‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ Remains the Ultimate Revisionist Western 40 Years Later

It opens with images of mortality and ends with a monster’s operatic dance with a chain saw under a deathly, brooding Texas sun—it’s about America, man.

“Its about America man, its about America.”

This is the answer Tobe Hooper once gave when asked that question every writer-director dreads; “What’s your movie really about?”

Hooper was not trying to be funny.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What sounds like nothing more than an absurd and bloody exploitation flick has, for forty years now, represented both an unattainable mark in genre craftsmanship and a complex meditation on America at a moment of crisis. The seminal slasher that put twentysomethings in danger in an American wilderness still evokes everything from the terrors of a closed frontier to the brutal violence that originally opened that frontier.

America had plenty of real horror in 1974, as the realization of the true costs of Vietnam became clear and a presidency began to collapse under the weight of its own corruption. Hooper situates Massacre into this deeply agitated moment. The opening shots combine images of corpses and skulls (not to mention the famous dead possum) with the sound of a radio news hourly update telling tales of woe, including grave robbing, solar flares and unexplained murders. “You could feel that things were on edge,” Hooper notes on one of the film’s new commentary tracks, “and had the potential for popping.”

Placing this horror in Texas, and including shots of a wide-open range and a sky that looms terrifying and aggressive over us, allowed a horror film to become a parable of real American horrors. The family that perpetrates the horrific violence is named the Sawyers, suggestive of Twain’s frontier scamp and, of course, the family’s very special relationship to the saw. Like America itself, they’ve “always been in meat.”

In the masterful hands of Bob Burns, set design evoked the violence of the American past. Although at one point in the film the Sawyers are called “a family of Draculas,” the gothic castle has become a frontier homestead. The interior looks like a fever dream of the American west with skeletons of animals transformed into furniture and floors littered with feathers and teeth (real human teeth we learn from the special features, provided by a dentist friend of Burns).

Horror fans are well aware that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has appeared in a number of formats over the years. Still, this new 4K transfer that allows you to hear the chainsaw in cleaned-up 7.1 Surround is hard to refuse. Genre fans will covet this set both for the crisp transfer and some additional special features not found on the earlier Dark Sky Blu-ray release.

Most notably, this anniversary collection includes a total of six hours of audio commentary. Four commentary tracks appear on this edition, two previously released but now including a brand new Tobe Hooper commentary along with a new commentary by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, editor J. Larry Carroll and sound editor Ted Nicolaou that will be beloved by fans of guerilla film-making.

Hooper’s new commentary track is the first he’s done in twenty years. Its illuminating in part because it provides something of an alternate explanation of the much-discussed relationship between Massacre and the story of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer of the ’50s known for making furniture out of human skin. Hooper makes it clear that he did not draw directly from the Gein horrors, though he had a very vague memory of hearing tales about them from his Wisconsin relatives. Only after his film appeared, and a number of commentators noted similarities between the stories, did Hooper really learn about the madness of Gein.

Other new features include an interview with John Dugan who, as a young actor in extraordinary make-up, played “Grandpa,” the Sawyer’s surreal, corpse-like patriarch. Dugan has some serious war stories about the pace of filming. He tells us the behind the scenes story of the epic battles between set designer Robert Burns and Tobe Hooper as well as detailed descriptions of the actors and how they held it together (and didn’t) during a nightmarish shoot that has become legendary.

One of the oddest moments I’ve ever seen in such a feature comes when Dugan talks about the recently deceased Marilyn Burns. Dugan actually cries as he talks about the misery she endured during the long hours of filming. She apparently was actually hurt with the real handle of Leatherface’s foam hammer and suffered through more or less a month of what Dugan calls “abuse.”

Although this account may sound more than a little melodramatic, it conforms to what Hooper says of the shoot. Hooper employs an interesting metaphor in calling the experience of filming a kind of “war dance” in which the whole cast entered into a kind of “madness.” Hooper believes that the cast’s internecine conflicts, the brutal Texas summer heat and the actual injuries sustained by several of the actors, added to the atmosphere of dread the film conveyed.

Other special features include outtakes and deleted scenes. Some of these are from an earlier Blu-ray release, but some are new to this edition. These are all silent since the production audio is missing. Other supplementary features, such as the documentary The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth and Flesh Wounds: Seven Stories of the Saw, appeared in several earlier releases of the film.

The Collector’s Edition set comes with some well-drawn cover-art. This makes for one of the better presentations of the film I’ve seen. The package contains both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the feature film, as well as a bonus features disc.

Appearing in the same troubled era that Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee told the true story of America’s conquest of the frontier, Hooper’s strange western says more than perhaps he even meant it to say. It opens with images of mortality and ends with a monster’s operatic dance with a chain saw under a deathly, brooding Texas sun. It’s about America, man.

RATING 9 / 10