In the summer of 1973, newbie director Tobe Hooper—who passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74—and a group of unknown actors ventured out into the Central Texas heat to make a horror movie. Braving blistering temperatures, on-set injuries, and a shoestring budget, they produced one of the most terrifying motion pictures ever made.
More than four decades after its release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still shocks and thrills audiences with its realistic imagery, unhinged tone, and “based on a true story” marketing—and its status as one of the ultimate cult classics shows no signs of fading. Not bad for a little film that drove the cast and crew insane during production. From marathon shooting days to flying chainsaws to mafia money problems, here are 20 facts about one of the greatest slasher films of all time.
The inspirations for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are surprisingly diverse, ranging from director and co-writer Tobe Hooper’s attempt to make a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel to real-life Wisconsin murderer and corpse defiler Ed Gein. According to Hooper, though, the light bulb moment that really ignited the film came at a department store during the Christmas 1972 shopping rush.
"There were these big Christmas crowds, I was frustrated, and I found myself near a display rack of chain saws. I just kind of zoned in on it,” Hooper told Texas Monthly. “I did a rack focus to the saws, and I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly.’ I went home, sat down, all the channels just tuned in, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me in what seemed like about 30 seconds. The hitchhiker, the older brother at the gas station, the girl escaping twice, the dinner sequence, people out in the country out of gas.”
Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding maniac who would go down in history as one of horror cinema’s greatest villains, shows obvious Ed Gein influence thanks to his mask crafted from human skin, but Gein was not the character’s only precursor. The idea of a mask made of human skin actually came to Hooper far more directly, and creepily.
“Before I came up with the chainsaw,” Hooper said, “the story had trolls under a bridge. We changed that to the character who eventually became Leatherface. The idea actually came from a doctor I knew. I remembered that he’d once told me this story about how, when he was a pre-med student, the class was studying cadavers. And he went into the morgue and skinned a cadaver and made a mask for Halloween. We decided Leatherface would have a different human-skin mask to fit each of his moods.”
After inspiration struck, Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel hammered out a script over several weeks and gave it the eerie title Head Cheese (named for the scene in which the hitchhiker details the process of how that particular pork product is made). Then it was changed to the menacing working title of Leatherface. It wasn’t until a week before shooting was set to begin that the eventual title arrived, suggested to Hooper and Henkel by Warren Skaaren, then head of the Texas Film Commission, who’d helped the project get financing.
Though the real crimes of Ed Gein did influence Hooper and Henkel in their writing, the idea that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is itself based on a true story is something that grew out of the marketing of the film. The opening narration, which promised that “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths,” certainly helped that along, as did the original poster and its promise that “what happened is true!” Despite this clever aura, the tale of Leatherface and his deranged family is still a work of fiction, despite continued protestations from fans even decades later.
“I’ve had people say ‘I knew the original Leatherface,’” Gunnar Hansen, who played the killer character, recalled.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but the massive Gunnar Hansen, who passed away in 2015, behind the Leatherface mask in the original film now, but he was apparently not the first person cast in the role. When he first heard that the film was being made, Hansen—then a graduate student in Austin—was told he’d be “great” for the role, but that it was already cast. Then the original Leatherface quit.
“Two weeks later,” Hansen recalled, “the same guy calls and says, ‘The guy who was hired as the killer is holed up drunk in a motel and won’t come out. There’s a lot of bad karma surrounding this movie, and I’m quitting.’ So I called [art director] Bob Burns and told him I was interested.”
Hansen—who stood six-foot-four and weighed 300 pounds—won the role from Hooper on sight.
With no real dialogue (apart from a gibberish scene that Hooper eventually cut) to drive his character, and his facial expressions hidden by a mask, Hansen had to come up with other ways to express who he thought Leatherface was. When Hooper wanted the character to “squeal like a pig,” Hansen went out into the country and studied a friend’s pigs. Then, to capture the mental instability of the character, he went to an Austin mental hospital and studied the movements of the patients there, which he then incorporated into his performance.
Despite its reputation for gruesome mutilation and gore, much of the violence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is suggested rather than directly depicted. This is because Hooper was hoping for a PG rating so that the film could reach a wider audience (there was no PG-13 at the time) and was told by the Motion Picture Association of America that he could help his cause if he limited the amount of onscreen blood.
“As you watch the film, notice there’s probably about two ounces,” Hooper later joked.
Alas, the film’s intensity ultimately meant it earned an R rating. Still, it’s probably not as gory as you remember.
The film’s menacing opening narration is an instant tone-setter, preparing the audience for a truly horrifying experience. The voice providing that menace? John Larroquette, then an unknown actor who was referred to Hooper by a friend. Hooper asked Larroquette to imitate Orson Welles for his reading, and while he didn’t quite get that, what the actor ultimately provided worked wonders.
9. THE SHOOT WAS HARROWING.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was produced on a budget of $60,000 raised by Bill Parsley, a Texas Tech administrator and former member of the Texas Legislature who fancied himself a film producer. Even in 1973 it was a shoestring budget (John Carpenter’s famously low-budget Halloweenwas made for five times that amount a few years later), which meant little pay and long hours for the cast and crew. To make matters worse, the production endured a Texas summer with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees (including 115-degree heat for the un-air conditioned interior shots), a single bathroom shared by more than three dozen people, costumes that could not be changed because the actors only had one set of clothes, and the constant presence of the bones and rotting meat used as props. Virtually no member of the cast went uninjured, and the heat and stench got so punishing at one point that the actors would run to the windows of the house where the dinner scene was shot to throw up and breathe a little fresh air between takes.
Years later, Hooper sarcastically referred to the experience as an “interesting summer."
The dinner scene near the end of the film in which Sally (Marilyn Burns) is terrorized by Leatherface and his family is one of the most intense sequences in all of horror cinema. It feels like you’re actually watching a group of people going insane, and that’s because … well, maybe you are.
In addition to the excessive heat and odor in the dining room during filming, the sequence was given another challenge: It had to be completed in a single day because John Dugan, the actor who played Grandpa, refused to endure the 10-hour process of getting his makeup applied a second time. “He announced that he was not sitting through it again,” Hooper said.
As a result, the cast and crew worked for 27 straight hours to finish a scene that takes up only a few minutes of the film’s runtime.
For the role of Franklin, Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother who draws the ire of the audience when he grows angry with his more able-bodied friends simply because he can’t share in their fun, actor Paul Partain opted to take a very Method approach to his work.
“I was a young, inexperienced actor who didn’t realize that it wasn’t like theater," Partain latersaid. "You didn’t have to stay in character all the time. When I first read the part, I could see that nobody wanted this guy to be there. It just hit me that he was whiny.”
Partain’s commitment worked just as well behind the camera as it did in front of it. At one point he and Burns stopped speaking to each other between takes, and Hansen later recalled that Franklin was the only character he was actually happy to kill.
As a large man who had to work every day in triple-digit heat while wearing a wool costume that he couldn’t change out of, Gunnar Hansen already had it rough while making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He got so smelly by the end of production that the rest of the cast and crew avoided eating around him. To make matters a little more difficult, though, he also dealt with an interesting character technique that his victims engaged in. During the shoot, Burns and the other kids who would eventually fall prey to Leatherface avoided Hansen because they didn’t want to hang out with their killer.
“During the filming, none of them would talk to me or be anywhere near me until they were dead,” he later recalled.
This behind-the-scenes observance actually produced some intense onscreen results. For example, when Jerry (Allen Danzinger) discovers Leatherface’s slaughter room and then meets the man himself, the scream he lets out is genuine. It was apparently the first time he had seen Hansen in full costume.
Though his name would suggest a singular horrifying visage, Leatherface actually wears multiple masks in the film—the rationale being that they were the only way he could truly express himself. There’s the plain killing mask he wears for most of the film, the “grandma” mask he wears while preparing dinner to show his “domestic side,” and the makeup-covered mask he wears to sit down to dinner, complete with a suit in the Southern tradition of dressing up for the evening meal.14. THE FILM’S MOST BEAUTIFUL SHOT ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN.
For all its brutality, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also made use of the natural beauty of its location to produce some truly stunning images, including one shot that almost didn’t happen. While shooting at Leatherface’s house, Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl conceived a shot that would track under the swing in the yard and follow Pam (Teri McMinn) at a low angle as she walked toward the house, which would grow menacingly in the background until it towered over her. According to both Hooper and Pearl, producers (namely Parsley, who visited the set often and feared the film would be a disaster) didn’t want them to spend time on the shot, as it was not a part of the storyboards they worked from for much of the film. They fought for and ultimately got the moment, and it remains the most beautiful composition in the film.
The scene in which Sally’s finger is cut so that her blood can be fed to Grandpa was supposed to rely on a very simple special effect. The knife blade used in the scene was dulled by a piece of tape which also held a rubber tube attached to a “bulb” full of fake blood concealed in Hansen’s palm. As he dragged the knife across Burns’s finger, Hansen was supposed to squeeze the bulb and pump the blood out to simulate the cut, but the tube kept clogging in take after take. Frustrated and exhausted (this was during the 27-hour shooting marathon), Hansen ultimately stripped the tape off the knife when no one was looking and cut Burns for real.
“At this point I was so crazy that I just wanted to get the film over with,” he later said.
Though its teeth were removed for some shots, the saw Hansen wielded in the film was indeed a working chainsaw, and it sometimes put cast members in real danger. The blade of the saw was just inches from actor William Vail’s head for the scene in which Leatherface begins carving up Kirk’s body, and Hooper and Pearl had to carefully dance around Hansen to shoot the film’s final moments as Leatherface swings the saw around. Hansen himself ended up with the closest near-miss of the film, though: During the chase scene in which Leatherface pursues Sally through the woods at night, Hansen slipped and fell, sending the saw flying into the darkness. With no idea where the deadly power tool would land, Hansen just covered his head and hoped for the best. The saw landed just a few inches away.
Because of its low budget, many of the stars of Chainsaw took ownership shares in the film rather than a salary, but their shares were actually percentages of Vortex, the company set up by Henkel and Hooper to produce the film. Since Vortex only owned half the film, with Parsley owning the other half, their shares were all sliced in half, which many of them apparently didn’t realise at the time. To make matters more complicated, Bryanston Distributors—which acquired the film for release in late 1974—was declaring revenue for the film was much, much lower than the millions it raked in at drive-ins and midnight shows. The producers eventually took Bryanston to court, but by then the distributor’s financial situation was so dire that they had no demonstrable assets to sue for. In the end, the cast saw very little money for their work.
“Three months, no check,” Ed Neal, who played the hitchhiker, later recalled. “Six months, no check. Nine months, a check for $28.45. We were angry."
In terms of ticket sales, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most profitable films of all time. With the addition of an extra investment to help him finish post-production, Hooper had made the film for a little more than $80,000, and Bryanston acquired it for distribution for $225,000. The film went on to earn $12 million at the box office in its first year, according to Variety, but Bryanston ultimately claimed only about $1 million of that. Why the discrepancy? Allegedly because Bryanston’s owners—Joe and Lou Peraino—were members of the Colombo crime family. The brothers apparently got into the film business in the first place after muscling away the rights to another classic ‘70s cult film: Deep Throat.
Because of its realism and “true story” marketing, Texas Chainsaw created the opportunity for some interesting encounters between fans and cast members. McMinn once recalled picking up a hitchhiker with a friend (which is ironic, given the film’s relationship to hitchhikers) and listening to him describe how scary the film was to her until she asked if he recognised her.
“I thought he was going to have a coronary,” she said.
Of all the cast members, it was Ed Neal—the hitchhiker himself—who would have the most amusing reaction from fans. He used to visit screenings of the film at Austin’s Village theatre, wait for his scenes to come up, and then tap viewers on the shoulder and watch them freak out.
“They finally asked me not to come back anymore,” Neal said.
The original location used as the house of Leatherface and his family was located in Williamson County, Texas, in what is now the Round Rock area. The house isn’t there anymore, but if you head west of Austin into Kingsland you can find the actual home, restored and now in use as a restaurant. It’s called the Grand Central Café, and though the owners proudly include its cinematic heritage on their website, you won’t find any human bones as part of the décor.