“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is a work of such raw power that it has attained a status that's rare for any film — or work of art. Made by unknowns in Texas for an initial budget of only $60,000, it would go on to be a worldwide phenomenon after its release in 1974.
So it was that on Monday night in Los Angeles, William Friedkin, who as director of “The Exorcist” knows a thing or two about shocking cinema, prepared a packed house at the Vista theater for what was soon to unfold.
In celebration of the film’s 40th anniversary, Friedkin introduced the film’s director, Tobe Hooper, for a nearly hourlong conversation before a screening of a recent restoration. The film, the story of a group of young friends who fall prey to a family of crazed, grotesque cannibals, is touched by a sense of pure frenzy. The movie that turned the horror world upside-down for the way its low-budget looks made the gruesome events onscreen seem all too real has lost none of its abilities to startle and disturb in the subsequent decades.
The event was a fundraiser for local film organization the Cinefamily to help underwrite its ambitious monthlong “Nightmare City” program this October. Demand for tickets to the Friedkin/Hooper event was such that it was moved from the Cinefamily’s home on Fairfax Avenue to the bigger Vista.
Friedkin was greeted with a standing ovation and, after a few brief remarks, introduced Hooper, who likewise received a standing ovation.
The two made for an amusing conversation, as Friedkin’s outsized personality played in contrast to Hooper’s low-key Texas reserve.
“Would you believe it? He’s actually younger than me,” the irrepressible 78-year-old Friedkin asked regarding the 71-year-old Hooper at one point.
Friedkin added, “If you were in a room of 5,000 people, he would be among the last five you would think would be the guy who directed 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.' I’ve known Tobe since he made the film, and he’s one of the sweetest, nicest guys I’ve ever known. So I often wonder where this stuff comes from.”
Hooper spoke of how he first heard of Ed Gein — the gruesome Wisconsin killer who was also an inspiration for films such as “Psycho” and “The Silence of the Lambs” — as a boy. And as much as he enjoyed horror movies, Hooper also cited the influence of “Godzilla” movies and John Frankenheimer’s psychological thriller “Seconds” as formative films as well.
Hooper more than once came back to the idea that in a lot of films it is as if the lives of the characters begin as the movie starts. So instead he wanted audiences “to fall into something already in progress. And, you know, it’s a bad day for everybody.”
“It’s also just about how damn strong women are,” Hooper added, referring to the resilent character played by Marilyn Burns. “She’s just not going to die.”
At one point, Friedkin provocatively asked, “Do you think this is a work of art?”
Hooper first asked, “Should I be modest?” before responding with a salty confirmation, "It's a ... work of art."
Friedkin noted he had exchanged emails about the film with director Nicolas Winding Refn, who introduced the "Chain Saw” restoration at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Among the more intriguing things Hooper also said about the film was that he purposefully pitted his actors against one another behind-the-scenes to raise tensions among them onscreen and that he kept Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played the now-iconic character of Leatherface, away from the others so that the close-ups of their initial reactions would be genuine.
Also, while working on the story — the screenplay is credited to Hooper and Kim Henkel — Hooper said he listened to the unlikely pair of albums of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and Lou Reed's "Berlin."
Before the film began — the restoration is beautifully done, by the way, even for such a grisly movie — Friedkin compared it to the local hamburger chain, Umami Burger, in that it has some mystery ingredient that makes it different and special.
“No 3-D, no CGI, welcome to this Umami Burger of a movie,” Friedkin said. “If you haven’t seen it, you will be unable to not give yourself to it. It is a very powerful experience. It transcends the genre.”
The restoration of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” will screen at Cinefamily throughJuly 30. For more information, go to cinefamily.org.
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus