Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Case It's Based On

Family Portrait

Movie poster: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Family Portrait
Movie poster: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Family Portrait

On the Special Edition DVD of the original film, Tobe Hooper discusses his experience and inspiration with star Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface). Among the comments they make is that many fans believe the film was based on an actual incident. In fact, some believe they have met Leatherface himself, working at some odd job in Texas, and they're certain that the incident took place where the film is set. However, Hooper notes that such viewers have failed to read the entire crawler or to pay attention to dates: it says the incident occurred in the summer of 1973, which is exactly when they were filming it, so it had to be fictitious.

Actor, Gunnar Hansen
Actor, Gunnar Hansen

Then Hooper discusses the connection with Gein. He says that he had relatives in Wisconsin who lived not far from the Gein farm and they often told gruesome stories to him when he was a kid about how the house had been filled with human remains and dead animals. When he started on the film, he did not recall Gein's name, but the memory nevertheless inspired him to portray an entire family of such miscreants. He invented three brothers (although many people believe that the older character is actually a father figure, since he chases the other two down and issues orders to them) to act as cannibals and grab human prey with ghoulish delight. It was several years after the film was made that Hooper learned the name of the deranged Wisconsin killer, who had in fact not killed or dismembered anyone with a chainsaw.

Another item that comes up during this conversation is that Leatherface wears three different masks, representing the idea that he has no internal personality. Whatever mask he wears at a given time dictates how he will act. The director and actor discuss just what it was like to film on a small budget, with a number of hurdles, and often in terrible heat. Yet they had fun and ended up making a film with more legs (so to speak) than they'd anticipated.

Director, Tobe Hooper
Director, Tobe Hooper

"When it was funny for us," says Hooper, "we knew it was right, although for years people didn't see the humor in it. [But] there's a lot of dark humor in it."

In 1988, TCM: A Family Portrait was released as a documentary about the film, since it had become such a cult classic. Much of the same ground is covered as in the conversation for the special edition DVD, but some new gems are offered as well - notably, the way Gunnar Hansen was cast for the role. Apparently, as he walked into the room, he "filled the doorway," and that was impressive. Hooper was seeking an actor with imposing physical presence and he knew this was the guy. To become Leatherface, Hansen says, he walked around a school for the mentally retarded to take on their mannerisms. He also watched pigs to try to get the squealing right but believed he did not master that particular skill.

The crazy hitchhiker, Leatherface's brother, had heard about the film by chance and had gone to the screening. When asked to read, he took on the persona of his nephew and it went over well enough to secure the part.

Only one chainsaw was used throughout the entire film, and they apparently did not see the phallic symbolism, because in comparison to the sequels, it was just an average size tool. Hansen describes his relief that it always started when he pulled the string.

For the most part, the script was a bare outline, and the actors improvised the story as they went along. It didn't take much to act out their discomfort, as the persistent smell of sweat, the Texas-in-August heat, the unrelenting dust, and the grimy sets provided an aura of reality. Hansen had only one shirt, he says, and he wore it for every scene.

There's another serial killer that sometimes gets mentioned as a source of inspiration, so let's examine the basis for it next.


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