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They Came, They Conquered, They Saw!
An On-Set Report from MGM's Big-Budget Remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
By Dan Cziraky
August 26, 2000
[EDITOR'S NOTE: A strange rift in time and spacea gateway to a parallel dimensionhas opened up somewhere near Gastonia, North Carolina, allowing our faithful correspondent to report on events until now unknown in our dimension, events that take place in a mind-boggling Alternative Universe that resembles our own, yet differs in many ways. Are these events shadows of things to come in our world, or are they mere distorted echoes of things that have already happened here? We leave that for you to decide as we present our most recent report from the AlternaVerse.]
The July heat shimmers in waves off the bleached blacktop of a Texas two-lane roadway in the middle of nowhere. In the distance, off a dirt turn-off, a dilapidated farmhouse sits on a dry, dusty parcel of land. It looks abandoned, empty, save for the working electric generator on cinder blocks.
Then, of course, there's all this movie equipment and people milling around in the heat, too.
Twenty-six years after the fact, the buzz is back in rural Texas, as Joel Schumacher (FLATLINERS, BATMAN TRIUMPHANT, 8MM) lenses a remake of Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Unlike the original, this is a studio picture, with a quality cast and lots of money being thrown around. More money than f/x blood, at least.
'The time is right for this film,' Schumacher comments. 'The original was terrifying, yet you really saw very little in the way of graphic violence and gore. Then, audiences became numb after years of FRIDAY THE 13TH and ELM STREET and HALLOWEEN and HELLRAISER sequels. Even Hooper's 1986 sequel had gruesome effects by Tom Savini. PART 3 got an X rating from the MPAA, and had to be cut so severely to get the R that it didn't even make sense.
'Then, last year, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT proved that you could still terrify an audience without throwing entrails at them every five minutes. You could hint at things very subtly, just as in the first CHAINSAW. Once I heard Andrew [Kevin Walker, screenwriter of 7/ELEVEN and Schumacher's 8MM] was working on a new script for a remake, I gave the studio a call.'
Once Schumacher and Walker signed on, the director quickly locked in his cast. Jennifer Anniston (LEPRECHAUN, TV's FRIENDS) was eager to recapture the stark terror of Marilyn Burns' Sally Hardesty character. Michael Keaton (BETELGEUSE, BATMAN), a fan of the original CHAINSAW, took on the role of the fiendish Hitchhiker, originally played by Edwin Neal. Christopher Lloyd (WHO P-P-P-PLUGGED ROGER RABBIT) was brought in as The Old Man (James Siedow in the original) after the untimely death of Brion James (BLADE RUNNER). John Larroquette (STAR TREK 3: SPOCK'S KATRA) agreed to reprise his role as Narrator. Then, after months of speculation, former '60s TV horror host John 'The Cool Ghoul' Zacherle (BRAIN DAMAGE), was given the nod to play Grandfather.
Out in the Texas heat for location shooting are the main cast, as well as Eric Roberts, who cameos as a cattle truck driver; Peter DeLuise, who plays the pick up truck driver; and, Joe Bob Briggs, who plays a drunk.
'We filmed the cemetery sequences just outside Austin, where the CHAINSAW clan had been robbing graves to use in their bizarre 'art,'' explains Schumacher. 'Joe Bob was the drunk at the cemetery, basically ranting about weird stuff happening in the countryside after dark. He's a great guy, and just knows everything about horror and exploitation movies. Of course, he's also famous for having his CHAINSAW 2 cameo deleted at the last minute, and campaigning to have it put back in through his old 'Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In' newspaper column.'
In an air-conditioned trailer, wrestler Mick Foley is having his make-up retouched. He has the key role of Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding killer who wears a mask of human flesh. Foley, best known to wrestling fans as the masked Mankind, seemed a ready-made choice for the part. 'I had to prove I could act, even though I've been doing just that for years,' he laughs. 'Of course, nobody sees it that way, but all that ruckus before and afterand duringthe matches is just that, acting. Sure, you can get hurt. Here, I'm more worried about running on dusty roads and up and down rickety stairs with a running chainsaw while wearing a mask that blocks most of my vision.'
Michael Keaton is also in the make-up chair, getting his wine-stain birthmark retouched. He also has a few cuts from running after the escaped Sally. 'Yeah, chasing Jennifer in this heat is hell on the make-up,' he laughs. 'Of course, it's hell on us actors, too, but the make-up gets more consideration!' Yet, there are plenty of plastic water bottles all over the location, with dozens more on ice and packed away in coolers. No one is going to dehydrate on this shoot. 'Of course, we have to stop for bathroom breaks like, every half-hour,' Keaton adds. 'That can get tricky if you've got sticky stage-blood on your hands, and can't wipe it off for fear you'll ruin continuity.'
Seth Green (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, AUSTIN POWERS 1&2), who plays Jerry, and Andy Richter, as wheelchair-bound Franklin Hardesty, are in a trailer watching some of the video playbacks of scenes shot earlier in the week. Richter, the former co-host of NBC-TV's LIGHT NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN, left the talk show to pursue an acting career. 'I had several offers, but when I got this script, I was blown away,' Richter says. 'CHAINSAW MASSACRE is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, and to be a part of this remake is quite a thrill.'
Later that evening, Schumacher is waiting as lights are set up for a night shot on the dirt road leading up to the farmhouse. Christopher Lloyd will be bringing Jennifer Anniston back to the house, a burlap sack over her head, her hands bound with duct tape.
'The thing about CHAINSAW MASSACRE that really interested me was, could we sell the premise to today's audience?' the director comments. 'Here we are, in a world of cell phones and pagers and wireless Internet. How can these people get lost? How can this family of cannibals operate without being caught? Well, the sad fact is, this stuff happens just as much as it ever did. These kids didn't bring a cell phone with them. Even if they did, it probably wouldn't work all the way out here. Even today, you can still be snatched off the face of the Earth by something evil, and no one will ever find you. And, to find out you're going to be eaten...well, that's a kind of terror I think everyone can relate to.'
Christopher Lloyd is having a stubbly beard applied to his already tanned and lined face. Although he's had a chance at several villainous roles before (Commander Krude in STAR TREK 3: SPOCK'S KATRA, Judge Doom in WHO P-P-P-PLUGGED ROGER RABBITT, and Uncle Fester in THE ADDAMS FAMILY and ADDAMS FAMILY TREE), this is his first time out as a brutal killer.
'Actually, Cook isn't much of a killer,' remarks Lloyd. 'He pretty much leaves the dirty work to Hitchhiker and Leatherface. He's an interesting sort of maniac; he doesn't like to kill, but he really enjoys cannibal cuisine. It's my feeling that he's the one who got the idea to start selling their cannibal fare at the filling station. Not so much for the extra money it pulls in, but just because he likes cooking, and was making more than the family could eat!'
Soon, it's time for Lloyd and Anniston to get in the pick up truck; then an assistant puts a sack over Anniston's head, and the scene begins. Several takes are needed, but Schumacher is generally pleased with what he gets on film.
'This isn't a $100-million blockbuster by any means, but we do have a decent budget that allows us to do things they couldn't do in the first film,' says the director. 'You're going to see more of the farmhouse, as well as Cook's smokehouse, where he cures the meat. And, we've already filmed a scene where Hitchhiker and Leatherface work on their bone-and-skin furniture and art.'
While Walker's screenplay does show us more of the insane, cannibal clans activities, the question still hangs ominously in the air: Why remake THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE?
'There are good reasons and bad reasons to do any film,' admits Schumacher. 'Some critics say there was no good reason to make 8MM, and plenty of comics fans wished BATMAN & ROBIN had never been made,' he laughs. 'In general, remakes are only valid when the filmmakers can bring something new, some fresh insight, to the subject.'
Scripter Walker agreed with this view. 'Look at Gus Van Sant's 1999 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's FIEND (1960),' he commented. 'Now, the only thing 'new' brought to that film was color; not the best reason artistically and, as it turned out, not even a sound business decision. Was Vince Vaughn's version of Ed Gein any better than Tony Perkins'? I don't think you'll find anyone who'd say yes to that. Frankly, that movie is a prime example of why remakes should be banned. But, then you have Universal's 1975 THE LEGEND OF KONG, the remake of 1933's KING KONG. It was essentially the exact same movie, only in color. Yet, you had incredible performances from Peter Falk as Carl Denham, Susan Blakely as Ann Darrow, Nick Nolte as Jack Driscol, and the awesome stop-motion effects of Jim Danforth, including the restoration of scenes cut from the original, like the spider pit.'
The night shooting continues into the pre-dawn hours, and the cast and crew are nearing exhaustion. Schumacher is trying to squeeze in as much local flavor as possible from the locations. Exteriors of the chainsaw clan's farmhouse, the filling station, and the ruins of Franklin and Sally's grandparents' house will all be filmed in the next few days, before shooting moves to the Dallas soundstages.
'The interiors of the farmhouse and gas station will give us some shocking insights into the minds of these killers,' said Schumacher. 'We looked at extensive crime scene photos from real-life killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Norman Bates, and Jame 'Buffalo Bill' Gumb. Our art directors and set designers then came up with a bizarre, macabre blending of these true crime scenes, then went beyond
Because MGM and Schumacher want to keep these shocking designs in the dark until the film's release in mid-October, no photographs were allowed of the sets or the locations.
* * *
Back on the stages in Dallas, John Zacherle is ready to work. Although the octogenarian is best known as TV horror hosts 'Roland' and 'Zacherley' (a.k.a. 'The Cool Ghoul') in the '50s and '60s, today he has a whole new generation of fans, thanks to appearances at New Jersey's Horror-Thon conventions and cameos in such films as GEEK MAGGOT BINGO and FRANKENHOOKER.
'I'm truly flattered that the children and grandchildren of my original fans have embraced me,' Zacherle remarks between shots. 'Their parents have weaned them on the tapes of the old SHOCK THEATER and CHILLER THEATRE shows. Now, I get a chance to make even more new fans by appearing in new projects like this, at a time when most people have long since retired.'
On the farmhouse's kitchen set, Foley and Tori Spelling (BEVERLY HILLS 90210) as Pam are ready for one of the film's key terror sequences. A harness fits under her halter-top costume, and a blood tube runs up her back to her neck. Schumacher calls for action, and Foley hefts the wriggling Spelling up, his meaty hands locked around her back, pinning her arms to her sides. He finds the loop protruding from the harness, and threads the meat hook through it. A make-up assistant pumps a convincing splat of blood, as if the hook has truly penetrated Spelling's skin. Foley releases Spelling, whose hands shoot up to her 'impaled' neck. Satisfied with the results, Schumacher calls 'Cut!' and the camera is reset to catch the action from a different angle while Spelling is lifted down by an assistant on a stepladder. Her neck is swabbed off with damp towels, and the crew applauds her convincing pain reactions.
'This harness is a little tight,' Spelling commented. 'It's not too hard to drag up pain with leather straps cutting into your butt and boobs!' Her pain will be brief, however, as she can take off the harness after one more shot.
It remains to be seen if this new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE will, in fact, win over fans of the original. Horror aficionados have already seen the dismal results of Tim Burton's 1997 remake of PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE and the blasphemous Jan DeBont GODZILLA (1998). Original CHAINSAW star Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface), talking to TV Listings Online, revealed that he's 'skeptical of remakes.' He explained, 'This may blow any chance of a cameo in the film, but I think a lot of the time remakes just show a lack of imagination. The fact is that people do remakes because they're basically going after what they think of as certain money. Then, they get lazy, sloppy, and end up just insulting the very audience they had aimed for.'