Texas, September 1973. 116˚F. Anything not under a shade is slowly cooking. A young actor is preparing himself for his death scene in a big house on the set of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Allen Danziger is psyched. He’s refusing to see who will be attacking him, to get that good bit of Method authenticity in his response. A grip’s crouched behind him, ready to jerk Danziger hard to the floor when the unseen assailant strikes him. When Allen turns to meet his maker, the scream’s beyond genuine. As the 6ft 4″ monster wearing someone else’s face charges him, the terrified Danziger pulls loose of the grip and dives out the door, ruining the shot.
Though audiences around the world had the same reaction, it wouldn’t stop them from turning The Texas Chain Saw Massacre into one of the biggest movies of 1974, the tale of five groovy teenagers getting lost in the outback of the Lone Star state, all but one doomed to meet bloody ends at the hands of a cross-dressing psychotic called Leatherface and his cannibal family.
Unfortunately, all the blood, sweat and fears director Tobe Hooper put himself and his crew through one steaming Texas autumn would be nothing compared to the glory and disappointments still to come. “It was fascinating how much stupid stuff could go on with one dumb movie,” star Marilyn Burns ponders 30 years later. Fascinating? Try unbelievable.
It started with aspiring young Texan director Tobe Hooper working in his local store. Tobe is stuck helping a festive season crowd in the hardware section. Looking for the quickest way out, he spies a chain saw on the wall.
“That would really cut a way out of there,” joked Tobe Hooper later. The then 30-year-old had what he later described as an epiphany – the structure for the movie.
Horror movies were changing by the early Seventies. Dracula and Frankenstein weren’t frightening anymore – real-life monsters had outdone them. Charles Manson, Richard Nixon and Ed Gein were reflected in flicks like Last House On The Left and Soylent Green.
Hooper’s Wisconsin relatives would cheerfully scare the young Tobe with former resident Ed Gein’s exploits.
Teaming with writer pal Kim Hinkel, the pair moulded together ideas of family dysfunction, Gein, Watergate, Hansel and Gretal, the petrol crisis and their own brand of Southern Gothic, quickly piecing together The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Not that it was called that originally. Titles initially favoured were ‘Headcheese’ and ‘Leatherface’. It was pal Warren Skarren, who’d later write Beetlejuice and Batman (1989), who came up with the slightly more iconic title.
For funding, they turned to Bill Parsley, a friend of Hooper. Parsley invested $60,000 in the production via a new company named MAB, Inc. MAB owned 50% of the film and its profits in return for the funding.
After roping together a cast and crew, Ron Bozman, the production manager on Texas Chain Saw Massacre, told about 20 of the cast and crew that he would have to defer part of their salaries until after the movie was sold to a distributor.
Vortex made the idea more attractive by awarding them a share of its potential profits, ranging from 0.25 to 6%, Although the crew agreed to this deal. Vortex did not tell them they owned only 50%, which meant their points were worth half of the assumed value. The initial investors owned the other 50%.
As production got underway, the first hurdle to cross was Leatherface, the skin-wearing, chain saw-wielding ‘Mom’ of the cannibal family.
As production loomed, their initial choice decided to lock himself in a motel and get drunk, refusing to come out. English teacher and amateur actor Gunner Hansen was asked to come down and chat to Hooper and Hinkel about the art and who the monster was.
“It’s a bad day for Leatherface,” reasons Hooper. “He’s thinking to himself, ‘Where are all these people coming from?'”
Hansen gets the part mainly because, as he puts it, “I filled the door.” Spending time on campus for the mentally disabled to gain the right physical movements for the role (which has no speech or facial expression), the affable giant was eventually tagged as a patient.
Starting on 15th July 1973, the shooting would last 13 hours a day, seven days a week for 32 days in the blistering Texan sun. The budget provided no amenities. Hooper hired the victim’s van off the sound guy and was then only able to shoot for minutes at a time within what instantly became a crowded metal oven.
Tensions weren’t helped by Paul Partain (playing Sally’s disabled brother Franklin) staying in character the whole time. It’s years before the cast discovers that he’s not an obnoxious brat.
There were no stuntmen. When Leatherface carves up Franklin to create the effect of splattering blood, Dottie Pearl (the film’s makeup artist) and Hooper sat off-camera, spitting red syrup onto Hansen.
The meathook impaling scene was done by Hansen threading the hook through the make-do body stocking harness wound around Teri McMinn’s (Pam’s) body and between her legs. Effectively being suspended by her crotch, McMinn could only hang for a minute before the pain became too much.
It was also unexpectedly realistic. “What worked really well was that there was a bit of a jerk,” says Pearl, the impromptu harnesses creator.
Then there was the chain saw. Hansen had no training before being asked to run amok with it. There’s also the little fact that the Leatherface mask had tiny eye holes.
“I had no peripheral vision at all,” confirms Hansen. When Leatherface attacked Pam, Hansen misjudged the doorframe and knocked himself out cold.
“It sounded like someone hit a bowling ball with a baseball bat,” says Hooper. Another time Hansen fell over, sending the running chain saw flying. “Eventually, we discovered this was too hazardous,” underplays Hooper. They took the clutch out for scenes where the audience couldn’t tell if it was on.
For close-ups, cast members had to put up with a half-blind Gunnar waving a running chain saw at them. When Leatherface dismembers Kirk, Hansen had to hold the saw about three inches away from William Vail’s head, showering it with woodchips. “Tobe wanted to hear the chain saw binding down,” remembers Hansen. “And Bill has to lie there perfectly still with his eyes closed.”
Hansen would get his own back on Hooper. For those iconic final frames of the film, as the frustrated Leatherface rages in an almost dance-like manner, Hansen would swing towards the camera. “I realised that they had to get out of my way because I couldn’t see. Every time I swung I saw Tobe ducking, so I just swung that chainsaw because I wanted to scare them. I knew it was my one shot.”
The task of creating the horrific look of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre would fall to Robert Burns. His mission would be to “try and make it look not like an art director’s idea of what insane people would do but to try and make it look like where they would live. Not trying to get into these minds, mind you.”
Getting the raw materials would be a challenge. (Un)luckily, Texas had just revoked its free hauling service for dead livestock. The carcasses would now sit, prime for nabbing, in distant fields. Working at a veterinarian’s at the time, makeup artist Dottie Pearl invited Burns in to plunder the boneyard out the back.
“Bob just had a field day. He took his knapsack, and it was hilarious watching him jump over all these things and load up his knapsack like a completely insane person.”
Marilyn Birns, Who was playing the heroine Sally, was reaching the end of her tether. Already cut to shreds by tickets, the sequence where she’s attacked by a broom-wielding Jim Siedow (Dad) would provide more bruises.
Having already discarded the stunt broom for being too fake, the word was that the action still didn’t look real enough. Marilyn finally turned to Siedow and told him to just go for it.
Go for it Siedow did and unfortunately knocked Marilyn out cold. When she regained consciousness, she’d won a matching set on continuity-troubling shiners. Later she’d injured her ankle during a pick=up shot. “We did go a little above and beyond the normal duty,” deadpans Marilyn.
Why didn’t you just say no? “Because I wanted it to be a good picture, and I figured that if i didn’t, Tobe might think I didn’t have a ten in me and might let me get by at a lower level.”
A special seat in Hell is reserved for the unforgettable dinner table sequence, where the cannibal family relentlessly torment their next meal: Sally.
Legend has the shoot at 26 loooong hours. With 12 sweaty, unwashed people in the room, curtain-insulated windows and the lights glaring, if the heat didn’t get you, then the hum coming off the rapidly rotting foot would.
“By that time, we were nuts. Crazy,” laughs Marilyn, who’s spent most of the scene either screaming or with a filthy rag in her mouth. “You had to laugh during that dinner scene, or we would have killed each other.”
Dottie Pearl tried to keep the animal corpses – direct from the abattoir – fresh by injecting them with formaldehyde. Shattered, Pearl struck the needle through the animal and into her own thigh.
Giving up on the corpses, the crew piled them outside the house and set them ablaze. The billowing, putrid smoke blew straight back into the house, sending the crew running out gaging.
After her final shots, Marilyn – her blond hair stained pink from blood – threw away her costume, as by now, so starched with fake blood that it would stand up on its own. And then the call came. they needed to re-shoot the final shots of the near-lunatic Sally getting away in the pickup truck.
“So at the end of the scene when I was hysterical, I really was!” recalls Marilyn, “I began to think they just wouldn’t let me go.”
And what did her director think of his star screaming defiance at him?
“I got a sense of true hysteria,” says an admiring Hooper. “her level of fear and her actual fear transcends the screen and is contagious. She’s a real trooper.”
Hooper would spend the next year putting the movie together in his home: editing it in the living room, recording the score in the bedroom.
Using little tape recorders, Hooper would create the jarring soundtrack, placing the industrial wail of the chainsaw and Marilyns’ seemingly continuous screaming high in the mix, keeping the audience on a permanent knife edge.
Running out of money midway through editing, Hooper and Henkel had to sell more shares for additional funding. A film production group, Pie in the Sky, provided $24,000 in exchange for shares of Vortex. This left Henkel, Hooper and the rest of the cast and crew with a reduced stake of 40.5%.
After doing the circuits with the finished product, they found a distributor in Louis (Butchie) Peraino’s company, Bryanston, who’d already achieved indie success with porn smash Deep Throat.
David Foster arranged for a private screening for some of Bryanston’s West Coast executives and received 1.5% of Vortex’s profits and a deferred fee of $500
On 28th August 1974, Louis Peraino of Bryanston agreed to distribute the film worldwide, from which Vortex would receive about 35% of the profits. Years later, Production manager Bozman stated, “We made a deal with the devil, [sigh], and I guess that, in a way, we got what we deserved.”
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proved an immediate smash, even with critics. People were shocked by how utterly relentless it was, but they kept coming back for more.
The bludgeoning of the hippy dream, the sort of unflinching horror that refuses to give you a breather. It proved too much for Britain’s then-chief censor, the late James Ferman, who called it “the pornography of terror.” It would remain banned in the UK for 23 years. In America, though, it just ran and ran.
The crew with points in the movie understandably thought they’d hit the jackpot.
Welcome to Wrongsville; you’ll be here for a while.
With Vortex now receiving less than 35% of the profits, the shares were worth less than half of what they thought they were. Not that Vortex would see any profits.
It transpired that Louis Peraino and Bryanston were fully mafia connected. The books were fixed; the money disappeared. When the crew’s legal representatives came to check them, Peraino, flanked by some heavies, advised them otherwise.
Although the investors recouped their money (with interest), after the other distribution people, the lawyers and the accountants were paid, only $8,100 was left to be divided among the 20 cast and crew members.
Trying to track down the missing millions. Marilyn Burns went undercover and dated one of the Bryanston crew. “I was out there being this super-dumb, idiot actress,” shudders Marilyn.
“He took me out to this resturant on Melrose and his gun fell on the floor. So i’m thinking maybe this isn’t a good idea. I got out pretty quick.”
Peraino ended up doing time for obscenity and racketeering charges. Eventually, the producers sued Bryanston for failing to pay them their full percentage of the box office profits.
When the matter finally went to court, the TCM crew were awarded $500,000, but Bryanston had declared bankruptcy by then. After the resulting legal battle over all the loose ends Bryanston had left, $361 remained for each of the cast and crew.
In 1983 New Line Cinema acquired the distribution rights from Bryanston and gave the producers a larger share of the profits.
To put the stolen money into context, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre made over $30 million in its initial release through 1974 and 1975 in The USA and Canada alone. Bryanston has never released worldwide box office grosses with that money well and truly gone.
Time has dosed the outrage of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre crew. Most accept that they won’t see the right amount of money from the insane little project they did back in 1974.
If events had made them cynical, then the continuing popularity and fascination with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have given them a sense of pride. “It was about developing myself as a filmmaker. It didn’t seem to be about the money.” He pauses before a big throaty laugh. “But that’s probably why we all got screwed!”
Tobe Hooper sadly died on 26th August 2017. Still, his legacy will always live on with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with the movie now a franchise of varying levels of quality but financially successful nevertheless.