Actress Marilyn Burns, who screamed her way into cult movie fame as a star of the 1974 slasher flick "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," has died in Houston. She was 65.
Police went to Burns' apartment Tuesday after her brother called to say she was not answering the phone or coming to the door. An officer entered and found the body, said police spokeswoman Jodi Silva. The cause of death has not been determined, but Silva said it appeared to be natural.
Burns was known as one of the "scream queens" of low-budget horror flicks. In "Eaten Alive" (1977), she battles a psychotic killer who feeds his victims to a voracious crocodile; in "Kiss Daddy Goodbye" (1981), she plays a social worker dealing with a set of twins who have supernatural powers; and she's in the gruesome "Butcher Boys" (2012), about a cannibalistic urban gang.
She was in only one mainstream film, the 1976 TV movie "Helter Skelter," based on the real-life horrific killings by the Manson "family." She played Linda Kasabian, a Manson follower.
But the actress, whom her manager, Chris Roe, said had a perpetually sunny disposition despite her screen personas, is best known, by far, for the first film in which she had an acting credit, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
Burns, born in Erie, Pa., on May 7, 1949, studied drama at the University of Texas at Austin. She did volunteer work for the Texas Film Commission, in part to find out which film companies were coming to the area and might audition locals for parts, according to a Texas Monthly article.
She appeared briefly in the 1970 Robert Altman film "Brewster McCloud" before winning the part in "Chainsaw" as Sally Hardesty, one of a group of teenagers who wander into the home of a demented family in the Texas flatlands while in search of gas.
The family is into cannibalism and other violent pastimes. Working on location sets under the blazing Texas sun was grueling, especially because real animal parts were used for some scenes. "After many long hours out of the refrigerator, each had its own distinct odor," Burns said in a 1974 Los Angeles Times interview.
She got a bad cut to her finger when a real knife was substituted for a prop in one scene. But given the title weapon, it could have been worse. In a 2006 Houston Chronicle interview, she recalled a conversation she had with Gunnar Hansen, who played the deranged Leatherface in the film. "'What were we thinking?'" she asked him. "'We were kids, and you were chasing me with a chain saw, and once you tripped and it went up in the air, and that could have been it!'"
"Chainsaw," which had an estimated budget of about $80,000 and went on to gross nearly $40 million at the box office in the U.S., according to Internet Movie Database, is considered by many to be the first in a line of popular slasher films such as "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween."
But during the uncomfortable, cheapie filming, it hardly seemed that "Chainsaw" would have fans decades later. Throughout the years, Burns made appearances at fan conventions where the film was a hot topic and aficionados lined up for autographs, including on chain saws. Burns was remembered as the only one of her on-screen friends who is not killed, thus helping to set the stereotype of the slasher film survival girl.
"Never in my wildest dreams," she said of the film in a Fresno Bee interview last year, "did I think that almost 40 years later I would be talking about it."
The film's success, however, might have made it difficult for her to land parts in mainstream films, especially because many in Hollywood complained about the violent upstart movie. "It hurt me," she said in the Houston Chronicle interview. "They'd call me in for parts and complain about 'Chainsaw.'"
Burns' last film was "Sacrament," which premiered earlier this year. It's about a group of friends who find themselves stranded in a town whose residents invite them to a celebration barbecue. Only then do the teens realize their hosts are — you guessed it — cannibals.
A complete list of surviving family members was not immediately available.