken," for example.
Few of the rest of the cast and crew have been able to escape the overhanging weight of TCM; photographer Daniel Pearl is still working -- in fact, he photographed the remake. The crew member who's achieved the greatest success probably did so more despite TCM than because of it: production manager Ron Bozman rose through the ranks, pausing a while as an assistant director, then became a producer. Among his credits: "Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia," "Changing Lanes" and the current "The Human Stain."
"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" has been restored for this new DVD release; someone went back to the original tapes and prepared them for stereo -- you have your choice of the newly-engineered stereo track or the original mono track. But actually, that doesn't make a great deal of difference to a movie like this. The improvement in picture quality, however, is extraordinary; it probably will look better on your TV screen than it did in your local theater back in 1974.
Much of the film takes place at night, and the blacks here are deeper than they were in theatrical prints, and the sound is crisper and clearer. There's still a slightly blurred look to all the images because it was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. The strange music by Wade Bell and Tobe Hooper seems more impressive on the DVD than it did in theaters. The interesting commentary track by Tobe Hooper, Daniel Pearl and Gunnar Hanson is worth a listen; early on, they lose their way a bit from simply watching the movie themselves, but they warm to the task and eventually reveal many surprising details. Fans of the movie have long insisted, a bit stridently, that much of the humor in the film was deliberate. The commentary confirms this -- it's pretty bleak humor, but it was intended. Maybe you never noticed that Leatherface has several leather faces; the commentary track -- in which Hanson proves himself to be very funny -- reveals this, and why he changes from time to time.
For years, aficionados have longed to see the legendary outtakes from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and here they are -- proving that, after all, they were just legends. There's nothing surprising or even all that interesting in the deleted scenes, most of which play without sound. There's also a brief (and not funny) blooper reel, and trailers for the sequels.
Clearly a movie like this, which features several scenes of beautiful women being chased by a maniac with a chain saw, is not exactly for the family audience. But it's extremely well done for what it is, and an authentic part of movie history. This above-average DVD is an ideal way to add it to a collection of cinema curiosities.