More than thirty years ago the collective might of Columbia Pictures descended on Austin with one of that studio’s blue-ribbon, A-team moviemaking armies: Blythe Danner, Anthony Perkins, Beau Bridges, a hot director named Sidney Lumet, an ingenue named Susan Sarandon, and the same producer who had already made small-town Texas a bankable commodity with the adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. The prestige project settled in at the Chariot Inn, where Danner had a permanent sign on her door—“Quiet! Mother and Baby Sleeping”—to protect the weeks-old Gwyneth Paltrow. And each day a wagon train of private Winnebagos, Cinemobiles, catering trucks, and Greyhound buses would fan out around Bastrop for the filming of yet another McMurtry novel, Leaving Cheyenne.
On a certain day, the production broke for lunch, and the movie’s proud papa, producer Steve Friedman, noticed a scruffy, long-haired hippie making his way through the food line. Friedman walked over and blocked his way. “Do you work on the movie?” he demanded.
The interloper held a plastic plate with two barbecued chicken wings on it. “Uh, no.”
“Then put the chicken back.”
The disheveled guy meekly took the chicken wings back to the catering truck. In 1974 Columbia released Lovin’ Molly, as the picture came to be called, to universal critical yawns, caused in part by its almost-three-hour running time. “If I were forced to settle on one word to describe Lovin’ Molly,” wrote McMurtry at the time, “‘casual’ might be the word—though ‘indifferent’ would run it an excellent race. . . . Certainly [Lumet’s] indifference to locale was so total that one is sorry he was put to the anguish of uprooting himself from home and hearth for even the few short weeks he could bring himself to stay in Texas.” Today most people have no idea that Leaving Cheyenne was ever filmed, and it is unavailable even in specialty video stores that otherwise stock the entire Lumet oeuvre.
And the chicken-stealing hippie? He ambled back to Austin and, even before Lovin’ Molly was released, completed the most financially successful film in the history of Texas, a film that is still shown in almost every country of the world and whose innovations have continued to influence the horror genre for the past thirty years. Using $60,000 raised by an Austin politician, he filmed mostly in and around an old Victorian house in Round Rock with a crew that used exactly two vehicles—a Chevy van for the film equipment and a broken-down 1964 Dodge Travco motor home for the actors’ dressing rooms. The result was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film whose very title has become America’s cultural shorthand for perversity, moral decline, and especially the corruption of children. Yet the movie’s pure intensity, startling technique, and reputation as an outlaw film have brought praise from a group as diverse as Steven Spielberg, the Cannes Film Festival, Martin Scorsese (Travis Bickle watches it in Taxi Driver), the Museum of Modern Art in New York, almost every metal band of the past twenty years, and the Colombo crime family of Brooklyn, which gleefully ranked it right up there with Deep Throat as one of its major sources of income in the seventies.
Chainsaw was the first real “slasher” film, and it changed many things—the ratings code of the Motion Picture Association of America, the national debate on violence, the Texas Film Commission, the horror genre—but it remained a curiously isolated phenomenon. The film itself, involving five young people on a twisted drive through the country, is a strange, shifting experience—early audiences were horrified; later audiences laughed; newcomers to the movie were inevitably stricken with a vaguely uneasy feeling, as though the movie might have actually been made by a maniac—but the story behind the film is even stranger.
“Why did you steal the chicken?” I ask Tobe Hooper, now 61, as we sit in his Austin living room, surrounded by oversized movie posters (including one for the French release of Chainsaw) and next to a creepy robotic clown used in his 1981 film, The Funhouse.
“Why was I there?” he says, frowning. “I was with somebody. I don’t remember who.” He takes a gulp of Dr Pepper.
“Man, I just can’t access it,” he says at last. “I think I was just hanging out and I got hungry.”
Chainsaw was conceived, shaped, filmed, edited, and released in a kind of mild doper’s haze, like a free-love happening that, on the third day, turns a little ugly.
It’s the kind of answer you often get when inquiring about the production and tortured life of Chainsaw. It was conceived, shaped, filmed, edited, and released in a kind of mild doper’s haze, like a free-love happening that, on the third day, turns a little ugly. The more you learn about its making, the less it seems the invention of a screenwriter or a director or an acting company than the product of Austin itself at the end of the Vietnam era. It was a different, now-vanished Austin, a place where the canonical six degrees of separation had been reduced to one or two, where both the governor and the small-time marijuana dealer were likely to know the chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service and where legislators and lawyers and lobbyists could easily form marriages of convenience with poets and quirky filmmakers.
And all these years later, almost everyone involved feels permanently changed or, in some cases, permanently scarred by the film. At least one actor—Ed Neal, who played the “hitchhiker”—can’t speak about it without becoming enraged. Robert Kuhn, a trial lawyer who invested in the film, would waste years fighting for the profits that should have poured into Austin but were instead siphoned off by a distribution company. Marilyn Burns, the strikingly beautiful actress who became the prototype for the “final girl” in horror films, never realized her great promise, partly because the film was a “résumé-killer.” Gunnar Hansen, the three-hundred-pound Icelandic American who played Leatherface—the chain-saw-wielding maniac who inspired Jason and Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger—has spent the rest of his life trying to stake out another identity. “I’m happy I did it,” he says, “but they’ll probably put ‘Gunnar Hansen. He was Leatherface’ on my gravestone.” And Hooper continues to fight, now thirty years after the film’s release, against the stereotype of being “just a horror director,” while Chainsaw’s screenwriter, Kim Henkel, became so frustrated with his subsequent “multipicture” Hollywood deal that he moved back to Port Aransas in the early eighties, where he’s remained ever since as a part-time university film teacher in Corpus Christi. Only the late Warren Skaaren, the first director of the Texas Film Commission, who would become one of the highest-paid rewrite men in Hollywood, and Ron Bozman, the film’s production manager, who would accept the 1991 Academy award for best picture as one of the producers of The Silence of the Lambs, ascended to the pinnacle of their profession. Still, even Bozman says that Chainsaw was the greater thrill. “It was by far the more intense experience. Nothing compares to it for density of experience. It was just such a wild ride.”
Like a guy who wins the lottery with the first ticket he ever buys, then wonders a year later where his money has gone, the extended Chainsaw family seems battered and a little amazed by it all. Yet for more than two decades now, the status of the film has been constantly on the rise. Few horror films survive the teen generation that first sees them, yet the myths and legends surrounding Chainsaw have continuously expanded. Many people believed, and still believe, that the movie is entirely true, in part because of its effective cinéma vérité documentary style. In this respect, Hooper anticipated The Blair Witch Project by 26 years, and he did it without the advantage of cheap video. Far from being an artless “shaky cam” documentary, Chainsaw is Hitchcockian in its complex editing: In a film less than ninety minutes long, there are a total of 868 edits, some of them as short as four frames, or one sixth of a second. No wonder it shocked the world. Forry Ackerman, a writer and film historian who has watched every horror film made since 1922, said even his jaded eyes believed the actors were real people. “It’s a watershed work,” he told Brad Shellady in the video documentary Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait. “It brought a new dimension of reality to horror films.”
And that reality, in 1974, was not entirely welcome.
The way Hooper remembers it now, the inspiration for Chainsaw occurred at Montgomery Ward during the frenzied Christmas shopping rush in December of 1972: “There were these big Christmas crowds, I was frustrated, and I found myself near a display rack of chain saws. I just kind of zoned in on it. I did a rack focus to the saws, and I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly.’ I went home, sat down, all the channels just tuned in, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me in what seemed like about thirty seconds. The hitchhiker, the older brother at the gas station, the girl escaping twice, the dinner sequence, people out in the country out of gas.”
Then 29 years old, Hooper was already the “old man” of Austin’s minuscule filmmaking community. Appropriately, his mother had been sitting in the Paramount Theatre when she went into labor, giving birth a few hours later at Seton Hospital to only son Tobe (pronounced “Toby”). Hooper’s father owned the Capitol Hotel, on Congress Avenue between Sixth Street and Seventh Street, and the old man loved sneaking out to a movie in the afternoon, often taking his wife and young son with him. There were four theaters in downtown Austin—the Paramount, the Capitol, the Queens, and the State—and Hooper grew up inside their walls. “I saw a movie every day,” he recalls. “I think I learned cinematic language before I learned language. I think I was a camera.” Like his friend Spielberg, Hooper retains a latent counterculture shabbiness, with his unruly beard, mop haircut, and professorial wire rims. He still rivals Dennis Hopper for the number of times he uses the word “man.”
At age three Hooper appropriated his father’s Bell & Howell 8-millimeter home movie camera and started making his own films: “They were little stories. ‘Here’s my cousin and her boyfriend. She’s tied on the railroad track. Here comes the tricycle train with a beer-can smokestack.’” Then, throughout his childhood and adolescence, Hooper used every available family member and classmate as an actor, impressing his teachers by turning in class projects in celluloid form. “I did a vignette version of the Frankenstein story using kids from the school,” he says. “Later I heard kids talking about my movie in the lunch line, and that’s what made me know this is what I wanted to do.”
In 1962 he enrolled at the University of Texas and checked in at the brand-new film school—or, more precisely, the Department of Radio-Television-Film, which had no real film equipment and only two film students. He lasted two years, never spending a day without a camera in his hand, but the most valuable contact he made was Robert Schenkkan, the general manager of public TV station KLRN. Hooper would visit Schenkkan three or four times a week, often borrowing the station’s 16-millimeter camera, and eventually Schenkkan gave him small jobs shooting footage for the station.
In the mid-sixties his good reputation with Schenkkan led to his first major directing job. Producer Fred Miller had persuaded the folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary to participate in a feature documentary, and Miller hired Hooper to go on tour with them as the principal shooter and director. “It was the Vietnam era,” Hooper says, “and I remember at the end of every concert, Peter, Paul, and Mary would separate and go to different parts of the venue, and their fans would gather around and talk about the war. It was interesting, but I was kind of a nonpolitical hippie. I had the long hair, and I walked around with a movie camera in my hand, which was kind of a hippie thing to do. But in fact it made me a suspicious character. I was FBI. I was a narc. I was with the feds. Why else would I be taking everyone’s picture all the time?”
In 1970 a Houston businessman named David Ford put together a group that invested $40,000 in Hooper’s first feature, Eggshells. At a time when heavy-handed youth pictures like The Strawberry Statement were attempting to “explain” the counterculture, Hooper’s idea was “to show the end of the Vietnam War, with the troops coming home, but tell it through the eyes of a commune.” Shooting with a hand-held camera, aping the style of his idols Fellini and Antonioni, Hooper used real people who lived in a real communal house just north of the UT campus. Most of the script was either improvised or scribbled on napkins. Trying to flesh out a plot in a movie that had none, Hooper invented a ghostly presence that dwelled in the basement of the house, a mysterious force that Hooper’s friend and future Chainsaw art director Bob Burns eventually dubbed the “cryptoembryonic hyperelectric presence.”
Alas, the only place Eggshells was ever seen was on a few college campuses, where, Hooper laments, “as soon as the lights went down, the Bic lighters would all go on.” Billed on the poster as “An American Freak Illumination: A Time and Spaced Film Fantasy,” the movie failed to return a single dime. “It really kind of bummed me out,” says Hooper. “I didn’t want to make a drug movie. I wanted to make art movies, European-style movies. I was really discouraged. I had no money to hire real actors to legitimize my film, so some of the acting was totally improv. I would sneak into the commune house, turn on the lights and wake them up, and just film whatever happened.”
The most memorable actor in the film—partly because he appears in a wild full-frontal-nude sequence, setting fire to his car and his clothes before frolicking through a meadow—was none other than Kim Henkel (working under the pseudonym Boris Schnurr). “You saw that?” Henkel says, panic in his voice, when I call him at his home in Port Aransas. “I thought they burned every copy. They should burn every copy. It was a cinéma vérité piece that evolved into a lamebrain psychedelic hippie thing. After that Tobe and I became casual friends. He wanted me to develop a script with him.” The two started working on a modern version of “Hansel and Gretel.” “We had no budget, we had no cast, and the last picture had not been successful,” says Henkel. “What do you do? Horror films is about it.”
Hooper had come to the same conclusion when a friend suggested he see Night of the Living Dead, which was causing a big commotion at the student union at the time. Made by George Romero, a regional director of commercials in Pittsburgh, the 1968 zombie classic had become the first genuine cult film. “They were lined up to see it,” recalls Hooper. “And I thought, ‘This is it. This is the way to get attention two thousand miles from L.A. and get noticed. If I could only raise the money.’” It was shortly thereafter that Hooper had his epiphany at Montgomery Ward. He immediately called Henkel.
They kept the original idea of an updated Hansel and Gretel story, “only instead of being lured to a gingerbread cottage with gumdrops, it was a little more sinister.”
“I got this call from Tobe,” says Henkel, “and he said he wanted to get together. I started going over to his house every evening and figuring out the story structure. Mainly we were working out a feel.” They kept the original idea of an updated Hansel and Gretel story, “only instead of being lured to a gingerbread cottage with gumdrops, it was a little more sinister.” To create the modern version of a witch who likes to cook and eat children, they studied the then-scant literature on real-life cannibals and serial killers.
One of them was Edward Gein, a handyman in Plainfield, Wisconsin, who liked to dig up fresh graves, cut the skin off corpses, wear it on various parts of his own body. When the authorities finally caught him, in 1957, he was implicated in the murders of two women in his quest for “fresh” body parts, and in his house they found skulls on the bedposts, a human heart in a frying pan, and a woman in his barn who’d been field-dressed like a deer. All the members of his family had died, and he was suspected of never burying his mother and possibly killing his brother. He showed clear signs of being a transsexual—he always dressed in female body parts, especially breasts, vaginas, nipples, and the faces of women—and would spend the rest of his life at the Central State Hospital and the Mendota Mental Health Institute. He died in 1984, but not before he had inspired characters in Psycho, Deranged, Maniac, and most notably, The Silence of the Lambs.
“I definitely studied Gein,” says Henkel, “but I also noticed a murder case in Houston at the time, a serial murderer you probably remember named Elmer Wayne Henley. He was a young man who recruited victims for an older homosexual man. I saw some news report where Elmer Wayne was identifying bodies and their locations, and he was this skinny little ol’ seventeen-year-old, and he kind of puffed out his chest and said, ‘I did these crimes, and I’m gonna stand up and take it like a man.’ Well, that struck me as interesting, that he had this conventional morality at that point. He wanted it known that, now that he was caught, he would do the right thing. So this kind of moral schizophrenia is something I tried to build into the characters.”
With Hooper refining the outline and Henkel writing furiously, the two had a draft for their project in six weeks. Then they settled on a name: “Head Cheese.” “Before I came up with the chain saw,” says Hooper, “the story had trolls under a bridge. We changed that to the character who eventually became Leatherface. The idea actually came from a doctor I knew. I remembered that he’d once told me this story about how, when he was a premed student, the class was studying cadavers. And he went into the morgue and skinned a cadaver and made a mask for Halloween. We decided Leatherface would have a different human-skin mask to fit each of his moods.”
Bill Parsley always made it clear that he was not a lobbyist, because that would be a violation of state law. But as the vice president of financial affairs for Texas Tech University, he spoke like a lobbyist, acted like a lobbyist, and had both the paunch and the pate of the species. Parsley was from West Texas and had raised a family in Lubbock, where he befriended Governor Preston Smith, and both men shared more than a passing interest in motion pictures—Smith because he owned a chain of theaters, Parsley because he fancied himself a movie producer. Parsley had dabbled in community theater, been a radio deejay, and during his two terms in the Legislature, established a close friendship with oilman R. B. McGowen, of Sherman. The two men had already financed two films that have been, perhaps fortunately, lost to history. Even their titles are unknown, but one was a black exploitation film about a jet-setting publisher with a harem of lovers, a sort of black Hugh Hefner. The other was a horror film that was “simply terrible,” according to Parsley’s son, Austin attorney Clint Parsley. By 1973 Bill Parsley was known as one of the lords of Austin’s Villa Capri cocktail lounge, a lobbyist hangout where he frequently bought rounds for politicos and where he sometimes introduced himself to pretty young girls as a movie producer.
Parsley was also well known to Warren Skaaren, the nerdy, well-scrubbed Minnesotan who had become the first head of the Texas Film Commission, in 1971. Skaaren, an Eagle Scout inevitably described as “charming” and “persuasive,” had been student body president at Rice University and, soon after graduation, had finagled a job in the Preston Smith administration. In the early seventies, after New Mexico became the first state to form its own film commission, Skaaren broached the same idea with Jerry Hall, a lobbyist and consultant who worked for the governor. In short order Governor Smith had formed the Texas Film Commission and named Skaaren to head it. One of the first movies Skaaren set about promoting was Lovin’ Molly, but he was especially anxious to get involved with homegrown projects.
When Skaaren called in the early summer of 1973 and excitedly told Parsley about a new horror movie in the works, the older man responded immediately. The two met at the Sheraton Crest hotel in Austin, and Skaaren told Parsley the delightfully grisly plot of “Head Cheese.” A week or so later Parsley met with Hooper and Henkel and told them he would agree to raise a $60,000 operating budget in exchange for 50 percent of the picture. It was $20,000 more than Hooper had spent on Eggshells, so they readily agreed. The three of them then trooped over to the office of Robert Kuhn, Parsley’s attorney, to draw up the papers, but the sight of the West Texas politician and his two new hippie friends didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
“They were a couple of kids,” says Kuhn. “From the first moment they came into my office, I knew there wasn’t any way in the world they could put that film together. But Bill was with them, and Bill was such a conservative guy, and he was so convinced that it was gonna work. I used to tell him, ‘Parsley, you’d do anything to make a dollar, wouldn’t you?’ And this was just the latest thing he was doing. I didn’t even know the idea of the movie. I just knew it was called ‘Head Cheese’ and that, when it failed, it would be a tax write-off.”
Yet by the end of the week, Kuhn had responded to Parsley’s enthusiasm by deciding to throw in $10,000 of his own money—only to find out that there weren’t enough shares left. Henkel’s sister Katherine, a student at the University of Texas, had decided to invest $1,000, and one of Kuhn’s acquaintances, Richard Saenz, a client of another Austin attorney, had put up $10,000. With Parsley investing $40,000, Kuhn had to settle for a $9,000 share. A little amazed by their good fortune, Henkel and Hooper moved full speed ahead.
Skaaren, who had brokered the deal, would fade in and out of the checkered history of Chainsaw. But he made his most lasting contribution to the film just one week before principal photography commenced that summer. He suggested that Hooper and Henkel throw out both of their working titles—“Head Cheese” and ”Leatherface”—and call it “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
A 21-year-old drama student at the University of Texas, Marilyn Burns—who would become the greatest screamer in movie history—was the only actress serving on the Texas Film Commission. A petite blond stunner, she made herself useful to Skaaren by volunteering for office work, but in reality she just wanted to find out who was making the next movie and how she could get into it. As a painfully shy Catholic girl growing up in Houston, she had suddenly burst out of her shell in the seventh grade when she put on red lipstick and blue eye shadow as a camped-up Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She then spent most of her years at Memorial High School plotting her future movie career. When Robert Altman filmed Brewster McCloud in Houston, she scored a bit part as the Astrodome tour guide. When The Great Waldo Pepper reached Texas, she signed up as an extra and, in the big scene in which a plane is mobbed, outran every other extra so her face would be seen on camera. At UT she says she was “a mean Helen of Troy,” and she stayed in Austin another year after graduation because there were so many people in town—most of them lobbyists or legislators—who had told her they’d like to invest in her script ideas. It was no coincidence that Burns had been a cocktail waitress at the Villa Capri, where Parsley and his political cronies held court almost every night.
No one is quite sure who first brought Burns to the attention of Hooper. It might have been Skaaren, or Ron Bozman, or Parsley, all of whom knew her. She had initially been cast for one of the small roles in Lovin’ Molly, but Sidney Lumet apologized and took the role back when Blythe Danner’s agent insisted on making another actress part of the same deal. That actress was Susan Sarandon. Ever the trouper, Burns accepted Lumet’s consolation offer. “I was the stand-in for both Blythe Danner and Susan Sarandon,” she says, “and I wasn’t the right height or body type for either of them, so of course everyone hated me.” The only time she had ever seen Hooper was on the day when he tried to steal the chicken: “Everyone was in a foul mood already, because it was blackened chicken, and you had all these New Yorkers complaining about it, asking what Liquid Smoke was.”
Parsley told Burns that he owned half of a little horror movie that was being made and suggested that he wanted her to star in it. When she finally went in to try out for Hooper, Henkel remembers that she got the part of Sally, the well-endowed blonde destined to be the only survivor, almost immediately. “Tobe always liked busty women,” he recalls, “and Marilyn is a busty woman, and, well, he was enchanted.” (Apparently so was Parsley. When he had Kuhn draw up the papers for the company investing in the movie, he named it M.A.B. Inc. A lot of people thought the “MAB” stood for “Marilyn A. Burns.”)
The rest of the cast was assembled from area drama schools, community theater groups, friends, relatives, and local curiosity seekers. Allen Danziger, who had appeared in Eggshells along with his wife and eight-month-old son, was perfectly cast as the curly-headed van driver, Jerry, who refuses to take anything seriously. Teri McMinn, the leading actress that season at St. Edward’s University, starred in The Rainmaker each night and worked days as Pam, the fearful astrology-obsessed cutie in short shorts who would be immortalized when she was impaled on a meat hook. (“That was always the number one ‘walker’ scene,” says Henkel. “If the audience was gonna walk, that’s when they walked.”) UT drama student William Vail played her strong jock-type boyfriend, Kirk. But the scene-stealing role belonged to Paul Partain.
As Franklin, the whiny, corpulent, wheelchair-bound brother of Sally, Partain was obnoxiously brilliant. “It was just a well-written role,” he says. “It had been promised to someone else, but I had just finished a small role in Lovin’ Molly, as the brother of Susan Sarandon, and I read two or three times and finally Tobe and Kim said, ‘Well, if he’s good enough for Sidney Lumet, he’s good enough for us.’” Partain, who had served in the Navy in Vietnam and then done a stint at the UT drama school, threw himself into the role with such Method enthusiasm that the rest of the cast ended up despising him. “I was a young, inexperienced actor who didn’t realize that it wasn’t like theater. You didn’t have to stay in character all the time,” he says. “When I first read the part, I could see that nobody wanted this guy to be there. It just hit me that he was whiny.” His constant demand for attention, his high-pitched cries of “Sally!” and his anger at everyone else for being ambulatory make him one of the most despicable handicapped people in film history. He’s the only one who almost seems to deserve his death.
Ed Neal was exactly what Hooper had hoped for as the “hitchhiker,” even though they met more or less by chance. Neal was on his way back from Scholz Garten, where he had been tanking up for a drunk role in that day’s drama class, when a girl outside the classroom said, “Are you gonna try out for the movie?” He said, “Sure,” wandered in, and saw Hooper chewing on an unlit cigarillo. “Can you be weird?” Hooper asked him. A friend of Neal’s piped up, “He’s always weird.” Neal did a few crazy gestures, consciously imitating his nephew, who he says is a “certifiable paranoid schizophrenic—all he does is wander around the country”—and shortly thereafter got the part. In his dirty and torn green T-shirt, clutching an animal pouch, slick greasy hair caked with God knows what, he was the very essence of the hitchhiker you don’t want in your car.
The six-foot-four Gunnar Hansen, born in Iceland but raised in Austin and San Antonio by his naturalized mother, was putting his graduate classes in Scandinavian studies to good use by working as a carpenter and a bartender. While sharing a hamburger on the Drag with his co-star in a small production of Of Mice and Men, someone mentioned that there was a horror movie in town and he’d be “great for the killer, but they already cast it.” “Two weeks later,” recalls Hansen, “the same guy calls and says, ‘The guy who was hired as the killer is holed up drunk in a motel and won’t come out. There’s a lot of bad karma surrounding this movie, and I’m quitting.’ So I called Bob Burns and told him I was interested.” Burns took Hansen over to see Hooper. “I was sitting in Bob’s office,” says Hooper, who was still looking for his Leatherface, “and I saw Bob bringing him across the street. He got the part before he came through the front door.”
Finally, for reasons no one remembers, Hooper was required to hire at least one card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild, and that turned out to be Jim Siedow, who plays perhaps the most complex character in the film, a man on the edge of insanity trying to exercise control over his two clearly insane younger brothers. His leering, cockeyed visage, as the “cook,” would become famous the world over. Siedow had worked with the WPA Theater before World War II, touring with Eva La Gallienne, then served his war duty in the Army Air Corps, ferrying war planes, cigars, and perfume from Alaska to the Soviet air force. (“For some reason the Russians didn’t want our whiskey.”) After the war he met Ruth, his wife of 57 years, while both were working on Chicago radio soap operas. They knocked around New York together, toured regional theaters, and finally settled in Houston, where he worked as the resident director at Theatre Suburbia and a supporting player in several filmed-in-Texas projects. He had met Hooper, Henkel, and Bozman a couple years earlier on yet another long-forgotten Texas film called The Windsplitter, an attempt to do, as he put it, “the Texas Easy Rider.” “It was a hippie biker movie,” he told me. “Tobe acted in it; he was a roughneck. I was the lead’s father. I didn’t see Tobe again until he calls me and says he needs a SAG actor; he has to pay union scale to one actor and one or two union technicians. Later on they asked me if I’d like to take a little of my money in shares of the movie. I told ’em, ‘No, thank you. I’ll just take the cash.’”
Under a blazing, white-hot Texas sun, principal photography for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre began in July 1973. The house where most of the filming took place was southwest of Round Rock on Quick Hill Road, which was not so much a road as a caliche path dead-ending in a mesquite break. It was the original home of the Quick family, owners of pharmacies in Round Rock and many other Central Texas towns, but it had been rented out to a hippie named Smokey, and its Victorian charm had begun to fade. There was only one restroom for a cast and crew of forty people. As the working days became longer—the inevitable result of an underfinanced film—crew members would occasionally walk off the job. Henkel assumed the role of co-producer, cajoling them into staying with the help of Bozman, the production manager. Parsley, who spent sleepless nights obsessing about the money Hooper and Henkel were wasting, came to the set every day to check on his investment. But most of the time Hooper didn’t make an effort to talk to him. Parsley was regarded as a member of the “establishment”—even if he had put $40,000 of his own money into the film—and though Henkel would normally have acted as a peacemaker between the investor and the director, he was just too busy with rewrites and other chores.
The crew was green; the cinematographer, Daniel Pearl, had never shot a feature. “I had never managed a movie,” says Bozman. “We had no prop man, so I found the props. We didn’t even have a chain saw. I found one. Of course, today I would know that if you’re making a movie with ‘chain saw’ in the title, you should have ten, not just one. But we had one. A McCollough. I had to take the teeth out of it so it wouldn’t hurt anyone. I remember we wrote a letter to McCollough, thinking they might want to invest in the movie. They never answered us.”
Inside the “cannibal house” it would get up to 115, baking the offal and animal carcasses and rotting meat that had been painstakingly assembled by Bob Burns. “We would do a scene,” says Neal, “and then all run to the window so that we could throw up.”
The whole production had a ragtag look about it. The whole production looked like, well, like hippies trying to make a movie. Hooper shot seven days a week, working anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours a day. Salaries ranged from $50 up to $125 for the entire shoot, plus another $125 in deferred payments or small percentages of the movie’s profits, and cast and crew didn’t always feel compelled to show up on time or do extra work. It was an especially wicked Texas summer, over 100 degrees most days, and inside the “cannibal house” it would get up to 115, baking the offal and animal carcasses and rotting meat that had been painstakingly assembled by Bob Burns. “We would do a scene,” says Neal, “and then all run to the window so that we could throw up.” To create a realistic slaughterhouse atmosphere, Burns indulged his lifelong fascination with animal bones by rounding up eight dead cows, two deer, three goats, one chicken, an armadillo, and two human skeletons, one real and the other made of plastic. Everyone lived constantly with this grotesque menagerie, and since the whole story takes place in a 24-hour period, everyone wore the same clothing for the entire five weeks. “I’m a big man,” says Hansen, “and we were afraid to send my clothes to the dry cleaners because we didn’t want to lose the butcher’s blood on the apron. I was running and sweating the entire time. By the end of the shoot, no one would sit next to me at lunch.”
But then nobody was making friends on the set. Most of the actors had never met before filming began, and few would see each other after filming ended. Cast and crew grew increasingly resentful of Marilyn Burns, who started taking her breaks in Parsley’s air-conditioned red Cadillac while everyone else continued to swelter. “But I don’t think they knew how mad he was,” she says today. “I calmed him down. I convinced him that maybe things would go smoother if he didn’t show up so much. He thought the movie was a catastrophe, and he wanted to step in and take it over.”
For one of the film’s most famous scenes, in which Burns’ Sally and Partain’s Franklin argue over who’s going to hold the flashlight, Burns was so genuinely angry at Partain that they didn’t speak between takes. “Yeah, she was pissed,” he says. “She thought I was screwing up the scene. But they were writing me new dialogue on the spot—I think on purpose. The batteries went out on the sun gun. The batteries went out on the camera. We had all these problems. We kept doing it over and over.”
In later years, cast and crew would say that Hooper acted confused on the set, frequently changed his mind, and seemed to be making things up as he went. Most of the actors would have welcomed more direction. Neal had toured with Sandy Duncan and was accustomed to being consulted by his theater directors, and he thought Hooper was a lightweight: “All he would ever say is ‘Do some more of that Strother Martin stuff.’” Hansen, who visited the Austin State Hospital several times to study the behavior of the mentally ill, was annoyed that all his dialogue had been cut and his part reduced to a squealing, grunting butcher. “They wanted me to squeal like a pig,” he says. “I didn’t know what a pig squeal sounded like, but I did come up with a howl. It just burst out of my throat. I was frightened.” Taking his job seriously, he trained by running a mile every day, so as to make it more believable when he chased Burns through the woods. “You know the chain saw dance?” he says. “The swinging the chain saw over my head? That happened because of an earlier scene, when she reaches safety at the barbecue stand. Tobe wanted me to be pissed. So I started swinging the saw around. I was swinging the saw at Tobe! And he ducked! I wanted to scare him. I wanted to be in control.”
Almost every cast member suffered some sort of injury. Neal had his face burned by hot asphalt. Partain had a bruised and cut arm after rolling down a hill in one of the early scenes. For Partain’s dying scene, Hooper and makeup artist Dottie Pearl stood on either side of the camera lens, spitting red Karo syrup into the air, attracting flesh-devouring mosquitoes. Hansen had no peripheral vision while wearing his mask and had a heart-stopping near miss when his boots slipped while he was running and the chain saw flew up in the air and crashed to the ground, inches from his body. But no one was beaten, cut, and bruised more than Burns. By the end of production, her screams were real, as she’d been poked, prodded, bound, dragged through rooms, jerked around, chased through cocklebur underbrush, jabbed with a stick, forced to skid on her knees in take after take, pounded on the head with a rubber hammer, coated with sticky stage blood, and endlessly pursued by Hansen with his chain saw and Neal with his constantly flicking switchblade. “I was afraid to hit her at first,” Siedow told me. “I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t hurt her. But they kept telling me it looked fake and I needed to really hit her. It took me several tries, but by the end of it, I was really hitting her. It actually got to be kinda fun.”
In retrospect, there’s reason to believe that Hooper was manipulating many of the details, to an almost obsessive degree. The heat, the miserable conditions, and the sheer pain of it all undoubtedly added to the atmosphere Hooper was trying to create. He wanted the actors to feel irritable and off-balance. He probably knew $60,000 wasn’t enough money to finish the film but didn’t want Parsley and the other investors to know that. He was doing whatever he could, day by day, moment by moment, to get as many images on film as possible, because he knew that Chainsaw, like any successful horror film, would be perfected in the editing room. “Tobe really did have a vision,” says Bozman now. “He knew exactly where we were at all times. But the rest of us were flying blind.”
On the final night of shooting, Dottie made brownies for the cast. The starved actors and crew started wolfing them down, only to watch her scrambling around trying to get rid of them because a visitor had come to the set. “It’s Tobe’s mother!” she said. “Get the brownies!” As it turned out, marijuana had been part of her brownie recipe, which was probably not such a good idea, since the scene being filmed required Hansen to cut down the front door of the house with a chain saw that did have teeth in it. “I noticed people becoming more and more bizarre as the evening wore on,” says Bozman, the only crew member who had passed on the brownies. Hansen—experiencing the effect of marijuana for the first time—successfully cut through the door, his pupils big as saucers. “I feel so hot,” he said. “I’m so dizzy.” An exhausted Hooper said, “It’s a wrap.”
The movie was finished. The bizarreness had just begun.
Five young people, traveling in a van, winding down strange country roads, encountering increasing levels of hostile gothic weirdness as they move farther into the wilderness—it would be a cliché were it not for the fact that it was the first real youth horror film. Before Chainsaw, horror films were about adults dealing with the terrors of modern science (Frankenstein), nineteenth-century virgins dealing with supernatural predators (Dracula), middle-class normalcy discovering madness in its midst (Psycho), or modern families fighting the devil himself (Rosemary’s Baby). Chainsaw was the first baby-boomer horror film, in which pampered but idealistic suburban children, distrustful of anyone over thirty, are terrorized by the deformed adult world that dwells on the grungy side of the railroad tracks. There had been other films that treated rural America as a place of seething, barely contained violence—notably Deliverance—but never one in which the distinction was so clearly made between an old America, of twisted, deranged adults, and a new America, of honest, right-thinking children. Hooper and Henkel had finally made their counterculture film.
The first voice you hear is John Larroquette’s, who would go on to TV fame in Night Court and The John Larroquette Show but who in 1974 was an unemployed actor. Hooper heard about him from a friend of a friend while trying furiously to finish the film in Los Angeles. He asked only one question about Larroquette: “Can he do an imitation of Orson Welles?” Too naive at the time to know that an unemployed actor will claim he can do anything, Hooper hired him for the famous opening crawl. It was recorded in one voice-over session:
The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
That preamble—hokey, overlong, with clichéd words like “annals”—proves by its very ineptness just how good a filmmaker Hooper was. For it’s not the purple prose that sticks in the mind but the empty black screen, the heavy silence before the crawl begins, the official-seeming type, Larroquette’s authoritative voice, and then, after the announcement of the ominous title, a series of blinding flashes, the sounds of chopping, ripping, heavy breathing, images of red meat, the drooling face of a calf, grating electronic sounds, old lifeless hands and grinning skulls, all of which pass so quickly that you can’t quite be certain what you saw or heard. A date comes up on the screen—“August 18, 1973”—then the faint sounds of a car radio fade in and out as a news announcer reports grave-robbing incidents in a certain Texas county. Before a single actor has appeared, before anything has happened at all, the film is pregnant with menace.
It took Hooper the better part of eight months to finish the film. Like most directors, Hooper loved the editing process—“But that made it agonizingly slow,” said Bob Burns. Parsley kept calling to find out when he could view the film. Hooper kept putting him off. He was spending much of his time trying to figure out what he’d be able to get away with. “I called the MPAA a lot,” he recalls, referring to the organization that awards movie ratings. “I wanted to get a rating that would allow kids to see the movie. I would just call up the ratings people and talk to whoever answered the phone. I would say, ‘I know you can’t really decide anything over the phone, but I have to know. I have this scene where a girl gets hung on a meat hook.’ Long silence. ‘What could I do?’ Long silence. ‘I guess it would help me if there was no penetration shot.’ ‘That would be correct.’ ‘And no blood?’ ‘That would help.’”
In the spring of 1974, though, Hooper had more-immediate problems: He had nothing left to get his film out of the lab. The original $60,000 was long gone, and there were debts piling up. So he and Henkel went back to Parsley, asking him to buy 19 percent of Vortex, the company they had set up to represent their half share in the movie. Of course, by this time they had given away so many Vortex shares to cast and crew that the additional sell-off of 19 percent would seriously cut into whatever profits they could conceivably make. (Hooper and Henkel would end up with matching 7.5 percent shares in the movie they created.) But Parsley turned them down. In a gesture not unlike the Lionel Barrymore evil-banker character in It’s a Wonderful Life, he reminded them that if they didn’t deliver a completed picture, he would own 100 percent of everything anyway. And he could finish it himself, using an editor who was a little faster than Hooper. “He had us by the short hairs,” says Henkel.
Then, at their moment of maximum desperation, another group of Austin politicians got involved. Henkel had confided his dilemma to Bill Wittliff, the Austin screenwriter best known for Raggedy Man and Barbarosa. Wittliff called his buddy Joe K. Longley, an attorney and the former head of the antitrust and consumer protection division of the attorney general’s office, and a meeting was arranged at City National Bank for everyone who played in his weekly poker game. Hooper and Henkel put together twelve minutes of the best footage from the unfinished movie and screened it for the poker players. At the end of the screening, six of them agreed to put up $23,532 in exchange for 19 percent of Vortex. When the agreement was drawn up, the number of people with shares of ownership had risen to somewhere around 35, although only Henkel and Hooper knew the real number. (Longley called the new investors’ corporation P.I.T.S. It stood for “Pie in the Sky”; to this day, a few members of the poker circle get regular royalty checks from Chainsaw.)
Finally, by late summer 1974, Hooper had his finished film. Once again, Warren Skaaren waltzed into view, this time to help the Austin neophytes find a Hollywood distributor. Columbia Pictures offered a $25,000 advance, then rescinded the offer a week later when its board of directors in New York expressed shock that the august studio would consider distributing such a low-life film. Rejected by the rest of the majors, Skaaren forged ahead with screenings for the many independents that were around at that time. It wasn’t long before Skaaren called Henkel, Hooper, and Parsley with great news. An executive at New York–based Bryanston Distributors had watched the film and offered $100,000 on the spot. A few days later Skaaren called again. The print had been sent to Bryanston’s East Coast headquarters, and now the offer was $200,000. Parsley was especially pleased, knowing that he could recover his entire investment right away. The negotiations were swift, and on the day that Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, the deal closed at $225,000 and 35 percent of the box office.
The New York Intellectual Massacre
Legend has it that, on a certain evening in October 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was sneak-previewed at a theater in San Francisco, where half the audience got sick and others pelted the screen, yelled obscenities, and demanded their money back. Fistfights broke out in the lobby, and the film became famous. The reality is probably less dramatic. The most credible version is that several San Francisco politicians, including city council members, had gone to a special screening of the movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and it was a coincidence that Chainsaw was being sneaked as a second feature. The politicians were outraged by what they saw, and therefore the press heard about it. Knowing what we now know about Bryanston Distributors, few things involving Chainsaw were coincidental. There’s a good possibility that the whole thing was staged to create a controversy. At any rate, a myth was born that night—that there was not only a horrific new movie but a new kind of movie, a docudrama so nauseatingly and relentlessly gory that it tested the very limits of what the First Amendment allows.
Chainsaw was an overnight hit. Bryanston had done a masterful job of marketing and releasing the film, beginning with the classic poster, which today sells for $500 and up. “What happened is true,” it announced with classic exploitation-film showmanship. “Now the motion picture that’s just as real.” No one will ever know precisely how many people saw it, but in its first four days in Texas alone, the film grossed $602,133. Extrapolating from that, a national release would have earned anywhere from $5 million to $10 million in its opening week—enough to make it the number one release of that month and easily a top-five grossing movie even in year-2004 numbers.
But then it would ascend into a different stratosphere as the critical firestorm began. Johnny Carson made disapproving jokes about it. Rex Reed called it “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, the Jaws of the midnight movie.” The Los Angeles Times called it “despicable . . . ugly and obscene . . . a degrading, senseless misuse of film and time.” But the bad reviews helped just as much as the rare good one. By the time it reached New York, it had become as notorious as Deep Throat, if somewhat less popular with the Hamptons set. Meanwhile, Bryanston pulled off the coup of getting the film accepted by the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in May 1975. Cannes was not widely understood at the time, so many people thought Chainsaw was one of the 24 films actually accepted for competition. It was instead part of a two-week showcase of new directors, a showcase famous for highlighting the offbeat, if not the downright bizarre. Cannes organizers treated Chainsaw not unlike a Ugandan documentary on female circumcision—a sort of “Get a load of what we found” entry—but spin is everything in the world of movie promotion.
Noting how angry people became when the film was praised by intellectuals, Bryanston further stoked the fires by making a gift of a perfect print of Chainsaw to the film collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The gift was hardly noticed at the time, but when MOMA started turning up in Bryanston’s advertisements (“Part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art!”), reporters called the museum, where a spokesman confirmed that, yes, the film had recently been cataloged. Especially offended by this was Stephen Koch, a friend of Andy Warhol’s and the author of a book on Warhol’s films. He called Chainsaw “a vile little piece of sick crap” and part of a growing “hard-core pornography of murder” that should best be compared to snuff films.
“It is a film with literally nothing to recommend it,” he wrote in Harper’s. “Nothing but a hysterically paced, slapdash, imbecile concoction of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it. . . . We are here discussing something close to the absolute degradation of the artistic imagination. . . . André Breton said the simple surrealist act would be to take a revolver into a crowded street and fire at random. They seem to have read Breton down in Texas.”
Of course, with a major New York intellectual weighing in against the film, there was bound to be a backlash of support, especially since the phrase “pornography of violence” would become the operative term in the future debate. Roger Greenspun made a kind of backhanded defense of the film in Film Comment (the magazine of the Film Society of Lincoln Center!), and Lew Brighton, writing in Film Journal, curiously described it as “the Gone With the Wind of meat movies,” comparing it favorably to Night of the Living Dead, Cannibal Girls, I Drink Your Blood, I Eat Your Skin, and Soylent Green.
The problem with all this so-called debate is that every commentator made some kind of basic factual error about what is actually in the film. Koch thought the movie was made in the Panhandle. Brighton, strangely enough, thought the movie had something to do with trespassing on the property of country rubes. “As far as I know,” he wrote, apparently seriously, “Texas is the only state in the Union where it’s legal to shoot trespassers, merely for stepping on one’s lawn.” The idea that the story could take place only in Texas informed a lot of the more hysterical articles, ignoring the fact that the principal source material was from medieval German folklore and Wisconsin court archives. If you read enough of the reviews, in fact, you start to think that the scariest word in the title was neither “Chainsaw” nor “Massacre” but “Texas.”
“Texas itself,” wrote feminist critic Mary Mackey, “is the land of male violence par excellence. In American folk mythology, Texas, more than any other state, embodies the cowboy ideal of the lone male who carves out a place for himself with his trusty Colt .45. . . . For years Texas was famous for being the only state where a man who caught his wife in bed with her lover had an automatic right (you might even say duty) to shoot her, while a woman who shot her husband under similar circumstances could almost be sure of being convicted of murder. Women have never counted for very much in Texas, and in the lives of the slaughterhouse family they don’t count at all . . . One of the functions of violence against women in the cinema (and in real life, for that matter) is to reduce them to just such a state of total compliance. To the men in the audience this fantasy of having absolute power over a woman is no doubt sexually exciting, and one of the reasons for the popularity of the film.”
In fact, as Berkeley professor Carol Clover would later show in her book Men, Women, Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the young males watching the film identified not with the cannibal family at all but with the remarkably resilient Sally. They did have fear and loathing of a female character, but that character was the longing-to-be-a-woman Leatherface, and this constant gender confusion is what has given the slasher film its peculiar power throughout its thirty-year history. Adolescent boys could feel vulnerable by identifying with the woman, while the fearsome forces in their real lives were transformed into psychotic, asexual dragons to be slain. In Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the survivors were tomboyish girls and the predators were sexually confused males.
All this would come later, though. In the first few remarkable months after the film’s release, the cast and crew back in Austin were suddenly transformed into celebrities. Some cast members had seen the film at a private screening on Congress Avenue, and they were not too impressed. “Tobe Hooper asked me how I thought it could be improved,” recalls Allen Danziger, “so I told him, ‘Well, you could turn the chairs so that they’re facing away from the screen.’”
Teri McMinn, the actress who was impaled on the meat hook, was driving her Volkswagen bus from Austin to Houston when she and her girlfriend decided to pick up a hitchhiker. He turned out to be talkative and said he’d been to a drive-in the previous evening and that they “wouldn’t f—ing believe this movie I saw.” He then proceeded to tell the whole story of Chainsaw, until McMinn couldn’t wait any longer and said, “Do you recognize me?” “I thought he was going to have a coronary,” she says now, but it was the first time she realized the movie would have an actual life outside Austin.
Jim Siedow took his wife and two of his three children to a downtown Houston theater to watch it after someone told him it was “the worst movie they’d ever seen.” “Later on,” he once said, “we saw it again at a drive-in, and I made a point of letting the people in the next car see who I was. As they drove away, the girl in the car said, ‘You were horrible!’ But the way she said it, she meant the character was horrible, so it was a compliment.” Ed Neal watched the movie repeatedly at the Village Theater in Austin, where he would scare unsuspecting patrons by tapping them on the shoulder while he was acting crazy on-screen: “They finally asked me not to come back anymore.”
In its first eight years of release, as Chainsaw continued to play drive-ins, overseas territories, and midnight-movie houses (often on a double bill with David Lynch’s Eraserhead), the $60,000 hippie horror movie grossed upward of $50 million, according to figures cobbled together by the Los Angeles Times. After an eight-year censorship fight in France, the film opened on the Champs Elysées in 1982 and had grosses like those for Superman. For a 1981 re-release by New Line Cinema, the gross was more than $6 million, an unheard-of amount of money for a seven-year-old film that had already been released on video. Chainsaw would end up being seen in more than ninety countries, sometimes dubbed, sometimes subtitled, sometimes marketed in an almost unrecognizable way. (In Italy it was called Non Aprite Quella Porta, or Don’t Open That Door.) Its appeal, for better or worse, was universal.
Enter the Wiseguys
After all this commotion, it was natural that the actors and crew members—many of whom had waived their salaries in exchange for a percentage of the movie—would say, “When do the first checks come in?” Calls were placed—first to Hooper, then to Henkel, then to anyone who would listen. “Three months, no check,” says Ed Neal. “Six months, no check. Nine months, a check for $28.45. We were angry.”
Hooper, reclusive and nonconfrontational by nature, fled from the problem, which exacerbated tensions. The actors felt bamboozled. They were startled to find out that Vortex, the company run by Hooper and Henkel, owned only half the movie, a fact some of the actors said they were not told in the beginning. Parsley’s M.A.B. Inc. owned the other half. That meant that an actor’s .5 percentage was actually worth only .25. Then there was this mystery company, the one run by Joe Longley, that suddenly turned up owning 19 percent of Vortex and demanding that it receive its investment money before anyone else was paid.
In fact, the cast and crew had no idea how bad things really were. Although Variety, the trade newspaper, was reporting that Chainsaw had grossed upward of $12 million in less than a year, Bryanston’s statements showed only about $1 million. One explanation is that, according to a Village Voice article, the heads of Bryanston, brothers Lou and Joe Peraino, were both members of the Colombo crime family. The Perainos had gotten into the film business, according to the FBI, by extorting the rights to Deep Throat from director Gerard Damiano, but since then they had acquired a legitimate reputation by hiring Hollywood veterans for their West Coast office, where the real marketing and distribution was done.
Unaware of this, investor Robert Kuhn had taken to calling the Perainos “the Piranha brothers.” And after repeatedly requesting an accounting of Chainsaw’s profits, he, Skaaren, Henkel, and Parsley demanded a meeting with them in New York in 1975. “Skaaren and I went over to their offices,” says Kuhn. “Henkel and Parsley stayed in the hotel. We waited a long time, and then Lou Peraino invited us into his office. On either side of him were two great big guys who looked like stereotypical thugs. We sat down and said, ‘We’re here to audit the books.’ He said, ‘You’re not gonna audit the books.’ I said, ‘In that case we would have no choice but to sue you.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have enough balls to sue me.’” There was a long silence as neither man said anything. Looming behind Peraino was a huge painting of Saint Sebastian, gouts of blood pouring out of his body, his face twisted in agony as he died with dozens of arrows mangling his flesh.
Kuhn did in fact file a lawsuit in Austin, and after a little legal wrangling, the case ended up in New York federal court. But by the time it was docketed and set for argument, “it became obvious,” says Kuhn, “that the assets were not gonna be readily available.” The Perainos had financed a string of bad, money-losing movies, and their company owed so much money by this time that all the prints were being held hostage by labs and subdistributors who wanted to be paid. Kuhn started threatening suits, filing suits, and otherwise causing problems for everyone who had Chainsaw prints, but he didn’t make much headway. And sometime in 1976, the Peraino brothers simply vanished. The result was years of litigation among the Texas investors.
The fact that none of the cast and crew ever made any money off Chainsaw was a huge disappointment, though one that might have been tolerable had many of them gone on to succeed.
The fact that none of the cast and crew ever made any money off Chainsaw was a huge disappointment, though one that might have been tolerable had many of them gone on to succeed. But despite the massive hit Chainsaw became, nearly everyone associated with it was somewhat inexplicably shunned by Hollywood. Some of the Chainsaw cast and crew took the film off their résumés, knowing that somehow it tainted their reputations. In 1976 Marilyn Burns landed the role of Linda Kasabian in the CBS production of Helter Skelter, from Vincent Bugliosi’s book on the Manson family, but that turned out to be her last performance of any stature. She now works for a telephone company in Houston. Teri McMinn also decamped for Hollywood but found that “people were very nonplussed” by a résumé with Chainsaw on it. She knocked around in soaps, doing “under-fives” (day parts consisting of fewer than five lines), and finally gave up on Los Angeles in 1984, at the age of 32. For about a decade she ran Baubles and Weeds, a specialty florist in Austin. Paul Partain took two more small film roles—in Race With the Devil and Rolling Thunder—then left acting in 1979 to become a salesman in the electronics industry.
Gunnar Hansen had a small cameo in The Demon Lover in 1976, then headed back to his childhood home in Maine and dedicated himself to writing poetry and nonfiction. He returned to the screen briefly in 1988 in the ultra-low-budget Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. Since then he’s appeared in seventeen direct-to-video movies, and he supplements his income with appearances at horror conventions, where he is one of the more popular celebrities, along with Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) and Kane Hodder (Jason). Ed Neal held out hope of joining Hooper in Los Angeles, but that became impossible when he became the leader of the disgruntled, unpaid Vortex shareholders. Today he is one of America’s top dubbing actors for Japanese films and CD-ROM games, playing roles such as Dr. Robotnik and the President in Sonic the Hedgehog, the evil old priest in Ninja Resurrection, and the insane planet in MAPS. And Allen Danziger, for whom the movie “was always just a goof,” spent ten years as a social worker, then started a singing-telegram and party-service company called Three Ring Service. For a while he performed at birthday parties as Tyrone the Turkey, who played the clarinet.
Bob Burns, the art director, did become well known within the film community for his work on Chainsaw, especially his “bone room” and the barbecue stand where the “cook” works. He used some of the Chainsaw props when he was hired by Wes Craven for yet another cannibal movie, The Hills Have Eyes, and used some of the same animal bones for The Howling. For years he kept most of the Leatherface paraphernalia in his house. And he was always on the fringes of the exploitation world, working on Tourist Trap with Chuck Connors, making a Klaus Kinksi film in Italy for fellow UT grad David Schmoeller. He became a pack-rat collector of macabre props from horror films. Disillusioned with modern Austin, he moved to Seguin, where he covered his house floor-to-ceiling with his collection. It was there that, after being diagnosed with cancer, he committed suicide in May of this year.
Legacy of Evil
For Hooper and Henkel at least, the financial mess of Chainsaw had seemed far, far away, especially since their talents were in such demand immediately after the film’s release. In late 1976 they moved into an office on the back lot of Universal Pictures, where they had salaries and a writing-directing-producing contract for their next three pictures. Of course, as with all such deals, Universal wasn’t required to actually make those three movies, but for the time being Hooper and Henkel basked in the knowledge that they shared the same back lot with Steven Spielberg, then the hottest director in the world, and William Friedkin, the number one horror director on the strength of The Exorcist.
Friedkin was an admirer of Chainsaw and the driving force behind Universal’s support, helping the Texans get the development deal. “You really know how to make movies,” he told Hooper. “And that’s good. That’ll come in handy. But let’s talk about what’s important—the bullshit.” Hooper and Henkel were eager students. They soaked up everything Friedkin told them, but first they had to satisfy a deal made prior to the Universal contract. A distributorship owned by Roger Corman had hired them to do a Chainsaw-type horror story from an existing script (rewritten by Henkel) about an insane motel manager who feeds his guests to the alligators that live in the swamp out back. They shot it in three weeks at Raleigh Studios, in Hollywood, but even with Marilyn Burns as the lead, lightning did not strike twice. Mel Ferrer, Stuart Whitman, and Robert Englund rounded out the cast of Eaten Alive, also known as Legend of the Bayou, also known as Death Trap, also known as Horror Hotel, also known as Horror Hotel Massacre, also known as Murder on the Bayou, also known as Starlight Slaughter—it failed to make money regardless of how many times it was retitled and re-released.
Afterward, Hooper and Henkel slowly realized that the three-picture deal had become a zero-picture deal. The contract expired, and they were on their own. They would occasionally talk by phone through the years, usually to discuss Vortex business, but they haven’t worked together since. In the early eighties they each released movies that define the yin and the yang of the Chainsaw heritage.
Poltergeist was Hooper’s first big-budget picture and an unqualified commercial success. He pitched into the project joyfully with his new friend and executive producer Spielberg, and they jointly worked out the casting and the general shooting schedule. Like kids at play, they called each other several times a day, and when production began, Spielberg wanted to be there. On a particular day when a Los Angeles Times reporter visited the set, Spielberg was shooting second-unit work in front of the house while Hooper was in the backyard getting a scene in which a tree comes to life in a little girl’s dreams. The following week an article appeared in the Times implying that Hooper was not really directing Poltergeist and that Spielberg was not just the executive producer but was ghost-directing. The clear implication was that Hooper was not up to the job. When the movie came out, review after review took note of the rumor that Hooper hadn’t directed it at all.
To this day Hooper’s face falls if you ask him about it, and you have to wonder whether the basis of his reputation, Chainsaw, is what caused the critics to be skeptical. Afterward, Hooper was forced back into the independent film world. After he agreed to do the first sequel to Chainsaw, Cannon Films promised to finance two other pet projects of his. He got a $20 million budget for Lifeforce, which got mixed reviews but did poorly at the box office, and he followed that with a remake of the classic Invaders From Mars, which got a good critical reception but also underperformed. Then, to satisfy his obligation to Cannon, he reluctantly churned out The Chainsaw Massacre 2 for $4.5 million. Maybe it was ahead of its time, but the comedy treatment of the Chainsaw family—screenwriter Kit Carson, of Paris, Texas fame, envisioned it as “the horror version of The Breakfast Club”—just didn’t fly with serious fans of the original, and everyone who worked on part two thought Hooper seemed detached and unchallenged.
He struggled after that, taking television work (The Equalizer, Freddy’s Nightmares, Tales from the Crypt, movies of the week) and making the occasional low-budget feature, like The Funhouse or Spontaneous Combustion, financed by people hoping to repeat the Chainsaw success story. He’s ended up, at age 61, as a journeyman director and a specialist in horror and science fiction, and his last movie—The Toolbox Murders—was actually a big-budget remake of a low-budget horror classic from the seventies. Chainsaw did indeed become his ticket to L.A.
Henkel’s early-eighties release was Last Night at the Alamo. Written by Henkel and directed by Eagle Pennell, it may be the best of all the homegrown Texas movies. Rarely seen, because it’s in 16-millimeter black-and-white and is unavailable on video, it’s a dark, funny, acidly accurate screenplay. It takes place at a little bar called the Alamo, destined for demolition the following day to make way for a Houston skyscraper, and on its final night the regulars are forced to sort through their illusions and dreams.
Henkel wrote this mature screenplay almost immediately after his return to Texas, in 1981. “My son was born in L.A. around that time,” says Henkel, “and I didn’t want him to grow up there.” He bought a funky house on stilts a few hundred yards from the surf and settled into a life of freelance writing, part-time teaching, and full-time reading. Dining at the Port Aransas marina one afternoon a few years ago, Henkel looked remarkably unchanged from the young hippie who had starred in Eggshells. He had the same handlebar mustache, the same easy drawl, the same relaxed manner. I asked him if he regretted never making a go of it in Hollywood.
“Not really,” he said. “I saw enough of it. They’re all criminals. Michael Shamberg, who was a producer at Warner Bros., wanted to meet with us after Last Night at the Alamo, and they set up a big meeting in New York City for a project we were going to do called ‘King of Texas.’ I’d written the script, kind of a quirky project. But Eagle showed up at the meeting so wasted and obnoxious that it was obvious it would never happen after that. And Eagle’s never made anything else after Last Night at the Alamo. Alcohol got him.”
In 1994, twenty years after the original movie was made, Robert Kuhn convinced Henkel that he should write and direct another sequel—the first one to be done by the story’s original screenwriter. (“I had to do everything but put dynamite under Kim to get him to write that script, and I was convinced he was gonna have to direct it, but I thought we [could] do another one.”) The result was Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, easily the best-written, best-acted, and best-directed of all the sequels. (There was a second sequel, Leatherface, in 1990.) It had the star power of Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger, who were unknown Austin actors when Henkel cast them but had become “names” before the movie was released. But the theatrical release of the film was twice delayed to take advantage of publicity from other McConaughey and Zellweger releases, and then suddenly support from Columbia TriStar evaporated. The movie was seen by only a few people, and it was perceived by the press as just another cheap sequel.
These days, Henkel fields an occasional call from Hollywood or New York, and he’s written another horror script called “Exurbia” that has acquired that peculiar status of being much admired but never produced. Twice a week he drives across the barrier island to Corpus Christi, where he teaches classes in screenwriting, production, and editing at the fortresslike Texas A&M at Corpus. His eager students, like Tobe Hooper four decades ago, have to make do with very little actual film equipment.
“I don’t think anyone should be pissed off about Chainsaw,” he told me, out of the blue. “I know everyone was upset about it. I know everyone thought there should have been more money and more recognition and more everything. But it was a bunch of kids making a movie! How many times do kids making what is essentially a student film get that kind of notice? What’s so wrong with just having a film that really did get noticed? If we made ten dollars on it, it’s ten dollars more than we should have hoped for.”
Of all the convoluted academic articles on Chainsaw—and there are many—one that caught my attention was written by a woman named Mikita Brottman, who teaches language and literature at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore. One reason I took her seriously is that she is the only critic who understood Chainsaw as a version of Hansel and Gretel. Much of her analysis involves understanding Chainsaw as an inverted fairy tale, “an apocalyptic narrative of negativity and destruction, wholly unredeemed by any single element of plot, mood, or characterization.” (This is a good thing in what she calls the “cinéma vomitif.”) She then compares Leatherface to the Wise Old Man of legend, a Hindu ascetic known as Aghori, and concludes that this one movie comprises “perhaps one of the only stories of true horror that our culture has produced.” The power of it, and the problem of it, is that “in this fairy tale there is only evil: the good that exists is either defeated, annihilated, or driven away.”
And in that respect it was both courageous and ahead of its time. No wonder the metal bands love it. It was punk before punk existed. The script is courageous and the execution is courageous. And for that reason it might be admired, but it will never be loved.
The famous house on Quick Hill Road, despite the regular pilgrimages of horror fans to find it, is gone. Quick Hill Road itself has been rerouted, and the mesquite break where Leatherface chased Sally has been bulldozed. A sign on the nearest highway reads “La Frontera: 330 Acre Master-Planned Commercial Development.” But if you drive 81 miles to the northwest, to the little lake town of Kingsland, and you go to the historic Antlers Hotel, you might want to eat at the restaurant across the street, which is located in a quaint “Victorian 1890’s house” with a beautiful bay window where Bob Burns once built his “bone room” and a beautiful dining room where a cannibal family once feasted for 26 hours.