Paul A. Partain
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Seriously Ultimate Edition (1974)
11th Nov 09
After hearing that the graveyard where her grandfather is buried has been desecrated, Sally Hardesty along with wheelchair-bound Franklin, boyfriend Jerry and another couple, Kirk and Pam travel out to investigate. Whilst in the area, the group stops off to visit their childhood home. They also let about the most insane hitchhiker, period, into their vehicle. Humouring him for far too long, they are shocked when their passenger slashes himself and then Franklin before jumping out and marking the side of their van with his blood.
Whilst at the homestead, Kirk and Pam go looking for a waterhole only to find it no longer there and then come across another property. Upon entering Kirk is smashed over the head with a hammer by Leatherface and promptly chain sawed up in front of his girlfriend now impaled on a meat hook. Soon the others become victims of Leatherface and family, with only Sally managing to get away after a protracted and horrific half hour of torment and violent abuse.
Former schoolteacher Tobe Hooper decided that his Hollywood calling card would be to make a movie about ‘a whole family of Geins’. Having grown up listening to tales about the Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, Hooper ‘borrowed’ the same inspiration for his tale that author Robert Bloch did for his novel Psycho, and Thomas Harris later did for The Silence of the Lambs. It was when he was Christmas shopping that he got the idea for the implement that was to adorn the hand of his story’s lead nutcase Leatherface. ‘I was shopping in a crowded Sears’s department store in Austin, Texas, when I started to have a panic attack. I was thinking, ‘Please God, show me a way out of here…’ And there right in front of my eyes was a big display of chainsaws.’
Hooper apparently thought that if he kept the amount of blood shown down in his movie, called initially Leatherface, he would get away with a PG certificate and therefore get a larger audience and more money. Whether he was joking when he imparted this little fact, I am unsure. What I am sure about is that his plan didn’t work. In fact the reaction went the other way. In Britain it was banned outright in 1975 until 1999 when the censors changed their policy and passed the movie uncut. It did make the video shelves at the start of the video entertainment revolution in an ‘uncensored’ cut, however, like most movies that had a title like this baby; it was subsequently accused of being a video nasty.
In the States it was a different story. From it’s limited budget of $140,000 it went on to gross an estimated $31million. I say estimated because no one really knows for certain how much money ‘Chainsaw’ actually did take, given that gangsters had helped fund the movie and were pilfering off most of the box office receipts before anyone else got a whiff of them. In terms of what the public thought, the movie was voted the best horror ever by the team behind UK’s Total Film magazine. Even the likes of the late film critic Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard had something nice to say about it calling the movie ‘The purest of all horror films.’
Although the movie’s tagline proudly proclaims that ‘…it happened’, and has an opening prologue narrated by actor John Larroquette (Hooper wanted someone that sounded like Orson Welles) tricking the audience into believing it did. It is true that a fellow by the name of Ed Gein DID wear human skin, however he never used a chainsaw, worked alone rather than with other family members, and looked nothing like the loonies in Hooper’s movie so the ‘true story’ link is tenuous at best. The device is merely a scare tactic used to gee up the audience. If the film was released in 1973 and the events take place in 1973 you would think that someone would have twigged it wasn’t based on anything real. The same stunt was pulled for the more recent release Wolf Creek.
As Hooper intended, there is very little blood spilled onscreen, however, even without red stuff I fail to see how the guy thought that his baby would get a rating for a family audience. From the first surprise attack, when the steel door pulls back to reveal Leatherface in all his grisly glory it is fair to say that the audience were probably expecting him to chase Kirk around a bit. Instead out comes the hammer and smack, down goes Kirk, twitching and convulsing as Leatherface slams the door shut on his bleeding victim and on the audience’s shattered nerves. There is no ominous score building up to the ‘reveal’, no wink to the audience that something awful is about to happen.
If the audience were expecting someone to save the day it’s not going to happen. Instead we get a bloodied and hysterical Sally fleeing her prison and into the arms of a lorry driver that also runs away. It isn’t until she manages to flag down another vehicle that she manages to completely get away, probably the first time in the horror genre that we witness a resourceful and determined female that survives for a change - albeit with long-term psychological damage. As she is driven away, we see Leatherface spinning in the rising sun with his chainsaw in some bizarre dance. Hell even the bogeyman isn’t dead and this wasn’t for some quick cash-in sequel, it was there to freak out an audience that still thinks that what they are watching actually happened.
The last half hour where Sally is a ‘guest’ at Leatherface’s family home is pretty rough viewing, with the sound consisting of buzzing chainsaws; Sally screaming; the family shouting at each other; Sally screaming and um, Sally screaming. Like Sally, the audience’s sanity ends up frayed, so come the final credits they stumble numb and shocked back to their reality. This isn’t a movie - this is a trip - and a bad one at that. The movie’s low budget and quick filming schedule of twenty days has helped produce an almost fly-on-the-wall feel to the proceedings.
Marilyn Burns who played Sally had a pretty rough time filming. When chased by Leatherface through the undergrowth she actually cut herself on the branches quite badly, so a lot of the blood on her body and clothes is real. Also during the dinner scene towards the end of the film, when Leatherface cuts Sally's finger, he actually does cut Marilyn’s finger because he kept failing to get the fake blood to come out of the tube behind the blade.
It’s fair to say that much of her screaming wasn’t just down to acting. Take the scene where she collapses on the garage floor after fleeing Leatherface. Marilyn had to do the same thing for seventeen takes. The blood that you see on her knees is real. To make matters worse for Marilyn she wasn’t exactly the fastest runner in the world, even when chased by twenty two stone Gunnar Hansen, so the actor had to pretend to chainsaw through twigs and other flimsy foliage to buy Burns some time to get away.
Whilst Hansen found his scenes with Marilyn a bit of a giggle, in retrospect he really didn’t get on with Paul Partain who played Franklin, who was so into being his character that he niggled him. Hansen joked that he was pleased when he got to film the scene where he killed Franklin, given that the movie was being shot chronologically this would mean Partain would not be on set anymore. He wasn’t alone in his opinion - Marilyn Burns didn’t get on with Partain either and spent most of her time with him bickering.
Hansen declined Hooper’s request that Leatherface could and should talk on the grounds that it made him seem more human than subhuman. Apparently in order to prepare for his role, Hansen did research at a mental institution. Whether this research attributed to the fact that Leatherface has three different masks he wears during the movie, who knows, but the research does seem a bit involved for a film that was only scheduled to shoot three to four weeks with minimal budget. The masks imply that there is nothing inside Leatherface and that the mask dictates his personality for each occasion, such as a lady mask for when he prepares the family meal, chillingly smudged with lipstick. There is a cut scene where we see Leatherface touching up his make-up during the dinner scene. The mask is also an imitation of how Ed Gein used to take the face of a victim to wear as his own.
The cheapness of the budget made for more effective set designs; the sort a bigger budget would have added far too much polish to. Bob Burns has created a disturbing set clearly inspired by the story’s source in Ed Gein, aping his home stylings with furniture made of bone and skin. Hooper states that the skeletons used were actually real human skeletons purchased from India.
In putting the script together, Hooper and Kim Henkel said they knew they had it right when it read as funny to them. I often wonder it Hooper and his team really had any idea of how potent and raw his vision when transferred to the screen. The movie redefined horror by not following the conventional pattern that had taken to that point. Seen to be influenced by the disillusionment in the United States at the time - Vietnam, Watergate - it paved the way for the likes of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and a whole plethora of imitators and parodies such as Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell.
Tobe Hooper went on to make the well received TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979) and had terrific success with the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, however, much of his other outcome could be called interesting at best. His own sequel to Chainsaw released in 1986 was a badly executed mess and the likes of vampires from space movie Lifeforce was laughable at best. However of late Hooper has enjoyed a slight return to form with his 2003 take on the Toolbox Murders proving a guilty pleasure.
The above review is an extract from Sean Cockwell’s book on horror movies called Scenes from Behind the Sofa available from October 31st from www.lulu.com
THE EXTRAS For the die-hard Texas Chainsaw fan there’s everything and more than they could possibly want here. However for the less committed the standard of the extras is variable and leaves the viewer considering whether less material would actually be more, with much of the material unsatisfactory and adding little.
Disc One Look forward to a high definition transfer from the 16mm camera originals and a choice of either 5.1 English or 2.0 Stereo Surround soundtracks, along with a digitally re-mastered original mono soundtrack if you so fancy. There are two feature-length commentaries – the first with actors Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, and art director Robert A. Burns and the second with director Tobe Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl and actor Gunnar Hansen.
Disc Two - Off the Hook - an interview with Teri McMinn Teri comes across as a likeable and honest subject for this fifteen minute interview that focuses mainly on her bottom having a prime scene in the movie, along with her being stuck on a meat hook and popping out of a freezer.
- Interview with production manager Ron Bozman Ron talks about how everyone had ten different jobs to do on set and how tired everyone got making it. We learn how Ron went on to work on the similarly themed The Silence of the Lambs and won himself an Oscar as producer despite his initial reservations about taking it on. The clips overlaying Ron’s dialogue distract from what he is saying and there’s some fun watching Ron getting bothered about the rain.
- The Shocking Truth documentary
An excellent and informative documentary that, during its 75 minute running time, manages to bring back all the faces involved. Some details will already be familiar with fans of the film, such as the movie's release being funded by the Mafia meaning that at the time very few of those involved made much money from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, however it still plays as fresh. The documentary goes on to cover the sequels which is a REAL plus and very informative. This documentary is without doubt the best feature on the disc.
- A tour of the TCSM house with Gunnar Hansen This short piece starts with footage taken of the Chainsaw house in 1993 before zooming forward to 2000 and having Leatherface himself reveal to the in-his-face camera which scene was filmed in each room. Prepare to get freaked out by the cuddly bunnies that line the stairs!
- The Shocking Truth Outtakes There’s some interesting anecdotes here such as when William Vale, who plays Kirk, says about a showing of the movie he attended in Times Square, surrounded by a small black audience that were shouting at the screen to ‘Kill the Honkey’ every time someone entered the house.
Disc Three - Flesh Wounds documentary
Another lengthy documentary and by now ‘extras’ fatigue is setting in – there’s only so much of the seeing the same scenes playing out that one person can take. Flesh Wounds claims to give the viewer bumph that you wouldn’t have seen or read anywhere else about Chainsaw! I beg to differ! Split into sections we first get to listen to cinematographer Daniel Pearl talking about THAT under-the-chair-and-looking-at-Terri-McMinn’s-arse shot that has already been discussed elsewhere on the discs. Pearl goes on to tell us why he became a director of photography – to get out of being drafted for Vietnam – and how after the birth of his daughter in 1986 he didn’t want to be involved in another horror movie, until he was offered to lens the 2003 remake that is.
Next up we get the head of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre fan club guide us around the house as Gunnar Hansen already did on Disc Two, its slightly more interesting but begs why fans need two tours on one disc set. The following section concentrates on actor Edwin Neal (the hitchhiker) who spends his entire interview gurning and putting on as many silly voices as possible. This tends to be rather annoying however to his credit he does come up with the odd interesting tale or two.
Tributes are paid to those involved that have since passed away which is a nice touch but then we are faced with a make-up feature which epitomises the word ‘bland’. The section on conventions starts ok but soon bores, however Gunnar Hansen, in the final segment, makes for a fun subject who had no idea how big Chainsaw had become, opted to become a writer instead.
There was one HUGE niggle throughout this feature, what’s with the choice of music? It just doesn’t fit!
- Interview with director Tobe Hooper Nothing new here from cigar chomping Tobe and by now ‘extra’ fatigue has killed any interest in watching further but for those that do there’s an….
- Interview with writer Kim Henkel Kim makes for a better subject than Tobe Hooper when talking to the camera, being a lot more animated. He talks about how in writing he was inspired more by the case of Elmer Wayne Hemley, who was a procurer of young men for another party, than Ed Gein. It’s interesting to hear Henkel talk about his later Massacre movie 'The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre'. He explains why he thinks that given the movie had two such big future stars, Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, that his movie didn’t go on to find an audience later on when the stars broke big.
TV & Trailer Spots 'What Happened Was True' states the trailer - yeah of course it was…there are five similar commercials, all of which seem like they are showing the viewer far too much. The more effective commercial is the first shown that carries a quote from critic Rex Reed who referred to Chainsaw as the 'The Most Horrifying Movie I have ever seen'.
Radio Spots There are two of these - nothing to write home about, but nice that they bothered with putting visuals from the movie's credits in the background as the clips played to brighten up things a bit.
Under Further Features we have…
- Deleted Scenes, Alternative Footage and Outtakes - All of the clips are lumped together for twenty-seven minutes of uneven footage, opening with silent footage of the corpses seen at the start of the movie and featuring clips of Leatherface applying make-up looking very Benny Hill. The majority of the clips are without sound.
- Stills, Posters and Lobby Card Gallery - these are followed by stills of actor John Dugan being made up as Grandfather.
EXTRAS - THREE STARS
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Seriously Ultimate Edition is now available on Blu Ray.