It's hard now to imagine the experience of a young teen seeing the horrors of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fresh, with no expectations, iconography, or cultural history. The merciless butcher Leatherface has since seeped into the public consciousness; even people who haven't seen the movie have a sense or an image of him. As with Psycho, familiarity with Texas Chainsaw Massacre has blunted its initial impact.
When the movie was first released in 1974, though, the tale of a series of vicious murders on a desolate Texas homestead had a dramatic impact. "It really blindsides you," Shellady said. And The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains shocking, one of several key films of an independent-movie movement that changed the horror genre in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Clearly the movie made an impression on Shellady. In the late '80s, he interviewed and filmed the actors who played Chainsaw's family of cannibals under the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait.
Shellady's documentary will be one of the featured movies in MidCoast Fine Arts' Film Flam, being held at two sites over four nights this weekend and next week. The event kicks off with a collection of short films shown at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 25 (at Nova 6 in Moline), and Saturday, October 26 (at the Quad Cities Brew & View in The District of Rock Island). And on October 30 and 31, Nova 6 will be screening The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait at 7 p.m. and Guillermo del Toro's Blade II at 9 p.m.
Shellady grew up in this area and now works here as a surgical technologist, but his employment history is all over the map. He did special-effects work in Hollywood on such movies as The Abyss and was a legal investigator for the defense team of Henry Lee Lucas - who was convicted of several murders but is more famous for confessing to dozens of others, even though he didn't commit them.
A Family Portrait was originally meant to be Leatherface Unmasked, but when Shellady first contacted Gunnar Hansen about an interview for a documentary, the man who played the child-like, skin-wearing mute declined. So Shellady got commitments from the other actors in the "family" - Edwin Neal (the hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (the cook), and John Dugan (the grandfather) - before trying again. "I came to Gunner and said, 'Hey, you can't turn me down'" now, Shellady said. And Hansen didn't.
The idea of Shellady's documentary was to give viewers a sense of what it was like to make Chainsaw from the other side of the camera. Writer-director Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel have talked extensively about the movie over the years, but the cast hadn't. Shellady thought they had a story to tell.
And he was right. Hooper might have known what he wanted out of Chainsaw, but the actors were clueless, and that contributed to a stressful shoot. "All of them likened it to a war," Shellady said. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait was important to Shellady because he feared the behind-the-scenes story of the classic movie might eventually be lost.
The horrific dinner scene was filmed in a shoot that lasted more than 24 hours, with lights and blistering outdoor heat contributing to a temperature in excess of 100 degrees. The food on the table was rotting, animal bones were all over the set, and none of the actors could change or wash their clothes because Hooper worried that they would look different.
Neal notes in A Family Portrait that by the end of that day, the performances were feeding off the working conditions; it seemed that cast members were losing their minds, and that comes through in the acting. To paraphrase, the actors not only couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel; they couldn't remember how they got on the train.
And for all that trouble, nobody in the cast has made much money off the film. All of the actors - except Siedow, who got paid up-front because he was a professional - were promised back-end points (a percentage of the box office). But the movie was re-financed in the middle of production, and the actors were cut out of the deal - without being told, of course. Hansen has claimed he made about $3,000 on Chainsaw, which was made for a little more than $80,000. It grossed more than $30 million in its theatrical release - the equivalent of more than $90 million in today's dollars.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait is engaging in part because of how normal and down-to-earth the cast members are. Because none of the cast members is famous, it's easy to imagine how freakish they might be in real life. Yet Siedow talks about how Hooper had to push him to hit one of his victims harder. And Hansen, as the most fearsome member of the family, seems level-headed and wholly sane. (At the time of his interview in A Family Portrait, he looked strikingly like George Lucas.)
The documentary smartly doesn't take much time getting started, opening with the very arbitrary casting process - Hansen was cast because Hooper thought he "filled the door" - and jumping right in to stories about the dinner scene.
It's fascinating to hear how Hansen and Neal - whose characters are most clearly unbalanced - researched their roles. Neal modeled the hitchhiker's speech after a nephew with mental retardation, while Hansen learned Leatherface's walk and movements by trying to fit in at a school for people with mental disabilities.
A coup for A Family Portrait was securing the rights to use clips of the original movie. These excerpts do a great job of bringing to life some of the things the cast members are talking about, and also serve as reminders of how disturbing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is.
Shellady said that screenwriter Henkel was at first reluctant to give permission for him to use film clips or the film's title. But the documentarian won Henkel over with a rough cut of A Family Portrait, and the movie is much better off because of it.
A Family Portrait cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to make, Shellady said, and he's made back most of his costs.
Shellady's documentary generally lacks a professional polish, and it resorts to some amateurish effects during the interviews - such as blowing up sections of the shot-on-video image and turning it black-and-white. But those are at worst minor distractions, and they sometimes feel just right at capturing the low-budget feel of the original.
The major things missing from the movie are Hooper and Henkel. Only interviewing the cast is "probably a fault of the movie," Shellady conceded. "But I felt Tobe and Kim had said enough about it." A Family Portrait, however, assumes that people know what the director and writer have said about the movie. (And it would be great to give viewers a sense of whether Neal's Hooper imitation is even close to accurate.) Yet the absence of the major behind-the-camera forces also provides the documentary's "family portrait" conceit.
Although not intended to provide much context to Chainsaw, A Family Portrait's narrow focus neglects the movie's place in film history.
The period of 1968 to 1978 was a high point for independently made horror, and it produced some of the greatest films ever made in the genre. The renaissance started and ended with George Romero, with Night of the Living Dead opening the era and Dawn of the Dead signaling its end. The horror movies of this period - including Chainsaw and Wes Craven's Last House on the Left - shared certain characteristics, each jarring, graphic, downbeat, brutal, and slyly political. (The Independent Film Channel's The American Nightmare documentary is an excellent exploration of the horror boom of this time and will be airing several times through Halloween.)
John Carpenter's Halloween from 1978 marked the beginning of a new slasher movement, setting the table for the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stands out as so powerfully creepy because it doesn't offer an explanation for what you see. It accepts the cannibal family without saying how it came to be, only hinting that this clan might have been marginalized by the automation of the livestock industry.
Leatherface, for example, is "like a two-legged land shark," Shellady said. "That's what frightens me. There's no reasoning behind him." Yet the horror has a human element; even though Leatherface and the rest of his family aren't normal, they aren't supernatural, either. The movie is chilling because one can imagine such a family living in a remote area.
Chainsaw's soundtrack was innovative, using industrial noise instead of music for the most part, and the production designers made stunning use of bones and an old Texas farmhouse. Shellady called it "pure chance" that such creative forces came together - primarily from the University of Texas campus in Austin - for the low-budget shocker. It was a "collaboration of people who were given the freedom to do what they wanted," he said.
But Shellady's primary interest was in the performers, and in A Family Portrait he recorded an important piece of Chainsaw's history. He put a human face - of a different sort - on Leatherface.
Flim Flam Schedule
More than two hours of film shorts and discussions with filmmakers
· Friday, October 25, 7 p.m., at Nova 6 in Moline
· Saturday, October 26, 7 p.m. at Quad Cities Brew & View in The District of Rock Island
Tickets are $10 advance or $12 at the door and available at Quad Cities Brew & View or the ArtFX Gallery in The District.
Horror Double Feature:
· Wednesday, October 30, and Thursday, Ocotober 31, at Nova 6 in Moline
· 7 p.m.: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait (78 minutes), not rated
· 9 p.m.: Blade 2 (116 minutes), rated R
Tickets for each movie time are $5 at the Nova 6 box office and include pop and popcorn.
Proceeds from the ticket sales go to support MidCoast Fine Arts programming.