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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.


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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 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.


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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.


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        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.


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            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

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                    Karl Walter, Getty Images
                    When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
                    Karl Walter, Getty Images
                    Karl Walter, Getty Images

                    The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

                    Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

                    When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

                    A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

                    It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

                     
                     

                    In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

                    The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

                    Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

                    Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

                    Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

                     
                     

                    The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

                    With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

                    The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

                    “It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

                    “My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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                    Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
                    West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
                    Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
                    Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

                    As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

                    As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

                    West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

                    To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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