Welcome to the slaughterhouse. The very definition of '70s grindhouse horror, ' The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is not only a classic of the genre, but a piece of our shared cultural lexicon. Just mention the words of the title to someone, and even if they've never seen the film, they'll know exactly what you're talking about. Whether of not that makes 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' a legitimately good film is another matter. But perhaps that's besides the point these days -- the film exists in our memory banks as a collective nightmare, with images that still hold enough raw visceral power to shock thirty-five years after its original creation.
The story is likely familiar to most, and if not, it will likely seem completely generic because it's been ripped-off by just about every slasher film of the past three-and-a-half decades. A group of five friends is making a trip through Texas in search of the grave of a relative. After stopping by a particularly creepy gas station to ask for directions, they pick up a crazy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who regales them with tales of the local slaughterhouse, and, in a charming precursor of the horrors to come, slices himself with a razor blade. The van of kids promptly kicks him out, but that's only the beginning of the fun. Stumbling upon a seemingly deserted farmhouse, the kids discover it's really the home of the hitchhiker's even nuttier clan, led by demented patriarch Sawyer and his obese, chainsaw wielding brother Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). What follows is about as gruesome and blood-soaked as you can imagine.
The point of 'Texas Chainsaw' is hardly its plot. As directed by Tobe Hooper and shot by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, the film aims only to reproduce the structure and syntax of a nightmare. It accomplishes that with astonishing fidelity. On one level of craftsmanship, 'Texas Chainsaw' would seem to be a mess. Screen direction frequently shifts, eye-lines don't match from one shot to the next, and the low-budget conditions often wreak havoc with continuity of lighting, performance, and dialogue. Yet there's a sustained through-line of (il)logic, that may not make "sense" on a conscious level, but feels subconsciously correct. Much like a bad dream where, no matter how hard you try to run, your legs just won't cooperate, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' captures that primal, irrational terror and milks it for every last drop of effectiveness.
Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel also achieve greater thematic resonance thanks to character construction that is a bit more complex than it may at first appear. We are able to see heroine Sally (Marilyn Burns, perhaps the greatest screamer in horror movie history) as a if-not-quite-three-dimensional person than at least as a genuine human being worthy of our empathy. Hooper and Henkel also outline the other passengers with some quirky strokes, particularly the zodiac-spouting Pam (Teri McMinn, who meets a particularly nasty end on a meat hook) and her ineffectual boyfriend Kirk (William Vail, who we at first think will be the traditional, rugged leading man). At the same time, the characters are archetypal enough that Hooper is able to easily equate them with the cattle of the local slaughterhouse. As the film suggests again and again narratively (by the arbitrary order in which the protagonists are killed) and visually (by frequently placing our heroes in diminished positions within his compositions), meat is meat. The universe cares little for us mere human animals. If not quite existential, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is certainly the most unsentimental of horror films when it comes to valuing humanity's ultimate place in the natural pecking order.
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' also works as a piece of pop art thanks to Pearl. Now one of the more successful and in-demand DPs in Hollywood, he cut his teeth on 'Texas Chainsaw,' and his work is admirably ambitious. There are shots of impressive fluidity and shocking beauty in the film. The early sun-drenched exteriors are striking in the way they combine function with form, and the film's most famous sequences work so effectively due to Pearl's dexterity. Witness the fascinating low dolly shot from under a swing as we first enter the Sawyer house, or the quick-cut montage of Burns' eyeballs as she's being tortured around a dinner table. It's this mix of go-for-the-jugular exploitation imagery mixed with an artistic ambition on behalf of Hooper and Pearl that allowed 'Texas Chainsaw' to stretch the boundaries of what was possible in low-budget exploitation cinema.
Of course, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' remains notorious not as much for its visual and thematic concerns but for its pure gut-wrenching impact. Certainly, the film's most iconic image is that of Leatherface waving his chainsaw, and it's this raw brute force of purpose that continues to engender the film to its legion of fans. Hooper's film is now synonymous with no-bullshit, old-school horror (which even the glossy studio remake in 2003 couldn't entirely strip away). That may be a disputable legacy, but it's a legacy nonetheless. 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' may have become dated in the intervening thirty-four years (the fashions and overall cheapness of the enterprise now distract from rather than enhance the film's documentary style), but it made its mark in its day, and then some. For that, and the sheer passion and aspirations of craftsmanship that Hooper and his filmmaking team displayed, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' has cemented a rightful place in the canon of classic horror films.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)' arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray courtesy of German distributor Turbine Media Group as a three-disc special edition with a flyer for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. At the moment, we are unable to verify the size of the content, but the triple-layered UHD100 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 disc and a second Region Free, BD50 with all the supplements inside a separate white envelope. All three are housed in a black keepcase. At startup, the UHD goes straight to a menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
A couple years ago, the drive-in cult classic was bestowed with a brand-new 4K scan of the original camera negatives to celebrate its 40th anniversary. It's possible and likely that same remaster was also used for this HEVC H.265 encode; however, according to the distributor, this is an SDR presentation and not HDR10. In either case, Hooper's best-known film arrives on Ultra HD with a surprisingly good upgrade over its Blu-ray counterpart, offering various improvements that make it the best the film has ever looked on home video and the preferred way of watching it. Admittedly, coming from cheap 16mm reversal stock, the source won't yield the sort of results that will convince most. But the improvements should be perceptible enough to persuade fence sitters, nicely demonstrating the possibilities of the new format.
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the video show better definition and clarity throughout. It's not a night and day difference with a good majority of the runtime looking fairly soft and blurry, but then again, there is only so much that can be done from a source of this vintage and from a micro-budget production such as this. Nevertheless, fans who are very familiar with the movie's history on home video will appreciate the amount of discernable details throughout. Every stain, smudge and scratch in the Sawyer house is visible while the kids' van shows light rust stains and marks on the outside. Fine lines along clothing and the stitching in Leatherface's masks are detailed, and viewers can better make out the pores in faces.
On far better note — and the reason for this UHD upgrade — the 4K presentation dazzles and astonishes thanks to a superb and well-balanced high dynamic range, offering exceptional, spot-on contrast and crisp, pitch-perfect whites. Specular highlights radiate with brilliant luminosity, showing distinct differences in the clouds while the metal trim of the van shimmer and glisten with incredible realism. Brightness levels are strong and true throughout with pitch-black shadows that complement the story's creepy atmosphere; however, many of the same dark, poorly-lit sequences tend to engulf the finer details in the background. Most impressive, the source appears to have been color graded to take advantage of the wider color gamut, displaying intensely animated reds, vivid greens in the foliage and true to life blues in the skies. The 2160p video also comes with bold, nicely saturated secondary hues, making this a genuine surprise for the new format considering the source's history and condition.
Arguably, the most exciting aspect of this 4K release is that fans are given the choice between three listening options, with the most tempting being the Auro-3D 13.1 soundtrack. Unfortunately, I'm not quite ready to plop down the extra $150 for the firmware update required to enjoy the audio format since this is only the sixth movie release and the first in Ultra HD offering such an upgrade. Perhaps in the future when there are more and better movies released, I'll be persuaded to download the firmware and compare the audio of this cult classic against the other two, already-excellent choices: Dolby Atmos, which defaults to Dolby TrueHD 7.1, and DTS-HD MA 7.1, both in German dubbed and in the original English. There are also a pair of DTS-HD tracks in the original mono and a great stereo alternative.
After watching and hearing this movie on various audio formats for the past four decades — some of which were better than others — I opted to give the Atmos soundtrack a listen. And I'm very happy to report that audio engineers did an outstanding job, extracting carefully selected audio cues from the new remastered source and moving them to specific areas of the environment without seeming forced or artificial. Voices and other random noises echo throughout the Sawyer house, adding to the creepiness and making for a satisfying soundfield. The real highlight is hearing the footsteps of others on the second floor of the abandoned Hardesty homestead while Franklin whines, and later when Sally runs all around the Sawyer house both times, we hear the brothers yelling in hysterics and chasing after her. Granted, there were a couple moments when certain Foley effects sounded a bit fake, most notably at the beginning with other vehicles driving down the highway, but thankfully, they were far and few in between without distracting too much from the film's overall enjoyment.
For a majority of the runtime, the track remains a front-heavy arrangement with lots of background activity generating an amusingly expansive soundstage and a great sense of presence. Off-screen effects not only broaden imaging with subtle noises of local wildlife, which spread into the sides on occasion, and the voices of the crowd gathering at a cemetery, Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper's haunting musical score also widens the soundscape with extraordinary fidelity and warmth while lightly bleeding into the rears. In fact, it's the music doing most of the work in filling the room with suspense. But most surprising still is enjoying a shockingly dynamic and extensive mid-range, exhibiting crystal-clear distinction and separation between the various noises without the slightest hint of distortion. Meanwhile, low bass is light but nonetheless hearty and adequate for a film of this vintage. And of greater importance, vocals are distinct and precise in the center from beginning to end, making this lossless mix highly enjoyable.
Disc One & Two
Forty years since it originally hit drive-in theaters and shocked moviegoers everywhere, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' remains an effective piece of low-budget, independent filmmaking. Featuring the character that would soon become an icon of horror, the cult classic still stands as one of the most influential films of the genre, largely responsible, along with Wes Craven's 'The Last House on the Left,' with opening the floodgates of with a new breed of terror cinema.
The beloved horror flick arrives on Ultra HD Blu-ray with a fantastic-looking 4K video presentation. It may not compare to other UHD titles currently available, but it nonetheless comes with lots of noteworthy moments, offering an appreciable upgrade over its Blu-ray counterpart. The movie also arrives with a great selection of lossless audio soundtracks: Auro-3D 13.1, Dolby Atmos and DTS-HD Master Audio. Along with an exhaustive collection of supplements celebrating the film's 40th anniversary, the overall package is a must-own for cult enthusiasts and worth checking out for early adopters.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.