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Reputations are relatively easy to attain, devilishly difficult to sustain. Rightly or wrongly, Texas Chain Saw Massacre has courted controversy and baited censors, with baited breath and scissors at the ready, all over the world. Indeed the BBFC president James Ferman had the movie banned in Britain outright, not for any one specific scene but for a general accumulation of terror in the lone star state deemed unacceptable for the denizens of a cinema audience.

After 23 years, and a change in personnel and direction, at the British censor’s office, Texas Chain Saw Massacre was finally let loose on the exhibition circuit with a successful cinema release. After one previous attempt at a DVD release comes Universal’s extras laden disc; Leatherface has been let loose again...

When a sickening cadaverous sculpture is discovered in a Texas graveyard one swelteringly hot summer, a radio report announces the fact, causing groups of worried relatives to flock to the site to check that the remains of their dearly departed have not been disturbed.

One such group is headed by Sally (Marilyn Burns), who heads southwards in a van with her wheelchair bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and three more of her twentysomething friends to verify the safekeeping of her long gone grandfather’s grave. This duty done, the friends are head home when they decide to pick up a hitch hiker, desperately thumbing a lift at the side of the seriously hot road.

Once aboard it soon becomes clear that this southern boy has several screws loose and the friends just about manage to eject him before he causes mayhem in their vehicle. Upon discovering that they’re low on gas, the gang stops at a seemingly friendly station only to find that no fuel is available, forcing them to spend some time at the roadside where they poke through the ruins of an old house near the slaughterhouse where Sally and Franklin’s grandfather once worked.

In search of gasoline, the group stumble across what initially appears to be a house occupied by a regular family unit. What each will discover, one by one, is that the mentally deficient ’Leatherface’ and his freaky inbred family, which includes the hitch hiker, are hungrily anticipating visitors and are not too keen on allowing anyone to leave until they’ve had their fill…

In short, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a horror classic. Perhaps the preserve of aspiring former student filmmakers out to prove a point to the establishment, the movie may sound like a checklist of horror clichés unless it is observed that 30 years ago this subversive shocker, like The Exorcist before it, was at the vanguard in generating the genre stereotypes that seem so tired today.

Eschewing a conventional score in favour of a lietmotif series of sounds masquerading as ‘music’, director Tobe Hooper ratchets up the tension as the plucky Texan protagonists are picked off one after the other (in now admittedly time honoured fashion) before going all out in an extended chase sequence in the final act. Where the young documentary director is at his most audacious is during this last 25 minute segment; who else would have the courage to have his single remaining protagonist scream incessantly for an 8 minute period when menaced by the hillbillies from hell?

In this respect, Hooper is aided immensely by the contributions of his cast. Central to this is the standout Marilyn Burns, for whom one really must feel sorry in the lengths to which she went to serve the dictates of her director. Having viewed the movie and attached documentary several times, it is obvious in certain scenes that Burns is clearly not acting and is, in fact, just as terrified as the audience should be.

Plaudits too should be shared by Gunnar Hansen whose pant-wetting performance as the archetypal bogeyman Leatherface, so clearly copied in the Halloween and Friday The 13th slasher series, was borne from deep research into mental deficiencies.

As a consequence, shorn of the shaky supernatural trappings of much Hollywood horror hokum, Texas Chain Saw Massacre oozes authenticity, from the actors’ performances as described above to the intricacy of Robert A. Burns’ set and prop design incorporating literally hundreds of actual human and animal bones. In this unequivocally horrifying environment, Sally’s shrill sonic outburst allows no respite from the sustained sense of danger in which she finds herself. Here is where Hooper scores his greatest dramatic points; in the confines of the house, for the audience or Sally, there is simply no escape. Where many a post-modern horror will toss in a throwaway line or sight gag to relieve the claustrophobia, Hooper gleefully ignores any such temptation to prove that Texas Chain Saw Massacre really is the ‘daddy’ of modern horror.

It’s a little difficult to assess the video quality of this release. Despite all intents and purposes from Universal, the transfer of Texas Chain Saw Massacre exposes its origins as a movie that cost just $60,000 (a pittance even in 1973), was shot on 16mm and then blown up onto 35mm prints. It’s grainy, it bears all the oversaturated colour hallmarks of the 16mm format and it’s soft to say the least.

Conceding this, it’s debatable that Universal could have done much more, even with the original vault elements. For its’ part, the colours are strong and blacks are pretty deep although shadow detail (particularly in the night time wood chase sequence) is predictably lacking. In this instance, much like Blair Witch Project which it is possible to assume it partly inspired, the rough and ready presentation of the transfer actually enhances the viewing experience as it strips away many of the conceits of a traditional horror movie.

A simple stereo surround track is provided and, given the low budget limitations, is actually pretty good. While a 5.1 soundtrack would have been nice, particularly when Leatherface sets off in hot pursuit of his next victim with his agricultural equipment, it won’t be missed to a huge extent with the buzz of the saw and the screeches of the score being handled effectively from the front of the soundstage.

Dialogue is crisp and clear from the centre speaker, although it may well be preferable to adjust the setting of you home cinema outfit as there is a huge disparity between the level of the characters’ speech and Marilyn Burns’ full throttle screaming which, as you can imagine, happens a huge amount in the final reel.

Kicking off the special features slate is a new Audio Commentary from director Tobe Hooper, director of photography Daniel Pearl and ol’ Leatherface himself Gunnar Hansen. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s Hansen who stimulates most of the anecdotes and recollections about the shoot, his enthusiasm for the project, even now some 30 years after the event, prompting his laconic co-commentators into life whenever there’s the chance of a slight pause.  

There’s plenty of information in this cordial commentary, Hooper and Pearl as you might expect supplying more of the technical details (plenty of pointers on how to beg, borrow and steal when shooting a movie with no budget) with Hansen presenting many different perspectives on behalf of the cast. It’s certainly an interesting listen and certainly enables the audience to get a grip on just how gruesome some of those props really were!

Next up is The Shocking Truth, a 72 minute documentary on the making of the film. Directed by David Gregory, this is a comprehensive programme involving almost all the principal actors as well as the key figures behind the camera. Refreshingly, it pulls no punches when delving into such sticky matters as how all those bones were gathered for the house, BBFC censorship or the Mafia involvement in the acrimonious division of profits following the film’s release and subsequent surprising success.

Covering precursors from Night Of The Living Dead to Last House On The Left which took the supernatural elements out of the horror genre, the excellent documentary (of which some information is repeated and expanded upon in the commentary) also looks at the legacy of the movie in which the sole female survivor has become a staple of the genre (from Alien to the Scream series and associated rip-offs), also taking in the production of the ever inferior sequels.

Subsequent to this is a 14 minute Tobe Hooper Interview, recorded at the same time as the documentary that precedes it. Again touching on many of the material in the commentary and the documentary, the interview is broken down into a series of 2 minutes sections (7 in all), with such snippets devoted to the creation of the extreme soundtrack, the ‘foreign’ nature of Texas in an increasingly inclusive Watergate era America and a return to the house, frighteningly now a restaurant(!), where the dinner banquet was filmed.

To follow this is a Kim Henkel Interview, an 8 ½ minute stint with the producer mainly concentrating on his efforts to return the Texas Chain Saw Massacre sequels to the spirit of the original, including the legal minefield he encountered around the time of Jerry Maguire when Renee Zellweger[/i] was none too impressed to have her work in the third spin-off movie rediscovered.

Outtakes are here too, 2 ½ minutes of the cast corpsing, if you’ll excuse the expression, or otherwise fluffing their lines.

There are 6 Deleted Scenes along with 5 excerpts of Alternative Footage to be found. Upon viewing them, it’s pretty simple to see why  these sequences were excised as they add to neither the plot nor atmosphere of the movie.

A Props And Sets featurette is a testament to the debt that the movie owes to production designer Robert A. Burns. Lasting around 4 minutes, this little freeform home video, scored with a compilation of tensile sounds from the original soundtrack, is strong stuff and an illustration to the macabre dedication of Burns, displaying many artefacts and skeletal sculptures (the grisly origin of which is made clear in the documentary) that can be found around Leatherface’s house.

A collection of trailers also makes it into the extras section. In here may be found the Original Bryanston Theatrical Trailer (it becomes apparent as to why this is particularly important having seen the documentary), the official Re-release Trailer, a [/b]Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 Trailer[/b] that promotes the gratuitous gore that Hooper’s involvement and a big budget could guarantee and a Texas Chain Saw Massacre 3 Trailer that’s as unintentionally hilarious an Excalibur parody as you’re likely to see!

The gem in this particular stuffed section is the Texas Chain Saw Massacre 4: The New Generation Promotional Reel which affords the casual viewer the opportunity to take a flavour of Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger in roles they sincerely wish they’d been able to bury without the excruciating pain of having to watch the entire film. What is made abundantly clear from this reel is Henkel’s desire to recreate the spirit of the original with unrelenting screaming and excessive violence towards female characters.

Film And Production Stills is exactly what one might expect, a collection of some 30 stills mixing behind the scenes snaps with those taken from the rolling cameras.

Finally comes a compendium of about 20 Poster And Lobby Cards, some from the U.S. with some from overseas markets, showing the impact this particular movie has made across several different genres.

All of the above features can be accessed by a series of effectively designed animated menus scored with excerpts from the soundtrack that set the creepy tone for the movie marvellously well.

Presenting a disc crammed to the outer edges with useful and interesting extra material, Universal have deftly handled this catalogue release with all due care. The lack of anamorphic enhancement is intriguing but nothing really necessary to put you off parting with your cash for this film. Paradoxically, I find that Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so unsettling that it’s not the kind of movie I would relish watching to often and, as such in achieving so successfully in what it sets out to do, I can’t recommend it too highly.