Walking in the Footsteps of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’
If you look at it from the right angle, it could be mistaken for the middle of nowhere.
The flat Texas countryside stretches for miles in every direction. The horizon is populated with farm houses and barns. Fields of crops line the road. The heat is so strong, the air outside of my car ripples and I praise a higher power for air conditioning. This is Texas as "outsiders" see it: tamed by man, but free of proper civilization. Never mind that the thoroughly modern city of Bastrop is ten minutes in the rear view mirror. Forget that Austin, the geek/hippy/tech Mecca and state capitol, is only 30 minutes down the highway.
It's quiet out here. Quiet enough to tend your land and your cattle in peace. Quiet enough to ignore "progress," a word that demands those quotation marks in these parts. Hell, it's quiet enough for you to get away with murdering a handful of unsuspecting young people with a chainsaw and to prepare their flesh at your family's roadside convenience store.
Yes, this is Texas. Home of cattle and cowboys. Land of great barbecue and amazing music. The place where a tribe of cannibals can get along in relative peace and comfort, occasionally rearing their flesh-mask covered heads to prey on teenagers who ran out of gas at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
I'm deep in 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' country. 40 years ago, director Tobe Hooper, a skeleton crew and a ragtag cast of unknown actors made horror history in these parts. Cinema, and the great state of Texas, were never the same.
Under the Skin
You don't have to be hardcore horror buff to recognize the seismic impact (and the greatness) of 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.' The film hit popular culture like a sledge hammer to skull. No number of derivative and increasingly moronic sequels can dilute the power of the original film, whose title alone is capable of sending chills down the spine of cinephiles.
"There's stark fear around the whole idea about just seeing it," Lars Nilsen, a programmer for the Austin Film Society tells me. He tells me about growing up in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina and how the arrival of the film at his local drive-in sent shockwaves through the entire community. "The whole town was talking about it," he tells me. "All of the adults seemed to very agitated by the fact that it was playing in town."
It took Nilsen another decade to actually see the movie and when he finally settled in to watch it on VHS, he learned what so many fans will tell you: it's not that violent. In fact, the film is a model of restraint, cutting away from gore whenever possible. That's why the film has endured over the decades -- it's terrifying because of tone, implied violence and a sense of dread. Any stuntman with a hockey mask can chop off a camp counselor's head, but it takes something special to get under your skin and linger like a disease.
It was real hot and miserable. I don’t even know how we did that. It’s crazy what a bunch of kids will do when they want to make a movie.
During the course of our conversation, Nilsen waxed poetic about the film's title. "[When I was younger,] I thought it would be the most terrifying idea of a movie because the title is so good! You would just imagine what it would be." And he's right of, course. There's nothing clever or snappy about the words 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' It's clinical. Direct. The kind of thing you see on newspaper headlines, not movie posters.
It's no surprise that some people are still convinced that the events film actually happened.
The Gas Station: American Monsters
My mind is swirling with thoughts of monsters when I pull into the gravel lot in front of the dilapidated gas station.
40 years ago, this was a full service gas station and convenience store. 41 years ago, Hooper and his cast and crew used it as the Sawyer family business. While the mute and mentally challenged Leatherface hung out at the family house making masks out of human skin, his father, who could at least try to act sane, came here to pump gas and sell barbecue. It's the place that's out of gasoline in act one, stranding our hapless and helpless heroes into a literal meat grinder.
It looks run down on film because it was run down. When you're a service station out in the middle of the Texas countryside, potential customers don't care how your establishment looks. As long as you offer gasoline, you'll get steady business.
Today, the gas station has fallen into total disrepair. Abandoned for the better part of a decade, Bilbo's Texas Landmark has ceased being charmingly run down and has become dangerously run down. The gas pumps are gone, but if you kick up enough dust, you can see where they used to be. The windows are boarded up and the front porch is so crowded with junk that it's impossible to move in for a closer look. A stiff breeze will blow it over.
I'm surprised that my first thought isn't "Oh, it's a shame this establishment had to close its doors." No, my first thought is "They must have shut it down when they learned they were selling human flesh here." The blend of reality and fiction lasts only a second before I correct myself, but it happened: deep down, I can't help but believe in 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' Sure, civilization is only a few minutes away, but out here, it's so quiet, so still and so damn hot that I can imagine anything happening.
As I stare at the gas station that funded some of fiction's greatest monsters, my thoughts turn to mythology. Here, deep in the heart of Texas, I start to think about vampires and werewolves and other tales and legends that have emerged from Europe over the centuries. I think about how young America is in comparison to her neighbors across the Atlantic. I think about how American culture is too young to have its own proper mythology and how we've appropriated the rest of the world's monsters as our own.
And then I realize that 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' is American mythology.
The events depicted in film didn't happen. A chainsaw-wielding madman wearing a face made out of flesh did not actually commit a bunch of murders four decades ago. This gas station did not serve human meat. And yet the mere concept of the cannibalistic serial killer lurking in the wilds of Texas is something that we've come to accept. It may not exist in real life, but it exists deep in our psyche.
Give us a century or two, Older Nations. America has its traditional monsters. It just needs some time for them to age into legend.
The Pride and the Shame of Leatherface
"'Chainsaw' is like a brushfire you can never really put out. It still burns to this day. That's why we're still talking about it."
Tim Hardin is warm, friendly, good-natured and various other synonyms. In other words, he's not the kind of guy who you'd expect to be one of the biggest 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' fans on the planet. You certainly wouldn't expect him to be the man behind TexasChainsawMassacre.net, a website born in the early days of the internet and, despite its multitude of useful information, still looks it. To him, the film represents a huge part of his life and he's spent a lot of time dealing with people who think the film is factual. Many of his out-of-state friends are convinced the film is based on actual events.
"Their ignorance helps fuels the fire," he says, "They say they heard this actually happened and they leave it at that."
When I ask Hardin why so many people are quick to believe that Texas is home to real cannibalistic serial killers and not just cinematic ones, he chooses his words carefully. "I think 'Chainsaw' had some help," he says. "No one will forget the violence in Dallas, where JFK was assassinated." Other images spring to mind: the University of Texas Sniper. Drug violence on the border. A history of "cowboys" and lawlessness. He continues: "I think [these events] tainted Texas as being, well, not an evil state..." He pauses. "Maybe it is an evil state."
Nilsen has a far different reaction. "The Texas that you see in 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' was never really exactly there," he says. "It's not a real Texas. It's a construct of the mind that was assembled by imaginative people. It's a pretty avant garde piece, where everyone [the characters] meet is a maniac and an inbred freak. That's obviously not real."
However, he does point out how someone can twist Texan iconography into something terrifying but still believable. "If you're a very sensitive person like Tobe Hooper and you look at the people around you when you get outside of Austin … they're obsessed with killing animals and rural accessories like chainsaws," he says. "These are the harrowing, horrifying characters of non-Austin, Texas."
And to be honest, the film only has its own self to blame. After all, it does open with solemn narration that claims the film you're about to see is based on an actual incident. Who knew that a piece of clever hucksterism would survive this long? Or that people in the year 2014 wouldn't be able to recognize that kind of showboating for what it is?
The Cemetery: Formerly in the Middle of Nowhere
The isolated old cemetery seen in the opening scene of 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' is now across the street from a Little Ceaser's and a Crossfit gym. The skyline surrounding the exterior fence has changed so much that it takes me longer than I'd like to admit to find the gravestone. You know the one.
That one. The one that has been vandalized countless times over the years as horror fans from around the world chip off pieces of stone so they can own a little piece of horror history.
It's not that exciting in real life.
The cemetery has expanded in the past four decades. Crumbling gravestones featuring lifespans that begin the 19th century populate the front half, but the back half is home to meticulously maintained and thoroughly modern plots. They're neatly arranged and well maintained. The older section still looks like something from a horror film, with its scattered arrangements and ornate sculptures. From the right angle, it's still a graveyard straight out of a gothic horror film.
Albeit a gothic horror film with a Jimmy John's on the horizon.
When I tell Marilyn Burns that the cemetery is now five minutes from upper middle class suburban neighborhoods, she can't help but laugh. "Everywhere we shot was in the middle of nowhere," she says. "The cemetery was out in the boonies. The first house was in the weeds. The second house was way out in Round Rock, which no one lived around then."
In 1974, Burns broke into acting as the lone survivor of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." In the summer of 2014, she was still talking about the movie, still attending horror conventions and still answering the same questions from eager fans desperate to know anything and everything about the film. When I ask her if she has any vivid memories of the production, she pauses. Her spiel feels carefully prepared, but she seems to love giving it:
I have a hundred. The van was suffocating. Tedious. Hot. Miserable. We were traveling with five actors and the camera guy and sound and director and continuity guy. All of us in this van, going 15 miles an hour, trying not to make any noise. Just crawling along as they kept changing the script. We'd stop to sit on the side of the road when they decided that the lines weren't working. That was the first couple weeks of shooting. It was real hot and miserable. I don't even know how we did that. It's crazy what a bunch of kids will do when they want to make a movie. Crawling along in that heat…when we did stop, there weren't any chairs for us to sit in. There was no place to go. You just had to stand around. You could just stand around and sweat in the sun. No coolers. No ice. No Cokes coming around!
I'm five minutes from my parked car and the bottle of water waiting in the cup holder. From that famous gravestone, I can see a 7/11. And yet I can still feel the heat. I still feel miserable. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like to film this movie. The stories from the set are legend among horror fans. This was a shoot defined by sweat and heat and body odor. No one was happy. Everyone was miserable.
That raw misery is evident in every frame. This is an ugly movie by design and the off-screen unhappiness fuels it and allows it to grow into something truly unpleasant. Art imitated life.
"Everyone wanted to forget about it after the misery of the whole shoot," Burns tells me. "Listening to that agonizing chainsaw, smelling all of the smells, watching the decay of rotting chicken on the set. It was disgusting. It was miserable. Each different set-up we went to was a different kind of challenge. The reason so much of it looks so real is because it was! We didn't have the props or the camera set-ups or anything to make it an easy shoot so we worked with what had. When we didn't have it, we improvised."
And when it comes to fans who think the movie is real, Burns has her fair share of stories: "I do conventions and people come up to me and they'll say 'My brother just got out of prison and he knew Leatherface!' I stopped telling people that's impossible years ago. I just say 'Great, I'm glad he got out of there.' And I just drop it."
Burns agrees to chat with me again, to share more stories about the film and the horror convention circuit. She's excited to talk to someone from Texas. She says she's looking forward to reading this article and seeing the pictures I take from the locations.
She passes away a few days after our conversation. My heart breaks.
Capitalism and Cannibalism
Time is of the essence when I plan my road trip to see the locations from 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' No one I speak to knows who owns the gas station (or when they'll do the inevitable and tear it down) and the actual Sawyer family home is safe for the time being (and we'll get there momentarily), but the film's most iconic location will soon vanish forever.
When Tim Hardin first visited Quick Hill in Round Rock, Texas back in the late '90s, he missed the iconic country house from film by a matter of days. "The soil was still damp," he recalls. The house was sold and relocated, but the land surrounding it became the property of the La Frontera project. Miles of hills and farmland would spend the next decade-plus transforming into condos, apartments, business parks, chain restaurants and stores. The construction of a new highway came dangerously close to wiping out the house's old location for good, but it missed it by mere feet. Hardin isn't sure when the rest of Quick Hill will be gone for good, but he knows it's not long for this world. If the surrounding development is any indication, it'll be condos very soon.
Up here it'a raw, unfiltered, Texas: it's hot and sticky and rocky and dry and it feels dangerous. Out here, on this hill, someone could kill me and I would never be found.
And don't expect a statue or a monument or even a plaque. "I'm fairly certain the people who are behind this multi-million dollar project probably don't have marking a historic horror movie location on their property as part of their business plan," he says. He tells me that he did speak with a member of the Round Rock city council about possibly marking the site as historically significant, but the land is now privately owned. It's out their hands.
In plain language: the spot where one of the most famous Texas movies of all time was shot is about to get the bulldozer treatment.
As a man who has dedicated his entire life to film and film preservation, Nilsen agrees that some kind of historical marker is in order. "Wouldn't it be great if there was a plaque for 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' in the middle of a bourgeoisie awful white neighborhood?" he cracks.
So my expedition to Quick Hill becomes my priority. Hardin gives me directions and tells me to wear boots, jeans and a shirt that won't get caught on overgrowth. And he tells me to watch out for cacti. And snakes. He can't promise that there won't be snakes.
And, of course, he tells me to have my cell phone charged. But I know that one already. I've seen enough horror movies.
The House: It's Not So Bad When You Wipe the Blood Off
In 1998, the 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre' house was separated into six pieces and relocated 90 minutes away to the town of Kingsland, Texas. There, it was reassembled and transformed into a cozy little restaurant on the grounds of the Antler's Inn, joining a complex of lovingly restored old buildings. It's the kind of place you go when you need to take a break from antique shopping in nearby Marble Falls. It's where you go when you need a breather from camping at nearby Inks Lake State Park. It's quaint building in a quaint city and the fresh white paint and patriotic decor does an excellent job of masking the sordid cinematic history of this house. To a random passerby, this is just the "Grand Central Cafe and Club Car Lounge.'
But then you look at the foyer and you realize that there are some things you just cannot hide.
There's no mistaking that staircase. The metal sliding door at the end of the hallway is gone, but this is where Leatherface bludgeoned that poor fool with a sledgehammer. This is where he dragged his still-kicking corpse out of frame and slammed that door. This is where one of the most famous scenes in horror movie history took place.
When I actually see the front hallway, I have to take a step back. I must be standing where Hooper and his crew actually placed their camera for this scene since my field of vision is an almost exact recreation of that shot.
It strikes me as funny that one of moviedom's most evil houses currently lives, rehabilitated, mere minutes away from where my family used to vacation when I was younger. Like a criminal who found Jesus in prison, it does a good job of blending in with society, but it's never going to shake its past.
The great irony of the house is that its new owners initially hid its origins. Now, the Grand Central Cafe's website has a page about the house's sordid past. The restaurant has played host to screenings of 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.' Everyone who eats there knows where they're eating and for many people, it's the reason they're there. When I tell local film buffs about my journey to the house, most of them have already made the pilgrimage to have a meal in Leatherface's old homestead. It's a rite of passage for Austin-based horror buffs and this quiet little tourist trap (that's said with affection) is reaping the benefits.
It makes perfect sense that the owners of the Grand Central Cafe would be loud and proud of their building's history. After all, Texans love this movie. Well, certain Texans love this movie.
"Texas is perfectly able to wear a lot of different things as a badge of honor," Nilsen tells me. "People see 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' as a point of perverse pride." When I ask him about why people would be proud to have their state represented by a movie where a cannibal family kills a van full of helpless teenagers, Nilsen's explanation is delightfully simple: it's about tall tales.
"I don't think any depiction of Texas has ever been accurate," he tells me. "I think Texans prefer that it remain inaccurate. It's not by accident that Texans are renowned as great exaggerators. It's in our genome, somehow." Texans, he explains, love to shock non-Texans. And he's right. We don't just encounter big snakes -- we encounter the biggest snakes. We don't just have crazies living in the countryside -- we have chainsaw-wielding crazies who will eat your flesh living in the countryside. We're the closest thing America has to is own personal Australia. Everything down here will kill you and we love to remind everyone of that fact.
"If outsiders fear Texas, it's our doing," Nilsen says. "In 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' you see that dynamic running wild."
Walking on 'Eggshells'
During our phone call, Marilyn Burns admitted that it took a long time to get used to the hubbub surrounding the film that defined her career. She describes spending the first 30 years being baffled by the whole thing and the final 10 finally getting used to it. And, she could barely contain her laughter when she talked about the upcoming "Leatherface origin film."
"This time, they're going to explore Leatherface's family!" she laughs. "Jesus. In ['Texas Chainsaw 3D] they gave him feelings and now they're going to explore his family? Pretty soon it's going to be like the damn Waltons! It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen."
I understand why the rest of the cast won't return my phone calls or emails. I understand why certain individuals who worked on the film, who live minutes from me, don't want to talk about it. If I had spent 40 years talking about a single film, I'd be awfully tired of it. I'd ignore my requests, too. After all, what questions can I ask that they haven't already heard a hundred times?
This is what I'm thinking about when I actually approach Tobe Hooper and it's why I feel awful for planning to ask him a 'Texas Chainsaw' question after a screening of a completely different film.
The house can move, the gas station can deteriorate and Quick Hill may become a shopping mall, but ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ is going to live forever.
'Eggshells' is Tobe Hooper's first feature effort and it's, uh, something else. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1969, it's a weird blend of genres and tones with no story to speak of. Just when you think it's going to be a movie about Austin counterculture, it becomes a droll comedy. And then it becomes a stoner hangout movie and then a slapstick comedy and then a horror movie. It ends as some kind of science fiction satire. It's a fascinating portrait of a specific time and place, even if it's not a particularly good movie. I'm glad I got to see it at an Austin Film Society screening and I'm glad that Hooper himself is here to share his 35mm print with us.
The first half of the Q&A is about 'Eggshells.' The second half introduces the 'Texas Chainsaw' questions and I see Hooper enter autopilot before my very eyes. He can never escape it. He will never escape it. I really wish I could ask a 'Lifeforce' question or something, but I'm here for work, damn it.
After the Q&A, Hooper dutifully signs a dozen 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre' posters. He smiles, answers questions and goes through the routine. When it's my turn, I'm open with him about my intentions. I explain that I'm writing an article and ask if he'd be willing to answer a question or two. He tells me he really has to pee and no, I cannot record the question. It's awkward for the both of us, but I soldier on. Caught off guard, I ask him about the "lost Texas" of 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,' about how the isolated, lonely and legend-soaked land of 1974 is vanishing. Does it make him sad that the locations in his film are falling into disrepair? That Quick Hill will soon be home to condos?
It turns out that Tobe Hooper doesn't have a strong opinion on the matter. Well, either that or the call of the men's room is just too strong. He says something about progress being good before dashing out of the theater. I cannot tell which one of us was more uncomfortable, but I have feeling it was him. Imagine spending every waking moment of your life talking about chainsaws.
Quick Hill: The March of Progress
I park my car down the road and make the rest of the journey on foot. I pass by shiny new apartment complexes and fresh construction. Beyond the mud and equipment, which lies idle and alone on this Sunday afternoon, I see what's left of Quick Hill. It's nestled right behind those apartments. The development is closing in.
I look over both shoulders before I hop the padlocked gate. And then I begin my walk.
The path is all shrub and rock. Soon, I'm flanked by trees on both sides. Several highways are near, but I cannot hear any cars. The sounds of nature, birds and bugs and who-knows-what-else, dominate the landscape. I spy rabbits, but no rattlesnakes. I keep moving.
As I climb the gentle slope of Quick Hill, chunks of pavement begin to emerge from grass. The further I get, the more complete they become. Soon, I'm walking on the remains of an actual road, long abandoned. The local plant life has reclaimed it, but I know where I am. This is County Road 172. It was shut down decades ago after one-too-many kids got killed racing on it.
It's also where Marilyn Burns' Sally makes her final escape from Leatherface in 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.' It's where she waves down that trucker and barely escapes with her life, screaming like a person truly gone insane. It's where Gunnar Hansen did his infamous chainsaw dance. It's unrecognizable 40 years later, but this is it.
Suddenly, I wish I could hear the traffic. I wish I could still see those apartments. I know 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' isn't real, but my blood runs cold. Out here, on this hill, someone could kill me and I would never be found. Well, I'd eventually be found by an unfortunate La Frontera construction crew, but that could take awhile. Civilization may be creeping in around the edges, but up here, I taste the Texas of 1974. Up here, there are no business complexes or TGI Fridays. Up here it'a raw, unfiltered, Texas: it's hot and sticky and rocky and dry and it feels dangerous. I believe, deep in my heart, that cannibals could make their home here.
When I reach the top of the hill, I find myself staring staring down at State Highway 45 and I can breathe again. My journey on what was once County Road 172 has come to an end. To my left is a long, thin stretch of overgrown grass. It's flanked by trees and barbed wire and to a casual observer, it would look like nothing to get worked up about. But once upon a time, this was a dirt driveway.
So I walk down the path that used to lead to the Sawyer family farmhouse and I reach a large clearing. Nature has has done an excellent job of erasing the signs that a house used to be here at all, but the fact that it's a huge blank spot in a heavily forested area gives it away. I'm standing where that house, pre-rehab and pre-relocation, used to live.
In an ideal world, there would be a statue here. Or at least a plaque. Something to say "Hey, one of the most famous movies of all time was shot here." But I've already accepted that it's not going to happen. I know that the construction is right on the other side of the nearest patch of trees. This spot has a few years left if it's lucky.
I feel melancholic as I make my way back down Quick Hill, but I take solace in one thing: the film itself is immortal. The house can move, the gas station can deteriorate and Quick Hill may become a shopping mall, but 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' is going to live forever. This spot may vanish, but the film doesn't have to take place here -- it can take place anywhere in between the big cities. It can take place in the deep cracks between society's plates. It's embedded itself in our culture and it's never going to leave. It's as American as apple pie and as Texan as barbecue.
Marilyn Burns told me a story that feels relevant at this juncture. "We weren't even recognized for years," she told me. "A couple of years ago, I'm watching the Academy Awards and I couldn't believe it! My character, Sally, is running in one of the montages! ... For a long time, Hollywood wasn't going to acknowledge that independent trash. Now they've put it on the Academy Awards."
So I smile and I walk on. It's going to be great when those yuppies learn they live on a hill where a rural family murdered and ate a bunch of kids back in '74.
(Our full interview with Marilyn Burns can be read here.)[googleAd adunit="cutout-placeholder" placeholder="cutout-placeholder"]