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The power tool that changed horror forever

What’s all the buzz about ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’? By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
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RrrrrrrrRRRRRRrrrrrr. RrrrrrrrRRRRRRrrrrrr. RrrrrrrrRRRRRRrrrrrr. Before the ch-ch-ch of Jason in “Friday the 13th,” before the creepy piano music in “Halloween,” there was an inbred cannibal named Leatherface and the soft purr of a chain saw leaping to life. This week, Hollywood released a remake of the 1974 horror classic, but for those with scary movies in their blood, there will never be another “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

It's been said that Tobe Hooper was inspired to make perhaps the most famous scary movie ever one Christmas when he was standing in the hardware section of a busy store, waiting to get to the checkout. Dreaming of a way to get through the crowd, he spotted a chain saw.

No, he didn’t grab it and stage a bloody coup, except perhaps in his head. Instead, some time later, he called up a bunch of his buddies and at least one relative and headed out to Round Rock, Texas, with a couple million gallons of fake blood and a few power tools.

The horror movie they produced was later called a “vile piece of sick crap” by Harper’s Magazine. Some viewers walked out of theaters mid-showing. It spawned a culture of abysmal imitations with names like “The Toolbox Murders” and “Driller Killer.”

But it also closed the door on one generation of what was considered a scary movie and slid open a steel freezer door onto the future.

Changed horror forever “Chain Saw,” as its stars call it, was unlike anything seen before in the horror genre. This was no “Blob,” with crew-cut teens in letter sweaters fighting an alien that really wasn’t all that scary. Its monsters were human, its scenario unpolished, its dialogue realistic.

The plot is simple — a group of teens in 1970s Texas hear of a spate of grave robbings and head out to a cemetery to check on relatives’ graves. Near a slaughterhouse, they pick up a hitchhiker — maybe not a Mensa-quality decision, but there you go. Later, they stumble onto a crumbling farmhouse, and are introduced to the creepiest inbred family outside of The Osmonds.

Many have said that “Chain Saw” gets much of its power from the fact that it feels less like a fictional horror movie and more like a documentary. The actors playing 1970s kids were in fact 1970s kids. The role of rural Texas was played by rural Texas. And everyone, including Hooper, was an unknown, so no one had a reputation to live up to or major-studio rules to live by.

The result of such non-corporate movie making? After a relatively slow start, “Chain Saw” pulls the starter rope and never stops.

Modern horror movies offer the viewer plenty of breaks, moments when they can breathe easy, reassured that nothing’s going to happen to shock them out of their seat for the next few minutes. And it’s hard to find a scary movie today that doesn’t pull clichéd tricks on its viewers — how many times has a victim been startled by a cat, only to relax and then become easy prey for the real killer?

None of that happens in “Chain Saw.” Once Leatherface and family are introduced, they hit the ground running and so do the viewers. From then on until the final scene, in which beleaguered and bloody star Marilyn Burns sails off in the back of a pickup truck, no one in the theater has a chance to breathe.

He fit the door
Watching the DVD commentary of “Chain Saw” or viewing the documentary “Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Family Portrait,” one is struck by the gentle manner of the movie’s star, Gunnar Hansen. Large and bearded, with gentle eyes and a soft voice, he might be a therapist or a priest. It’s all but impossible to picture him as Leatherface, a human-skin-wearing, chain saw-wielding, inbred cannibal.

Just like in the “Brady Bunch” episode where talent scouts sign Greg “Johnny Bravo” Brady because he “fit the suit,” Hansen simply had to appear to earn his role. For Hooper, who directed the movie along with Kim Henkel, size was everything.

“I later found out Tobe decided he wanted me from the minute I came in the door because I filled the door,” said the 6-foot-4 Hansen, who would stand 6-foot-7 in the boots his character wore.

Hansen would lead a cast that included Henkel’s brother-in-law and other unknown actors, and who would be tortured in ways that it’s impossible to imagine modern actors ever putting up with. (Jennifer Lopez would have been shrieking for her agent in the first minute.)

For scenes where actors were clubbed, Hooper used solid wood clubs — not balsa. In a scene where Burns is tied up and tormented by Leatherface’s murderous kin, the actress’ finger is actually sliced with a knife — with no warning to her ahead of time.

Edwin Neal, who plays the Hitchhiker, remembers a scene where he’s supposed to have been hit by an 18-wheeler and must play dead on the steamy Texas pavement. “Lying on the asphalt I could hear my own skin [sizzling],” he recalled in “Family Portrait,” “but being a young actor I laid there until my skin cooked.”

Hansen himself was sometimes on the receiving end of the actor-torture. In a scene where Leatherface falls and cuts his own leg with the chain saw, a metal sheath was wrapped around the actor’s leg for protection. But no one knew that the action of the running chain saw would heat up the metal, burning Hansen’s leg and causing him to scream for real, thinking he’d been sliced by the saw.

Slumber-party scare Watching the film now, in 2003, it’s hard to envision the impact it had in 1974. We’re jaded now, tough-skinned. Blood doesn’t make us blink. The “Friday the 13th” series is into double-digit sequels now, and surely we’ve seen every screen death caused by every implement imaginable. It’s a good bet that the “Chain Saw” remake that hits theaters this week will have more than its share of gore.

But in the original “Chain Saw,” a little blood went a long way. Hooper took his cue from Hitchcock, who never let the knife touch Janet Leigh in “Psycho’s” famous shower scene. In scene after scene, Hooper and Henkel cut away just in time, letting the viewer’s mind finish the attack.

Hooper naively was hoping for a PG rating, but he did his job too well. Viewers walked away convinced they’d seen wheelchair-bound Franklin cut in half, or a meat hook piercing hapless Pam. They didn’t, but they’d go to their graves believing that they had.

Like “Psycho” before it and “Silence of the Lambs” after it, “Chain Saw” was based in part on the true story of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin farmer who dressed both himself and his home in body parts.

It certainly hasn’t been lost on film historians that, in “Chain Saw,” the monster has been transformed from just one man into a family. Sadistic and disturbing to be sure, but still a family, and just five years after the Manson Family murders in California.

You can draw your own conclusions about any intended message about the struggles of the 1970s and what they meant for the American family.

But in the end, “Chain Saw” is less a social theory of any type than the kind of scary story that works best when illuminated by slumber-party flashlight, the kind that replays itself behind your eyes when you think you’re asleep.

The kind that transforms the familiar sound of a simple power tool into a noise that makes your heart pound faster, your hair stand on end.

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