“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” directed and co-written by Tobe Hooper and released in 1974, set the standard for the slasher-film genre with its depiction of a family of sadistic cannibals who torture and murder a group of interlopers. In the film’s most horrifying scene, a woman is tormented at a dinner table, tied to the arms of a corpse as she’s threatened with imminent death by the ghoulish clan.
It wasn’t all acting. Behind the scenes, the making of the film was a real-life horror show.
“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Film That Terrified A Rattled Nation,” by Joseph Lanza (Skyhorse Publishing), recalls how that scene, filmed in one 26-hour marathon, took place in a farmhouse in Round Rock, Texas, where the mercury had soared to 115 degrees.
Some of the actors hadn’t washed or changed their clothes in five weeks for continuity, and the set was littered with dead dog and cattle parts and fetid cheese for atmosphere, giving off an unbearably rank odor.
“The conditions on that long night that bled into the following day were intolerably putrid. Some of the cast and crew members referred to it as ‘the last supper,’ ” Lanza writes.
“The heat and humidity outside and inside were so high … [that the cast] had to run outside for oxygen and periodic vomit breaks.”
In some cases, there was actual violence. During the torturous dinner scene, Sally — the character subjected to this misery, played by Marilyn Burns — was supposed to have her finger cut by the maniac known as Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) so the family’s centenarian patriarch, played by then-18-year-old John Dugan in heavy prosthetic makeup, could drink her blood.
The way this scene was filmed would be a career-ending scandal today.
“The prop knife they used, which contained a tube of fake blood that Hansen was to squeeze onto Burns’ finger, had malfunctioned,” Lanza writes.
“They tried many takes, and finally, Hansen grew so impatient that he surreptitiously sliced her finger for real before exposing her to Dugan’s saliva.”
Neither Dugan nor Burns realized what had happened, only learning about it years later at a postscreening Q&A. While Burns was reportedly “furious,” Dugan, Lanza writes, was less so, later saying, “I didn’t find out until years later I was actually sucking on her blood, which is kind of erotic really.”
Lanza quotes Burns speaking to Hansen for his 2013 memoir about the filming, “Chain Saw Confidential,” as she recalled her terror at the entire ordeal.
“You scared me to death,” she told him. “I didn’t know you really at all, and by this time, you’re not sure if it’s real or a movie. And snuff films were just coming in at this time, and I’m thinking, this is too real. The leering, leering when you started coming at me, that was really scary.”
The cut finger was just one aspect of Burns’ ordeal on the set.
Jim Siedow, who played another one of the maniacs, later recalled how, during a scene where his character was to beat Sally, things again became more real than a slasher film should allow.
Siedow noted that at first, he had trouble with the depiction of violence, and couldn’t get himself to a place where he could simulate the vicious beating.
But as Hooper and others in the cast and crew, including Burns herself, prodded him to actually strike her, screaming things like, “Hit her!” “Hit her harder!” “Hit her some more!” Siedow eventually settled into the brutality.
“Marilyn said, ‘Hit me, don’t worry about it,’ ” Siedow said in the 2000 documentary “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Family Portrait.”
“And every time we’d try it, she’d come up with a few more bruises. Finally, I got with it and started having fun doing it and started really slugging her, and we kept that up — we did eight shots — and then they finally said, ‘That’s a take.’ She just fainted dead away. The poor girl was beaten up pretty badly.”
Given all this, perhaps the most shocking thing to learn about the film is its utterly pedestrian origin, as creator Hooper, who died in 2017, got the idea for it while Christmas shopping at an Austin, Texas, department store.
In the lead-up to the 1972 holiday season, Hooper “stood in a crowded hardware section of a Montgomery Ward, wary of the holiday spirit, and desperate for an exit,” Lanza writes.
“Noticing a bunch of chain saws in an upright display, he fantasized about slicing and dicing his way through the consumer swarm. He repressed his dream of a Yuletide bloodbath, but once he escaped the claustrophobic maw and settled back home, visions of chain saws whirred in his head, setting off a chain reaction of story ideas.”
If this seems a rather wild reaction to a simple store display, Hooper could be forgiven for violent associations. According to Lanza, when Charles Whitman committed one of the worst mass murders in US history in August 1966, killing 14 people and wounding 31 others in a 96-minute shooting spree at the University of Texas at Austin, Hooper was there, witnessing some of the carnage before rushing to hide from the sniper.
As he walked though the campus and heard the gunfire, “a cop ran up to him and shouted, ‘Get in the building. Someone is on the tower shooting,’ ” Lanza writes.
“Startled but a bit skeptical, Hooper watched the policeman soon plummet from the impact of a bullet. Hooper took refuge in a nearby building … For Hooper, the Whitman massacre was an omen of darker deeds that would sully the ‘60s counterculture’s peace-love clichés.”
Hooper’s first feature, 1969’s “Eggshells: An American Freak Illumination,” reflected this, taking hippie culture down a peg with its tale of communal hippies whose blissful lives are disrupted by a “crypto-embryonic hyperelectric presence.”
The director later planned to use a similar mysterious force to wreak havoc in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but wisely rejected this, making the film, as Lanza notes, “all the more terrifying for being secular.”
But if the technique was changed, the themes carried over. As Hooper boiled the story down with co-writer Kim Henkel, it became “a post-’60s version of Hansel and Gretel: lost but blindly optimistic young people wandering into strange places that gobble them up.”
Hooper was inspired to create the psychotic killer Leatherface based on something he once heard from a doctor he knew, who “bragged about making a mask from a cadaver during his pre-med days.” Before settling on the film’s title, others considered included “Saturn in Retrograde,” “Head Cheese,” “Stalking Leatherface,” and simply “Leatherface.”
The film’s most famous character and visual association offered a premonition of the trials to come. Another actor had been initially cast in the role, but just before shooting was scheduled to begin, the man “walled himself way inside a hotel room, in a drunken delirium, reneging on his commitment.”
Hansen later said that his predecessor got last-minute jitters “about karma and his soul — it was the ’70s, after all.”
An Icelandic-born poet with an imposing presence, Hansen regarded Leatherface as mentally challenged, and created the character by spending time at a school for developmentally disabled children where his mother worked.
“He started touring the grounds, studying how the patients ambled, stooped, bent their heads, and made erratic motions,” Lanza writes.
“I found that the key to unifying the character was all in the gesture,” Hansen said, “the way I moved my right arm, pulling it toward my chest. Then the body followed.”
Made for only $140,000, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was a massive hit, grossing $26.5 million the year it was released. It was hugely influential for horror films that followed, and so celebrated an innovation that it was added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1981.
But for those involved, the film was a nightmare that for some never seemed to end.
Burns, beyond relieved once filming was finally complete, recalled being told, the night filming wrapped, that due to a problem with one of the shots, she would need to return to the set for more filming.
“When I was crazy at the end of the movie, laughing hysterically, that wasn’t acting,” she later recalled.
“That was me, having to go back and do it one more time.”