In the early seventies, a whole new era for horror was in full swing, taking it fully out of the gothic past, and into a very grim and extreme present. One of the most legendary titles of this era was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Inspired by the real life crimes of the “Ghoul of Plainfield” Ed Gein, this was such a notorious title that for nearly twenty five years, it was banned in the UK, until a change of directorship at the BBFC. Now the film is back for its 40th anniversary in a new restored transfer supervised by director Tobe Hooper. But how well can a film made in the seventies on cheap 16mm stock be spruced up for the digital age? Does it still hold up as a fright classic? Who will survive, and what will be left of them? Let’s go deep down South and find out!
A series of horrific cemetery desecrations has bought young Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her friends to a remote part of Texas, to see if Grandpa’s grave is still OK. There, they decide to check on the old farmhouse, see what state that’s in. While on the way though, they make the big mistake of picking up a deeply unhinged hitchhiker (Edwin Neal). After leaving him behind, they end up facing a far worse threat at another house near the farm; a family of former slaughterhouse workers, including the huge beast of a man known as Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), and his saw.
When he was making the film, Tobe Hooper thought, after getting advice from a friend with the MPAA, that what he was making should, under their guidelines, be a PG. It ended up being a very strong R in America, and it’s still an 18 over here. When he asked what he would have to cut to get the rating lower, he got an answer along the lines of “the whole film”. That’s understandable due to the truly nightmarish atmosphere of death and decay throughout. Almost every scene includes at least one shot guaranteed to get under your skin. From early shots of road-kill, to passing the abandoned slaughterhouse, to the arts & crafts from hell that are found in Leatherface’s home. The film is constantly reminding you of the end, in a grimy, dirty aesthetic that can only ever come from a micro-budget production. You couldn’t make a film look this eerily filthy with a multi-million dollar budget, as many of the subsequent sequels, remakes and homages demonstrate ably.
One of the way’s Hooper thought that he’d get away with a lower rating was by not having all that much overt violence and gore directly on screen. A lot of the worst bloodshed in here is just off-camera, which does make it more effective. However, there are still many utterly macabre sights to be seen, and that’s not just counting the cast’s seventies fashion senses. Where it is far more of an assault though is on the eardrums. The soundtrack is unconventional to say the least, a strange cacophony that’s hard to properly describe as music. That’s kind of one of the main problems with the film’s second half; it’s almost non-stop noise. The whole last half an hour are a series of chases, captures, and escapes all set to that music, constant screaming and yelling, and of course the buzz of a chainsaw motor. It’s absolute brute force horror, except instead of grotesque sights, it’s done with sounds. As such, your mileage may vary in regards to how you’ll appreciate the film; it’s effective yes, but it can be very trying in the wrong ways.
So how does this new restoration hold up? Very well actually; this film will never look like a million dollars, but this 4K transfer shows off just how well 16mm can be spruced up. There’s a new level of detail to fully appreciate in the film, which in a film with a homemade aesthetic like that is a very good thing. The blisteringly bright summer daylight scenes look so good, you can feel yourself getting hotter just looking at them, and even the dim night scenes have a lot more clarity to them. Best thing; the whole thing still has the grain one would expect, no digital noise distribution here, which would have ruined that all important dirty look. As for extras, this has pretty much everything from the various older releases of this film, and more. Four commentaries, including one brand new to this edition. Two feature length documentaries, The Shocking Truth and Flesh Wounds: Seven Tales of the Saw. An episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, looking at the filming locations. Interviews with everyone involved from actor John Dugan (who played the near mummified patriarch of the family) to cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who also shot the underrated 2003 remake) and more. This edition examines and celebrates the film from every conceivable angle.
Time may have dulled the edge of this film somewhat; it isn’t the out-of-nowhere shock that was on first release, and many subsequent films have gone far further. Nevertheless, TCM still has quite a punch today, with an aesthetic that many have tried to replicate, but only the sheer hell of that less than $80,000 film shoot in one of Texas’ hottest Julys could make something like it. The cast and crew tell in this how it was an utterly gruelling, mad shoot, and that insanity ends up caught on film. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s well worth seeing it at the best it will ever look, if you’re already a fan, this really is the ultimate edition, encompassing everything. For those still uncertain about the film (and this one really isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), this set is still a fascinating experience for how well the filming process is dissected. Feel the buzz!