Starring: Gunnar Hansen, Teri McMinn, Marilyn Burns
Director: Tobe Hooper
What is it about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that continues to get under our skin? Made by a director and crew just out of film school, with a budget originally fixed at $60,000 and an almost childishly simple story about some kids stumbling across an old dark house, it set a benchmark for menace that its helmsman Tobe Hooper has never since approached in his subsequent career, nor many other filmmakers for that matter.
But in this case inexperience helped, because the film draws most of its power from seeming primitive and primal. There’s little sense of calculation in the way that the events unfold, in fact in a more polished screenplay you would imagine them happening quite differently. The two most attractive characters are killed off first. Then two more murders are rattled through, leaving one final character in play and nowhere for the film to go but into a long, frenzied coda which has more in common with Hooper’s later, serio-comic sequel than most critics have cared to acknowledge. Arguably, the whole last half hour is redundant. By the time the group’s wiseass, slightly snide driver, Jerry, takes a fatal blow to the head, the movie has pretty much done it’s job and said what it has to say.
Yet this naivety of construction is part and parcel of the film’s rugged authenticity. It only adds to the impression that what you’re seeing is the unvarnished truth – and if not the truth of everyday reality, then the truth of what lies in our nightmares. Keen to secure a PG rating, Hooper showed almost no gore on screen. Yet somehow or other the film is imbued with the stench of the charnel house – a combination of Robert A. Burns’ inspired set designs, Hooper’s chatteringly dissonant, experimental score, the actors’ sunburnt flesh, and a long, sweaty shoot in Texas in an August heat which seems to have seeped into the very fabric of the soft, grainy 1970s film stock.
Restoring The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for Blu-ray therefore poses some problems, in that if you clean it up too much you might well be in danger of stripping out the very atmosphere that has made the film a byword for terror. Perhaps for that reason, this new HD transfer retains quite a bit of grain, especially in the early scenes in the van, but the sticky, Polariod-ish quality of the visuals also comes across very vividly. When Kyle and Pam approach the Sawyers’ place, the sunflowers they walk past are now a melting, egg yolk yellow that seems to drip off the screen, and the famous dolly shot of Pam (Teri McMinn) getting up from the swing and approaching the sinister house has a compelling clarity and depth.
This edition comes with a whole extra Blu-ray disc of special features, some old, some new. There are a clutch of short interviews, including 15 minutes with John Dugan, the then-20-year-old actor who played Grandpa under layers of prosthetics, and a 17-minute chat with Teri McMinn. The latter talks about the social embarrassment of seeing her bottom, in tight red hotpants, in close-up on the big screen, and reveals that she had to smoke a cigarette inside Leatherface’s freezer to create some wisps of smoke for when Jerry opens the lid and finds her lying there near-dead. Apparently the film didn’t do much for her career and she went into leg and foot modelling – a shame as she brings so much to the movie.
In addition, there are two lengthy documentaries. Dating from the 30th anniversary of the film, The Shocking Truth runs to 72 minutes. It’s most interesting, perhaps, for the waspish contributions of Robert A. Burns, the brilliant art designer who created the Sawyers’ outlandish décor. There’s also a lot of stuff about the bitter aftermath to the movie’s success, as the actors and crew who had deferred their salary for points, and were expecting to get rich, found themselves receiving next to nothing even though the film made millions. We also learn that the van that the characters drive around in belonged to soundman Ted Nicolaou, later to direct the Subspecies movies. The 71-minute Flesh Wounds has a very funny interview with Ed Neal, who played the Hitchhiker – he reveals (jokingly, one hopes) that he based the character on his nephew, and that he now does dubs for anime. The highlight of the documentary, though, is a catch-up with Gunnar Hansen in a beautiful part of Maine. Among other things, he talks about his long-held interest in writing (he confides that he’s sold two film scripts but hasn’t had any produced).
There are also 15 minutes of newly transferred outtakes, looking extremely crisp and fresh in 4:3 ratio, and including some nice shots of Teri McMinn in those red hotpants.
Lastly, there are four – count them, four! – audio commentaries. Tobe Hooper goes solo on one of them – he divulges that the opening shot of the slimy skeleton mounted on a tombstone was a post-production pickup, and that the steel door which Leatherface slams angrily after dispatching Kyle was an inspiration on the day, created to provide an exclamation point to the scene. Hooper teams up with Gunnar Hansen and cinematographer Daniel Pearl for a second, very lively audio commentary, from which we learn that discussions as to whether or not to show what Leatherface looked like under his mask went well into filming, and that they managed to shoot the whole film with only one chainsaw (which was very reliable and always started). Plus there are two more sets of audio commentaries, including one with some of the actors. Between them, you hear from almost all of the key people involved in making the film. All in all, a meaty release that offers much to chew on.