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.