Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974)
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
You know the adage, “Everything’s bigger in Texas?” Well, there’s one big, twisted franchise that — for better or worse — is synonymous with that sprawling state. I’m, of course, referring to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise; a series of films that spans nearly fifty years, nine entries, and a myriad of tonal shifts. Does it all work, or is it messier than a big plate of TX BBQ? We’ll find out by taking a strange, sun-roasted journey though the series. This time, we’ll go back a few decades to where it all began with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)!
The newest iteration in this franchise that dropped on Netflix has been pretty divisive in the horror community. You either dig Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) or you wish you could forget it immediately after streaming it. And, if you read my review of TCM ’22, you know which side of the cattle trough I’m in when it comes to the latest installment in this long-running series. However, one film that is unanimously praised throughout the halls of horror fandom is the original film that kicked this whole thing off — The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Few films have permeated the genre and pop culture in such a way and with such good reason.
Perhaps more than any other film before it, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had the most humble origins. While the state has a long history of hosting film productions (which you can check out here if you’re so inclined), this 1974 picture was one of the indies that had been produced in the state at that point. As such, the movie was developed entirely within the Texas movie-making scene of the 1960s and 70s. While Tobe Hooper (1943–2017), the director and co-writer of the original TCM, had been making movies most of his life, much of which he had shot with his father’s Super 8mm film camera, Hooper only had one feature-length film under his big-buckled belt around this time, Eggshells (1969). Unfortunately for the director, though, Eggshells did not receive an official release at the time and was not seen outside of a few film festival screenings. That film only got an official release a few years back as a special feature on the 2013 Arrow Video Limited Edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).
Thus, by the early 1970s, Hooper’s main gig was working as a college professor. But he was still active in filmmaking, working as a documentarian. He shot and helmed a documentary about the legendary band Peter, Paul & Mary, for example. This doc, entitled Peter Paul and Mary: The Song is Love, premiered on television in 1971. Fast-forward to a couple of years later, when the filmmaker found himself in the chainsaw aisle of a packed hardware store at Christmas time. Stressed out by the mass of holiday shoppers, Hooper stared at the chainsaws, imagining cutting through the crowd to get out of the store. It was in this darkly humorous moment that Hooper had an epiphany. One which caused him to rush home and cook up the outline for the story that would become The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Once this horror was in his head, Hooper called up his pal, screenwriter Kim Henkel, asking him to collaborate and flesh this idea into a screenplay. In the comfy confines of Henkel’s kitchen, Hooper would dictate scenes to Henkel, who typed them out as they created what they thought of as a modern-day Hansel & Gretel (1892). (I like to imagine Hooper was dictating while walking around the kitchen while chomping on a cigar and sipping a Dr. Pepper.) Now, I know that makes it sound like Henkel was just putting the words on paper, but that is not the case at all.
Henkel most certainly contributed equally to the script. After all, it was Henkel who took inspiration from notorious serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein (1906-1984). On the other hand, Hooper claims he had never heard of Gein before that. Initially, the film’s screenplay was entitled ‘Head Cheese’; but they soon realized that title wouldn’t be very marketable. Therefore, the title was then changed to ‘Leatherface,’ which two later installments in this franchise, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) and Leatherface (2017) would go on to utilize.
With the title of ‘Leatherface,’ Hooper and Henkel formed the production company of Vortex Pictures and took the screenplay out to attempt to get funding to make it into a film. As with most independent productions, the funding for this film was aggregated together by multiple investors. The first was gained thanks to a member of The Texas Film Commission named Warren Skarren (1946-1990), who convinced Texas lobbyist Bill Parsley to invest in the film. Two other groups of investors brought together the remainder of the film’s funding, one of which was a group of Parsley’s high-rolling poker buddies.
The other investment group, unfortunately, was a small distributor called Bryanston Distributing Company (or Bryanston Pictures), which had financed several adult and low-budget horror films. The distributor’s adult titles, however, put them on the map. Deep Throat (1972) was the most popular and financially successful adult feature film ever. Following that, Bryanston was also known for releasing The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970), which, believe it not, is the feature film debut of Sylvester Stallone (The Suicide Squad and the upcoming film Samaritan). Unsurprisingly, this feature was later re-released as The Italian Stallion to shamelessly capitalize on Stallone’s success with Rocky (1976). It’s also worth noting that the distributor released John Carpenter‘s debut feature film, Dark Star (1974), which coincidentally put out the same year as TCM. The issue with Bryanston Pictures, though, is that it was ultimately a mafia front headed by members of the Colombo crime family. This partnership eventually caused every cast and crew member involved in TCM (and most likely all other Bryanston Pictures) to never receive proper payment following the film’s release.
Even with all the eventual issues that would come with working with Bryanston Pictures, Texas now had funding. It’s also worth noting that Skarren did more than help get this film funded. It turns out that the future co-screenwriter of Batman (1989) also inadvertently helped find this Massacre‘s leading lady. At the time, Skarren was a regular at the high-dollar restaurant wherein actress Marilyn Burns (1949–2014) (Helter Skelter) was working as a waitress to make ends meet. The upside of the service gig, though, was in waiting on Skarren and becoming friends with him. The actress got all the leads on what projects were about to go into production locally. Skarren had brought Hooper and Henkel to dinner on one of these faithful nights, during which Skarren introduced the gentlemen to Burns. Shortly after that, she landed the role of Sally Hardesty. For better or worse, the part that would go to define her acting career.
The rest of the cast came together organically as well. As with most indie films, Chain Saw cut out its cast from the local community theater scene. Only about half the cast had any previous film experience. Burns and Paul A. Partain (1946–2005), who plays the eternally agitating Franklin in this flick, worked together previously on Lovin’ Molly (1974) from acclaimed director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) shortly before TCM. There were two other actors with equally as much experience or lack thereof. Allen Danziger, who plays Jerry in this film, had collaborated with Hooper on the aforementioned Eggshells. Last but not least, The Old Man, himself — Jim Siedow (1920–2003). While a veteran of the radio and stage, Siedow had only appeared in one other picture prior to TCM. A little flick called The Windsplitter (1971), in which Siedow played his other nameless role of “Father.”
Corralling a bunch of local theater actors was a standard approach, and two of these community performers stood out in their auditions for Massacre. Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, the imposing 6′ 4″ haulce of a human being, Gunnar Hansen (1947–2015), cut quite the imposing figure. Hooper immediately knew Hansen needed to swing the chainsaw furiously. Funnily enough, Hansen had never acted prior to his audition, which he decided to attend on a whim. It would result in Hansen’s physical performance defining what we all think of as Leatherface.
Spontaneity also brought Edwin Neal (DC Universe Online), who plays the second-most unsettling character in Texas, the Hitchhiker, into the fray. I’m sure this seemed a groovy idea since Neal was sloshed as part of his preparation to audition to play a drunk. Hooper didn’t need an alcoholic performance for this part, though; he needed an insane one. Thus, the director asked the intoxicated actor, “Can you play crazy?” In response, Neal imitated his cousin, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. As you might expect, this flight of fancy landed Neal the part instantly.
Together, this rag-tag cast and crew piled into the two vans they had for the production and embarked on the filming process. Production took place over the next twenty-six days, primarily in Round Rock and Bastrop, Texas. Getting The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the can proved a hellish endeavor. Rarely a day passed when the cast and crew didn’t have to endure the 110 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures of a Texas summer. As if the heat and sweat weren’t bad enough, the smells that came with it only enhanced the experience. Particularly the odor of poor Gunner Hansen’s sweat on his one set of wardrobe, which the actor wore for twenty-one days straight.
Of course, with all this sweat also came a fair share of blood and tears. The production proved to be more tumultuous than anyone imagined. Everyone else on the cast came to hate Partain, who insisted on staying in character as perhaps the only fictional person in a wheelchair we want to see get killed. The tension already brimming from the environment on this production only got worse while shooting the film’s climax. During this time, Burns sustained real bloody cuts and bruises while filming. Although, damage like that paled compared to Hansen almost cutting his leg with the titular chainsaw by accident.
Even the final day of shooting proved to be tricky for Hansen. On the last night of shooting, make-up artist Dorothy J. Pearl (the 1991 Cape Fear) made a batch of cannabis brownies for the cast and crew. For whatever reason, though, Dottie didn’t bother to tell the crew that marijuana was one of the main ingredients of this rather magical desert. It was only when Hooper’s mother popped by to visit that Dottie frantically told everyone to get rid of the brownies. Unfortunately for Hansen, though, he had eaten several of those brownies not knowing that they had been specially made. To make matters worse, the actor had never partaken in cannabis and thus had no idea what he was experiencing once the brownies finally kicked in.
While production had wrapped, Hooper had one more hoop to jump through before this movie could be released. Despite its title, the director was convinced he would be able to secure a PG rating for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, thanks to the lack of on-screen violence. However, the filmmaking style was more effective than the director thought, as the MPA Ratings Board initially slapped the movie with an X-rating. Thus, Hooper had to make multiple cuts to reduce that to a releasable R-rating. All that toiling and tilling in the Lone Star state would pay off, though, as the film in review would become an unassailable classic, both in and outside its genre.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tells a terrifying but straightforward story of a group of young twenty-somethings in Texas on a road trip as friends with three simple activities in mind. The kids were going to visit the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandparents, then see their old homestead. More than anything, though, these young folks were just looking to have some fun. Alas, the idyllic summer outing would turn to terror after the van they’re driving runs out of gas. Typically, such an issue would be an easy fix, but the road trippers seek help from the wrong nearby house — one filled with a family of killer cannibals!
More than any other movie I can think of, this one immediately creates an atmosphere that remains inescapable for the duration of its brisk 83-minute runtime. The opening crawl, while lengthy and melodramatic, immediately pulls you in. No doubt, thanks to the narration provided by actor John Larroquette (Night Court). As opposed to money, the actor was given a single joint for providing the film’s iconic opening narration. He was also directed to impersonate the voice of the legendary Orson Welles (1915–1985), but ends up sounding like the deadly serious version of himself.
Following this opening, we find out that the local graves of former Texas citizens are being robbed. From there, we spiral into the chaos that is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A work of art that’s not simply a film, but an unrelenting experience. Thanks to everyone involved, particularly the direction of Hooper and the shooting style of Daniel Pearl (Mom & Dad), it is utterly terrifying. This film looks and feels so very real and relentless. The rapid editing supplied by editors Larry Carrol and Sallye Richardson. According to the world’s foremost drive-in movie critic, and host of The Last Drive-In (2018-), Joe Bob Briggs, it contains 868 cuts; which would account for the incredibly frenetic feeling this film nearly drowns one in. It’s also worth noting that Briggs considers TCM the best movie ever made.
For me, the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not only the scariest movie ever made, but it is also a perfect one. Sure, The Exorcist (1972) is pretty terrifying, but it doesn’t feel naturalistic in the way TCM does. I was in college and no stranger to the horror genre when I finally saw TCM. Heck, I’d even seen the 2003 remake of this film beforehand. But, as I watched the 1974 original, it felt so tangible that I felt like I was watching a documentary or, worse yet, a snuff film. The sensation was so palpable that I looked behind myself and into my bedroom closet to make sure it was still empty by the time the dinner scene was playing out. This movie is just as effective now as it was on that first viewing, even after having seen it many times over.
In my estimation, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a work of perfection because everything about it is flawlessly executed. Everything feels like it is occurring in reality. The cast, in particular, is one of the best I’ve ever seen on film. They all feel like they are all real people, which makes this movie so scary. A feat which is pretty impressive considering most of the cast found Hooper’s approach to be lacking at best. Moreover, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is an unquestionable Franchise Expansion. The OG TCM is the first backwoods or “Hicksploitation” horror film instead of an arguable Slasher flick. Although, Deliverance (1972) is debatably the original “Hicksploitation” picture. TCM, though, truly created a subgenre that became a stereotype of sorts in America. And it’s in this subgenre that will go on to see this 1974 classic spawn a franchise.
Beyond that, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was incredibly successful financially, too. The film was the 12th highest-grossing release of 1974, but it was also the most successful independent film of all time until the release of Halloween (1978) a few years later. Unfortunately, though, no one involved in making the film ever got paid what they deserved, thanks to shady dealings and the eventual dissolution of Bryanston Pictures. Nor did anyone’s careers ever rise to the levels they might have aspired. Hooper fared the best, becoming a genre filmmaker. But despite being officially credited as its director, he never got the respect he deserved following the debate over who actually directed Poltergeist (1982). Still, all these folks made a film in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that would influence how director Ridley Scott would create his sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien (1979) and which converted filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (2021’s Nightmare Alley) into a vegetarian. Most importantly of all, though, it would go on to impact multitudes of viewers and filmmakers, and I suspect it will do so until the end of time.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is available in all formats.
Next time, we’ll take a more humorous trip to The Lone Star State with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).
Other Texas Attractions:
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)