Oh, the Horror!

The first three Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes were hell to make and hell to watch. Why should the new one be any different?

October 2002By Comments

THAT OLD SAW: From left, Leatherface as he appeared in the first four movies. How he'll look in the fifth was a closely held secret on the set.
Courtesy of Movie still archives

WHEN MICHAEL BAY, THE ARCHITECT of such blockbusters as Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, announced that he would be producing a remake of the 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre this summer in and around Austin, he had to expect some skepticism from the locals. Austin is now as much movie town as music town (if you don’t believe it, round up all the people who have seen Spy Kids and see how many of them own Bob Schneider records). Every computer in the city has at least one screenplay-in-progress tucked in the recesses of its hard drive, and every video-rental clerk thinks he could be teaching film history if he lived anywhere else in Texas. For these folks, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the birthplace not just of modern horror but of the very film community that protects them from grown-up jobs and having to shave every day.

But if Baz Luhrmann can give the Pulp Fiction treatment to Romeo and Juliet and SCTV can make Strange Brew out of Hamlet, what’s so sacred about the original Chainsaw? For Bay’s new production company, Platinum Dunes, which specializes in low-budget films (“low” representing a price tag of $20 million or less, which is low compared to Pearl Harbor‘s $152 million), the answer is plenty. “This was the movie that changed the genre,” says Bay’s co-producer, Andrew Form. “In the eighties and nineties, campiness was added in. We wanted to go back to the old type of horror. No jokes, just straight terror.” The new film is a “reconceptualization,” Form says; rather than recreating the original film, it will depict the events that the original was based on (never mind that they never actually happened). Form says the new Chainsaw will be “somewhat stylized, darker, crisper.” Bay has said it will be “hipper,” playing down the gore in favor of the more thrilling elements of the story. A crew member told me on the sly, “You see the hack coming, you see the limb that’s about to be hacked, and then you see the hacked limb on the ground. It’s a Blair Witch kind of suspenseful.”

With a budget Form says is somewhere between the $3 million rumored in Austin and the $16 million reported in Variety and a cast of hard-bellied young heartthrobs that includes former 7th Heaven star Jessica Biel and Six Feet Under‘s Eric Balfour, the film should make its money back within a few days of its planned release on Halloween, 2003. Name recognition alone should guarantee it—Form brags that “everyone in the world has heard of” the Chainsaw franchise—but not taking any chances, he and Bay are keeping a tight lid on the production. Crew members, for instance, were made to wear badges, and invited guests were unceremoniously booted from the set whenever Leatherface, the villainous protagonist, was about to step from the shadows. “It’s like Spider-Man,Chainsaw publicist John Pisani told me as he escorted me to my truck the second time he canceled a scheduled set visit. “The producers of Spider-Man didn’t want anyone to see Spider-Man until the movie opened. We’re building that kind of buzz.”

Or maybe there was something besides Leatherface that they didn’t want anyone to see. The new Chainsaw had built a buzz all right, and it was that the production was not running smoothly. There was talk of dissension on the set. The actor playing Leatherface had to be replaced the first week of filming, and the special-effects department had threatened to quit. Given the egos, the deadlines, and the money involved, feature-film work is always high stress. But even by those standards, this film was said to be tough, and tense, and troubled. Those sneering Austin video clerk-types took to calling it the “Michael Bay of Pigs.”

TO PARAPHRASE THE POET, THE makers of the new Chainsaw should have known the job was dangerous when they took it. Everybody knows sequels stink. It’s one of those rare beliefs held by all people, no matter where they worship, whom they vote for, or how much money they make. Some sequels wilt in comparison to a beloved original. Some suffer because there wasn’t enough meat on the bones the first time to make another go of it. Some are just jinxed. Any wiggle room created by the universally cited exception to the rule, The Godfather Part II, was wasted when Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed lamely struggled to their feet when the referee should have counted them both out at the end of Rocky II.

Bay’s effort will be the fifth installment of the Chainsaw franchise, and if a marathon viewing of the previous four is any indication, the momentum is with the rule.

Director and screenwriter Tobe Hooper’s original version was, of course, a masterpiece—a wrong-turn thriller that rewrote the horror-movie template. Co-screenwriter Kim Henkel said the reference point was Hansel and Gretel, recast by him and Hooper in hard-country Texas. The plot specifics are now familiar but always a treat to nutshell: Five hippie kids looking for a skinny-dipping hole wander one-by-one into a farmhouse filled with bones, blood, and a family of very bad men. Leatherface, the overgrown, chain-saw-wielding half-wit who wears masks crafted from his victim’s faces, is the “hero” of the piece. One of the hippies gets out. The rest get eaten.

Despite its reputation as a bloodbath, most of Chainsaw‘s terror was implied. It came from what you imagined Leatherface and his kin were capable of rather than what you saw them do. It came from watching the way they carried on in production designer Bob Burns’s claustrophobic, bone-filled farmhouse. It came from cinematographer Daniel Pearl’s brilliant hand-held camera work and grainy 16mm film, which made you feel like you were seeing an actual nightmare unfold through hands covering your face. The most famous scene, when Leatherface hangs a girl on a meat hook, flies by so fast that you don’t realize that there’s no puncture and no blood. When the camera cuts to a shot of her feet suspended above a washtub, your brain fills in the blanks.

“Horror movies were revolutionized in the seventies,” says Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, the unofficial mayor of the Austin film community. “In the thirties, horror was monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman. By the fifties, it was science run amok: the Colossal Man and the 50-Foot Woman. After Chainsaw, the horror was us.” Harry Knowles, the Austin movie maven and gossip guru who runs the Ain’t It Cool News Web site, says, “What Tobe did was pioneer the stalker-as-unstoppable-killing-machine.” Sure enough, the horror that followed—Jason in Friday the 13th, Michael Myers in Halloween, Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, even Child’s Play‘s Chucky—grew out of Hooper’s man-eating man-child. That he pulled off a genre-defining feat on a shoestring budget in, of all places, Texas, signaled a new era of independent regional filmmaking.

The original Chainsaw is now a pop-culture touchstone. There’s a copy of it in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent film archive and a song about it on a Ramones record. In Texas it’s one of our icons, as much a part of our shared identity as grease on Tex-Mex and spilled beer at frat parties. Paying to watch a Chainsaw remake makes as much sense as shelling out $20 to hear a Willie Nelson tribute band. If the original film is available at the neighborhood video rental and Willie will be back through town in a couple months, what’s the point?

So for all the nightmares caused by Hooper’s slasher prototype, the real terror to the good people of Austin has come every ten years or so, when a film crew hits town to shoot another chapter of Chainsaw. The spree began in 1986, when Hooper took a stab at creating a first sequel, a tragedy I remember well from my own small but pivotal role in the film. I played a drunk college student in a hallway scene opposite the star, Dennis Hopper, delivering a performance so convincing that I didn’t take another role for almost ten years for fear of being typecast. (My next part, by the way, was as a white guy with a receding hairline eating dinner in a crowded restaurant in Nora Ephron’s Michael, which starred John Travolta. I nailed that one too.)

The script for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was written by Dallas native L. M. “Kit” Carson, best known at the time for having penned the 1983 art-house favorite Paris, Texas. But he’d also created a hipster update of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless that same year, complete with Richard Gere reading Silver Surfer comics and a Joe “King” Carrasco song on the soundtrack. Carson’s Chainsaw 2 script amped up the camp even higher, keying in on the humor that he and Hooper felt audiences had overlooked the first time. It was meant to be a statement on Reagan-era consumerism—the victims weren’t hippies but yuppies. “We made this one about family,” Carson says today. “It was when those horrible John Hughes teen films were making all that money, so we decided to take their happy family premise for a ride.” The poster for the film was an intentional knockoff of the one for Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, with the murderous clan, now named the Sawyers, posed just like Molly Ringwald, et al.

Carson also emphasized the Texas setting: The Sawyers were Dallas’ top caterers and chili cookoff champions, and the killing took place over Texas-OU weekend. There’s at least one Big Red or Shiner Bock bottle in almost every scene, and Leatherface’s first victims are UT frat boys driving daddy’s Benz to the Cotton Bowl. Hopper played lawman Lefty Enright, a retired Texas Ranger who happened to be the uncle of some of the victims from the original film. He’d been trailing Leatherface ever since, and he had armed himself for their inevitable showdown with four heavy-duty saws, two of which he wore in holsters like six-shooters. “To make a sequel you have to reinvigorate that original spark,” says Carson, “which in this case was to go back and punch the button labeled ‘Outrageous.'” Indeed, there was nothing subtle in Chainsaw 2, from Leatherface’s Vietnam vet brother Chop-Top, who had a habit of eating fleshy nubbins yanked from the perimeter of the exposed metal plate in his head, to special-effects supervisor Tom Savini’s gruesome handiwork—one victim is shown with his head sawed in half, another gets field-dressed.

As a rule, crew members recall the production as the strangest of their careers. When workers opened up the old, abandoned Austin American-Statesman plant, where the interior scenes were filmed, they found black mold growing on the walls so thick that mushrooms had popped up. After a pipe spewed thousands of gallons of funky water, almost everyone on the set got sick and missed a couple days of shooting (set designer Cary White caught walking pneumonia, and another person was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease). Then came the fire, a small blaze that started accidentally and rushed through the Sawyers’ supremely creepy underground lair with enough intensity to send some cast and crew running for their lives while braver souls scrambled to distinguish prop fire extinguishers from real ones. By the time Austin firefighters arrived, the inferno was out, but they still had to be sure things were safe. So with expressions of uneasy disbelief, they trudged through White’s set, a multilevel labyrinth of twisting tunnels and chambers filled with dozens of dummies done up to look like barbecued cadavers.

Fire and flood aside, the wrath that doomed the film was fiscal, not biblical. Hooper had to edit the picture while he was shooting so that he could deliver a finished film by the do-or-die deadline set by the production company, Cannon Films, which also demanded that he emphasize the murderous family at the expense of Carson’s satire. “We had a test screening,” remembers Carson, “and the audience loved it. It made them laugh, but it also moved them. Cannon couldn’t handle that. They said, ‘Give us the monsters.’ So we had to displace some of the emotion from the film.” The result was an uneven movie with a first half that lasts about thirty minutes and a second half, all set in that subterranean lair, that drags on for an hour. It also meant that all of my feature film debut except a split-second glimpse of my left shoulder and leg wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Next came a 1990 update, filmed entirely in California, that was a Texan massacre in title only. The sense of place in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is provided by a “Don’t Mess With . . .” highway sign and characters with poorly faked rural accents. The unlucky couple at the film’s center take their wrong turn off a mountain-skirted desert highway and quickly find themselves at the clan’s shack, surrounded by a swamp. Despite one of the most stomach-turning scenes in the whole series (an opening sequence with close shots of Leatherface using a razor blade and scissors to cut flesh for a new mask) and a nice nod to Carson’s cartoon (one of Leatherface’s brothers gives him a chrome-plated chain saw with Carson’s best line, “The Saw Is Family,” engraved on the blade), the film is easily the worst of the series.

Kim Henkel brought the franchise back to Austin in 1994 for the sequel that came to be known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. This was the famous but seldom-seen Matthew McConaughey-Renée Zellweger edition, filmed when the two were considered stars only by their parents and friends from high school. The action tracked the original’s with slight twists and a handful of new characters, but the only truly new development was a suggestion that the family was responsible for assassinating JFK. Like the other two sequels, this one would have died a quick, quiet death were it not for the budding careers of the leads. But any help that might have meant at the box office was squandered when the film showed in only nine cities nationally. In a lawsuit later filed in Los Angeles, Henkel and his production company alleged that the scant distribution was part of a conspiracy to protect the investment that Hollywood was making in its young stars. Although the suit names McConaughey and not Zellweger as a defendant, it seems more likely now that the starlet would be the one who wanted the film forgotten. McConaughey’s performance as the handsome, charming rogue of the family of killers plays like a screen test for a remake of Hud. Zellweger, on the other hand, plays essentially the same character she did in that movie about the chunky British girl with the diary. She might not have pulled so many Oscar votes if the Academy had seen that she wears the same pout whether she’s worried Leatherface is going to dismember her or Hugh Grant is going to dump her.

“HIPPER?” SCOFFS HARRY KNOWLES. “Like a movie about a cannibalistic family running a barbecue stand in Texas could be any hipper.” Of course Austin’s number one professional film fan is critical of Bay’s production. Not only has Knowles seen Hooper’s original many times, but he even owns the chair made of bones that sole survivor Sally Hardesty was tied to during the famous dinner scene. What’s more, Hooper is a Knowles family friend, old enough and close enough that the wrap party for the first film pulled double-duty as little Harry’s second birthday party. “My earliest memory is of Gunnar [Hanson, the actor who played the original Leatherface] running through our house with a chain saw and pretty girls with baskets of bones and body parts that they passed around as party favors.”

Still, when the project was announced, Knowles was inclined to give Bay’s low-budget approach the benefit of the doubt. “It would be retarded to shoot this for fifty million dollars,” he says. But alarm bells went off when the director was announced: music video and commercial auteur Marcus Nispel, who had never shot a feature film before. Likewise the cast. “They’re WB kids—acne-free genetic miracles.” His primary beef, though, is with Bay’s “gore versus thrills” distinction. “I’m worried about the whole concept, because calling the first one gory means they have no idea what they’re talking about. They must have seen it twenty years ago and forgotten it entirely.” For Hooper, who spent hours on the phone with the Motion Picture Association of America during the filming of the original to make sure he understood what he could get away with—he was hoping for a PG rating but settled for an R—Bay’s dissing of the original as a gorefest is hard to fathom. “I think someone’s confusing it with the slasher films that came later,” he says.

Producer Form has seen the original enough times to agree that it’s not as bloody as Bay remembers, but there is plenty of other scuttlebutt that would concern Knowles and Hooper, and I was able to confirm much of it with crew members who talked to me privately. The production indeed needed a second Leatherface. Apparently the first one had difficulty lifting the chain saws over his head. But before the special-effects crew was asked to make new saws light enough for him to lift, he threw his back out trying to drag a victim through a hallway in the farmhouse.

And, I’m told, the special-effects crew did threaten to quit after a row between effects coordinator Rocky Gehr and the director. Nispel was unwilling to address safety questions that Gehr thought were necessary on a set with running chain saws, causing the effects team to pack their things. Only a threat from Bay to pull the plug on the whole production if Gehr’s instructions weren’t followed kept the crew in place. (Form denies that this was anything more than a misunderstanding over scheduling.)

The level of friction between Nispel and Gehr, a veteran of sixteen features, including Bay’s Pearl Harbor, is reportedly atypical for most movie sets. “There’s tension from the budget and from the heat,” another crew member told me, “but also from the commercial people being used to doing things one way and the feature people wanting to do it another.” While Nispel is used to telling his stories in thirty-second bites shot in three-day blocks, the crew member explained, the feature veterans expect more time to get the shots and the story right.

Toward the end of shooting, the official word was that any earlier turmoil had been cleared up. The second Leatherface hit his marks, and all the members of the creative team were on the same page. Nispel’s dailies are said to look great, and there should be no problem wrapping by the mid-September deadline. Then, whether Bay’s “reconceptualization” makes a mint at the box office or jumps straight to curiosity-rental status, Austin can sleep safely. At least until that old Chainsaw gets revved up again.

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