Why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still scares the hell out of us

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Released on unsuspecting audiences on October 1, 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's lurid posters begged the question: "Who will survive and what will be left of them?" More than 40 years later, with a robust cult following, a number of sequels/prequels, a merchandise empire, and mainstream homage, this still seems like a fair question.

A deceptively simple story that pits stranded travelers against an inbred cannibal family was at the center of a lowly slasher flick that has transcended its own disposability to become a touchstone of pop culture. Why does this grindhouse classic, made on the cheap by a bunch of near-amateurs in a small town in Texas, endure in the popular imagination as the gold standard of horror? Super fans, scholars, and the film's stars are still trying to figure it out.

Like any good cinematic monster, part of the film's appeal comes out of the fact that it both has a strange origin story and came out of nowhere at just the right moment. Filmed on a shoestring budget during the summer of 1973 near Austin, Texas, even the production itself was something of a nightmare. Written by director Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, the production was cast with what could be generously described as newcomers: Marilyn Burns, who played Sally, was a recent UT Austin graduate with one film credit, while Gunnar Hansen, the film's villain Leatherface, had been editing a local poetry journal.

John Dugan (Henkel's brother-in-law at the time) quit his job doing children's theater in Chicago to play Grandpa. It was no great loss; the theatrical role consisted of "dressing up in tights, dancing around telling folk tales, and singing folk songs from around the world," a service he performed 12 times a week for $175.

What awaited him at that farmhouse down south, while certainly educational, was no more luxurious. "It was a terribly hard shoot, and it was very uncomfortable for everybody," he said. "The heat was oppressive. Tempers ran high." He was encased inside sweaty latex makeup that was designed to turn him in to the desiccated old patriarch of a deranged cannibal family; the days were long and less than financially profitable.

 

Explaining that he barely had cash for beer in those days, "I honestly made very little money, and I was on deferment, so I didn't get paid for a year. They gave me a place to stay and meals, but that was it. I was on my own dime down there." He did, however, make the best of the experience by treating it as a crash course in filmmaking, working with each department from sound to props to pick up what he could. "It was quite an education. By fire, really. [But] because it was my first experience. I guess I wasn't real clear on the fact that not all film shoots were like this."

When the film did hit theaters the fall of '74, it soon found its mark among critics, with even the industry insider Variety describing it as "well made for an exploiter of its type" and touting its box-office possibilities as "sanguine." More importantly, however, it found its audience, eventually raking in a "boffo" $30 million (although actual numbers vary due to the various lawsuits and distribution squabbles that would arise in the ensuing years). Profitability and critical praise aside, ticket buyers had found their new thrill ride, partly due to some clever marketing that suggested this was a documentary look at a "true story" (it wasn't, although there was some inspiration taken from the biography of real-life serial killer Ed Gein) and a cultural climate that was ripe for a new breed of monster.

Dugan understands the true story angle, but also emphasizes the weird relatability of it, adding, "It wasn't about anything supernatural. It was about somebody that could be your damn neighbor." In an America that was still reeling from the implications of the Vietnam war, race riots, and the bomb, just the thought of actual fiend next door could be a truly horrifying proposition. With its odd look at family values, novel shocks, and strange plausibility, the challenge of sitting through it proved irresistible to audiences.

In his book Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History, "Drive-In Movie Critic" Joe Bob Briggs describes the mutable, trippy experience of even watching Chain Saw as part of the ongoing draw. "The film itself is a strange, shifting experience, part Grand Guignol, and part gritty realism. Early audiences were horrified, later audiences laughed, and newcomers to the movie were inevitably stricken with a vaguely uneasy feeling, as though the film might have actually been made by a maniac."

This may be a key part of its ongoing appeal: Come for the promised gore (which is actually both implicit and explicit), stay for the genuine frights. It's this heritage of fear that would propel both a cottage industry for the original Chain Saw family and a new generation of filmmakers that has lasted until today. The demand for this new universe of characters would eventually come to encompass nine films, an early video game, and several comic books.

According to Seth Sherwood, the screenwriter of the new film Leatherface, his connection with the movie began early. "I'm not sure what age I was, but I was definitely too young to see it," he says. He added that the result of his experience with this "true story" was less instant fandom and more trauma. "I avoided it for a lot of my childhood. Even once I became a horror fan, I think in the back of my head that was the one that was always like, 'That's too scary. I don't know if I want to relive that.'"

He would eventually revisit the material out of necessity as a professional screenwriter. For him, re-examining the material would reignite a love and an understanding that the "realness" that first scared him as a kid was the original film's greatest asset, and his inspiration. "I love all the slashers, but you watch some of the early (Friday the 13th) movies and there's these moments where you're like, 'Okay, I'm watching a cheesy movie from the '80s.' You're still having fun, but it definitely feels like it's a little maudlin over the top and close to B-movie territory. Chain Saw just never did that. It always had this authenticity to it." A quality so unique that it added pressure to his own creative process: "I don't know how you can re-catch that. It might just have been lightning in a bottle in that situation."

So he went back to the beginning, reading up on that troubled first production and trying to connect his story with theirs by building in a sense of homage. "Continuity and narrative-wise, all we looked at was the original. Technically it's the same producers as Chainsaw 3D, so there's a few common characters between the two of them, but narratively I just looked at directing myself roughly towards the original."

He, of course, hopes today's audiences respond with the same enthusiasm of the original midnight moviegoers, but looking over it as a fan he can't help but feel a certain pride in being part of that rarefied, if frightening, world. "The day I got that job, it was just so awesome to know that even if it gets remade in another three or four years and everybody hates it, at least for a small, brief amount of time, I got a say in the story of an icon. That's pretty cool."

It's the fandom, above all, that has carried Chain Saw along over the years. Self-professed super fan and writer Heather Buckley also understands how that family has appealed to generations of misfits.

"As someone who was sort of an outsider since I was little ... there's just something about [them that] my heart that was attracted to," which, she laughingly admits, "probably reflects my own family." It's this outsider appeal that gives Chain Saw a kind of rock 'n' roll ethos, where the good guys are not necessarily the only heroes and the bad guys are not without their charms. It's a thrill that never gets old, she explains, even when special effects have gone digital and the clothes look dated.

She saw this passing down of the viewing experience firsthand recently when she "showed it to a bunch of kids at a film festival and they were buzzing when they left that they had never seen something so relentless and gritty. They didn't even know where it came from. In the way they made it, its otherness, I think just lives in a sort of a mythic place."

Like most enduring mythologies, it's passed down from generation to generation, from new audiences that are still lining up to see film festival screenings to entire families that show up at horror cons to meet with John Dugan. A legacy he still finds touching, surprising, and definitely rewarding. "We shot in '73, so, over the years, signing autographs and doing personal appearances, I made a lot of money for a few weeks of work." Fandom is a world he's more than happy to be a part of, both because of how important Chain Saw is to people and the opportunities it's provided him as a journeyman actor. "This is something I can do for the rest of my life -- and supplement my paltry Social Security benefit -- so my fans are important to me."

It's an enthusiasm that shows no signs of slowing down even now, with the passing in the last few years of the principal talent, Tobe Hooper, Marilyn Burns, and Gunnar Hansen. It's a whole that's become greater than the sum of its bloody parts and an undeniable part of the culture at large becoming a shorthand for movie violence and cult status. The film itself appears either directly or as homage in dozens of other works, including American Psycho, Taxi Driver, The Devil's Rejects, and more, making it a sort of chimera of our worst fears for decades now.

Father of post-modern monsters Freddy, Michael, and Jason, Leatherface — and his family — have achieved a sort of immortality outside of their own universe. Nothing can kill it now. Dugan mentions one particular fan who drove this idea home for him, a "hardcore" fan who left his autograph table with the chilling warning, "You know he's still out there, don't ya?"

And I was like, "Who?" He goes, "'Leatherface, still running around in them Texas hills ..."