Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Joe Bob Briggs presents the "The Complete, Comprehensive, and True Story of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" for your reading enjoyment. It's a frighteningly long and sordid -- and thoroughly entertaining -- tale of guerilla low-budget filmmaking.

    [Director Tobe Hooper made] the most financially successful film in the history of Texas, a film that is still shown in almost every country of the world, and whose innovations have continued to influence the horror genre for the last 25 years. Using $60,000 raised by an Austin politician, he filmed mostly in and around an old Victorian house in Round Rock with a crew that used exactly two vehicles--a Chevy van for the film equipment, and a broken-down 1964 Dodge Travco motor home for the actors' dressing rooms. The result was "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," a movie whose very title has become America's cultural shorthand for perversity, moral decline and especially the corruption of children. (It remains the favorite example of Congressmen calling for the censorship of television.) Yet the movie's pure intensity, startling technique and reputation as an outlaw film have brought praise from a group as diverse as Steven Spielberg, the Cannes Film Festival, the inmates of the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary, Martin Scorsese (Travis Bickle watches it in "Taxi Driver"), the Museum of Modern Art, Paul McCartney, almost every metal band of the past twenty years, and the Colombo crime family of Brooklyn, which gleefully ranked it right up there with "Deep Throat" as one of their major sources of income in the seventies. The film itself is a strange shifting experience--early audiences were horrified, later audiences laughed, newcomers to the movie were inevitably stricken with a vaguely uneasy feeling, as though the film might have actually been made by a maniac--but the story behind the film is even stranger.


    It was conceived, shaped, filmed, edited and released in a kind of mild doper's haze, like a free-love happening that, on the third day, turns a little ugly. Hooper would go on to direct "Poltergeist," "Salem's Lot" and many other films and television shows, but through it all he retained, like his friend Spielberg, a latent counter-culture shabbiness, with his unruly beard, mop haircut, professorial wire rims, and gravelly halting voice. (He rivals Dennis Hopper for the number of times he uses the word "man.") Hooper's scenarist, Kim Henkel, was a lanky, drawling textbook illustrator with a droopy handlebar mustache who had starred in Hooper's first feature, "Eggshells," as a dope-smoking sexaholic poet who likes to write in the nude and discuss politics in the bathtub. Henkel was also living the Austin hippie lifestyle--"but I joined the hippies one week and got fired the next. There were too many rules. It's easier to be a redneck than a hippie." And likewise, most of the "Chain Saw" cast had some connection to the counter-culture. Allen Danziger, who played the van driver "Jerry," was a childhood friend of Stokely Carmichael who had travelled from the Bronx to Austin to work with the mentally retarded in one of LBJ's Great Society programs. Dottie Pearl, the makeup artist, was a cultural anthropologist who had received government grants to make films about the Navajo. Gunnar Hansen, who played the actual chainsaw killer, was the editor of the Austin poetry journal Lucille at the time he got the part.

    Yet the more you learn about "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," the more it seems less the invention of a screenwriter, or director, or acting company, than the product of Austin itself at the end of the Vietnam era. It was a different, now vanished Austin, a place where the canonical six degrees of separation had been reduced to one or two, where the governor and the small-time marijuana dealer were likely to both know the chairman of the Public Broadcasting System, and where legislators and lawyers and lobbyists could easily form marriages of convenience with poets and quirky filmmakers.

    All these years later, almost everyone involved feels permanently changed, or, in some cases, permanently scarred by the film. At least one actor--Ed Neal, who played "The Hitchhiker"--can't speak about it without becoming enraged. Robert Kuhn, a criminal attorney who invested in the film, would waste years fighting for the profits that should have poured into Austin but were instead siphoned off by a distribution company that absconded with the funds. The late Warren Skaaren, who would become one of the highest-paid rewrite men in Hollywood, could trace his whole career to his association with "Chain Saw." Ron Bozman, the film's production manager, would ascend to the very pinnacle of the profession. He accepted the 1985 Academy Award for Best Picture as the producer of "The Silence of the Lambs." Still, even he says that "Chain Saw" was the greater thrill. "It was by far the more intense experience--nothing compares to it for density of experience--it was just such a wild ride."

Read the rest, as they say.

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