****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow
screenplay by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
directed by Tobe Hooper
by Walter Chaw If we start from the position that Sally (Marilyn Burns) is burdened from the get-go by two misfit monsters, then we can look at Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as not only a keen autopsy of a particular moment in our country's history (circa 1974), but also a profoundly sensitive look at social prejudices and the toll said prejudices take on the human social organism. More than the typical rise-of-the-bumpkins horror conceit, it is, along with John Boorman's Deliverance from two years earlier, the classic example of a film that isn't about what it's ostensibly about. Look at the assiduous reduction of wheelchair-bound outcast Franklin (Paul A. Partain), a character who remains for the efforts of Hooper and Partain (apparently so irritating in real life that his cohorts were relieved by his on-screen demise) one of the most unapologetically irritating and pathetic figures in film and find noteworthy not that a handicapped person is allowed to be a self-pitying asshole, but that we're not let off the hook (as it were) for our own prejudices. Franklin is an anchor--and we're glad that he's dead, too.
But before he goes, Franklin lays the groundwork for the rest of the picture. In his confinement to a chair and ignoble expulsion from it he echoes a monstrous family's ossified Grandpa (John Dugan); and in his imprisonment rolling around the back of a sweltering van, he predicts the claustrophobia of the farmhouse/abattoir that will comprise the bulk of the picture's last hour. His tales of closed-down slaughterhouses and traditional methods of butchering build tension for the fate of his compatriots before they happen. His gross-out discussion of unsavoury food products with a crazed Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) sets the table for the legendary dinner sequence finale (the Hitchhiker appears to realize their kinship and thus initiates an improvised "blood brother" ceremony). And, most poignantly, his desire to gain attention at any cost predicts the abuse ladled upon his doppelgänger, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who, likewise, is only doing his best to be noticed and appreciated by his family and friends. Taking Franklin's death as the moment he's reborn as Leatherface (and his refusal to erase the blood on the side of the van marking him as prey as tacit invitation to that metamorphosis), there's fascinating grist in the observation that this role of Sally's burden transforms from verbal to non-verbal, merely emotionally-violent to physically violent as well as immobile to impending. Of course, it's also possible that Leatherface becomes simply the literalization of the impossibility of Sally's situation (the personal shadow to the collective shadow of Romero's horde of shambling zombies from Night of the Living Dead)--a monkey on her back she loves but abhors, embraces but is embarrassed of, and is tied to as intimately as the blood rite in which she finally finds herself the centerpiece. Sally is the emotional pivot of the film (just as the similarly nurturing Laurie Strode of John Carpenter's later Halloween is of that film): it's on her that hinge all these themes of arrest and potential, of regression and expansion, of duty and escape.
To expand Sally's psychic torment in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to a larger context is tempting (and it's hard to imagine that the film could have existed--or that it could have captured the cult following it has--in a different time or place), but if Watergate, Vietnam, and the death of the idealism of the 1960s provide the loam, the picture is possibly best served by discussing it as a piece about nostalgia for an era that was at least perceived in the rear-view as simpler, rural--Edenic. The real triumph of Hooper's film is that the monstrous family at its centre represents a tight social group steeped in tradition and pride and jealous of its privacy. That although nostalgia is generally misplaced (the good ol' days of Norman Rockwell and celebrated anti-Semite Henry Ford were also the good ol' days of Joe McCarthy, the third incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ed Gein), what's true in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's reverie is the strength of the family bond. These heartland Sawney Beans are a fully-functioning unit in the Southern United States, a perhaps ironic but vibrant American family aware of its duties to maintain consanguinity ("Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do," says the great Jim Siedow as the cannibal clan's voice of reason), willing to go to any length to protect the family reserve and greatly agitated by the smallest disturbance to their insularity. A scene where Leatherface, after making what is essentially the third of his four kills in the film, throws open the curtains and panics at this sudden, puzzling intrusion of strangers into his domain is familiar to the point of touching. It's oddly contemporary to our own Iraq in that a sudden, puzzling intrusion seems to have turned us into a violent, panicked, inexorable monster.
For the uninitiated, the story proper concerns a quintet of teens traveling through a scorching Texas summer to visit the decrepit ramshackle house willed to Sally and Franklin by their late grandfather. Were The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as simple as an elegy for the death of Grant Wood's already-perverse America, such examples of rural decay would be the focus. Instead, as imagined by Hooper and production designer Robert A. Burns, the film is about fecundity in the midst of this decay--bones and skin re-purposed into furniture and art (a nail through a stop-watch a particular show-stopper of surrealist imagery and loaded thematic content) in a cyclical brown study of death and rebirth underscored by cinematographer Daniel Pearl's pauses on the moon and the sun. Once there, Franklin is abandoned by his able-bodied compatriots and expresses his frustration with a churlish monologue punctuated by a humiliation played as catharsis for an audience that, speaking for myself, begins to feel uncomfortable in facilitating an understanding of why he's acting this way while doing little to engender sympathy for him. Soon, in search of oil, the kids cross paths with a hulking, murderous, unemployed butcher called Leatherface (for the masks of flesh he wears)--whom we immediately connect to a slaughterhouse Franklin has described earlier in the trip--and are summarily butchered and, we presume, devoured by Leatherface's clan. The main reason for the failure of the recent "prequel" The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is the suggestion that Leatherface (or Franklin) has a "backstory" when their endurance depends on their usefulness as allegorical bogeys for the play's "normals." When two of the kids joke about Franklin being carried on someone's back when he was "little," the double-edged punchline is, of course, that Franklin was never little.
The film is unpleasant, brutally nihilistic, and frankly gruelling, yet it's not misanthropic, which makes it that much more difficult to endure. It believes in both Sally's devotion to the increasingly insufferable Franklin (making the transference of Franklin-to-Leatherface a heartbreaking black fantasy projection of Sally's feelings of entrapment, fear, and loathing) and the cannibal family's implicit devotion to one another to carry on their trade in their own space regardless of the strictures of societal convention. The dinner sequence that climaxes the film sees the "sons" of decrepit Grandpa feeding him and, in an indelible passage, trying to help him wield a hammer against a squirming, desperate Sally, held screaming over a rusty bucket. It's a testament to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's power that no matter how much you hope Sally escapes, there's a part of you rooting for the old boy to muster up the strength for one last shot at his former glory.
For all the scholarship thrown up around The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, its nihilism ultimately rests in the idea that we're meat--that when a pretty girl (Teri McMinn) in hotpants walks in the foreground of an iconic extended tracking shot up to a farmhouse in search of her murdered boyfriend (William Vail), we simultaneously feel a twinge of sexual heat and a pang of loss and pity for what she doesn't know. It's a similar pang at the equivalent moment in the much-reviled remake that accounts for a good deal of my fondness for that film, that one punctuated by the discovery of a wedding ring. (Of course, there's my belief that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whose insectile hive antagonists are as sleek and symbolic as its heroes, is more a redux of Aliens.) Without question, though, the original's love/death cocktail is stickier and more potent.
Two feature-length commentary tracks adorn Dark Sky's DVD release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, serving as alternatives to a subtly-realized Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that makes excellent use of the surround channels as Leatherface pursues Sally through the woods. When, halfway through said chase, Sally briefly stops screaming, the buzz of the saw and the sound of her breathing have dynamic presence in the rear discretes. I've read of elisions to the soundtrack but, having only ever had the lily liver to watch the damned thing three or four times since its Pioneer SE (that one ported over from the Elite LD), I confess to not noticing them, and the original mono stems are preserved in an alternate 2.0 configuration. What does come clear is that Wayne Bell and Hooper's "found" score is one of the most ignored aspects of this rich production. The film itself has probably never looked better than this in any format: downconverted from HD, the 1.80:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer was sourced from the seemingly-pristine camera negatives but maintains integrity by retaining the grain inherent in 16mm, no matter how fine. For a summation of how it stacks up against the Pioneer's non-anamorphic pressing, click on the above-linked screencap comparison; suffice it to say that Dark Sky's presentation--overseen, like prior incarnations, by Synapse Films' Don May, Jr.--is a profound upgrade in every conceivable way (at last, an end to those combing artifacts), particularly in the area of fine detail, though at least one improvement (i.e. sporadic but significant variations in colour timing and matting) will be a subjective call.
The Elite yakker featuring Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, and Hansen returns for another encore, but thankfully it's well worth preserving. Folksy and informative, it spends next to no time on self-congratulation and trainspotting, instead offering behind-the-scenes ephemera that is by turns captivating and revealing. I actually had to back up the disc after Hansen admitted that towards the end of a crazed, delirious, 18-hour day, he frustratedly cut Marilyn Burns on the arm during her simulated torture. And that, worse, no one realized he had done such a thing despite Burns's tears and protests, because everybody was half-mad and figured she was bitching in character. The three laugh uneasily, Hansen sounds like he's about to lose it again in that jovial way we sometimes do when we know it's dumb but it still hurts, and the track suddenly becomes legend. I listened carefully to Burns's commentary (recorded exclusively for this DVD with actor Allen Danzinger and the late Robert Burns and Paul Partain) for corroboration of this grim factoid, but aside from oft-told tales of her on-set torments (actually jumping from a higher scaffold than a stunt person so that her "landing" looked realistic, for instance), she either didn't feel like reopening that old wound or maybe it never happened. Something tells me, though, that it did. Of the two, I prefer the older yak-track but allow that both are excellent, even with the extended silences that mar that new one. The commensurately intense Bryanston and New Line trailers, three TV spots, and two radio spots for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre plus trailers for Eaten Alive, The Manson Family, and Henry Part 2 close out the first disc.
The second platter of this "2-Disc Ultimate Edition" comes perilously close to justifying its hyperbolic title. With the two discs housed compactly in the right side of a handsomely-rendered metal tin, it's arresting and no wider than a typical keepcase. For collectors who care about such things, it's not going to be an eyesore like Anchor Bay's otherwise innovative Evil Dead rubber Necronomicons. All principals are (re)assembled for Blue Underground's 72-minute Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth, a documentary directed by David Gregory and narrated by Matthew Bell, who establishes the framework for the tradition of grindhouse cinema early on, tracing the decomposition of the 1960s through its art ably, if briefly. Last House on the Left, itself on the verge of receiving its own cover version (Chaos notwithstanding), is credited as a particular influence--directly or not--on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Almost every imaginable bit of lore is explored with respect and, gratefully, there's not a lot of reverence going around. Stories are sometimes juxtaposed to show disagreement (R. Burns maintains that Hooper wanted to run over his carefully-taxidermied armadillo while Hooper swears he never harboured any such thought), making the overall impact of the piece one of genuine curiosity and scholarship as opposed to flag-waving and trumpet-blowing.
Michael R. Felsher's Flesh Wounds: Seven Stories of the Saw (71 mins.), commissioned by Dark Sky specifically for this release (and, unlike The Shocking Truth, mastered in anamorphic widescreen), compiles more in-depth recollections from key cast and crew, spending a lot of time with Pearl, going back to revisit locations, and memorializing the apparently-schizoid Ed Neal, who, as some sort of voice actor now, can't turn it off again. An actual "In Memoriam" section pays tribute to Partain (who genuinely embraced his cult stardom), the great Jim Siedow (who anchors the picture at its most carnivalesque), and R. Burns, whose set design for this film remains as influential as anything in the picture. It's a slickly-produced retrospective that incorporates scraps of previously-unseen footage and, as its prologue promises, does indeed manage to unearth a few fresh stories from one of the most documented pictures of all-time. I especially enjoyed a glimpse inside a cult film convention--something I want to go to but don't want to go to, if you know what I mean.
"A Tour of the TCSM House with Gunnar Hansen" (8 mins.) is just what it sounds like: a handheld tour of the Sawyer abode with the affable Hansen. Interposed with clips from the film and Hansen's reminiscences of the shoot, the effect is sort of like spending a mild afternoon with one of the great screen bogeys, hoping that someone's getting it on tape. A whopping 25-minute block of deleted scenes is mostly second-unit insert stuff of corpses and bones, but an extended elision towards the end involving Leatherface donning his grandmother's face and makeup rewards the patient viewer. A two-minute "Blooper Reel" is the typical stuff, with Marilyn Burns's falling over in a chair lent unfortunate weight knowing she was abused for real. You surmise that this stuff would be a lot funnier if you were exhausted and near heat stroke. Outtakes (8 mins.) from The Shocking Truth afford further opportunity to spend time with personnel no longer with us, which is, of course, not a bad thing, if not, when all's said and done, a particularly edifying thing. "Dr. W.E. Barnes Presents Making Grandpa" is a slideshow that depicts poor John Dugan sitting in the chair getting a cast of his face and then sitting again for the application of a latex appliance. It induces sympathetic claustrophobia. An extensive stills gallery rounds out the set. Originally published: October 30, 2006.