Release Date(s)1974 (April 10, 2023)
Studio(s)Vortex/Bryanston Distributing Company (Second Sight Films)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: This is a UK import. This is also a co-review by Stephen Bjork and Tim Salmons.]
In Roger Ebert’s largely dismissive two-star review of Tobe Hooper’s iconic horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he opened with the following paragraph:
“Now here’s a grisly little item. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises—a real Grand Guignol of a movie. It’s also without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose. And yet in its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.”
In some respects, that paragraph perfectly encapsulates Ebert’s criticism as a whole: it’s equal parts keenly perceptive, utterly clueless, and wildly inconsistent. Like many mainstream critics, Ebert had a blind spot when it came to the horror genre, one that resulted in him dismissing or even condemning things in horror movies that he praised in other genres. Yet in some ways, he still inadvertently captured the essence of why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre became an instant horror classic. Yes, Hooper’s primary purpose in making the film was to produce fright, but that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s worth pointing out that when Ebert gave John Carpenter’s Halloween a glowing four-star review five years later, he noted that “You don’t want to be scared? Don’t see it. Credit must be paid to filmmakers who make the effort to really frighten us.” If Carpenter deserved that kind of credit, then so did Hooper.
Still, it’s Ebert’s description of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that accidentally gets to the heart of why the film was so successful, both artistically and commercially. It’s actually nowhere near as violent and blood-soaked as the title promises, and it’s anything but analogous to the graphic excesses of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. It is indeed a grisly little item, but aside from a few brief knife cuts, and one single shot of the chainsaw biting into Leatherface’s leg, all of the gore that it seems to contain takes place entirely in the mind’s eye. Just like Hitchcock in Psycho, the bravura nature of Hooper’s filmmaking causes viewers to imagine that they’re seeing graphic imagery that’s not really present on screen. (Ebert ended up comparing Halloween to Psycho, but he was unwilling to give Hooper that much credit.) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an astonishingly intense film, but the unrelenting nature of its horrors means that even professional viewers can be easily fooled into imagining that they’re seeing things that they really aren’t.
The reasons why that happens aren’t necessarily easy to quantify, because with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the whole is much greater than the sum of its individual parts. It was produced on a low budget under difficult circumstances, and what was going on behind the camera became intertwined with what was happening in front of it. The conditions were brutal, with everyone working long days for seven hours a week, and since there wasn’t enough money for multiple versions of each costume, the actors wore the same clothing every day in the sweltering Texas heat. The real suffering that the actors experienced is visible on camera, and the unrelenting nature of Hooper’s direction mean that tensions remained high regardless of whether or not the camera was rolling. It wasn’t quite method acting, but it was definitely method filmmaking, and it had a tangible effect on the finished product.
When combined with the ragged 16 mm cinematography, all of those factors combine to give The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a convincing atmosphere that’s simply unmatched. It’s not quite documentary realism, as Hooper was fond of theatrical overacting and wild stylistic flourishes like the infamous eyeball montage during Sally’s freakout at the dinner table, but it’s still a similar effect. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the aesthetic and the atmosphere become a unified whole. Form merges with content until the two are nearly indistinguishable from each other, and the whole is indeed greater than the sum of all of these individual components. Horror movies often rely on atmosphere to increase their effectiveness, but in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, atmosphere isn’t just an additional layer to enhance the story; instead, it is the story. The overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere of the film is the primary reason why audiences imagine seeing things that they really don’t.
Regardless of how many times that anyone may have already watched the film, every single time that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre spools up, the viewer is still transported back into a specific time and a place, and there’s no escape from it until the closing credits roll. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, partly because of the inadequacies of human memory, but also because the stress of the moment can distort perceptions. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre can be such a stressful experience for some viewers that it’s no surprise that their own memories of the film can’t be trusted. Even Roger Ebert fell victim to that fact. That’s not a “weird, off-the-wall” achievement; it’s a singularly remarkable one.
Cinematographer Daniel Pearl shot The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on 16 mm film primarily with an Éclair NPR camera for most scenes featuring synchronized sound, but he also used a clockwork Bolex H16 for some of the handheld work and a few other specialty shots. Since the film was always intended to be blown up to 35 mm for theatrical release, Pearl framed everything at 1.85:1. He also used Kodak Ektachrome 7252 rated at 25ASA, a slow reversal stock that made lighting a challenge, but it produced a finely grained image that would facilitate the process. Using reversal stock meant that the cut negative could be blown up directly into a 35 mm internegative, with the release prints struck from that. Despite all of that, the original 16 mm grain structure still inevitably suffers from being blown up into 35 mm, and the coarser look of that grain is what most people have grown to associate with the film. Fortunately, a year before Hooper’s death in 2017, the original 16 mm camera negative was finally scanned at 4K resolution, allowing all of the original grain and detail to be presented intact. Turbine Medien in Germany first released a UHD using this scan back in 2016, but that version didn’t utilize High Dynamic Range, and was in standard Rec. 709 only. For 2023, Turbine re-released the film with new Dolby Vision and HDR10 grades, a master that they shared with MPI/Dark Sky Films for domestic release. That same master was also used by Second Sight in the U.K. for this version, but they added the wrinkle of having Silver Salt Restoration in London perform some extra work on it, as well as creating a different Dolby Vision grade. (Of course, HDR10 is still included.)
The results speak for themselves. While Second Sight has been vague regarding what kinds of work that Silver Salt did, it definitely included some additional cleanup. There’s still a bit of very light speckling at times, as well as some small scratches or other blemishes, but most of those affect single frames only—they may be visible while freeze-framing, but they’re much less noticeable in motion. In comparison, the MPI version has heavier damage and speckling throughout. For example, during the van ride at the beginning (after Franklin’s roadside tumble), MPI has some significant black speckling that stands out against the bright windows in the background. Most of that damage has been removed by Second Sight. Another good example is toward the end of the film, when the family has invited Sally over for dinner. The human skin lamp over the table is frequently framed in the foreground to the left of Sally’s face, and since it’s brighter than the surrounding material, it displays some heavy flickering damage with MPI. That damage isn’t completely gone with Second Sight, but it’s been greatly reduced. (MPI also a nasty burst of noise visible for two frames at the end of the shot starting at 72:38, when Sally says “You can make them stop,” and it’s not present here.)
Given the 16 mm origination of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, grain reproduction is critical, and that’s another area where Second Sight improves over MPI. Despite the massive quantity of extras on their disc, Second Sight’s bitrate still runs consistently higher than MPI’s, thanks to superior encoding and authoring from Fidelity in Motion. The grain always looks smooth and natural, without a hint of noise or other artifacts to mar it. In comparison, MPI’s grain looks rougher and less well resolved, with noise mixed into it times, especially against brighter backgrounds like the sky.
MPI’s HDR grading is a bit more aggressive than Second Sight’s, with some blown-out highlights on the one end, and crushed detail in the blacks on the other. That can affect the clouds in the sky, such as in the shot of the van on the roadside at 5:09. Those clouds look severely blown out with MPI, with some noise creeping into the highlights, but they look a bit smoother and less exaggerated with Second Sight (though they’re still somewhat lacking in detail). Second Sight does offer more detail on the darker end of the spectrum, such as the shots of Franklin inside the van at 8:00, or Kirk looking inside the house at 34:25 (the railings on the left are slightly better defined). The Kodak reversal stock that Pearl used may have had the advantage of extremely fine grain, but the flipside was it was inherently high-contrast, meaning that the shadow detail on the original negative was unavoidably lacking. Yet Second Sight has still managed to wring a bit more detail out of it than MPI did. It could be argued that their work was at the expense of the deepest black levels, but they rarely seem too elevated here. Second Sight also has the edge in terms of color balance, though that may be more of a matter of taste. The greens of the grass seem a bit richer, and the blues of the sky are a touch more intense. There’s also more depth to the reds. Yet everything still looks natural, not exaggerated.
Now, it’s important to note that all of these differences are subtle ones. Second Sight’s version isn’t necessarily a night-and-day improvement, but it’s still an improvement across the board. When viewed in native 4K via projection, Second Sight is the clear winner. Depending on the size and type of display that you have, as well as your viewing distance, your mileage may vary. Yet the differences are still there, if you look for them.
Audio is offered in English 1.0 mono LPCM, as well as the recent Dolby Atmos remix. (None of the other previous 2.0 stereo, 5.1, or 7.1 remixes have been included here, nor has Turbine’s 13.1 Auro-3D track.) This restoration of the theatrical mono track was produced by Second Sight, though the differences between it and any of the other theatrical mono versions are minimal. The only potential issue with it is that two of Sally’s ADR grunts while her hair is caught in the trees at 53:45 are missing in this mono version, while they’re present in previous mono mixes, and in the Atmos remix as well. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, but caveat emptor. Still, it would be a mistake to reject the Atmos track without listening to it first, as it’s a superb remix. It manages to retain the essential character of the original mono while expanding things gently into the additional channels. The overheads are used sparingly, which is appropriate, but they’re quite effective during moments like when the sounds of footprints are heard on the second floor above Sally’s head.
Of course, if you do prefer the mono version, it’s still available here, but there’s something to consider in that regard. If the only reason that you’re choosing mono is because you’re trying to be a purist, and want to hear things “as originally intended” or “as they were originally heard,” don’t forget that you’re watching a version of the film that’s completely unlike anything that was ever intended to be seen in 1974. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre may have been shot on 16 mm film, but it was always intended to be exhibited via 35 mm blowups, and that’s how audiences originally saw it. Those 35 mm prints looked nothing like this nearly pristine 4K scan from the original 16 mm camera negative. There was less detail, the grain was coarser, and the color gamut would have been different. In other words, you’re watching something that’s revisionist, while simultaneously refusing to accept audio that you consider to be revisionist. My humble suggestion is that you’ve chosen the wrong hill to die on there. If you really do insist on being a purist, then seek out an older video master of the film that was produced from the 35 mm blowup internegative, or better yet, from a 35 mm theatrical print. If you’re open to a high-quality 4K scan from the 16 mm negative, then there’s no reason not to give this Atmos track equally fair consideration. Listen to both, and choose the one that sounds best to you—not the one that you think that you’re supposed to prefer.
Second Sight’s standard edition 4K Ultra HD release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is UHD only, and doesn’t include a Blu-ray copy of the film—they chose to release a Region B-locked Blu-ray version separately. (There’s also a Limited Edition three-disc set that includes additional swag.) The extras combine a newly-recorded commentary track with four vintage ones, and also include a new documentary and a new visual essay, along with a wealth of archival extras:
- Audio Commentary with Amanda Reyes and Bill Ackerman
- Audio Commentary with Tobe Hooper and David Gregory
- Audio Commentary with Daniel Pearl, J. Larry Carroll, and Ted Nicolaou
- Audio Commentary with Tobe Hooper, Daniel Pearl, Gunnar Hansen, and David Gregory
- Audio Commentary with Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, Robert A. Burns, and David Gregory
- The Legacy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (HD – 82:45)
- Behind the Mask: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (HD – 8:40)
- Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (Upscaled SD – 72:49)
- Outtakes from The Shocking Truth (Upscaled SD – 7:41)
- Cutting Chain Saw (HD – 10:47)
- Granpaw’s Tales (HD – 15:48)
- Horror’s Hallowed Grounds (Upscaled SD – 20:08)
- Flesh Wounds: Seven Stories of the Saw (Upscaled SD – 71:42)
- Off the Hook with Teri McMinn (HD – 17:02)
- The Business of Chain Saw (Upscaled SD – 16:25)
- Gunnar Hansen’s Chainsaw House Tour (Upscaled SD – 8:03)
- Tobe Hooper Interview (Upscaled SD – 13:46)
- Kim Henkel Interview (Upscaled SD – 8:25)
- Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (Upscaled SD – 25:23)
- Trailers, TV and Radio Spots (Upscaled SD – 5:58, 7 in all)
- Stills Gallery (HD, 50 in all)
The new commentary features film historian Amanda Reyes and Supporting Characters podcast host Bill Ackerman, and they decided to go the extra mile by recording at the Grand Central Café in Kingsland, Texas—which is located in the house where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was originally shot back in 1974. They don’t waste a single moment of the film’s 83-minute running time, either, racing from one factoid to the next. That’s not an exaggeration—the only time that either of them pauses to take a breath is while the other one is talking. They examine the film’s themes, and also provide practical information such as the differences between the shooting script and the earlier drafts. They also range far and wide on tangential subjects, like the slaughterhouses of the era, ecological issues, and the ways that astrology figures into the narrative. Ackerman even compares the film to a Little Rascals, and Reyes obsesses over the truck driver of The Black Maria. It’s an energetic commentary that never skips a beat, and if at any point they’re talking about something that you don’t find particularly interesting, never fear, they’ll move onto something else a split second later.
The first of the vintage commentaries was recorded in 2014, and features Tobe Hooper with David Gregory as moderator, delving further into the film, as Gregory asks Hooper questions while they watch it together. The second was also recorded in 2014 and features Daniel Pearl, editor J. Larry Carroll, sound recordist Ted Nicolaou, and David Gregory. It’s a drier track than the others, but still manages to offer new perspectives and information. The third commentary was recorded in 1996 for the Elite Entertainment LaserDisc release, featuring director Tobe Hooper, actor Gunnar Hansen, and cinematographer Daniel Pearl. It’s a lighthearted commentary, although they do fall into the trap of watching the film while they talk about it. But on the whole, it’s the most enjoyable and informative track of the lot. Finally, the fourth commentary was recorded in 2006 with actors Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, production designer and art director Robert A. Burns, once again moderated by David Gregory. It’s a fun commentary as the five watch the film together. Even though they tend to talk over and interrupt each other, they have a good repartee, and answer Gregory’s questions dutifully.
Phillip Escott’s The Legacy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was produced for Second Sight Films and features interviews with a number of filmmakers and critics about the film, analyzing its place in horror and treating it as a piece of filmmaking, Participants include Mick Garris, Fede Alvarez, Adam Marcus, Jamie Blanks, Marcus Nispel, and Jill Gevargizian, among others. It begins from a fan’s perspective and spends a little too much time reveling in the greatness of the film, but eventually gets more interesting as it slowly evolves into an exploration of its thematics and how its perceived in popular culture today. Behind the Mask: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre features the author of Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces analyzing where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fits into her five categories of masks as used in the horror genre—further complicated by the fact that Leatherface actually wears three different masks in the film. The Shocking Truth was directed by David Gregory for Blue Underground in 2000, and features interviews with the people behind the film, as well as the sequels. Participants include Tobe Hooper, Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Kim Henkel, Ted Nicolaou, Bill Moseley, Caroline Williams, Jeff Burr, and William Lustig, among many others. It’s the definitive document about the making of the film and has been since its original release. There are also a brief series of outtakes from The Shocking Truth documentary.
Cutting Chain Saw offers an interview with editor J. Larry Carroll about the circumstances involving how the film was put together. Granpaw’s Tales features an interview with actor John Dugan about his role in the film. Horror’s Hallowed Grounds is a 2008 episode of Sean Clark’s web series, taking us on a tour of the filming locations in Texas. Flesh Wounds was produced by Red Shirt Pictures in 2006 for Dark Sky Films and specifically speaks to members of the Chain Saw filmmaking family one by one. They include cinematographer Daniel Pearl, TCM fan club president Tim Harden, actor Edwin Neal, special makeup designer Dr. W.E. Barnes, and actor Gunnar Hansen. In addition, there’s an In Memoriam section devoted to actors Paul Partain and Jim Siedow, and art director Robert A. Burns, as well as footage from Cinema Wasteland and Texas Frightmare shows. Off the Hook features an interview with actress Teri McMinn from 2014, which was a big deal at the time as she had walked away from the spotlight and hadn’t spoken about the film since its release. The Business of Chain Saw features an interview with production manager Ron Bozman about his experiences making the film. House Tour with Gunnar Hansen was produced in 2006 and features the actor taking us on a tour of the filming location as it stands today. The Tobe Hooper Interview and Kim Henkel Interview were both originally recorded in 2002 for Blue Underground.
Most intriguing is a set of silent Deleted Scenes & Outtakes. Most of it is alternate angles and tail ends of takes that were used in the final film, but there are a few unused nuggets of gold along the way, including a shot of Paul staring at a pair of spiderweb-covered boots, a closeup of a spider in the hallway as Pam and Kirk wander off to go skinny dipping, additional shots of Leatherface killing Paul and chasing Sally, and my personal favorite: Tobe Hooper just off camera holding the door open when Sally runs into the gas station. The rest of the Deleted Scenes & Outtakes are a mix of various elements with and without sound, including alternate takes of the corpse in the graveyard that opens the film, as well as additional dialogue in the van, and the original introduction of the main cast which started on a dead dog instead of a dead armadillo.
That was the easy part; now here’s where everything gets complicated. While this Second Sight release does have the edge in terms of video quality, there are differences between the extras on all three UHD sets—and every one of them includes something that the others don’t. Second Sight’s release is missing the following extras from the out-of-print Turbine Medien Mediabook: the isolated music & effects track; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Family Portrait; The 5 Minute Massacre; the Blooper Reel; the 40th Anniversary Trailer; and the German Trailer. It’s also missing the following extras from Dark Sky’s set: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 40th Anniversary Q&A; the Blooper Reel; Dr. W.E. Barnes Presents “Making Grandpa” Gallery; and the 40th Anniversary Trailer. Plus, there are differences between the Stills Galleries on all three sets. On the other hand, Turbine Medien’s version is missing things that Second Sight included here, like the new commentary track; The Legacy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; Behind the Mask: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; and the interviews with Tobe Hooper & Kim Henkel. The Dark Sky version is missing the new commentary track; Behind the Mask: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; and the interviews with Hooper & Henkel.
So, the reality is that no matter which version that you choose, you’ll be missing out on something from the others. Of course, the fact that the Turbine Medien Mediabook is already out of print simplifies that decision, unless you’re willing to pay scalper prices on eBay. Second Sight does also offer a Limited Edition three-disc set that includes a 190-page hardbound book, art cards, and a rigid slipcase. That set is probably the gold standard, despite any missing extras. Still, the film’s the thing, and Second Sight’s superior video quality alone is enough of a reason to choose one of their offerings over either Turbine Medien or Dark Sky. Is it worth the upgrade if you already own one of those sets? That’s a tougher question. On a large enough display, the differences are clearly visible, but they’ll be a bit less obvious on a smaller flat panel. Taken on their own, both Turbine and Dark Sky have excellent picture quality. It’s only when compared to Second Sight that they might seem a bit lacking. Yet for anyone who demands the very best, this is the version to own, without question. Whether or not it’s worth the extra money is up to you.
- Stephen Bjork and Tim Salmons