Forty years ago, one film that no one thought would amount to much of anything became one of the most revered and terrifying cinematic milestones of all time. Made on a miniscule budget with a largely untested crew behind and in front of the camera, Tobe Hooper’s classical exercise in nerve shattering terror The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t expected to escape from the town it was created in.
“Texas Chain Saw is possibly the most Texas film ever created. No one expected it to get out of the daisy chain (booking) of the Texas circuit. It would play some drive-ins predominantly in Texas, Oklahoma, maybe make it as far North as North Dakota if it was lucky, and then if it was luckier cycle back before it was never heard from again. No one expected this film to be successful.”
I’m talking over the phone, appropriately on a sweltering summer evening with Todd Wieneke, an archivist for MPI, parent company of Dark Sky Films, the current rights holders for the once notoriously slippery film that had bounced around via tenuous distributors throughout the 70s and 80s. He has spent the last sixteen years of his career as an admitted “custodian” for the film over the years. Although this weekend sees the film getting a week long run at The Royal in Toronto in a gorgeous new 4K digital restoration with 7.1 sound – overseen by Wieneke and Hooper – it’s not the first time he has restored the film.
“It was my idea for this new restoration,” Wieneke says, admirably fighting off a summertime cold. “I pitched the idea back in 2010 when the rights were about to change again. The first restoration I worked on for Chain Saw was back around the time I first started in ’94 and ’95, and that was for Laserdisc. Then the next time we picked it up to restore it again was around 2005, but that was more for the DVD and growing Blu-Ray market; mostly DVD. And back then we weren’t even thinking about a restoration capable of a theatrical release because in 2005 you were still talking about doing a restoration on 35mm film and that was cost prohibitive to us at the time. A full restoration wasn’t financially feasible.”
“I very much consider this film to be like family to me,” he stated emphatically.
Hooper and Kim Henkel’s simple story – very vaguely based on the exploits of cannibal serial killer Ed Gein – about a group of considerably less than likable group of friends running afoul of a bizarre and sinister family of redneck cannibals became the stuff of legends. The title inflated the film’s profile on the drive-in circuit. Critics raved about Hooper’s daring and sparse filmmaking techniques. It would find its way to the Cannes Director’s Fortnight in 1974 and to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, things that were unheard of for a genre film of this kind before that wasn’t helmed by someone like Alfred Hitchcock. When the newest restoration would return to Cannes this year – introduced by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn as the reason he wanted to get into filmmaking – the film’s iconography solidified even further.
“This film wasn’t supposed to last for more than five years at the best,” according to Wieneke.
“Texas Chain Saw is like lightning in a bottle. It’s almost impossible to recreate this kind of film, let alone improve what it does or try to improve upon it,” says Colin Geddes, programmer for The Royal and all around Toronto genre film expert. “This was a lot rawer, more independent than anything that came after it. You gotta remember that this was before something like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in the 1970s. This film plays a lot more raw urban fears. It’s more inspired by documentary filmmaking in the vein of someone like Frederick Wiseman than it was any other sort of drive-in fare despite its title.”
With the cultural relevancy of the film never in doubt, the condition of every available print became of concern following the film’s success.
“I remember in the old days of The Royal – maybe about ten years ago – I helped book a screening of the film at the theatre,” Geddes recalls. “It was a private collector print that had been sort of obviously been ‘Frankensteined’ from other surviving prints. With each reel change the colour grading would change and there would be any number of new and different scratches that weren’t in the same places as they were before.”
“But the best part of that screening was (how at the end of the film) the tail of the film got stuck in the projector and caught on fire and burned on screen. The audience was already shell shocked by what they had seen in the film as it was, but in that one moment it was like the evil just began pouring out of the screen and into the theatre directly.”
“When New Line Cinema (acquired the rights to the film) in the 1980s, they took pretty good care of it, but you gotta understand that back in the 1980s the archival film community wasn’t as hip as they were today,” Wieneke said about the challenges faced in the film’s most comprehensive restoration. “Back then there was a general understanding that film needs to be preserved, but people didn’t really know what to do. They would do things with the best of intentions, but I have worked on restorations for other films where the film has completely corroded because of restoration efforts that were actually doing more harm to the print than originally realized.”
“This is the first time with Texas Chain Saw that we were able to go back and remaster the image from the 16mm positive, the actual film that passed through the camera. When I saw the condition it was in, it was one of the worst I had ever seen. There were lots of scratches, blemishes, tears, emulsion digs, but we could fix all of that with today’s technology. With any restoration at any point in time, you’re held part and parcel to the technology that’s available to you that you can use for the restoration. Every time the film was remastered for home video in any way, you were always limited by technical capabilities.”
What would become a massive undertaking for Wieneke wouldn’t have been possible without Hooper’s immense amount of help and the filmmaker’s own desire to make a newer, more definitive version of the film available to the public.
“I never would have done if he wasn’t involved. Tobe has an encyclopedic knowledge of his film. There are some blemishes that are still in the restoration, but they are only there still because Tobe remembers exactly what was going on in the camera at that exact given moment in time. It’s remarkable watching him work on this.”
“What Tobe did on this film was ultimately make the film that he always wanted to make in the first place. Tobe is above all else a very learned, intelligent person who knows what he wants and who will not compromise his vision for anyone,” Wieneke says with a knowing chuckle. “There are things that he wanted to do and that he tried to do despite his talent being ahead of the technology that was available to him at the time. So there have been changes made here for the first time that Tobe was unable to make the first time out. But no changes in the George Lucas sort of way. He’s not inserting Jabba the Hut and Greedo’s not going to shoot first. He saw things that could be done, but couldn’t be done perfectly at the time. There’s no revisionist history going on here with the film.”
But obviously the picture isn’t the only thing that has been upgraded with the previous mono recorded soundtrack for the film – one of the best sound mixes in film history already with a blend of strikingly effective music and low budget sound effects – getting a full eight channel treatment.
“Again, the technology here is a huge asset to us now because we can separate the stems more than we were ever able to before. Not only are the sound effects tracks so iconic, but that music is a real force. This was a film made in mono, but made by very smart people. Tobe spent a lot of time on the image for the film, but I think he spent more time on the audio because that was kind of his baby. I think a lot of that is because Tobe once told me that he had tried for years to replicate some of the effects in this film, but he was never able to do them again. They were all tape loop based and you just can’t do that kind of stuff anymore.”
While Geddes can note his excitement to bring the restoration that he saw at Cannes earlier this year to Toronto audiences for the first time under optimal viewing conditions, Wieneke and Hooper are positively over the moon with what they achieved.
“We wanted to get the film back to what it originally looked like back when it was presented at the Director’s Fortnight back in ’74 or when it played MoMA, and I think we did better than that.” Wieneke said. “I was just talking to Tobe less than an hour ago and we were both remarking that the film never looked or sounded this good. It looks better than it did on 35mm, TV, VHS, on a phone, or maybe even on YouTube – which is illegal, by the way – and it really means a lot that we could do this for the people who put so much on the line to get the film to this point and for those who hold it near to their hearts.”