40 years on, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” still packs the same punch it did when it first came out and changed the face of horror. In fact, director Tobe Hooper feels it packs even more of a punch now that audiences are able to embrace the film’s extremely dark humor, a fact made clear during SXSW’s 40th anniversary screening of the classic when the audience in attendance, many of them seeing it for the very first time, laughed uncomfortably in between screams.
The festival’s screening of the classic, boasting a stunning new 7.1 surround mix and all-new 4k scan, brought out the reclusive Austin-born director, who was present at the event to introduce the film. Indiewire was lucky enough to sit down Hooper the following day to talk about “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
You’re from Austin, this is a Texas-made film. What did it mean for you to be there last night, to show it to a largely Austin based audience, many of whom had never seen it?
To say it was great is an understatement because I haven’t seen it with that many audiences. I was sitting with Lewis Black, a dear friend of mine, and they seemed to get the film now more so than 40 years ago. It looks good and the 7:1 sound is great. It played really well. Like I said, I felt great.
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Why do you think the film plays better now than it did before?
Well, I remember answering a question last night about the ironic humor that wasn’t seen or appreciated 40 years ago. I spent a lot of time on all the subtext and behavior. There is this kind of, I don’t know, Thanksgiving-dinner-in-Texas-with-a-big-family feeling about it — where if you back away far enough from it you’ll see a family start fighting and it will become funny because it’s based in truth. It’s ironically funny. Things weren’t played for funny last night, but the audience appreciated those moments of character behavior and their subtext.
Something that was totally lost in the remake —
Oh yeah, yeah. I don’t even think they thought about that.
As you said, the film does have a dark undercurrent of humor. Was making the film a humorous experience? Did you guys need to keep it a little light on set to counter the darkness of the material?
That was the heaviest set I’ve ever been on. It was miserable, really. That added to a part of the chemistry that caused certain behavior. The heat, the smoke and bones are cooking under the hot lights. All of that, it’s kind of like a war dance, American Indian War Dance.
You start working at a pace and when everyone is involved equally, something intangible, something metaphysical, is being created when everyone is in the same mind space. And that’s what was going on. I didn’t know that exactly at the time, in the beginning. But about halfway through I started understanding this war dance concept. And at a certain point that energy starts helping you go in the direction you intend to take it in.
Did you have an inkling while making the film that it would catch on quite the way it did?
You know, I did. And it sounds like I’m blowing my own horn to say that. I had never seen anything like it and I wanted to see it myself. That was a driving force and my ability to pull the energy up out of myself to work that damn hard as I wanted to see it… the movie, I mean, as a finished picture. The energies are making a decision at a point.
What was behind your choice to have Leatherface slam the door that first time quite the way he does? He does so in such a forceful way that it really takes you by the throat.
Well I have to back up and tell you about the door.
I shot the scene all the way up to just before the sledgehammer and I already had this little ramp built on the floor – like a cattle ramp. So I rehearsed the scene and there was something missing. I didn’t have a button on it to make the next shot, which was Pam, to make it as powerful. And so I said, “I need a door. We have to stop. Bob Burns, can you deliver a door to me in an hour?” And the door was put in.
I knew it needed that kind of power. So when I had the door there, I just said, “Throw him in. Throw him in, dude, and just slam that damn thing.” It all came out of that. It would be hard to do that today on a film — to shut the thing and rebuild part of the set, but it was all a part of that. I needed to show his potential and his strengths. It made the hammer hit… the actor [actually] got a black eye, you know. The real hammer weighs about 30 lbs — of course a much safer prop was used, but he still put a big welt on his eye because he hit him right upside the head with the prop.
Did you use a real hammer in that scene at the end where the old man keeps bashing at her head and missing?
It was, but when he makes contact — the hammer falling on the floor and just missing her head was real some of the times and other part of the time it was a mock up of it.
He gets very close.
He does get very close. But he was being helped. Leatherface was helping him. But that scene [is] so chaotic. I kept it as real as possible. She went through an extraordinarily… the physicalities of what she went through during the whole film were very impressive. Everyone got hurt a little bit, and when I called the wrap on the last shot there were several wrap parties — the groups that could stand one another. And I was sitting on the porch of the old house watching them have their party.
I was having my own party by just watching them sitting by myself, and it occurred to me that everyone had got a ding on the head or a cut or this or that [but] I somehow managed not to get messed up. And I leaned back in the chair and a piece of the porch broke and I flew back into a pile of 2 x 4’s with nails sticking out of it and got nail-punctured all over.
You got what was coming to you for putting your actors through such hell.
And rightfully so.
I have to ask: did you ever try on one of Leatherface’s masks while shooting?
No. They were very fragile, made of coat hanger and some kind of parchment paper to make it look like dried skin. It wasn’t rubber like they’ve been ever since. Those masks, no one touched those but Leatherface.