The Horror! The Horror!
Back in the early Seventies, Ed Neal was a professional actor and part-time drama student at the University of Texas when a shoestring film crew came to campus looking for actors. A Shakespeare student who had already worked with actress Sandy Duncan in a touring production, Neal looked at the film's cheesy script, laughed out loud and took a role on a whim. "It was such a silly, stupid script that it was very close to porno," Neal recalls, "but I figured, what the heck, nobody's going to see this film anyway. The thing will probably never be distributed." Years later, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still being seen by horror-movie buffs and film critics who revere the piece as much for its low-budget craftsmanship as for its gut-wrenching thrills. Produced and directed by Tobe Hooper from a screenplay by co-director Kim Henkel, the film is also touted as the forebear of the slasher genre that followed its release.
On June 12, Neal will be appearing at a 25th-anniversary showing of the film as part of the University of Colorado's Haunted Carnival film series. A month-long celebration hosted by various Boulder movie houses, the series features a string of B-movie classics, fright films and sci-fi treasures, as well as appearances by some of the key players in their creations. Neal's role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was as the addled hitchhiker whose razor-toting antics kick off the flick's rush into dismemberment and a unique application of its namesake power tool. (Neal patterned his character after a paranoid schizophrenic nephew.)
Neal attributes the film's appeal to the fact that "it delivers. There are no phony scenes in the movie, there's no filler, and every single scene moves forward. And there's no release, no denouement. No 'Well, Bob, our work here is done'--none of that crap. What we did in that movie, and what I think makes it really hold up, is that we don't complete the image for you. Nowadays, you see the digital explosion of the chest and all that, but if you watch the movie closely, a lot of the action is just indicated, yet it's every bit as powerful."
According to Neal, the film nearly didn't make it to the screen. The project was funded, he reveals, by Texas politicians looking for a sure-to-fail business-venture tax shelter. That changed when Massacre was picked up for distribution by the Peraino brothers, "card-carrying Mafia members" who bought the film's rights with monies earned from distributing another early-Seventies classic, Deep Throat. After an initial run in theaters around the globe (it was shown at the Cannes Film festival and won awards from European film societies), the movie went on to become an American drive-in/late-show classic. But Neal says he and his peers never saw a return for their efforts. "We had all taken deferred salaries," he says. "Everybody made money on it but the actors and the people who made it." The film business, he says, "is a desperately despicable industry."
Today the movie's characters remain some of the most disturbing in film history. Neal's hitchhiker probably did more to curtail the practice of picking up thumbers than anti-hitching laws, and the film's chief demon, the saw-wielding Leatherface, spawned untold teenage nightmares. It was based in part on the real-life depravities of Wisconsin grave-robber/murderer Ed Gein. In 1957, police officers entered Gein's home and found many of the scenes later incorporated into the movie--furniture built from human bones, countless preserved body parts, bowls fashioned from skulls, and a suit of human skin that Gein admitted wearing around his yard on moonlit nights. Police also found the rotting remains of his mother enshrined in her room and the eviscerated corpse of his latest victim hanging on a meat hook. (Gein was also an inspiration for the Anthony Perkins and Anthony Hopkins characters in Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, respectively.) "But what happened in Ed Gein's life was much more horrible than anything we showed," Neal notes, "and there were tons of stuff we didn't go near."
But producing these touches was hardly scary. In one of the film's grisly closing scenes, in which the hitchhiker and his relatives assist their near-mummified grandfather in a murder, Neal says the weapon is "a papier-máche hammer that bounces off the girl's head every time he hit her, and when we were doing the scene, it was all we could do to keep from giggling." The scene's gross sound effects were also done on a skin-and-bones budget: "They put a microphone in a dead chicken and then pulled it apart," he remembers, "then they reversed the sound to make that incredible pwischt sound, like a skull cracking."
These days, Neal is still working in occasional films; his latest appearances include the role of a henchman in Disney's My Boyfriend's Back and a cameo in Oliver Stone's JFK. "I'm absolutely certain that he cast me because he wanted to say, 'Hey, I worked with that chainsaw guy,'" Neal says, his voice dipping into a dead-on impersonation of Stone. "There were a hundred people that could've played my role." That role, Neal says, "has opened a lot of doors. I'm able to go all across the country and sell my autograph for five to fifteen bucks apiece, which to me is just obscene. But I try not to do too many shows a year doing that. I'd rather make my money selling movie posters," he adds, referring to a sideline of his, "than sitting there getting autograph money."
He will be signing autographs at his upcoming Boulder appearance, though, and his talk will include a few props from the film. But attendees hoping to see the film's gas-powered star will be disappointed. "In true low-budget filmmaking style," he reveals, "the saw had been borrowed from one of the crew members. I think the guy sold it for five bucks at a garage sale a few weeks later."
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 25th Anniversary Retrospective, Saturday, 8 p.m., June 12, Muenziger Auditorium, CU-Boulder campus, $5, 303-492-1531.
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