An interesting thing happened recently, when I was in attendance at a 35mm screening of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The print was in remarkably good shape (this is one of those movies where 35mm prints tend to be a bit beat up and/or faded), with one exception - the scene where Pam was hanging on the meat hook and Leatherface grabbed his chainsaw to finish off Kirk noticeably cut short and went to the next scene. This isn't uncommon with old prints, and it was on a reel change which often has issues even on newer films, but what I found rather charming was how myself and two pals all had different estimates of how much was missing. All of us had seen the film several times, but I was certain only about 10 seconds were missing, whereas one friend thought it was much less, and our other friend was certain it was more like 30 seconds.
It turns out Friend #2 was right, but it was a rare firsthand account of how this horror movie in particular plays tricks on your mind, so you're not sure what you saw or what you DIDN'T see. It SEEMED like something was missing, but were we just projecting what our imaginations had conjured up? And if so, how much? Psycho and its shower scene is probably the most famous example, as folks are SURE they see the knife penetrating Janet Leigh (it never does), but Chain Saw provides its fair share of such moments, particularly regarding the amount of blood you see. More than one critic (and even some fans) will tell you it's a disgusting and gory film, but that's pretty far from the truth - there's about as much blood in it as a latter day, MPAA-ravaged Friday the 13th film (which is to say, almost none at all). But what little there is can be seen clearer than ever thanks to Dark Sky's new 40th anniversary Blu-ray release of the film, which contains an all new transfer and more extras than I can possibly watch in order to get this review up in time.
Of course, Chain Saw could be given a barebones release and it'd still be worth the purchase - it overcame its exploitative title to become one of the most lauded horror films of all time, often ranking alongside The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs on major publications' lists of such things. I saw it at a ridiculously early age (I was around 7 or 8) and didn't really think of it with any more regard than Witchboard or whatever else I saw around then, but over time and many more viewings I've discovered it's one of the rare horror films that keeps making me uneasy even though I know it practically by heart by now. The first 10 minutes are some of the most dread-soaked in horror history, thanks to that ear-piercing camera flash sound, the propped up corpses at the graveyard, and of course the radio. The film is pretty much grounded in reality, but unless there's a Texas radio station dedicated to bummer news, Hooper (and co-writer Kim Henkel, who, like John Russo for Night of the Living Dead, seemingly likes to prove that his partner had most of the talent, if his post-Chain Saw work is any indication) went out of his way to add to the uneasy vibe by tossing tragic stories at us one after another: building collapses, fires, etc. You might not even catch them all on a first (or second, or third) viewing since they're basically background noise, but it adds to the tension all the same.
The interesting thing about Chain Saw is that its behind the scenes stories are almost as important as what's on-screen. At times it's just a basic slasher (albeit one that came before many of them, it should be noted), particularly in its 2nd act which is basically a series of people walking into the house and getting killed by a masked killer - standard stuff. Once Franklin is killed and it becomes a non-stop endurance test for poor Sally Hardesty the movie once again elevates itself into something truly special, but even that feels more horrifying once you know how those scenes were pulled off. The dinner scene was shot during a 27-36 hour long shooting session, which was caused by actor John Dugan refusing to put on the Grandpa makeup again and/or the necessity to finish Jim Siedow's scenes since he had to return to Houston for another acting assignment (it depends on who is telling the story, assuming it's not really both reasons). The temperatures were over 100 with no air conditioning, with the rotting food and filthy clothes (the wardrobe for the actors was never washed throughout the shoot) making unbearable stenches that could not be escaped. On one of the Blu-ray's new bonus features, Dugan actually starts crying when he thinks about what poor Marilyn Burns went through while they were shooting this sequence - and he was the one buried in latex during it! Once you've heard these stories they're impossible to forget when watching the scene, and knowing that the actors were pretty much not acting makes those moments all the more disturbing.
Of course, these stories are legendary because unlike Halloween or Friday the 13th, this film has always been fairly well treated on DVD. Pioneer converted the Elite special edition laserdisc to the format pretty early on in its lifespan (it was one of the first discs I got, actually), and it was pretty packed - commentary, lots of outtakes and alternate footage, etc. Then Dark Sky got a hold of it and began releasing new editions every few years, most notably in 2006 where they added two nearly feature length retrospective pieces ("The Shocking Truth" and "Flesh Wounds") along with a new commentary with several of the surviving actors. That edition was ported to Blu-ray a few years back, which also added some new features, and now we have the 40th anniversary edition, which contains the new transfer of the film supervised by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, two new commentaries, two new interviews, some recently unearthed outtakes, and ALL pre-existing bonus features (from Region 1 releases anyway), making this a true ultimate edition that can safely replace any (R1) version you may already have.
No need to run through the older extras; they've been revived for a reason. "Shocking Truth" is a good look at the whole series, and "Flesh Wounds" is an interesting piece in that it's seven cast/crew members, filmed individually and around the country (Edwin Neal is in a typical studio setting, whereas Gunnar Hansen is seen out and about the Maine town where he lives), and telling rare stories. The commentaries are fun and offer plenty of anecdotes, and the various outtake/deleted material, albeit often without sound, provide some intriguing looks at scenes that might have been (I particularly like seeing what Leatherface does after disappearing when chasing Sally back to the gas station). The new stuff is just as good; Dugan's new interview has some repeat stories from his other ones, but he's such a colorful (read: profane) storyteller that it doesn't bother me to hear them again, and with Burns' recent passing his teary-eyed recollection of shooting the dinner scene inadvertently works as a eulogy of sorts (it was shot before she died, obviously). The other new interview is with editor J. Larry Carroll, who delighted me by continuing past Chain Saw and discussing his role as screenwriter of Tourist Trap, one of my favorite slasher films.
The new commentaries are fine, though if you've gone through everything else you probably won't learn much. Tobe Hooper is pretty much talked out of the subject by now, so his recollections are vague and he only really comes to life when speaking more generally about certain unrelated topics (also, his voice is the definition of "gravelly", so he can be a bit hard to understand at times). The other one, with Pearl, Carroll, and sound recordist/future filmmaker Ted Nicolau, is much better - they have a nice repartee and some stories we haven't heard a million times (at least not from their POV), though Pearl occasionally dips too far into tech talk for his comments to be of much use to anyone but budding cinematographers. Both tracks are moderated by David Gregory, who is obviously has the credentials (he's the director of the "Shocking Truth" doc) but frustratingly lets his subjects fall silent too often and he usually misses easy followup questions. For example, Carroll mentions seeing the movie over and over during editing but that it was a whole different experience seeing it with a crowd, and Gregory just lets the topic die after that, rather than ask obvious followups like "Where did you see it first?", or even "WHEN did you see it first?", as he had earlier mentioned having to leave the very long editing process to attend to another gig. Gregory also doesn't really offer much insight of his own, which is odd since a. he's made a documentary on the series and b. there are plenty of gaps on both tracks that he should have been compelled to fill.
The newly found outtakes are quite interesting; we see alternate versions of tossing the Hitchhiker out of the van, plus even more footage of Leatherface storming around outside the gas station after Sally's "escape". And most shocking - they considered other angles for that famous shot of Pam walking up to the house! None of the sound for this material could be located (the older outtake reel had some), but most doesn't seem to have any dialogue anyway, so it's no big deal. I BELIEVE that's all of the new stuff, I haven't kept up with every release as I have with Halloween (and Dark Sky's press release didn't specify which stuff was new besides the commentaries), but poking around online seems to confirm everything else was on an older release. However, I should stress that two of the interviews (with production manager Ron Bozman and actress Teri McGinn) were only released on UK special editions previously, so it's great that we can finally have them on a R1 release (Bozman's is a must-see; his story about the marijuana plants being kept at their shooting location is pretty hilarious). All in, it'll take you about 11-12 hours to watch the movie and go through the entire set of extras (6 hours just on commentaries), so if you've never watched any of the bonus material before, set aside the better part of your day if you plan to go through it all.
As for the transfer, it's quite good. I didn't get a chance to see the 4k transfer in theaters, but this is taken from that, and so it looks better than any previous transfer, obviously. The color timing has been adjusted ever so slightly (supervised by Daniel Pearl, before you cry foul), making it look even warmer in the outdoor scenes, and detail is improved across the board as well - the movie actually IS kind of bloody in spots, it's just never looked good enough to see it all! I can't screenshot the Blu-ray, but as the edition I was sent for review contains Blu AND DVD discs of the set, I was able to pull a screenshot of the new transfer from the latter, and I offer the comparisons below:
The shot of Leatherface doesn't reflect much of a difference between the last DVD and this one, but the shot of Pam clearly shows the improvement (or, at least, the difference, if you prefer the colder look). Suffice to say, the film looks better each time out, and again that's the DVD - the Blu, of course, looks even better. Apart from the very grainy sequence where Franklin is killed (which has always been the case), the film looks pretty flawless, yet retains that lo-fi 16mm look that helped make it stand out from its peers, even if only on a subconscious level. Some may argue that the film SHOULD look all beat up and "raw", and while I can see their point, at the end of the day I can't argue with the film's cinematographer on how it should be presented, and unlike some studio transfers (cough, FOX, cough) there isn't an excessive usage of DNR turning everyone into wax dummies. It doesn't just look great, it looks RIGHT, and in my opinion makes it worth an upgrade even if you're not interested in supplemental material (luckily for you folk, there's a stripped down edition that just has the commentaries).
There aren't many horror films I love more than this one; I don't watch it as often as I do some other much loved faves like Halloween and The Thing, but the trade off is it still has the ability to unnerve me (Halloween, as much as I love it, doesn't quite get under my skin anymore, sadly). And as a special edition enthusiast I can't thank Dark Sky enough for making sure that everything was accounted for (and then some), as I've grown tired of new editions that ditch old, perfectly good bonus material and "force" me to keep multiple copies of a movie on my shelf. I'll be sad to see one of my original batch of DVDs go (I got it over 15 years ago; seems impossible to believe it's been that long), but there really is no use for it anymore - this is the definitive release of the film, and probably will be for the duration of the Blu-ray format.