Chainsaw Confidential & An Oscar Postscript
Another movie-mad installment from Dennis Cozzalio, this week tackling Gunnar Hansen’s memoir on the making of that out-of-control horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To dig deeper into Dennis’s brain visit his terrific site, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
The true story of the making of one of the most influential horror movies ever made, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), is that of a bunch of college kids who got together on a friend’s farm and decided to make a movie, for the fun of it and, if it came out well, for the inevitable riches. They decided to film the true story of atrocities committed by a cannibal family somewhere in Texas that had recently been published in newspapers across the state (including the fact that one of the killers had escaped and was still on the loose). The shoot was disastrous—an incompetent crew, drug-addled actors, psychological damage inflicted upon the sensitive young teen who played the movie’s central figure of evil—and the director ended up having to fend off charges that the movie he’d made was not, in fact, an actual snuff film. The movie was released to loud, offended cries of disdain and outrage, except from the world of academia, whose members immediately perceived, beyond the movie’s surface carnage, even darker undercurrents linking it to the destructive effects of Vietnam, sexual repression, the erosion of the American family, and even the nation’s thoughtless, relentless consumption of red meat. But it was a huge hit, everyone got rich and ended up going on to happy lives and even more lucrative careers.
That’s the gist of the collective rumors anyway, a twisted story that is set more or less straight by poet and historian Gunnar Hansen, whose book chronicling the making of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, called Chainsaw Confidential (now available in a spiffy paperback edition), begins by conflating the mythology behind the making of the film, then proceeds to gently deflate it with the clarity and intelligence of first-person observation. The book is a smartly written, pretense-free account of the events that occurred during the summer of 1973 near Austin, Texas which resulted in a movie that, 41 years after its initial release, some people believe to be the great modern horror film, alongside George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, with which all others must reckon and be measured against.
And if Hansen’s name rings familiar (and it will for most readers of this column), it’s probably not because of the man’s previous writing—Hansen himself played Leatherface, the chain saw-wielding fiend behind the mask made of dried, stitched-together pieces of human flesh, hence that first-person privilege. His sometimes irreverent, always clear-headed and precise telling of the story of this production’s particular trials and tribulations dispels any lingering notions of the romance of truly independent filmmaking in the ‘70s and offers an avenue into understanding how sometimes, with only the most modest intentions, filmmakers can stumble and flail their way toward lasting achievement, and even art.
The book is beautifully organized with chapter headings derived from the movie’s dialogue (“If I Have Any More Fun, I Don’t Think I Can Take It,” “There’s Them That Laughs And Knows Better,” “It’s a Good Picture—You Can Pay Me Now”) that cleverly reflect or connect to the author’s focus. And Hansen makes the wise decision early on to assemble his anecdotal approach to reflect the chronology of the movie’s story rather than the order in which the film’s scenes were actually shot. It’s a move made, as Hansen puts it, “for the sake of clarity and my own sanity,” but it also lends Chain Saw Confidential, for readers intimately familiar with the movie at least, something of the buildup of tension and anticipation that informs the movie.
Thus Hansen speaks first to the five young people we see setting out on a road trip at the beginning, of the logistical difficulty of shooting in Texas summer heat in a van crammed with actors and a small camera crew, and how many of the other actors (including himself) were put off by what was perceived as the method-y arrogance of actor Paul Partain, who plays the whiny, wheelchair-bound Franklin. Partain, a young, inexperienced actor at the time, was convinced that he had to stay in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling. So he was Franklin on the set, all the time, a decision that did not endear him to the crew or his fellow travelers.
But it was, as Hansen reveals, a decision borne of Partain’s fear that he wouldn’t be able to call the character up instantaneously upon hearing “Action!” Nevertheless, the frustration with Partain extended to Hansen as well, so much so that when it came time for Franklin’s death scene, Hansen confesses pleasure at the release of enacting the dismemberment of this poor bastard. “The kill was fake. But my feelings were real,” Hansen writes. The act of writing about it also reveals, to us but maybe most importantly to the writer, the extent to which director Tobe Hooper had set emotional traps in order to string out the actors’ emotional resistance to the fraying point, and the true effectiveness of that strategy. “I knew at the time what (Hooper) was doing,” writes the author. “The emotion bound up in this kill was part of my failing to distinguish reality from acting.”
All of which lends extra poignance to Hansen’s account of meeting Partain years later for coffee and their subsequent friendship, realizing the degree to which Partain was most emphatically not Franklin, and the sacrifice Partain made, in terms of isolation from the Chain Saw actors and crew, which resulted in such an indelible performance. For fans of the film, the image Hansen evokes of the men who played Franklin and Leatherface reuniting on friendly terms is a not-so-strangely comforting one. (Partain died in 2005.)
Chain Saw Confidential comes to mirror the movie’s casual, almost real-time approach to horror in Hansen’s further accounting of some of the movie’s most notorious set pieces. The author devotes a chapter to the filming of the death-by-meat-hook scene and the practical staging experience of both the actress, Teri McMinn, playing Pam, who would be dangling on the end of it, and his own, as Leatherface, who must lift the character up to her fate. The chapter’s title, “Who Will Be Left And What Will Be Left Of Them?” evokes the original one-sheet’s ad copy, which looms over a painting of Leatherface wielding the saw while a screaming McMinn dangles in the background, and in it Hansen recounts not only McMinn’s death scene, but that of Pam’s boyfriend Kirk, which immediately follows in the movie. Hansen paints a nightmare scenario in which, his peripheral vision severely limited by the mask, Leatherface prepares to dismember Kirk in a shot devised by Hooper that required Hansen to operate the saw inches from the actor’s face. He writes:
“In a normal-budget movie none of this would have happened—at least I hope not. First, union and other safety concerns would have dominated the decisions we made about the shot. Second, Bill (the actor playing Kirk) would have had a stuntman doubling for him on that table. But in our world we did it however we needed to… I had no idea how dangerous the chain saw really was… I had never used one before— though I did not let on at the time.”
Sandwiched between the chapter’s accounts of the filming of these two scenes, and the author’s own seemingly haunted sense of just how horribly things could have gone wrong, is a consideration of the contrast between the script’s descriptions (“Kirk hangs nearby, nearly stripped of flesh… Blood pours from Pam’s mouth… She coughs and spews a bloody mist clouding the air.”) and the level of gore that actually ended up on screen, which may have been tempered by the degree of difficulty a low-budget production might have faced in producing effects sophisticated enough to realize these gruesome visions.
But part of the strange relationship that TCSM has with its audience is its ability to fool at least some of the people into thinking there’s more blood in the movie than there actually is—certainly, in relation to even something like Friday the 13th, which appeared in theaters only six years later, in 1980, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is virtually splatter-free. This was a restraint born from the movie’s matter-of-fact approach to brutality, in which the audience could be constantly made to be unsure of exactly what it did see, given the immediacy and suddenness with which some of the most horrifying moments occur. However, it also comes from Hooper’s more suggestive approach—Pam’s slow death on the meat hook is certainly no less excruciating for not seeing the image of the hook actually piercing her back. And there may have been an even more pragmatic reason for the restraint– Hansen recalls an interview he once saw in which Hooper claimed that he and the producers initially wanted a less restrictive rating for the movie. “We agreed in theory,” Hooper said, “that we might get a PG if there was no blood.” And the reader, presumably along with Hansen, is left to imagine the much-different movie that might have resulted had this come to pass.
Hansen devotes fully three chapters (“Look What Your Brother Did To The Door!,” “No Need To Torture The Poor Girl” and “You Gotta Make Them Stop”) to the capture and dinnertime torture of the movie’s ostensible heroine Sally, played by Marilyn Burns, and Sally’s eventual escape from the family’s house of horrors, and the picture he paints of the set’s level of madness—some orchestrated by the director, some rising organically from the nature of the grueling shoot—is one that will deconstruct any remaining romantic notions about location filmmaking on a nonexistent budget the reader might still be coddling. There is the expected sense of awe for Burns’ fortitude and commitment, as well as a palpable sense of the creeping stupor that resulted from the relentless hysteria of the dinner scene. And these chapters, leading all the way up to the circumstances surrounding the filming of the movie’s hallucinatory, legendary final shot, bring the reader a sense of relief that can only come from knowing that everything needed to create a horror classic had now been captured, and at no loss of life or sanity.
But that’s not all, folks. After a perfunctory glimpse at the history of the notorious financial sinkhole which plagued the movie and its underpaid cast and crew in the wake of the movie’s successful release into the marketplace—a story Hansen admits has been told elsewhere with much more detail and relish—the author devotes a good portion of the rest of the book to the mythology surrounding the events that “inspired” the movie. Hansen tells many stories of people who have made some strange assertions on the movie’s historical veracity, claiming to know the actual killer upon whom Leatherface was based, or what prison the real Leatherface currently calls home. Of course the events of the movie are entirely fabricated, pieced together from rumors and bits of reality, but hardly from hard reportage. Hansen amusingly relates Teri McMinn’s recollection that the movie wrapped on her 22nd birthday, August 18, 1973, the very same day and year upon which the movie’s “true story” is set, automatically calling into question any suggestions anyone might make toward its worth as a docudrama.
The book concludes with a surprisingly eloquent consideration of the history of the horror form, and exactly how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fits into that timeline. One could be forgiven, I suppose, for not expecting, upon picking up a book about the making of one of the great modern low-budget horror films, to hear evocations of Gilgamesh, Homer, stories of werewolves and vampires of the Middle Ages, Freud, Jung, and even a history of the development of the Gothic tradition of storytelling. But Hansen, as a quick look at the book jacket will remind you, is a poet and a historian as well as the inhabitant of the horrifying image of one of the movies’ most indelibly memorable killers, and his way of navigating the history of storytelling that led to and enriches the existence of TCSM provides the book’s unexpectedly circumspect, illuminating conclusion.
Tobe Hooper was once quoted, talking about the fearsome countenance of Leatherface, that the real monster, in this movie, in all movies, in life, is death. But Hansen disagrees:
“The basic fear—the monster—within horror may be of death. But the horror goes beyond that. It can be existence itself. Or it can be more than death in some way—even the lack of death or maybe the idea of death, the infinitude after it. As told 4,000 years ago, it was the realization of the existence of death that horrified Gilgamesh… Whatever its elements, though, the horror movie is not, I think defined by its overt content—the supernatural, monsters, darkness, whatever—but by the viewer’s emotional reaction to what the movie creates… When horror works, you walk out of the theater feeling oppressed and empty, feeling as if you had glimpsed something you did not want to see… Terror is a kind of suspense or extreme fear. Horror, on the other hand, is about the larger meanings of what we are fearing.”
In Chain Saw Confidential Gunnar Hansen leads us on a tour of what independent horror filmmaking was really like in 1973, with amusement, bemusement, regret and a sense of amazement that it all could have come out the way it did, that it could have been ultimately received the way it was and has been for 41 years. But the biggest surprise of the book is its sense of scholarship, of serious consideration, the insight conveyed by the author in the concluding chapters regarding the often apparent mechanics and implications and curious effects accessible within the horror genre. As unlikely as it might seem, in taking off Leatherface’s mask Hansen has written not only an engaging account of how a classic was created, but also given readers reason to consider why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has endured, has continued to remain as potent and horrifying as it was the day it was first released, not by singling it out so much as by locating it and its methods within the great tradition of a genre so frequently dismissed as low culture. It’s a fitting contemplation for a movie that, as critic Michael Goodwin once observed, “captures the syntax and structure of a nightmare with astonishing fidelity… a nightmare from which we can’t wake up.”
AN OSCAR 2014 POSTSCRIPT
Re my breathless Oscar forecast from last week: If you used my picks to guide your personal Oscar predictions, well, I do believe I warned you. In a brash demonstration of just why I’ve gotten so rich off of the near-30 years of Oscar pools I’ve administrated, well, it appears I batted .500 with the picks I posted here last Thursday Which sounds great if I’m a slugger finishing off a great season at the plate. Not so good if I only provided eight picks and whiffed on half of them. Somehow I was able to correctly predict the predestined coronations of Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, J.K. Simmons and even Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore, who everyone assumed had grown up a bullied gay teen, only to find out his equating a childhood of being “different” with the persecution of Alan Turing during his acceptance speech didn’t exactly translate correctly. (Moore struggled with depression, not with acceptance of his sexual orientation, and pleaded with others like him to “stay weird.”) However, Oscar turned on me and gave the Original Screenplay award, along with prizes for Director and Best Picture, to Birdman, sending me into a funk of my own that lasted about as long as it took me to clean up the mess of empty beer bottles and nacho leavings from my living room carpet.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Birdman, and I can’t be mad that it won, even though I think Boyhood is a far better movie. I can be mad, however, that it didn’t win the one award I thought it inarguably deserved– the one for Best Actor. The movie’s dominance in the cinematography, screenplay and directing awards really fooled me into thinking Michael Keaton would ride the wave, that he had the award sewn up. He certainly seemed to think so— prolific Internet GIFs appeared to show the actor hastily stuffing his acceptance speech into the pocket of his tux as Eddie Redmayne took the stage to accept the honor instead.
As sure as I was that Keaton would win, I was also really hoping Boyhood would be the beneficiary of yet another of those director/picture splits the Academy has grown so fond of recently. But neither Keaton’s moment of glory nor Boyhood’s unlikely accpetance into Club Oscar came to pass, and now it really is left to time, as it always is, to pass the ultimate judgment on these movies– a perfectly fitting development in the case of Boyhood, whose subject and unique storytelling qualities virtually demand that it be absorbed into the culture and thus appreciated in the long term.
The reality right now is that another bit of Oscar bait like Redmayne’s perfectly honorable but less-than-fascinating Stephen Hawking impersonation (from another classy, mediocre British biopic which was somehow not produced by Harvey Weinstein) has succeeded in stealing some fleeting glory away from Keaton and other great not-nominated actors like David Oyelowo and Timothy Spall and even Tom Hardy, all of whom deserved a spot among the top five before Redmayne.
And what can you say about a show in which the biggest surprise was Big Hero 6’s win over presumed Best Animated Film front-runner How to Train Your Dragon 2? Well, probably foremost that it wasn’t the best Oscar telecast by a long shot, even though it looked like it might be for a while there, before host Neil Patrick Harris started succumbing to the ennui and hard plaque buildup of ill-considered bad joke after ill-considered bad joke. The energy generated by his opening production number with Anna Kendrick was an appreciated boost right off the bat, and Jack Black upped the game with his devilish musical turn as an angry interloper from the audience, shouting out contempt for the sort of evil Hollywood plagues (“Sequels! Prequels! Comic books! And jean screens!”) that Oscar disdains while they continue to consume the industry whole. Things went a mite sour, though, when NPH and Kendrick tossed Black off stage so that their celebration of their much less irreverent celebration of The Very Best in Motion Picture Entertainment could continue. So much for the voice of reality.
Harris did pull off a great Birdman joke, appearing on stage in his tighty whities while Miles Teller recreated the driving (not nominated) Birdman drum score. But by about the third reference to Harris’s extended bit involving Oscar predictions sealed in a box onstage (featuring the participation of a clearly nonplussed Octavia Spencer), the bit had already started to reek, and well in advance of its punch line, which wouldn’t come till near the end of the show. Harris jumped the shark for good, at least for me, when he followed the acceptance speech of the winner for Best Live Action Short, who commemorated a son who had recently committed suicide, with a cheap, tone-deaf joke about her dress. After that, flop sweat became the order of the night. Or was that just me, worrying about what might come next?
But after all that, I’m still tickled at the memory of Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski, marveling at his quiet little picture being celebrated at the nexus of Hollywood noise, and accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film while challenging the bullying play-off directive of the orchestra… and winning the battle of the band! He would not be denied his moment of glory, by God, and he was going to stay up there until he’d said his piece. I still think his movie is as dreary as dishwater, but I applaud his very Eastern European spirit of resistance.
I was also happy to see film editor Tom Cross (Whiplash) and costume designer Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel) waltz away with gold. And while Glen Campbell’s moving song lost to Selma’s “Glory,” I was impressed by the performances of both, delivered by Tim McGraw, John Legend and Common. However, out of the context of The Lego Movie, that annoying song is not really much else but annoying. Rita Ora’s rendition of Diane Warren’s song from Beyond the Lights was a fine introduction to her voice for folks like me who hadn’t a clue who she was before Sunday night. But I jumped on Adam Levine’s shining moment as an opportunity to go get more tacos and beer—missed it! And though the Lady Gaga/Sound of Music experiment seems to have been a success—certainly with Julie Andrews—it moved me no more or less than Andrews’ own renditions of those songs ever has, which is to say not much. That said, I’d rather watch L.G. in a roadshow revival of the Von Trapp story than, say, another excruciating season of American Horror Story…
Ta-ta, Oscar, until next year.