The dirt and stench of the Texan outback resonate through the celluloid of Tobe Hooper’s classic 1974 slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a disgusting trip into the darkest depravity that features horror icon ‘Leatherface’ donning a mask of human skin to slaughter his victims, though not until he and his family have toyed with their fear. Taking place mostly in a rank farmhouse, Hooper’s film well creates a diabolical atmosphere that supports the strange, vile origins of the cannibalistic family that lie at the film’s core.
Made for only $140,000, it was a massive commercial success that would slowly collect a strong critical backing, particularly as it became the influence for the slasher movies of the early 1980s, providing a template for how such films should be made. The story behind the camera of Tobe Hooper’s film, however, was far more problematic than its success would suggest, with the production being constantly hampered by both extraneous circumstances and the directors own eccentricities.
With the Texas temperature rising to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, the film’s production suddenly took an exhausting turn, particularly during the putrid dinner scene toward the conclusion. “The conditions on that long night that bled into the following day were intolerably putrid. Some of the cast and crew members referred to it as ‘the last supper’,” writer of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Film That Terrified a Rattled Nation, Joseph Lanza stated. Many of the actors hadn’t washed or changed their clothes in five weeks in order to keep continuity, and the high heat gave the dead dog and cattle part props, an unbearably rank odour.
Continuing, Lanza notes that: “The heat and humidity outside and inside were so high … [that the cast] had to run outside for oxygen and periodic vomit breaks”. Such created a truly hellish atmosphere on set that even led to an act of actual violence on actress Marilyn Burns.
It was during the same torturous dinner scene that Sally, played by Burns, was supposed to have her finger cut by Leatherface so that her blood could be ‘drank’ by the family’s wrinkled older member. The issue came, however, when the prop knife which contained a tube of fake blood malfunctioned on set, forcing multiple failed takes of the scene. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, eventually got so impatient that he shockingly sliced the finger of the actress for real, before exposing the cut to the saliva of actor John Dugan, who played the elderly grandfather.
Marilyn Burns, after suffering from mental torture and physical violence on the film, was relieved once filming was finally complete, though recalls being told the night before that she needs to return to the set for one more day due to a problem with a previous shot. As Burns remembers: “When I was crazy at the end of the movie, laughing hysterically, that wasn’t acting…That was me, having to go back and do it one more time.”
Though her performance may go down in the history books of horror cinema, such a similar act on a modern film set would cause multiple lawsuits and would likely end in the termination of several careers. Thankfully the 1970s was a different era entirely.