The One and Only True Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Well, gee, somehow I've done all the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, even "Part 5," but not the original original.  Some of those other films are cool (The Beginning, 3D and 2017's Leatherface?  Not so much), but Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel's 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a legit horror classic; a great film that holds up perfectly to this day.  So we're going to correct this egregious oversight.  From Pioneer's non-anamorphic DVD to Turbine's UHD, this is THE Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Update 2/28/20 - 5/31/23: This kind of reminds me of when Blue Underground said there was no point in releasing Shock Waves on blu because it was 16mm, so it wouldn't benefit from being upgraded to HD.  Of course, years later, their eventual blu wound up looking observably better than the DVD.  After Turbine's TCM UHD sans-HDR, fan demand has lead to new 4k Ultra HD discs with it.  Do they similarly disprove the notion that this low budget 16mm wouldn't benefit from it?  Let's take a look!
Every time I rewatch this one, I'm surprised how strong every element of this film is.  The performances, the production design, the music, the writing, the editing and direction are all so damn good.  This isn't just effective because it got in early and managed to shock audiences before they were desensitized; this is an excellently crafted films made by virtual amateurs that all the major studios consistently fail to match, decade after decade.  A genuine masterpiece.
Chain Saw is, I suppose, the next step after Psycho: a disturbing film that takes loose, tabloid-esque inspiration from true crime horror and turns it into twisted psychological theater.  Both films capture mental illnesses in a more raw, realistic film than any of their peers and mix it up with an over-the-top exploitative thrill ride.  And both famously pushed the envelope of what was acceptable to put on screen; the difference is that decades later, Hitchcock's shock pieces now feel quaint, whereas most horror even today is afraid to go as far as Hooper went.  But they wind up closer together than further apart, since both are more than capable of standing up as compelling art pieces once you get past their initial shock value.  They're great twisted tales.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre debuted on DVD back in 1998, with a barebones, non-anamorphic DVD from Pioneer.  They re-released it in 2003 with new artwork, but it was the same disc, which is the first one we'll be looking at here.  Then Dark Sky got the rights, remastered the film and proper, 2-disc special edition in 2006.  We've got that one, too.  They put that same transfer on blu in 2008, but they replaced that with an even more loaded 40th Anniversary edition blu with a 4k remaster in 2014, which we've also got on hand.  And in the US, that's still the definitive edition.  They've re-issued it multiple times, in limited steelbooks, Best Buy and FYE exclusives, and even a special 5-disc set that comes in a box shaped like the truck from the film's finale, but it's all basically that same 40th edition.  In Germany, however, Turbine took it one step farther, giving us the 4k master in actual 4k with a BD/ UHD combo-pack in 2016.  That 3-disc set was later repackaged as a steelbook release in 2019, which we'll be looking at here.  And most recently, it's been remastered, again in 4k, but this time with HDR.  It was released in the US by Dark Sky, Germany by Turbine (yes, again) and the UK be Second Light, the last of which I've got for us today.
1) 2003 Pioneer DVD; 2) 2006 Dark Sky DVD; 3) 2014 Dark Sky BD;
4) 2019 Turbine BD; 5) 2019 Turbine UHD; 6) 2023 Second Sight UHD.

Pioneer's DVD insert describes their initial release as a "letterboxed high-definition SuperScan... painstakingly restored from the original 16mm ECO negatives."  Unfortunately, compressed into non-anamorphic 520x300 resolution, it's hard to appreciate that.  It's soft and riddled with compression noise, which is only worsened by the fact that it's interlaced.  It's also missing some picture along the left, because they've framed it at an unusual 1.72:1, which Dark Sky restores to 1.78:1.  They also make an interesting point about the film's colors and levels saying that the look they're presenting was "redesigned to reflect Hooper's original vision of higher contrast images and color. The hot sun now casts an amber hue upon the dry Texas landscape."  So, looking at the different color timings above, this makes me guess that the Dark Sky DVD might be the most authentic scan of the elements, but the warmer tones and yellower skies of the other editions might be Hooper's preference?

At any rate, this film was shot on 16mm, which means detail is inherently low, and so there's some question how useful higher-def presentations are.  Well, one look at the DVD makes it obvious that the original DVD isn't high enough.  But the gains going from the Dark Sky DVD to the BDs and eventually to the UHD are more subtle.  Every iteration after the first has more detail and life to the image.  But even looking at the Dark Sky DVD, it's clearly softer, with the film grain just semi-visible as smoothed over blotches.  Despite being just 16, the new 4k scan really is a beautiful upgrade.  If you're still holding onto a DVD thinking this film doesn't need an upgrade, think again.  But how about the UHD?  It has no HDR and uses the same 4k master, so the only real distinction is in the still higher resolution disc.  And there the difference really is hard to spot on first glance.
2014 Dark Sky BD left; 2019 Turbine UHD right.
It is there, though.   Well, first of all, they also matte their UHD (but not their blu-ray) to a slightly tighter 1.85:1.  But moving beyond that, if you get in real close, you can see areas on the blus where individual specks of grain are unresolved, and we get tiny macroblocks.  Even the UHD does if you really scour, but much less and more grain is more clearly defined.  But are you ever going to see this in motion?  I'm going to say probably not, especially if you don't have a huge TV.  But you might get a less direct sense of watching something more authentically filmic.  To put it in real terms, yes, the UHD is the best edition and objectively superior to the blu.  But if you've got a blu, I'd say it's a very slim upgrade, and just in terms of PQ, should be a low priority upgrade.

And the new Dolby Vision/ HDR10 version?  Well, first of all, the Second Sight shots will, like any HDR shot, look darker on an SD display.  But viewed on a proper HD screen, I'd say the colors look a little more saturated, particularly in the reds, but not much.  It's still 1.85:1 with virtually identical framing (it shifts about one pixel's worth to the right).  Grain is slightly better captured now, especially in areas like the sky of the first set of shots, or the orange reflector, where it's washed out on the Turbine.  This gives it a slightly sharper look.  And actually, some film damage has been cleaned up (note the spot on the van door, for example, above the front handle, that's present on the Turbine but not the SS in the second set of shots).  Most viewers probably won't notice the difference outside of a direct comparison like this, so I'm not sure if the distinction is important, but it is there.  For the record, Second Sight has the best transfer.
As far as audio, the original DVDs used the original audio elements "to create a digitally remastered stereo surround soundtrack."  They had no subtitle options.  Dark Sky, then and went and recovered the original mono track... but, it turned out, with a few sound effects missing.  They also included the newer stereo mix as well as their own 5.1 mix.  And yes, they created optional English and Spanish subtitles.  For their 40th blu, then, they kept all three sound mixes and also made a newer 7.1 mix, in lossless DTS-HD and LPCM, and kept the subtitles.  Because the mono track was flawed, though, they replaced it with a downmix of their 7.1 track, which made things less authentic, not more.  In the Turbine set, we get mono, stereo and 7.1 in DTS-HD, plus newer Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D 13.1 mixes.  It's a bit of overkill, but as you'll soon see, that's the name of the game with that set.  They also have four versions of the German track, plus optional English and German subs.  And finally, Second Sight has the original mono in LPCM, a Dolby Atmos mix and English subtitles.
The extras for this film just keep getting to the point of being overwhelming, but happily, not too redundant. The original DVDs basically bring us the extras package from the Elite laserdisc: a great audio commentary by Hooper, Gunnar Hansen and cinematographer Daniel Pearl, a brief featurette on the sets and props, deleted/ alternate scenes, a brief gag reel, and a bunch of trailers, TV spots and stills galleries.  Then Dark Sky kept all of that but added a bunch more including a second audio commentary by stars Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger and infamous production designer Robert A. Burns, which is more of a light-hearted chatty affair.  They also include a brief featurette where Hansen revisits the house they filmed in and two feature length documentaries.  The first, The Shocking Truth, made by Blue Underground, is still the definitive, over-all TCM doc.  Then the second, Flesh Wounds, made by Red Shirt's Michael Felsher, seems deliberately designed to compliment the other pre-existing special features, and present only new, additional info about TCM rather than retelling all the stories and anecdotes from the other docs and commentaries.  That helps a lot.  Dark Sky's DVD set also includes additional outtakes from The Shocking Truth, some additional bonus trailers, and came in a cool steelbook.

For their 40th Anniversary blu-ray, Dark Sky kept everything and also cooked up a few more nice treats.  There're two additional audio commentaries, including a new Hooper one, where the director of Shocking Truth quizzes him for for the few remaining niggling answers he's been left wondering over the years, and an interesting crew commentary by Pearl, editor J. Larry Carroll and sound recordist Ted Nicolaou.  During their new 4k scan, they uncovered some more deleted scenes and outtakes, different from the ones already released on the DVDs, though most are without sound.  And they conducted new, on-camera interviews with actress Teri McMinn, who up 'till now had never participated in TCM interviews and such, "grandpa" actor John Dugan, J. Carroll and production manager Ron Bozman.  Felsher did these as well, and they again seemed specifically designed to fill in the gaps of the existing Chain Saw coverage, which I really appreciate.  Plus they add some vintage radio spots.  Also, if you bought the limited edition "Black Maria" version, the one in truck packaging, you got an additional bonus disc that consists of an hour long discussion between Hooper and William Friedkin.
Teri McMinn happily rejoins the family.
And Turbine?  Happily, they also retain all the legacy extras we've covered so far, except for that exclusive Hooper/ Friedkin talk.  And they add some more, too.  There's an isolated music and effects track, in DTS-HD 7.1, and a brief featurette that compares key scenes from the original film to the 2003 remake, which is more valuable if you don't already own the remake.  Even better, they include the Horror's Hallowed Grounds TCM episode, which blows the old house tour featurette away (although that's still on here, too).  And best of all, they include the original TCM documentary: 1988's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait, which specifically interviews all the cast members who played members of the killer family.  And is most valuable because that includes Jim Siedow, who passed away before he could be included in most of the other TCM special features.

Now, I read on DVDCompare that on the Turbine release, "'A Family Portrait' is in a mix of German and English audio, with German subtitles for the English portions," which is correct, so I hung onto my 2000 MTI Home Video DVD.  But, while that quote did turn out to be true, it's misleading by omission since Turbine also includes a second audio track of the complete, original English audio.  That German/ English mix thing is just a second, alternate language option for German audiences we English natives don't need to bother with.  Oh and yes, both are the extended "Revisited" version.  I don't think there's any way to get the original version, which was originally actually ten minutes longer and included an interview with Chief Gorehound #1 Chas Balun, outside of the original VHS release.  So yeah, there's no reason to hang onto the separate DVD, unless... the picture quality's any better on the blu?
1) 2000 MTI DVD; 2) 2019 Turbine BD.
Nope, it's just the same.  The film was shot on video tape, so there's no real room to grow.  MTI released this as a standalone on blu (or BD-R, strictly speaking) in 2016 and caught a lot of flack for the PQ, but it's not like there was a negative to go back to or anything.  Anyway, the discs aren't 100% identical.  They're both fullscreen, of course, but the DVD is 1.32:1 while the blu is slightly wider at 1.36:1.  That's partially because Turbine cropped the bar of random video noise along the bottom edge, and but it's also a teensy bit squished, which the blu corrects.  Both versions are interlaced and soft to the point of downright blurriness, which again I'm sure goes right back to the original tapes, but the colors are slightly, like 1%, more robust and attractive.  So not only is the quality of the stand-alone not any preferable, it's actually a smidgen better on Turbine's release.  And there are no extras apart from a couple trailers; so go ahead and chuck those DVDs, kids.

When you look at the massive list of extras that've piled up over the decades, it can look overwhelming and you'll probably be tempted to skim through a lot, if not skip things completely.  But it's all surprisingly watchable as a massive whole.  Sure, you'll hear a few of the most famous anecdotes two or three times.  But in general, it all works well together.  The only little one I'd recommend maybe jumping over is the house tour, since the Hallowed Grounds and two documentaries also revisit the same house.  Some talk to different people - Flesh Wounds talks to the head of the TCM fan club and Hallowed Grounds talks to one of the owners who's embraced the fanbase coming to visit the home - so they all feel fresh and original.  But one of the docs even uses footage from the Gunnar house tour featurette, so that's really the one you can save yourself a few minutes by passing over.

And Second Sight's new set?  It's equally stacked.  Almost everything that's on the Turbine is carried over, but not absolutely everything.  Lost, unfortunately, is Family Portrait, the newer set of silent deleted scenes, the brief blooper/ outtake reel and that little comparison video between this and the remake.  And no, this doesn't have that Friedkin/ Henkel interview either - that seems to be a tightly held Dark Sky exclusive.  But Second Sight has come up with a bunch of new stuff, actually making this release flusher than ever.
First of all, there's a new audio commentary by experts Amanda Reyes and Bill Ackerman, who do a pretty good job of finding eclectic information to add that hasn't already been covered by the slew of pre-existing extras.  They're pretty high energy and fun to listen to, too.  Then there's an all new, feature-length documentary called The Legacy Of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  This one focuses on critics and other filmmakers rather than participants of the original film, again I believe it's because they were conscious of not just repeating what the other extras already cover... and they do an okay job.  A lot of this is just sharing uninteresting "I was _ years old when I saw Chain Saw"-style memories and obvious opinions, but they got some interesting people, including the co-directors of the 2013 remake.  It's borderline: an easy one to skip if you've already watched a ton of TCM features, but perfectly watchable if you've still got the patience.

There's also a new video essay by critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, which is honestly kind of weak.  Apparently she's written a book about masks in horror films, so she's hear to talk about masks in TCM; but it's just a few minutes long, so it feels like she's just briefly outlining the basic fundamentals before it's already over.  They should've given her more time to really dig into some of the more interesting ideas that are presumably found in her book or just skipped it.  More rewarding are two vintage on-camera interviews with Hooper and Henkel, which are extended pieces from their interviews in Shocking Truth.  More Henkel is always a boon.

If you sprung for their limited edition, you also got a hefty 190-page hardcover book, six art cards and a slipcase, plus blu-ray copies of the film and extras.  Or you can just get the single UHD edition, which includes all of the on-disc extras, but none of the swag.
So, does this crazy, old 16mm film need a 4k Ultra HD edition with HDR?  Well, there's no doubt Second Sight's latest transfer is the best yet.  But even coupled with the new special features, fans might question if it's reason enough to re-buy this film once again.  I mean, definitely if you still have the old Pioneer DVD or something.  But otherwise, it depends if you're just one of those people who needs to have the absolute best version of this film in heir collection.  It turns out I was.  Of course, it helps that it's a masterpiece.

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