I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the cinema the other day. It’s been a long road but I feel like I’ve had my own personal journey with this horror masterpiece. After years of not being able to view the film, it grew in my mind to almost mythic proportions. When I finally got to see the film, was it worth the wait and would it live up to the hype?
From the very beginning, there was a massive amount of controversy with the film in the UK. On its original planned cinema release it was banned outright by the BBFC. However, those were the days when local councils could override the BBFC’s official decisions and so, whilst some local authorities agreed with the Board’s decision, a number decided to allow screenings of the film.
The advent of home video would give the film a new, albeit brief, lease of life. The film was originally released on video in 1981. But in 1984 the Board decided that all videos had to be classified by them and so for three years or so the film could be rented and viewed in the privacy of one’s home. My father actually remembers seeing the film on video, an occasion which I wasn’t privy to. Maybe he had decided to watch it when I was safely tucked up in bed. My Dad’s attitude to me watching horror and violent films from an early age was rather laissez-faire, to say the least, but maybe even he thought that the film that had such a shocker of a title would be too much for me to take at such a tender age. When he spoke about it, he did so as if to say, ‘Yes, I saw that film!’ accompanied by a startled look on his face. With such a backhanded compliment I now regard my not being able to watch the film with the rest of my family as akin to some kind of child abuse.
With the Video Nasties’ moral panic, TCM was promptly banned. However, the parents of a friend of my older brother owned a local video shop and so, as many video shop owners did back in the day, they didn’t return any of the newly banned videos they were asked to take off their shelves. I got to see The Evil Dead via this route but my friend never showed anyone TCM as she had seen it and was truly traumatised by what she had witnessed. With this knowledge, the legend surrounding the film grew even bigger.
There was an excellent film in the 80s called Terror in the Aisles which was a compilation of the juiciest bits of horror movies that were segued by legends Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. Within the movie were clips of TCM along with scenes from another withdrawn classic, The Exorcist which meant the Terror in the Aisles was essential viewing. The scene in which Pam stumbles (literally) into the room covered with chicken feathers and adorned with bizarre home furnishings was included and was so perfect that the fact that the full film couldn’t be seen in the UK meant that I hated the BBFC even more than I already did.
As I then started to get into punk rock I saw a picture of Johnny Rotten wearing the stickers given away to the patrons of the original screenings of TCM that were being shown in London against the BBFC’s wishes. The Sex Pistols had seen the film and were endorsing it on their ripped clothing. It must be something really shocking and I needed to see it, like, NOW!
It wouldn’t be until 1994 when I would finally get to see the film from start to finish. My friend Tom has scored some horror classics that he taped onto two blank videotapes for me with the jewel in the crown being TCM (the others were Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust and Driller Killer). And so that’s how I got to see the film- a copy that had been copied from a copy that had possibly been copied numerous times before with diminishing quality each time. The picture was fuzzy, some facial expressions were a bit hazy and fine detail was very much lacking. But hey, here was the film! And I loved it! But whilst it was and is such an intense and unnerving experience, there was something that I hadn’t been told about and hence wasn’t expecting- the humour. ‘Look what your brother did to the door!’ was one such moment. Another was the moment in which the garage owner takes the time to go back inside to turn the lights of his garage off just after he’s kidnapped Sally after explaining that the cost of electricity these days could send a man out of business.
Something that also caught me off guard but that I loved was how much the film felt like the most surreal and violent EC Comic that just so happened to have been turned into a film. The film was lurid, colourful and surreal.
Skip forward a few years and I’m living in London and have just completed a film degree. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has curated a festival of film screenings in which still banned horror titles could be legally shown for one day each after getting the green light from the BBFC. One of these films was TCM and so I could finally see it on the big screen.
But it was a wider release shortly after this and without the OK from the Board that would lead to the film being legalised. Just as years before local councils could usurp the Board and show films anyway, Camden Council decided to show the film at a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (and rather cheekily just a few streets away from the Board’s Soho HQ). I didn’t know about these screenings until I was walking past the cinema and my eyes jumped out of their sockets as I saw the poster. Camden Council even had their own certificate of ‘C for Camden’ for the film. I had planned an afternoon (and night) of drinking in London’s more salubrious gay bars but waylaid this to take an excursion into Hell first. The screening was amazing and the sound had been turned up to deafening levels. It really did feel like me and the two other people in the afternoon screening (that’s right, there were only two other people in the whole cinema!) had undertaken a traumatic experience together and as the film ended we all glanced at each other, nervously laughed and then exited.
It would be these screenings that would persuade the BBFC to reexamine their classification of the film and agree to pass it uncut with an 18 certificate. Another significant factor in these proceedings was that James Ferman had retired as Head of the Board. It was during his tenure that he had tried to cut the film to finally get it released. But he concluded that there was nothing that could be cut as there was very little gore and such an underlying sense of constant tension to the film that made it impossible to cut. So basically he was ensuring that the film remain banned for being a horror film that was too effective as a horror film. Ridiculous. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the film was then passed.
The film was duly issued in the UK on both video and DVD by Blue Dolphin in 2000.
But a funny thing happened just before this release. With the advent of the internet, there was a website called Amazon (you may have heard of it) that was based in America where loads of horror movies were available uncut and could be bought and shipped to the UK. This was very much a game of chance with some films being seized by customs and some not. The films that were confiscated bizarrely included some titles that weren’t even banned in the UK at the time. The artwork of other VHS and DVD titles that boasted of their notoriety were being let through (the box artwork for The New York Ripper proudly stated the number of countries the film was banned in but was amazingly let through by customs to the ever grateful horror fan who had ordered it). I ordered the Pioneer DVD of TCM which was chock full of special features such as a director’s commentary and blooper reel and it got through. Yeehaw.
With such a film as TCM now being available, there was only one direction in which the releases from now on could go and that was to restore the film so that it could look and sound as good as possible. But with a film like TCM which has always had a grimy and gritty look to it, would these new restoration programmes mean that the film would lose some of this grit and dirt and look completely different?
Dark Sky picked up the film in the US and cleaned up the visuals and audio significantly for a 2006 DVD release. Suddenly, details that couldn’t be seen before were now visible. It was akin to layers of grime being lifted from a classic painting. There were also oodles of special features and presented in a 2 disc steel book to boot. And more importantly, the look of the film didn’t suffer one iota because of these new efforts to make the film look and sound as good as it possibly could. The film still sounded like it always had with the bassy and subhuman tremors experienced still present but now sounding even more unearthly.
With the advent of Blu ray as a format and then 4K, this meant that even more work could be done on the film and even more care taken to present and preserve the film as the cultural force it had become. Again, Dark Sky took up the task and released a 4 disc Blu ray edition of the film, complete with a 7.1 Dolby remix (along with the original mono soundtrack for the purists) and all of the special features imaginable (3 discs worth to be precise!)
And it was this print that I saw the other day at a cinema that was state of the art and with the biggest screen I’ve ever seen this side of IMAX. It was ironic that I should be watching the film in such a beautiful cinema with gorgeous leather seats and state of the art projection equipment when the film would originally have been seen and experienced in grindhouses and Drive-Ins across America on its first run. But did the film still hold up in such surroundings? You bet it did! There was even nuance that could be only be picked up on the mammoth screen and details that could only be heard within the 7.1 remix that couldn’t be picked up in mono (the film gets gradually louder and bassier as the action goes on) with the latter part of the film being the hellish (in a great way) experience that all TCM fans know and love.
So, as you can see my journey with TCM has been long and winding but so rewarding. The film being banned and then passed uncut and then released on new formats and after extensive work has been done on it has meant that the makers of the film have certainly got their dollars worth from fans like me. But the pleasure of snapping up each new release has been an absolute pleasure and I’m so happy that the film can be appreciated and savoured by future generations. TCM will always be in my list of my Top 10 favourite films. The wait was certainly worth it.
One thought on “Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”
Excellent article and I can relate to practically every aspect of your experience with this film, from grainy nth gen VHS copies of unknown origin to the Blu-ray with 7.1 sound. I have more copies of TCM than any other film. It’s the most perfectly realised 80 minutes of nightmarish terror ever made.
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