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    Friday, October 24, 2008

    Countdown To Halloween - Tobe Hooper Double Feature

    Halloween is only one week away, and as I usually do during my favorite time of the year, I watch lots of horror films to get in the mood for this festive, freaky night.

    Now that many classic and new horror films are on Blu-ray, it's a trick or treat indeed.

    A Tobe Hooper double feature: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.

    My introduction with TCM was during its re-release, I think, during the summer of 1982 - when Hooper/Spielberg's Poltergeist (more on the film's production controversy in a bit) was hitting theaters. I was about 14 years old, had never seen TCM, had heard quite a bit about it, and was expecting the goriest, most extreme horror film ever made. It was R-rated, and of course my parents would have never taken me to see it, so, they dropped me off - alone - at the cinema (what parent would do that nowadays?). I bought a ticket for some G or PG-rated fare, and instead snuck into the dark auditorium where TCM would assault its viewers.

    Since I knew the ushers would kick my punky, PG-13-ass out of the place if they saw me sitting alone, I found a young couple and sat one seat over next to them - like if we were together. Right. They kinda looked over at me and smiled when they saw me lower my head when the usher made his rounds. Bless 'em for playing along.

    So the movie starts, and I notice the film looks...bad. I mean, I didn't know much about film, technically, back then, but I immediately saw this film looked...different. In a bad way. It was very grainy, and the color and lighting (densities) seemed off. And I soon realized that contrary to its reputation, TCM is relatively gore-free. You see very little blood onscreen, and most of the horrific violence is implied. That being said, I was sufficiently rattled by the end of the film. The great achievement of Hooper and company was that they created a level of hysteria and dark, disturbing humor that mounts and mounts and mounts to nightmarish levels. Something about the combination of strange, terrifying, hysterical, and darkly humorous imagery and the soundtrack comprised of mostly percussive, industrial, and metallic sounds just freaked me out in such a cool way.

    Fast-forward many years later, and I own various versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray.

    The Blu-ray is a revelation. Finally, finally for the first time, the film looks right. What I didn't know back then was that TCM was filmed in 1974 on low ASA 16mm reversal film stock (25 ASA, I believe), to reduce the grain before the 35mm blow-up for film prints. Unfortunately, the prints that made the theater rounds over the years weren't of high quality.

    Enter Don May, Jr., of Synapse Films, who a few years ago made a new internegative from the original A-B reversal film elements and transferred it to HD. All I can say is...wow!

    While the image and new surround sound mix won't compete with Speed Racer or other HD eye candy made in the past few years, the Blu-ray of TCM delivers in spades. A 1080p VC-1 encode captures the visuals, while DTS 5.1, PCM stereo, and the original mono soundtrack offer multiple audio choices. All the great special features ported over over from the special edition DVD round out the package.

    Here are some of Don May's comments about the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Blu-ray. If you're a fan, you'll be very pleased.

    Now onto Poltergeist...

    One such fan of TCM was Steven Spielberg, who tapped Hooper to direct Poltergeist. Although Spielberg was co-writing and producing this family ghost story, he was contractually barred from directing while the production of E.T. was occurring simultaneously. Nonetheless, Poltergeist certainly feels like a Spielberg film: the familial touches, the humor, the effective acting by children. And Spielberg was certainly comfortable with horror, with Jaws under his belt. There were so many rumors that Spielberg had in fact "ghost"-directed (ah, the puns keep comin'...) Poltergeist that the Directors Guild of America launched an inquiry, and Spielberg himself printed an open letter in the Hollywood Reporter to set the record straight and underscore that Hooper "delivered the goods" and in fact directed the film.

    However, a recent interview with Zelda Rubenstein ("Tangina") at Aint-It-Cool-News has re-ignited the controversy. She reveals in the 2007 interview with "Quint":
    "I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there. Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments. You’re not going to hear that from Tobe Hooper, you’ll hear it from Zelda, because that was my honest to God experience. I’m not a fan of Tobe Hooper… he allowed some unacceptable chemical agents into his work."

    But the movie still rocks, and holds up to today's horror fare. I love it!

    I've seen Poltergeist on film, video, laserdisc, and DVD, and once again the Blu-ray smokes them all - yep, even the film print I saw back in 1982 had some audio problems I recall clearly. A sparkling 1080p VC-1 encode and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround make the Poltergeist Blu-ray release a winner - especially since Warner seems to be dropping hi-res audio tracks on some recent releases. The special features are slim, and may be explained by the production controversy, but the DigiBook package is elegant and includes a nice 30-page booklet.

    Tomorrow night...Kubrick's The Shining...

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    © 2008 Felix E. Martinez