Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #196 on the list, Tobe Hooper‘s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
Sometimes it’s unfortunate that one’s surroundings can so much affect the first impression of a film.
Initially, it seemed like the perfect setup for a first viewing of Tobe Hooper’s classic 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – midnight at our local independent theater, a brand new 4K restoration with a new 5.1 surround mix, and even one of the films “stars”, John Dugan who plays “Grandfather” there to sign autographs, tell a few tales and answer a few questions before showtime.
Yeah, on paper it sounds great. Unfortunately, the experience itself turned out to be a bit less than that. Now don’t get me wrong. Usually these midnight shows at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre are a lot of fun. The crowd’s usually really into the show, they always come up with an interesting drink special, the staff works hard to make sure that everyone has a great time, and thanks to the work of their ace projectionist, whether the film is, like this one, the highest new digital restoration one can get or a BTH generations-old 16mm print blown up for the big screen, you know you’re seeing it in the best way possible.
But on this particular night… yeah, let’s just say it could have been just a bit better.
I dunno, maybe it was me. Admittedly, I was coming off having just gotten off work at 10 o’clock that night after a couple of other late nights that week (including a 10 hour shift that had ended at midnight the night before), so I was kinda tired before I even got there. Then, with the autograph signing and the Q&A, it was actually around 12:45 before the actual film started rolling. (BTW, I should state here for the record that I’m certainly not knocking Mr. Dugan who was quite entertaining during his portion of the show.)
And then there were the drunk Vandy kids. Yeah, I know, now I’m really risking straying onto old fart territory, but since I wasn’t the only one who commented on it afterwards, I don’t think it was just me. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand having a rowdy good time at the theater and especially for a midnighter like this, but the problem wasn’t with people “over-enjoying” the show itself, but instead thinking that they either were part of the show too, or just thinking that they were more interesting than what was going on on the screen.
Then finally there was the movie itself. Or at least the print that we saw. Remember up at the top that I mentioned it was a 4K digital restoration with a 5.1 surround remix? Well, I have absolutely no doubt that the film has never looked better. Truly, I can’t imagine that anyone beyond those who saw the movie on the first few days after its release on 1974 so that they were watching a truly pristine print have ever seen the movie look this good. For that matter, thanks to the amount of clean-up that I’m sure went into the creation of this transfer it may not ever have looked this good before.
No, the problem wasn’t with the look of the movie, but with the sound of it. You see, the movie itself is very loud, with lots of screaming and shrieking, and then with the mix turned way the hell up, well, THE MOVIE WAS VERY, VERY, REALLY VERY F#$%@ING LOUD!!! Honestly, it was so loud that by the end of it, I was ready to kill the “final girl” just so she’d quit shrieking in my ear and Leatherface would turn that damned loud chainsaw off. Really, that in and of itself was almost enough to ruin the experience for me.
So yeah, there was all of that. Quite a bit for any movie to overcome.
Despite everything that the experience had going against it, I still have to say that there’s definitely something unarguably compelling about this movie.
As a matter of fact, it’s actually easy to see, even under the circumstances under which I was watching it, why it’s considered not only one of the all-time best horror movies, but one of the best movies of all time.
Oh, it’s far from perfect. The first 30 minutes or so are ponderously slow. I suspect that sophomore director Tobe Hooper (who had previously helmed a low-budget movie called Eggshells five years before) was going for a slow burn build-up to the real carnage, or perhaps he was just trying to fill out the film in the best exploitation film tradition by filling out the first third with a lot of conversation between the characters, which is fine if you do that in order to make them more compelling or relateable so that once they start dying we actually care about them enough to be upset about it, but honestly, with these characters it almost seems like the more we get to know them, the more eager we, as an audience, actually are to see them get bumped off.
Really, protagonist or antagonist, I’m not sure there’s actually a likeable character in the entire movie.
No, actually, I take that back. Ed Guinn, who portrays the overweight African-American cattle truck driver who stops near the end of the movie to help Sally – him I liked.
And then there’s the dialogue and the acting. Part of the reason these characters aren’t very likeable, and part of the reason, as noted above, that even without the new remix of the sound turned up so much that this seems a very loud movie is that for the most part, when the characters aren’t shrieking in terror they’re either yelling at each other or calling out each others’ names. Trust me when I say that if you come out of the movie knowing nothing else about most of these characters, you’ll never have any trouble remembering their names, because every ten seconds or so, especially during the second act when they start disappearing someone is shouting someone else’s name.
But even when they’re not screaming at or for each other, all they’re really doing is still proving themselves to either be completely cardboard and just there to be looked at then bumped off, or proving themselves to be the kind of person you really don’t want to spend any time with in the first place.
Actually, I suppose what it really comes down to is this: despite everything that I’ve written above, once the film gets down to business, once Leatherface makes his first appearance, well, the film may not completely turn around, but there can be no denying that Tobe Hooper brings the goods to the screen.
And that’s what makes all the difference.
I mentioned above that it’s kind of an exploitation film tradition that the first third or so of a film is easily used up in conversation or simply talk in order to pad out the running time and to keep the film from simply being too short. Unfortunately, far too often, once we get beyond that, and into the third act where the movie has to finally shut up and show us something, where it has to pay off all of that build up and lead in time, well, it just doesn’t have anything to actually deliver. But that’s truly not the case here.
When Hooper finally gets down to the business of scaring his audience, of amping up the horror, and of trying not only to shock but to actually terrify the viewer and to keep us wondering just what might actually happen next and how far he’s going to go, that’s when you really see the mastery of his story-telling and one of the reasons why this movie is considered so brutal and so overwhelming.
At least, I think that’s true.
Which is where all of the adverse conditions that I started this essay talking about, come to the fore. Especially the incredibly LOUD SOUND OF THIS NEW MIX AND HOW LOUDLY IT WAS TURNED UP! Because throughout everything that is going on onscreen, EVERYONE IS SHOUTING AND SHRIEKING SO LOUDLY that when there is dialogue it’s almost impossible to make out either because it’s being delivered as a scream or a howl, or because someone is shrieking over it.
And that’s why I said at the very first that it’s unfortunate that sometimes the viewing experience affects one’s impression of a movie so much. Because I think under other circumstances I would have enjoyed this movie a lot more than I actually did. As a matter of fact, because of that impression, I’m willing to say that eventually I’ll probably give it another chance to prove itself, and myself another chance to actually take in more of what it seems Hooper is trying to do.
But when I do, I think I’ll try it at home. By Myself. And with the sound turned down.
Here’s a trailer: