SXSW 2014 Interview: THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE Director Tobe Hooper Talks His Legacy of Unspeakable Horror
But, jokes aside, Tobe Hooper's 1974 DIY horror masterpiece is like no film made before it or since. It's been 40 years since Hooper shocked the world with TCM, a horror film so gritty and vile the trajectory of the genre would be irreconcilably altered. One could even argue that the gore to which today's world is desensitized would never be as commonplace if not for Hooper taking a crew of hippies out into the badlands of sweltering Austin, Texas and putting them kids through utter hell to evoke the real-life terror of a close encounter with a lurking killer.
But Hooper wasn't content with just one killer. TCM contains a whole family of psychopathic rejects, whose values are so banally unspeakable you have to laugh. But at the forefront is a huge beast of a man known as Leatherface. Has there ever been a better horror movie serial killer than Leatherface? I personally think not. Pyscho may have been the first horror film to shine a light on living monsters, but Leatherface, with his Dahmer-esque sense of arts and crafts, is a creature of myth so horrible, he could only be grounded in reality. Hooper recognized that truth is often stranger than fiction and thus the genius of TCM is in it's unflinching fusion of atrocity and irony, unlike anything attempted to that point.
Romero may have been the true indie gate-crasher with Night of the Living Dead, and God bless him for that, but Leatherface wore another man's face on his face! Now 40 years later The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn't feel dated. The world of horror has since evolved into a cycle aimed at out-shocking all predecessors, but even after all this time, TCM is a fresh window into the heart of the genre.
Twitch: I understand the film print was in pretty rough shape. Can you talk about the film's restoration process? How did your team get all those scratches out of there?
Tobe Hooper: Thank God for wire removal and also scratch removal because to save it was quite a job. It was in real bad shape. It was stored improperly and it was... it was coming apart.
Starting at the beginning, can you recall the impulse that inspired you to make TEXAS CHAIN SAW in the first place?
Well, I made a film called Eggshells. It was my first feature, it was the kind of an art film that played around university campuses, but only a few dates, because it was so damn weird and, ah, nonlinear. It was a film I'm very proud of... But it didn't make money so there was no way to move forward with a career. I'd spent years already making documentaries, TV commercials and things such as that..
So anyway, after Eggshells I figured I could get the money together one more time to make a low budget something and the only thing that made sense was the horror genre and you know my sensitivities were coming from Fellini films and European films, but anyways that's why I made the film, because I needed to build a little rocketship that I could film in Austin, Texas and when it would bloom out they could see it in Los Angeles. Because the big microphone then was out there.
On the topic of Austin, one of the funny things about SXSW is when there are films shot Locally you get the audience applauding with pride and such, but with TEXAS CHAIN SAW ... it's not necessarily the most flattering look at Texas. So I'm wondering what the reception was like from the local community?
As I recall it was really good. I saw it the first time on the big screen was that ah the director's fortnight at Cannes.. Then I went to see it at a drive-in theatre in Austin and I was parked way in the back because I think I was afraid that my energy could somehow bring everybody down and so I started seeing the tail lights come on in cars and I thought "ah shit.. you know, they're blowing this off, they're leaving and then one of the tail lights would go off and would come on again, and then go off and come on again and I was like, "oh god..." Then I noticed I had my foot on the brake pedal.. I was actually getting tense watching the movie and I pushed down on the pedal and the damn light would come on... and so I think they liked it.
Did you experience any kind of backlash from people who weren't necessarily fans of what you were up to?
No, just someone in Houston gave me a bad review... and that was strange because I was invited down to the newspaper and I had known this guy at UT and I had lunch and had such a good time. Then two or three days later I read his review and he just tore my ass apart. And I thought 'oh ok that makes sense, that's all part of this - the spirit of ah this film - because at Cannes people were getting pushed up against cinemas.
I was at the box office inside and it was like flat faces being pushed against the damn entrance glass wall and a couple fights broke loose and then they started filing into the theatre. They opened the doors and they all took their seats and then the manager of the theatre said, "Come here, come here," and said, "Someone called in with a bomb threat, we have to clear the theatre" and so I had one of those halfway ridiculous reactions that, 'well, I should be the last one out of the theatre, God only knows why, but I got up on stage with the manager and the theatre was evacuated and they came, did the bomb search and there was no bomb, then everyone came back in and totally loved the movie. Then I found out a couple days later - and again that is a part of the spirit of the movie - someone invited me out on a very big yacht and I was talking to the guy and he said "I called in the bomb threat"
Hah! Did you ask him why?
Ya, he couldn't get into the theatre.
Did he get in?
Yeah, it's kind of like the electric nature of the evolution of this movie.
Going even further back to the production itself, considering you put the actors through hell, which at that time was not common practice even in horror, how was it dealing with the cast amidst the shooting conditions?
Oh you mean like...
Like the filthy locations, the sweltering heat, and you know, all the carcasses...
Oh ya... well, I wouldn't let them see the location until I started shooting and I shot lots and lots of takes ... I would separate the actors and not let them socialize. Franklin, I would advise him and he went with it ... to not change his clothes to get as sweaty as possible, to never have lunch with anybody else ... and then no one saw Leatherface until it was time for the first take.
And what were their reactions to that first Leatherface appearance?
There was this hammer that weighed probably 35 pounds, and of course the hammer that was used to actually hit Bill Vail was much safer, but it still gave him a black eye, it still knocked him down because I mean you know Gunnar Hansen had to really hit the guy. Everyone hated me by the end of the production. It just took years for them to kind of cool off.
What were their reactions to the success of the picture? Were they surprised by it becoming such a cult phenomenon?
You know, I don't know. I did see a documentary that Gunnar Hansen is in and when he does the chainsaw dance at the end of the film, he said 'He enjoyed that moment because it was his last chance to kill me', because he had the sour growing... but I think they're all mostly resolved with that, you know, but it was necessary.
How old were you at the time?
I was, ah god, I think twenty eight or twenty nine.
What did your parents say?
Well my dad wasn't around anymore and my mother didn't see it.
Did she get wind of it?
Oh yeah! I told her not to see it and I'm not sure if she ever did. I just don't think it would have worked out right.
Then 10 years later, after making a few more movies, you made the call to take the story into the comedy realm with CHAINSAW 2. What prompted that decision to go in that direction?
Well because for 8 years no one got the ironic humor in the original movie. I mean it is ironic and the humor wasn't played for humor but you know it was like truth, family truth. Like when the older brother, the cook, screams "Look at what your brother has done to the door!" and all these hippies are dead and he focuses on something that was logical to him.
How has your relationship evolved with the film over the last 40 years? Has your perspective on the work changed at all as you've entered different stages of your life?
No, it's the same. It seems like yesterday. It's a strange thing.
How would you compare the initial audience reaction to the SXSW 40th anniversary screening?
Last night they screamed and they got the ironic family madness so that finally came out. There was so much suggestion of violence in Part 1 - resident graphic violence - which is why I made Chainsaw 2 and decided to get Tom Savini. To make up for lost time. Because it seemed that's where it wanted to go. But still, the suggestion is there in part 1. There's layers in the narrative you had to put together watching the film. No one ever says "cannibal" or no one ever says "what's going on?" but as the information is coming in and you think about it, comedy is probably the only thing that it could be.
Given that TEXAS CHAIN SAW is such an original film, how do you feel about the reimaginings over the last decades? What's your relationship with the remakes and prequels?
Ah, the remake for me... the best thing about it was just... um... Jessica Biel's ass. I mean, there was a shot in there that I thought was just awesome. And the 3D version that came out around last year, the producer so respected the original that he really tried to recreate the sensibilities of the film and I respect that.