Four decades haven’t blunted the cutting edge of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not even the onslaught of sequels (the first of which, also under Hooper’s direction, is actually kind of brilliant), rip-offs (Juan Piquer Simón’s batshit Pieces being one of the looniest), and a couple of pitiful stabs at a remake could manage such a seemingly impossible task. The film has achieved the perfect storm necessary for enduring notoriety: It’s a masterwork that flawlessly mirrors the time and place of its origin, while, at the same time, remaining one for the ages, thanks to its uncanny power of nearly subliminal suggestion, avant-garde editing and sound design, and its uncompromising vision of an American consumerist society run amok.
However, as the opening credits and early dialogue intimate, the fault may be in our stars as well as in ourselves: Images of massive solar flares and selections read from an astrological almanac indicate that time itself is out of joint. Certainly the fixed date we’re supplied (August 13, 1973) suggests something portentous, even as the pre-credits crawl ponderously narrated by John Larroquette lends a false sense of veracity to events that are really nothing more than a brutal and blackly humorous riff on Hansel and Gretel. Such a pseudoscientific worldview ultimately may prove a red herring. Nevertheless, it continues to crop up in the primitivism exhibited by the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who’d rather ritualistically incinerate an unwanted Polaroid than leave it behind as “evidence,” and who proceeds to mark the kids’ van with some sort of inscrutably bloody sigil. Likewise, we can discern an almost totemistic attitude in the “artworks” and furniture that the cannibal family constructs out of their victims’ remains.
Circularity and repetition are important structural components throughout The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The fierce red sun that dominates the opening credits is visually matched late in the film by repeated close-ups of red-veined eyeballs. At the level of the plotline, Sally (Marilyn Burns) circles back to the Last Chance gas station where she beseeches the Old Man (Jim Siedow) for help, only to have him turn out to be one of the cannibal clan. Later, she runs circles around their rural farmhouse. And the film isn’t afraid to reduce its repetitiveness to absurdity either, as when Sally twice jumps through a window in an effort to elude Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).
Something else that the film pioneered is a light touch when it comes to sounding the depths of a horror film’s subtext. Most of the thematically important dialogue comes across like throwaway lines, including the riotous “My family’s always been in meat.” Or else key themes are rendered purely visually: Witness the mummified corpse of Granma that provides the only female relation among the otherwise phallocentric cannibal clan, how the camera slowly pans across the hellish red barbeque cooker while a radio divulges tales of recent grave robbery, or the way Leatherface dolls up in garish “Baby Jane” makeup for the climactic family meal. And then there’s the one indelible image that somehow encapsulates the clan’s entire wonky and perverted milieu: a chicken cooped up in a birdcage.
Dark Sky Films’ 4K restoration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which premiered during the Directors Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but their 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer is still worlds better than previously available versions, including the label’s own Ultimate Edition release from 2008. There’s the occasional speckling and some intermittent noise, but color saturation and fine details have been boosted considerably, while flesh tones and black levels register admirably. Visibility in the pitch-black nighttime scenes has been significantly improved, and the grain structure of the film’s 16mm source material look suitably cinematic. The Blu-ray disc offers no fewer than four sound mixes, but your best bet is the superlative 7.1 surround track: a terrific immersive experience that really punches up Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s experimental atonal sound design.
Dark Sky Films adds to the already impressive roster of extras from their aforementioned Ultimate Edition Blu-ray, throwing in another pair of audio commentaries and a handful of new on-camera interviews. Foremost among the new batch (and sure to be the fan favorite) is a one-on-one commentary track with Tobe Hooper and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth" documentary director David Gregory. Most poignant is the realization that the "In Memoriam" section of the "Flesh Wounds" documentary, which offers tributes to actors Paul Partain and Jim Siedow, and production designer Robert A. Burns, will now have to be extended to encompass Marilyn Burns, who passed away last month at the age of 65. Cumulatively, the two discs’ worth of special features allow for every conceivable aspect of the film’s conception, production history, release and reception, as well as the franchise’s legacy (from Hooper’s first feature film, Eggshells, to the Platinum Dunes remake and beyond) to be covered in exhaustive detail. As an anticipated consequence, there’s a certain amount of anecdotal overlap and repetition to be found across several generations of home video extras; nevertheless, this is a truly exceptional assemblage of materials old and new.
Accept no substitutes: Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still cuts the competition to the bone. Dark Sky Films’ deluxe four-disc package offers fans an ideal way to celebrate 40 years of bloody mayhem.