Two far flung events inspired director Tobe Hooper to write The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the down-and-dirty 1974 indie film that spawned sequels, prequels and last year’s splashy 3D remake–the imaginatively titled Texas Chainsaw 3D.
In November 1957 police raided the home of Plainfield, Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein, uncovering some gruesome evidence that would lead to charges of murder and body snatching. After two trials he spent the rest of his life in a mental facility, but his story would go on to inspire three memorable movie characters–Norman Bates from Psycho, Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and one other that would serve as the basis for six films.
Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, says Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel based the character of the hooded chainsaw killer on Gein.
“When they set out to write this movie,” he said, “they decided to have a family of killers who had some of the characteristics of Gein: the skin masks, the furniture made from bones, the possibility of cannibalism.”
Hooper adds the story was also partially inspired by “the massacres and atrocities in the Vietnam War” and a display of chainsaws in the hardware section of a crowded Montgomery Ward’s department store.
“The idea popped,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Ooh, I know how I could get out of this place fast — if I just start one of these things up and make that sound.’”
That nerve jangling noise–the revving of a chainsaw–has been the soundtrack of terror ever since. The original is an atmospheric gem, a white-knuckle movie that made Leatherface the first icon of modern horror.
The apron-wearing cannibal has appeared in five more films–most of which don’t veer too far from the original plot line of unsuspecting kids falling prey to a family of demented, cannibalistic inbreds. There’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Dennis Hopper, Leatherface: TCM III, TCM: The Next Generation (starring the then unknown Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, TCM: The Beginning and the new 3D version.
Leatherface’s scares don’t always happen on screen, however. At the Kingsway Theatre in Toronto the flick inspired audience participation when someone dressed in a butcher’s outfit ran down the aisle brandishing a real, revving chainsaw.
I was in Los Angeles last March when Dennis Hopper received his star on the Walk of Fame but decided not to go down and check out the ceremony. It was being billed as his last public appearance and something inside me didn’t want to see him wasted away and frail. As someone who has witnessed, up close and personal, the terrible effects of cancer I thought it would be too much and preferred to remember him as the stoned Billy from “Easy Rider” or “Blue Velvet’s” unhinged Frank Booth. But one photograph from the event made me regretful I didn’t make the trip to Hollywood Boulevard (it’s in front of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater) that afternoon. Most of the coverage focused on Hopper and his frail state; his arm bandaged and wearing a hat that looked a size or two too big for his wizened head, but a photo of the actor with his old buddy Jack Nicholson was filled with such warmth I would have liked to have been there to soak up the vibe. It’s a simple picture, just the two old guys smiling and laughing at some unheard joke. I know it’s the kind of picture that frequently comes out of these events and these men, who have spent their entire lives in the public eye, certainly know the value of putting a happy spin on a melancholy event, but in this case it looks genuine, like two old friends sharing a private moment. I hope it is. I hope in the midst of Hopper’s battle with cancer—and his ex-wife—the moment in the photo is genuine and provided the actor with a respite (however brief) from the pain. I only met Hopper once, but it was a memorable interview for a less than memorable film. It took place at an Italian restaurant in The Grove behind the Farmer’s Market (where Hopper’s old friend James Dean ate his last meal on the day he died) in Los Angeles. It was a junket for “Knockaround Guys” and he was one of three or four interviews, the others being Vin Diesel, Seth Green and maybe one or two others. Unlike most of these junket situations, this time the interviews were out in the open, and the reporters could all watch each other work. I remember watching in horror as one 19 year-old-twinkie, who clearly didn’t know who Hopper was, do her interview. She, I guess, was there to speak to Seth Green and Vin Diesel and was just killing time with Hopper. Her interview started with, “So! How did you get into acting?”—he mentioned Lee Strasberg, Brando and a few other names she didn’t recognize—and went downhill from there. At the time it seemed like I was watching the end of entertainment journalism. Who could do this for a living and not know who Dennis Hopper was? Luckily he was treated with more respect by everyone who came after. I got to him later in the day. He was wearing a three piece banker’s suit and smoking a cigar that must have been a foot-and-a-half long. I honestly don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember his energy. In real life he seemed powerful, intimidating and edgy, much like many of the characters he played. He was exactly as I imagined him to be and I walked away feeling like I had just met a legend. Like anyone whose career spanned decades Hopper made some great movies, some good ones and some not-so-good ones, but I don’t think we’ll see the likes of him again. Is there an actor working today who could terrify and shock audiences as Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet” and charm them as Shooter in “Hoosiers” in the same calendar year? He had a unique ability to channel his demons into believable and riveting performances. His presence filled the screen and now that his career is over he won’t be remembered as a great leading man—he never quite made that leap—but a great character actor who was a name above the title star. The unpredictability that fuelled his personal life and often sidelined his career informed his characters and unlike so many of his contemporaries he was never less than interesting and certainly never bored the audience. Is there a better tribute to an actor?
Roger Ebert calls Easy Rider one of the “rallying-points of the 1960s” but, like S&H Green Stamps and go go boots, seen through today’s eyes it seems a bit dated. The stoner dialogue is littered with hippie axioms—an intense and very drunken drinking game could be played by taking a swig every time Hopper says “man”—but one enigmatic three word sentence in particular still resonates forty years later.
Following the film’s Mardi Gras / LSD sequence Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) hit the road, continuing their trip (double entendre intended) to Florida.
“We did it, man. We did it, we did it. We’re rich, man,” says Billy, referring to the drug money hidden inside the Stars & Stripes- festooned fuel tank of Wyatt’s Hydra-Glide chopper. “We’re retirin’ in Florida now, mister.”
Instead of reveling in the moment Wyatt answers cryptically, “You know Billy. We blew it.”
The meaning of the line has been the source of great debate. Some critics felt it was a comment on the futility of their life on the road; that Wyatt feels by leaving the commune he’s blown his chance at happiness. Others suggest the “it” represents everything from the American Dream, to the failure of the Woodstock Nation to really change the world, to freedom and self discovery.
Hopper has a simpler, more straightforward explanation. He claims the line refers to the corrupting power of their stashed drug money, how it stripped away some of their innocence.
“When Peter says, ‘We blew it’, he’s talking about easy money, that we should have used our energies to make it.”
Fonda is more tight-lipped on the meaning. He wants each viewer to bring their own perception to the line, but in 2010 he told The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell, “Is it still relevant? Look out the window and tell me that we haven’t blown it.
“We’re at war about religion (in Iraq and Afghanistan). We kill each other for racial and bigoted reasons, too, and sometimes just because we’re in the wrong gang. We do all these things today and we do them with much more gusto than we did in 1968 when we made that film.”