When talking about horror movies that were pacesetters in the genre of scary films, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is always regarded as one of the most influential in this type of entertainment. The original movie, which came out in 1974, has spawned four sequels, one prequel and two reboots and even has a place in the New York City Museum of Modern Art for its importance in the development of American cinema.
Its depiction of violence was so intense that it is mistakenly remembered as being more graphic than it really was. But it did set the stage for the modern horror genre that has become more explicitly gory than ever thanks to the evolution of special effects.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” four surviving cast members appeared at the Son of Monsterpalooza event the weekend of Sept. 12-14 at the Marriott Burbank Convention Center. On hand were Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker) and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface). On Friday evening and all day Saturday, these actors greeted fans, signed autographs and posed for photos, and on Sunday sat on a panel to talk about the making of the film. Sadly, two of the other main stars, Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty) and Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty) have passed away, Partin in 2005 and Burns a little more than a month ago on Aug. 5.
Directed and co-written by Tobe Hopper — along with Kim Henkel — “Massacre” is about Sally and her paraplegic brother Franklin, who along with three friends — Pam, Kirk and Jerry (Alan Danzinger) — take a road trip in a van to visit the grave of the Hardesty siblings’ grandfather, not only to pay respects but to follow up on reports that the cemetery has been hit by grave robberies. Along the way the five people pick up the hitchhiker, played by Neal, a bizarre character who eventually gets kicked out of the van after cutting Franklin on the hand.
The group ends up nearly out of gas in a remote area and soon come upon a house where Leatherface literally bursts into their lives for some terrifying and ghastly and in some cases fatal encounters. It turns out Leatherface and Hitchhiker are part of a family that murders people for their meat that they sell for barbecue.
The Sunday panel gathering of the four actors also featured some selected clips from the movie, allowing the stars to make comments.
In one clip that shows Hitchhiker in the van demanding payment for a Polaroid picture he has just taken of the other passengers, Neal quipped, “And we’re still selling photographs.”
McMinn said that when Neal was brought in to play Hitchhiker, she thought he had actually been recruited from a local insane asylum. “Wow this guy is crazy,” she said.
Vail revealed that he and Neal had been roommates in college, a fact McMinn was unaware of until this panel event.
One of the first shocking scenes in “Massacre” is when Kirk (Vail) enters the old house, looking for residents and Leatherface makes his violent debut, fatally clubbing Kirk, throwing him against a wall and then dragging the body into a back room. In recalling the fatal hammer scene, Vail said that originally, Hansen did not hit him hard enough to respond, throwing off the timing in the scene. So Vail encouraged Hansen to attack with more force.
“Gunner was so pumped, blood vessels around my eye were ruptured (when he hit again),” Vail said. Then Hansen threw him so hard against the wall that Vail said he passed out. Hansen concurred. “I was so pumped that I threw him head-first into the wall.” Fortunately, pillows had been placed off camera for Vail to land on. “So he did have a soft landing,” Hansen added.
In recalling terrifying scene in which Leatherface slams the door shut with such force, Hansen said the segment works so well because the door was not properly aligned in the door frame, so it just jammed suddenly and didn’t bounce or jiggle despite being light metal. Instead it appears that it is a heavy door being violently shut.
Vail said that director Hooper purposely kept the group of actors playing the victims apart from the those playing family members, so that when Vail and others initially see Leatherface, they actually were encountering that character for the first time.
Another clip shown was one of the most grisly scenes, when Pam is scooped up by Leatherface and taken to the back room and hoisted upon a meat hook. Regarding that scene, Neal said that he has won many $5 bets from people over the years who insist that the hook can be seen protruding out of Pam’s chest, which is not the case. In fact, the hook is never seen penetrating any flesh.
Once the meat hook scene was filmed, pretty much in one take according to McMinn, the entire set was quiet. “It brought us to a realization of the finality of the violence,” she said.
Hansen was eager to talk about the chicken seen confined to a bird cage in a room full of feathers and bones. Hansen said that Bob Burns, the art director who handled the props, was adamant that the poor chicken being handled humanely. What Burns never found out was that the chicken did die overnight. In fact, several chickens had to be used because they did not last the nights. Co-writer Henkel was secretly going to a nearby chicken farm and purchasing a chicken to replace the latest one that had died.
Hansen also revealed that prior to playing Leatherface, he had never handled a chainsaw before. In the scene in which Leatherface is shown chopping up the dead Kirk, the actors were flirting with disaster. “First of all,” said Vail, “Gunner could not see very well,” because of the leather mask on his face, yet he still had to bring the chainsaw as close to Vail’s head as possible. The scene was set up so that Vail’s head could not be seen, just most of his body from the shoulders down. Vail said he could feel the hot oil and wood chips hitting his face, but could not flinch or otherwise move, since he was supposed to be dead.
Hansen said Hooper insisted that a real saw be used so as to capture the authentic sounds of the blade cutting things. Although Hansen pointed out “that’s what post (production) is for,” Hooper prevailed in this decree. Hansen of course did not realize that when a saw contacts the object it is cutting, it can jerk forward, so even though Hansen is a big man at 6-foot-4 and believed he could control the chainsaw, he would not have known to anticipate the jerking . Fortunately he managed to keep the saw from hitting Vail.
“There were stories that in this film some people came close to death,” Hansen said. “No, nobody ever came close to death, but death came real close to several people.”
Said Vail, “I trusted Gunnar to take care of me and said let’s shoot the film. We were young and dumb.”
The four actors also expressed appreciation for Burns and Partain. As the wheelchair-bound Franklin, Partain insisted in staying in character even when not shooting any scenes. At one point between scenes, Partain asked Vail to bring him a Coke, upon which Vail told him to get out of the wheelchair and fetch his own soft drink. The actors said Partain was in character so much that his fellow stars ended up not liking him.
Hansen said that during the filming, Partain only got close to John Dugan, who played Grandfather, and confided in Dugan that he was afraid he would “lose” Franklin if he ever went out of character, and not be able to recover him when it came time to film scenes. “He called everybody by their character name,” Hansen said.
The strategy paid off in a macabre way. Hansen said that when it came time to shoot the scene in which Leatherface attacks Franklin, he was really looking forward to “killing” the character because Partain had become so convincing in portraying this annoying person. It was about 20 years later that Hansen was able to reunite with Partain, meet the man outside of the Franklin character and build a friendship before Partain’s death in 2005.
Regarding his own approach to Leatherface, Hansen said, “Leatherface is not a method actor.” Hooper, meanwhile, told the other performers that Hansen was a jerk as a way of creating some real tension during the shooting.
Hansen said that he never felt he was actually assuming the character of Leatherface. It was more a physical role because Leatherface could not speak, just grunt and make pig noises. Hansen always referred to Leatherface in the third person. It wasn’t until a late scene, at the family dinner, that Hansen finally began to feel himself in the role of Leatherface.
Burns’ recent death made it difficult for the other cast members to talk about her.
“She was my best friend,” McMinn said. “We loved spending time together. It’s been really hard.”
Neal recalled that one time he and Burns had agreed to attend a screening of “Massacre” in Texas, and upon arriving they learned they had to wait until the movie was over before they would meet the attendees. This allowed the two people a chance to chat for a couple of hours. Neal said he asked Burns what frightened her the most. Was it the fear of death? She said no. So he pressed: What’s your greatest fear? After a moment’s thought, she said, I do have a great fear: One day years from now you and I will be at the opening of a 7-11 in Oklahoma, and there’s two people in line.
“We miss her because we lost someone from our family,” Hansen said.
Marilyn Burns left horror fans with an indelible performance as the first, and in many viewers’ opinion, the best of the “final” girls, the ones who survive at the end despite the relentless pursuit of a deranged killer