20 Terrifying Facts About The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

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.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A CHRISTMAS SHOPPING CROWD.

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.”

2. LEATHERFACE IS ALLEGEDLY BASED ON A REAL PERSON HOOPER KNEW.

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.”

3. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL TITLE.

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.

4. IT IS NOT A TRUE STORY.


New Line Cinema

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.

5. GUNNAR HANSEN WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL LEATHERFACE.

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.

6. LEATHERFACE WAS INSPIRED BY REAL MENTAL PATIENTS.

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.

7. TOBE HOOPER REALLY WANTED A PG RATING.

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.

8. THE NARRATOR IS A YOUNG JOHN LARROQUETTE.

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 Halloween was 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."

10. THE LEGENDARY DINNER SCENE WAS SHOT IN A SINGLE MARATHON DAY.


New Line Cinema

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.

11. THE CAST ACTUALLY DISLIKED FRANKLIN.

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 later said. "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.

12. LEATHERFACE’S VICTIMS TREATED HIM AS AN OUTSIDER BEHIND THE SCENES.

    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.

    13. LEATHERFACE ACTUALLY WEARS THREE DIFFERENT MASKS.

      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.


      New Line Cinema

        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.

        15. BURNS WAS ACTUALLY CUT DURING HER SCENE WITH GRANDPA.

          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.

          16. YES, THE SAW WAS REAL.


          New Line Cinema

            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.

            17. THE CAST DID NOT GET TO SHARE IN THE FILM’S SUCCESS.

              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 realize 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."

              18. IT HAS AN ALLEGED CONNECTION TO THE MAFIA.

                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.

                19. ONE CAST MEMBER USED TO FRIGHTEN MOVIEGOERS AT SCREENINGS.

                  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 recognized 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 theater, 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.

                  20. YOU CAN HAVE LUNCH AT LEATHERFACE'S HOUSE.

                    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.

                    Additional Sources:
                    DVD commentary by Tobe Hooper, Daniel Pearl, and Gunnar Hansen – 2003

                    8 Haunting Horror Movie Gimmicks

                    Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
                    Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

                    In the 1950s and 1960s, horror movies were making studios huge profits on shoestring budgets. But after the market hit horror overload, directors and studios had to be extra creative to get people to flock to theaters. That's when a flood of different gimmicks were introduced at movie theaters across the country to make a film stand out from the crowd. From hypnotists to life insurance policies and free vomit bags, here's a brief history of some of the most memorable horror movie gimmicks.

                    1. PSYCHO-RAMA // MY WORLD DIES SCREAMING (1958)

                    In order to truly become a classic, a horror movie can't just work on the surface; it has to get deep inside of your head. That's what Psycho-Rama tried to achieve when it was first conceived for My World Dies Screaming, later renamed Terror in the Haunted House. Psycho-Rama introduced audiences to subliminal imagery in order to let the scares sink in more than any traditional film could.

                    Skulls, snakes, ghoulish faces, and the word "Death" would all appear onscreen for a fraction of a second—not long enough for an audience member to consciously notice it, but it was enough to get them uneasy. Obviously Psycho-Rama didn't really catch on with the public or the film industry, but horror directors, like William Friedkin in The Exorcist, have since gone on to use this quick imagery technique to enhance their own movies.

                    2. FRIGHT INSURANCE // MACABRE (1958)

                    Director William Castle didn't make a name for himself in the film industry by directing cinematic classics; instead, he relied on shock and schlock to help fill movie theater seats. His movies were full of what audiences craved at the time: horror, gore, terror, suspense, and a heaping helping of camp. But his true genius came from marketing—and the gimmicks he brought to every movie, which have since become legendary among horrorphiles.

                    His most famous stunt was the life insurance policy he purchased for every member of an audience that paid to see Macabre. This was a real policy backed by Lloyd's of London, so if you died of fright in your seat, your family would receive $1000. Now who wouldn't want to roll the dice on that type of deal? Of course, the policy didn't cover anyone with a preexisting medical condition or an audience member who committed suicide during the screening. Lloyd's had to draw the line somewhere, right?

                    3. HYPNO-VISTA // HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)

                    How do you make your routine horror movie stand out from the crowd? Hypnotize your audience, of course. Thus Hypno-Vista was born. For this gimmick, James Nicholson, president of American International Pictures, suggested that a lecture by a hypnotist, Dr. Emile Franchel, should precede Horrors of the Black Museum, which had a plot focusing on a hypnotizing killer.

                    For 13 minutes, Dr. Franchel talked to the audience about the science behind hypnotism, before attempting to hypnotize them himself in order to feel more immersed in the story. Nowadays it comes off as overlong and dry, but it was a gimmick that got people into theaters back in 1959. Plus, writer Herman Cohen said that eventually the lecture had to be removed whenever the movie re-aired on TV because it did, in fact, hypnotize some people.

                    4. NO LATE ADMISSION // PSYCHO (1960)

                    Though this isn't the most gimmickiest of gimmicks, Alfred Hitchcock's insistence that no audience member be admitted into Psycho once the movie started got a lot of publicity at the time. The Master of Suspense's reasoning is less about drumming up publicity and more about audience satisfaction, though. Because Janet Leigh gets killed so early into the movie, he didn't want people to miss her part and feel misled by the movie's marketing.

                    This publicity tactic wasn't completely novel, though, as the groundbreaking French horror movie Les Diaboliques (1955) had a similar policy in place. This was at a time when people would simply stroll into movie screenings whenever they wanted, so to see a director—especially one so masterful at the art of publicity—who was adamant about showing up on time was a great way to pique some interest.

                    5. FRIGHT BREAK // HOMICIDAL (1961)

                    Another classic William Castle gimmick was the "fright break" he offered to audience members during his 1961 movie, Homicidal. Here, a timer would appear on the screen just as the film was hurtling toward its gruesome climax. Frightened audience members had 45 seconds to leave the theater and still get a full refund on their ticket. There was a catch, though.

                    Frightened audience members who decided to take the easy way out were shamed into the "coward's corner," which was a yellow cardboard booth supervised by some poor sap theater employee. Then, they were forced to sign a paper reading "I'm a bona-fide coward," before getting their money back. Obviously, at the risk of such humiliation, most people decided to just grit their teeth and experience the horror on the screen instead.

                    6. THE PUNISHMENT POLL // MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

                    The most interactive of William Castle's schlocky horror gimmicks put the fate of the film itself into the hands of the audience. Dubbed the "punishment poll," Castle devised a way to let viewers vote on the fate of the characters in the movie Mr. Sardonicus. Upon entering the theater, people were given a card with a picture of a thumb on it that would glow when a special light was placed on it. "Thumbs up" meant that Mr. Sardonicus would be given mercy, and "thumbs down" meant … well, you get the idea.

                    Apparently audiences never gave ol' Sardonicus the thumbs up, despite Castle's claims that the happier ending was filmed and ready to go. However, no alternative ending has ever surfaced, leaving many to doubt his claims. Chances are, there was only one way out for Mr. Sardonicus.

                    7. FREE VOMIT BAGS // MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)

                    Horror fans are mostly masochists at heart. They don't want to be entertained—they want to be terrified. So when the folks behind 1970's Mark of the Devil gave out free vomit bags to the audience due to the film's grotesque nature, how could any self-respecting horror fan not be intrigued? It wasn't just the bags that the studio was advertising; it also claimed the film was rated V, for violence—and maybe some vomit?

                    8. DUO-VISION // WICKED, WICKED (1973)

                    Duo-Vision was hyped as the new storytelling technique in cinema—offering two times the terror for the price of one ticket. Of course Duo-Vision is just fancy marketing lingo for split-screen, meaning audiences see a film from two completely different perspectives side-by-side. In the 1973 horror film Wicked, Wicked, that meant watching the movie from the points of view of both the killer and his victims.

                    Seems like a perfect concept for the horror genre, right? Well, Duo-Vision wasn't just employed during the movie's most horrific moments; it was used for the movie's entire 95-minute runtime. The technique had been used sparingly in other films—most notably in Brian De Palma's much better film Sisters (1973)—but it had never been implemented to this extent. A little bit of Duo-Vision apparently goes a long way, because it fell out of favor soon after.

                    John Carpenter May Be Planning a They Live Sequel

                    Universal Studios Home Video
                    Universal Studios Home Video

                    John Carpenter is one of the horror genre's biggest names. The man behind the original Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing, ​Carpenter has had a long enough career to see many of his most popular creations be remade, including this year's new Halloween film, which features some of the original actors returning to their iconic roles to continue a decades-long story.

                    But in a recent interview with ​Den of Geek, when Carpenter was questioned about whether his cult classic They Live might he ripe for revisiting, Carpenter teased: "Well, I’m not gonna tell you about that, because it might be closer to reality than you think."

                    ​They Live, which came out in 1988, featured the late professional wrestler 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper in his signature role as a man who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the true state of the world and uncover an alien invasion. Like so many of Carpenter's other films, it has continued to amass a cult following in the decades since its release—especially among those viewers who understood and appreciated its underlying political metaphor.

                    Today's highly divisive political climate makes it a perfect time for a sequel/reboot/reimagining of They Live, and it sounds as if Carpenter might agree.

                    SECTIONS

                    arrow
                    LIVE SMARTER