Tobe Hooper

By
Photography Sebastian Kim

Published July 14, 2014

“Who will survive and what will be left of them?” This was a tagline of the 1974 movie campaign for a super-low-budget, indie-before-there-were-indies horror flick called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But the questions of survival could be asked about all films. Which movies stand the test of time or even exist in the collective conscious beyond their brief theatrical runs? This summer The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a painstaking renovation and color correction of all 120,960 frames on 16mm film stock that rolled through the camera on the hot July set in Round Rock, Texas, in 1973. It’s a fitting testament to a film that has not only proven one of the most horrifying and mesmerizing pieces of cinema ever to come out of America, but has inspired countless directors and filmmakers in the past four decades, and has lived on both in the nightmares of its millions of viewers and in the archives of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The plot of the film is gorgeously simple: five youths in a van visit a remote house in central Texas that belonged to the grandfather of the lead protagonist, Sally Hardesty, and quickly become victims—and possibly food—for a family of cannibals that resides next door. The family’s youngest member, Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hansen), has a penchant for waving a chain saw and using a meat hook to  suspend his living prey. This narrative setup has since become a convention for slasher films (along with the faceless killer), but what makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a true work of art is its hallucinatory visuals, its brilliant camerawork and unexpected angles, its dazzling use of daylight and darkness, its heightened, straining sound effects, its pathological interest in the human body, and co-writer, director, and producer Tobe Hooper’s masterful ability to cast a spell of fear and tension around the actors until it leaks out into the audience like a fog of insanity—even shutting your eyes won’t drive it away.

Every TCM fanatic has a favorite scene: Mine happens to be the extended chase scene between Leatherface and Sally (played by the lithe, blond-haired sensational screamer Marilyn Burns), right after he cuts through Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother, and she hurries through trees and brambles and toward the subsequent death trap of the cannibal house. Hooper’s camera stays on Marilyn, running alongside her, and the dread is as alive in that moment as it is in the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). There is total identification and no mercy; there is no chance of comprehension and only the desperate instinct of self-defense.

Hooper, an Austin-born filmmaker who was 30 years old when he shot this film, has gone on to make a dozen pictures (including directing 1982’s Poltergeist and 1986’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2). He lives in Los Angeles, and before a trip to Cannes to screen the restoration at the Directors’ Fortnight, he met up with designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte at a restaurant in downtown L.A. to discuss the making of his masterpiece. The Mulleavy sisters are horror-film aficionados who have used dark cinema as inspiration in their designs. I didn’t ask them what they ate for lunch. —Christopher Bollen

LAURA MULLEAVY: We’re so excited to talk to you today because we’re such fans of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Strangely enough, even before we knew we’d be interviewing you, I rewatched the behind-the-scenes documentaries about the making of the film. I have always looked at it as an art film. It’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. There are so many nuances and layers to the storytelling. But the real way we want to start this interview is to ask if the chain saw was real?

TOBE HOOPER: Oh, yes.

LAURA: So it was a fully operational chain saw?

HOOPER: It was for a while. Halfway through, I said, “Excuse me, someone may get hurt.” After Gunnar fell and had the presence of mind to throw the saw away from him, we decided we had to do something. We only had one saw. So we took the clutch part out of it. That way the chain would still vibrate around. And when we needed to cut into something, we’d put the clutch back in. We really did only have one saw, so it would take hours to pull the clutch out and put it back.

KATE Mulleavy: One chain saw for the making of Texas Chain Saw Massacre! What about costumes? How many sets of those did you have?

HOOPER: Probably two or three sets of costumes. There was a time we lost Sally’s top in the laundry or something. But we were able to find it—or replace it.

KATE: How did you think of the idea of using a chain saw in the first place? 

HOOPER: I was in a department store around the holidays, thinking, “I just can’t wait to get out of this department store.” This must have been in 1972 or 1973. There were thousands of people in there, and I was weaving through them to get out, and I found myself in the hardware department. I looked down and there was a rack of chain saws in front of me for sale. I said, “If I start the saw, those people would just part. They would get out of my way.” That birthed the idea of the chain saw. Obviously I didn’t do that at the time. [Kate and Laura laugh] But driving home I was thinking about it. I’d been working on this idea of young people, college students, in isolation. We were going through a gasoline shortage in the country at the time. People had to queue up in their automobiles at gas stations, sometimes for miles. There was gas rationing. And I was hearing a lot of lies on television. Politically, the times were interesting; they were kind of amplified. So the idea came to me in the car of how to pull all of these elements together. It came really quickly—the whole configuration of the characters—and the loop, the way the story loops inside itself.

KATE: Yeah.

HOOPER: You can’t get away, you can’t escape. You’ll jump through a plate-glass window several times and end up being right back in the spider’s web.

LAURA: Some of our favorite horror films have political undertones, like Night of the Living Dead [1968]. And Texas Chain Saw Massacre certainly has those tones to it in regard to American culture—with the idea of family in particular.

KATE: Laura and I both went to Berkeley. I was studying art and took a few film classes. But I actually don’t think I saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre until later in life.

LAURA: We were too scared to watch it.

KATE: Yeah, I think I was too scared to see it. But what makes Texas Chain Saw Massacre a great work of art is that it operates on so many different levels. The first time you see it, you experience it on a purely sensory level. But you can go back and find so much more with each viewing.

HOOPER: Yes, there will be a new print for the collection at the Museum of Modern Art. The old one is turning magenta. Now that the restoration is complete, it can be seen on the big screen again.

LAURA: Which is exciting for us, because we’ve never seen it that way.

HOOPER: It totally amplifies the characters.

KATE: I read that when you were doing the restoration, you heard sounds you didn’t even know existed.

HOOPER: Yeah, it’s in 7.1 sound. It cuts through your head. I hadn’t seen it on the big screen in a long time. I’m going to Cannes in a few weeks because it’s going to be screened in the Directors’ Fortnight there this year. But the restoration process really blew me away, just seeing it side by side with the way it’s usually being viewed on video or laser disc. The new restoration is actually a little bit wider. We were losing information on the side. The colors are incredible.

LAURA: I’m excited to see the color because the palette of the film is breathtaking. Kate and I always laugh because sometimes when we use red in our work, we’ll say, “Is this Texas Chain Saw Massacre red?” because there’s such a unique shade of red that’s specific to the film. I was reading about your use of blood, how sometimes it’s real and sometimes it’s fake. You blend reality and fiction in the film. And I think you can really see in the actors from time to time a genuine horror in their faces for what they’re going through. Like the actors didn’t even get to see Leatherface until their first scene with him, right?

HOOPER: That’s correct.

LAURA: I couldn’t imagine what I would feel like if I actually saw him in real life. And in one of those spaces, which is obviously not a standard movie set. They probably felt like they were really experiencing that kind of terror. And the first audiences, too, must have felt that.

KATE: Did it play in drive-in theaters?

HOOPER: It played everywhere. It played in every theater on Hollywood Boulevard. And it played in drive-in theaters, too. I went to a drive-in to see it and I would notice at points people’s taillights would come on. And I thought, “Oh, God, they’re leaving.” But then the taillights would go off. And then come on again. I realized it was an involuntary reaction. They’d have their foot on the brake, their muscles would tighten and push the break and the light would go on. That was a kind of cool pre-focus group. [laughs]

LAURA: Why do you think people responded to it the way they did in 1974?

HOOPER: Oh, there was nothing like it …

LAURA: Even to this day there is nothing like it. I’m sure it’s influenced hundreds of films in the past 40 years, but to this day there really isn’t anything comparable to it. A lot of what happens in particular to Sally is so immersive that it’s hard not to feel that she’s really screaming and running away. It’s like I can feel the branches snapping as she’s being chased. I don’t find that in other films. The terror is real.

HOOPER: Well, it’s the truth that you’re sensing. It’s from the working conditions I established—like separating the actors. We wouldn’t let Franklin [Sally’s brother, played by Paul Partain] have lunch with the other actors, and we wouldn’t let him bathe. There were all these little techniques and devices that I found to create some kind of sensory impulse to help get the truth. It was also the repetition of scenes. For instance, when Sally breaks through the door of the service station. She had to do that 17 times. And I’m not sure that we had kneepads or could afford them. But Marilyn was totally into it. She gave it everything. So did everyone.

LAURA: There are three scenes in that movie that I can barely watch. The scene where Pam [played by Terri McMinn] dies on the hook; the family-dinner scene, especially when they are holding Sally; and then there is the scene where Sally is running through the brambles. That’s the best running scene in film. You feel as if she’s really being torn to shreds. But overall, my favorite scene in the film is the ending, with Leatherface in the black suit in the sun with the chain saw and Sally drenched in blood. These moments are overwhelming.

KATE: To create these moments, you had incredible art direction. Your art director, Robert Burns, was pretty industrious. I read that you ended up using real bones and animal cadavers that would actually start to rot during filming.

HOOPER: Yes, some of the skeletons were real. When he’s impaled on the tombstone in the beginning. It’s a real human skeleton underneath it. That was a practical, budgetary thing. It was less expensive to get real human skeletons from India than to buy plastic reproductions.

KATE: That’s crazy.

HOOPER: And you needed a lot more light back then to shoot a film. So the lights would cook the stuff.

KATE: It must have been pretty smelly.

HOOPER: Oh, it was.

LAURA: You mentioned the looping in the film, the fact that none of the characters can escape. That must have had a strong psychological effect on the actors. Like that scene where Pam lands in a room of bones and chicken feathers. She starts freaking out, basically.

HOOPER: There were ways of creating tension. Everyone in the cast and crew was synchronized, but the work was very demanding. At the end of filming, everyone hated me. It took years to reestablish those friendships but I knew what I needed to get. So all of the actors became part of this circling energy that had a lot of tension in it. And we were so isolated working on that set in Round Rock. So if this energy starts to spin fast enough, it will start to grow in the atmosphere from sky to ground. And that’s what I was trying to achieve.

LAURA: Did the locals interact with the filming? Did they stop by to see what was going on?

HOOPER: Very few times. The guy who owned the house was living in a room in the back for the entire time we filmed. But he was quiet. We only saw him once or twice.

KATE: I bet he has good stories. I read that the house is now a restaurant somewhere.

HOOPER: Yeah, it is. But it’s in another town. They moved it to Kingsland, Texas.

LAURA: I have a question about the van scene at the beginning of the film. Was that shot early on or later? I’ve always felt like you jump right in on the tension because the characters aren’t really talking to each other. The mood is really strange, internally and externally, even before the hitchhiker gets in.

HOOPER: It was shot somewhere in the first third of shooting. I think the very first shot we did was their arrival at Sally’s grandfather’s house. They walk up to the house. I think Pam’s meat-hook scene was shot shortly after. Pam’s costume was designed with no back to make her look even more vulnerable. 

KATE: I was thinking about that because you are always acutely aware of how little she has on—the vulnerability of her back is eerie.

LAURA: The scene with the meat hook connects back to an early shot of the cattle. There’s this disturbing scene of violence about what’s going to happen to these animals—and by inference, to these young people. The cattle have a sense of imminent doom.

HOOPER: I had an experience in a restaurant one time where there was a large trolley with beef being carved up, and I just transposed different images onto it. Like, what if there was a nice little cow there with a bowtie and a knife carving up humans. I was a vegetarian for a couple of years after that. And I guess on the drive from Austin to Dallas on the weekends, I’d pass this slaughterhouse. It’s the same slaughterhouse that’s in the movie, actually. It always disturbed me. It became a part of the psychology of the film. Like Pam’s costume with no back or the constant escaping. I mean, in a traditional film, no one would jump through a glass window twice in the same movie. It just wasn’t done because of some convention. I wanted to be outrageous and break the rules and also involve you and make those characters real for you.

LAURA: It’s so textural. You really feel the heat in the air and it’s … so oppressive. You make a lot of use of the sound design, too. There’s a sound, a weird metallic noise, that is so scary—it might be the scariest sound aside from the chain saw. Where did that sound come from?

HOOPER: It’s quite a few things. I had two Sony quarter-inch stereo recorders in this little music room that had tuning forks and broken instruments. You could put contact mics against an instrument and run it through tape recorders, creating this strange kind of feedback. I liked it a lot. I liked broken instruments, like bass fiddles with tin cans hanging off of them. Or drawing a bow without rosin, grating it across the strings … These sounds can’t really be re-created digitally. You would have to go back to analog to create some of these effects.

KATE: How did the famous family-dinner scene come together?

HOOPER: That scene is funny, but it’s ironic that it’s funny-because to that family, it’s the truth. That’s what their family values are, dating back probably a hundred years or so. Like the line Jim Siedow says, “Look what your brother did to the door.” I think you get a sense of how real that family is in that scene. It’s about an involvement with the audience. For instance, no one in the film tells you it has anything to do with cannibalism. You just assume that. You’re reading into the images and the music and the action and coming up with the narrative, putting the story together. There is very little exposition. So many films now are an overdose of exposition.

LAURA: They want to tell you everything. In Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the slaughterhouse is just there for a split second, and yet it sets up the feeling of the film. You know something is going to happen, and that dread never goes away. Here’s a question: Where did the idea of Leatherface’s face come from?

HOOPER: It really came from Greek tragedy as a foundation. But it was just something I felt the character would do. It isn’t that he’s hiding anything. He definitely isn’t the sharpest tool in the garage. His brother is kind of the artistic type in his way. I think it’s just natural for him. I suspect it might have come as a way of cooling himself off—maybe it could have originally been cow’s skin, and over time it became clothing. [laughs] I hope I answered that. Also, when you can’t see his face, your imagination goes wild. When you can’t see, you fill in the blanks with something that’s far more interesting than what can actually be shown.

KATE: But there is also the sense of the scared child in Leatherface, too. He becomes the symbolic villain in the family but there’s also a very reluctant quality to him, too, like he’s aware he’s doing something wrong.

HOOPER: Yeah, what he does scares the hell out of him, and by the time he’s killed Jerry [played by Allen Danziger], he knows he’s in trouble—not trouble with the law so much as trouble with his older brother. There’s a scene after he hits Jerry and throws Pam back into the freezer where he runs to the window. He sits down and looks out the window and you can see what’s going through his mind—”Where do they keep coming from?” And “I am in deep, deep trouble.” You know, there’s an interview with Gunnar on television where he talks about the chain-saw dance that he does at the end of the film. He says what was going through his mind during that dance is that it was his last chance to kill me. [laughs] So that’s how worked up he was.

LAURA: I’m curious what the audience reaction was at the time it was in theaters. At the end, Sally gets away. Now that’s become a trope of the horror genre—the lead female survives. But in 1974 that wasn’t the case. The language of horror wasn’t established yet.

HOOPER: To me, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is more than a horror film.

KATE: Yeah, it’s on our list of favorite films of all time. But it’s hard for me to think about this film without thinking of all of the films it has influenced. I remember my dad saying to me, “You don’t know what it was like to see 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] the first time—some people were walking out, other people were laughing, and I was awe struck; I had never seen anything like it.”

HOOPER: When it was shown in theaters, fights broke out. In San Francisco, the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three [1974] was playing and they sneak-previewed Chain Saw, and the city council of San Francisco was all there. People were running out of the theater throwing up and several fights broke out.

KATE: I read it was banned in the U.K.

HOOPER: It was banned for 25 years. But, you know, there’s relatively little blood in the film. When Pam is hanged on the meat hook, you don’t see penetration. You don’t see blood splatter. There is the shot, when she’s holding on to the hook, and the camera pans down her body, and she’s over this washtub. There’s no blood running from her body into the tub, but you know what the tub is for. And a lot of people swear that they saw blood, because they know what it’s for. And the washtub comes out again later so as not to ruin the carpet when they’re in the dinner scene.

KATE: I like the part where you zoom in on Sally’s eyes, and you see the blood vessels. How do you do that?

HOOPER: When I was editing the film, I realized I needed some montage shots of her screaming. I wanted something to remind you, once again, about the human body. So I brought Marilyn back into the editing room and shot her eyes with a microscopic lens, down into the white of the eye, where the veins are. And now with the restoration, you can see even better the membranes that are in between the veins.

LAURA: Did you expect the kind of reaction you’ve received over this film? Has it surprised you how much people love and admire it?

HOOPER: I knew it was going to get recognition, because it was so different. And I knew it was special. The films I had been watching before I made it were Fellini films, Antonioni, and Truffaut. I was at the art house a lot. And I had made about 60 documentaries and TV commercials, so I’d developed a style of fast cuts, almost as subliminal as you can get at 24 frames a second. But, yes, the film kept getting released after its first run, about eight times. You mention the horror genre, but the slasher-film concept didn’t really come about until years after this film. Probably it didn’t really start until Jason and Friday the 13th [1980]. And those films were made for shock value—splatter films or torture porn.

LAURA: People always ask Kate and me why we like horror films so much. I think it’s a genre of filmmaking where every second is crucial, and there is very little time to convince your audience to be in the emotion that you want them to be in. In order to do that, you have to use lighting, color, emotion, texture, and sound. That’s fascinating to me. In some films, one can take two hours to make someone cry, but the feeling of fear is so different. Two years ago we did costumes for Don Giovanni at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Frank Gehry designed the sets. Deborah Borda, who runs the L.A. Philharmonic, told us about the parallel fifth. At the time Mozart was writing, he began experimenting with a certain progression of chords that stimulates a feeling of pure bliss that’s also associated with fear. When people heard it for the first time, they were passing out in the audience.

KATE: That’s why I consider Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be an art film … How did you decide to become a director?

HOOPER: I wanted to be an actor or be a director since I was a very small child. I mean, my mother went into labor at a movie theater. [all laugh] There were, like, four movie theaters around us when I was growing up in Austin. Movies became my babysitter. I think I saw more films than I saw reality. Then I noticed something when I was in my late teens that really made my thinking shift in what I wanted to do with film. When I was watching a film as a young man, there would be a second or two when I drifted outside of myself. I noticed how for a moment, in the image and music and train of information, I was traveling through the film, leaving myself. And I knew that was something I wanted to do. I wanted to see how long I could make that feeling go on—if I could take someone outside themselves, outside their body for a minute, five minutes, maybe even 80 minutes, 90 minutes.

KATE: You went on to make Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 in 1986. And it was banned in a number of countries too, wasn’t it?

HOOPER: Chain Saw 2 was a reaction to the ’80s. [laughs] It was appropriate for the ’80s. But I can understand it being banned. I quite liked the movie, but I must say it was very graphic.

LAURA: Is the hitchhiker also in the second film?

HOOPER: It’s the hitchhiker’s twin brother, who was in Vietnam.

LAURA: How did you find the actor who plays the hitchhiker [Edwin Neal]?

HOOPER: I found him at the drama department at UT. He read the material and blew my mind. And the guy who plays the older brother, the cook [Jim Siedow] was a really great Shakespearean actor—like a wicked King Lear.

LAURA: But at the time, the actors in Chain Saw Massacre weren’t familiar faces or names. They were getting the chance to be in one of their first movies.

HOOPER: Yeah, it really wouldn’t have worked had you gone to see someone recognizable. It was just better that they seemed like real people. Everything just worked out so well for the making of this film—like a strange energy that had blown in on it.

LAURA: Rex Reed’s review of the film really is what started all of the talk, right?

HOOPER: Yeah. Rex Reed’s review, then the Museum of Modern Art wanted it for their permanent collection. Then Cannes showed it in the Quinzaine, or the Directors’ Fortnight, in 1975. And now they’re showing the 40th anniversary version.

KATE: What was the rating on TCM?

HOOPER: Oh, it was R. You know, the rating system was relatively new. Then, 12 years later, Chain Saw 2 got an X, and it ended up being released unrated. You can’t advertise it if it’s an X. There was a time in the history of this town—sometime during the late ’70s and ’80s—when films were preferred to be R rated. It was before the giant family film took over. Now films have to make a billion dollars. And that’s why fewer personal films are being made. But there’s hope now, in that there are so many empty screens in multiplexes, that they’re now beginning to book old films, like Singin’ in the Rain [1952].

LAURA: Oh, before we forget, will you sign something for us. [pulls a film still of Sally Hardesty from bag] We went to a horror convention and we got Marilyn Burns to sign it.

HOOPER: Oh, yeah. [signs his name] That’s way cool.

KATE AND LAURA MULLEAVY ARE THE FOUNDERS AND DESIGNERS BEHIND THE CLOTHING LABEL RODARTE.