The Terror Trap had the great pleasure to speak with the lovely Marilyn Burns, star of such horror films as Tobe Hooper's classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Helter Skelter (1976).
And while Ms. Burns' finely sculpted beauty was a welcome reprieve in these pictures, her serious contribution to the genre (Chainsaw, alone) should not be underestimated, overlooked or forgotten.
As sole survivor of Chainsaw, she gave the role everything she had. In fact, despite the attention the more flamboyant members of the murderous clan have received over the years, the entire last half-hour of Chainsaw clearly belongs to Burns.
The Terror Trap: Tell us about your background.
Marilyn Burns: I was always interested in the arts...and took drama and dance. I did all the things that little girls do.
TT: Did you play "dress up"?
MB: I did! I played dress up, I did plays...I even did Shakespeare in the seventh grade.
TT: Ah...do you remember what nugget of the Bard you tackled?
MB: Yes I do. It was A Midsummer Night's Dream.
TT: How did you get into film?
MB: When I was in high school, Robert Altman made a movie called Brewster McCloud (1970) and I made sure I got a part as a tour guide. Sidney Lumet shot a movie out of Austin called Lovin' Molly (1974) and he offered me a part. I was all ready to do it and then he told me that in order to get Blythe Danner and Beau Bridges, the agency told him to replace me with a new girl named Susan Sarandon.
TT: Oh wow...
MB: So then I was Susan and Blythe's stand-in! Blythe is about 6 feet, Susan is about 5'7" and I'm 5'2".
TT: Have you met Sarandon since?
MB: Yeah, I had a small part in George Roy Hill's The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) and I helped cast some of the extras. I was involved with the movie business in Texas.
TT: Were you raised in Texas?
MB: I was born in Pennsylvania but I was raised in Houston.
TT: Let's talk about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We understand you were attending the University of Texas at the time...
MB: I went to UT and I was on the film commission there. It was started to bring movies into the state. There was a casting call and a million people showed up. The rest is history.
TT: Did you have to go in more than once?
MB: It was talked about a lot at first. We did have one read-through.
TT: And you read for the part of Sally?
MB: Yes. The script was a little different then. There were several changes made after the original.
TT: We read that Ed Neal (everyone's favorite stuttering, psychotic hitchhiker) got into it by attending this big casting call. He said they were looking for "weird" people and he just acted goofy...and director Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel ate it up.
MB: Yeah, Ed's funny.
TT: Do you still talk to him?
MB: All the time. We all keep in touch because something brings us all together. In fact, I just got back from London with Gunnar (Leatherface). We were there for the release of the Blue Dolphin Special Edition DVD over there.
TT: How did that go?
MB: It was wonderful.
TT: Were you asked to do the commentary for that?
MB: No, we had done interviews. Just going back over the movie, reflecting...on crazy things.
TT: In the second half of the film, you really go through the most hellish experience. Do you agree with that estimation?
MB: Oh yes I do!
TT: Did it affect you emotionally? Not only when you were shooting it...but afterwards?
MB: Afterwards, I was just so grateful it was over. I probably was the happiest girl alive. During it, I was 100% focused and I probably wasn't a joy to be around. It was an interesting shoot for sure.
TT: So here you are, making this film...but you couldn't have known what it was going to be.
MB: No, but I knew it would get released. Everybody else thought it wouldn't. All the other actors...they weren't even coming to work anymore. (Laughs.) We had to go pick them up.
I felt it WOULD be released. I had no idea it'd be this. I knew it was gonna go. It had to.
TT: Was it everyone's intention to make a film that was different?
MB: Well, it was an idea just to keep the movement going...instead of having all those little stops and starts they have in horror films - where it's safe to go get your popcorn. I don't think many people ran and got popcorn during the movie.
TT: You can't even go to the bathroom when you're watching Chainsaw!
MB: Exactly. That's what's good about it.
TT: Can you think of a movie that came before that had that kind of pace?
MB: Oh, I'm sure there are. I love movies. I've always been in love with movies. The pace of Chainsaw? I can't think of one right now. Chainsaw was different.
TT: It was incredibly hot on the set, we know that.
TT: And it smelled, right?
MB: Oh my, yes.
TT: What caused that exactly?
MB: What happened is...oh, this is a terrible story. Somebody thought about getting dead cats and dogs from the pound and using formaldehyde on them. And it wasn't a good idea. When the make-up artist did the first animal, she shot herself in the leg. Everybody agreed that was a terrible idea.
So they had to decide they'd burn them and give them a burial. The smell of burning flesh just enhanced the feeling around the movie. It was awful.
TT: Were there a lot of dead animals?
MB: No, they were just gonna try something. The smell was also from a chicken head that was with the feed on the dinner table. We just didn't formaldehyde that right. That really smelled. You know how chicken can smell...imagine that in the lights, under the heat.
TT: We can imagine...
MB: And Gunnar, of course, smelled so bad because he had on that costume. He had to wear it for continuity...no one could wash it. He couldn't stand himself after awhile.
TT: So it was dead animals and Gunnar, right?
MB: (Laughs.) He said he felt like he couldn't even eat.
TT: That mask must have been so uncomfortable.
MB: Oh, it was.
You know...one thing I realized in London and it was the first time I ever thought about it was... my God, I ran through dark woods chased by someone holding a live chainsaw! Where was my head?
We were tripping and falling...one time, Gunnar tripped and the chainsaw went up in the air. What were we thinking? And it didn't ever dawn on me how crazy dangerous that was until I was in London.
We took the chain off the chainsaw but you know, it still has the rubber thing that keeps going around and around...that'll cut you just as good.
MB: It dawned on me just this year. Oh my God, am I nuts?
TT: How did the London audience react to the film?
MB: Oh, they loved it. They were wonderful. Everything was great.
TT: In the movie, Sally jumps through a window twice. Was that actually you or a double?
MB: One was me and the second was Mary Church. Tobe said, "Oh Marilyn, we don't want to hurt you. I'm gonna let Mary go through it."
So I gave her a wig of mine. Mary goes through the glass and the next thing you know, Tobe puts a scaffolding about seven feet up in the ground and it's early in the morning. And they have the sugar glass and because it's early in the morning, the mist and humidity is making the sugar glass now into sheets of glass. Real heavy...you know how sugar gets hard?
MB: They said, "Now we're just gonna throw some of this at your head while you jump down." I said, "You've got to be kidding!" That's why I have a limp at the end of the movie.
TT: So that means it's really you who jumps through the window near the end during the dinner scene?
MB: The one at the very end, yes...that was ME jumping from a scaffolding. The scene where I look like I'm in pain? That was me with my ankle and also that darn sugar glass hit me in the head. I really wanted to kill somebody.
TT: They just threw the panes of sugar glass down on top of you?
MB: That was the idea. But see, by this time...the "glass" had crystallized.
TT: Did it make any gashes in your head?
MB: No, but it hurt. Especially after the dinner sequence - when my head had been hit so many times. They used that big sledgehammer. You know...a sledgehammer is just a piece of steel and then you have a hammer on it. They did a fake hammer with foam rubber.
TT: And that's what you were getting hit with?
MB: Yes. But foam rubber is no protection from the arm of the real sledgehammer that's made of steel. Foam just doesn't cut it when they're banging you.
TT: How about that supper scene?
MB: Oh, that was fun. It was really weird, especially when they were all taunting me. And the smell and the heat. We were all so tired. It was surrealistic and became so frightening because I had to be tied up and screaming for so long.
TT: Did the taunting really bother you?
MB: They were good! They enjoyed their job. Those guys are good.
TT: When you were done, did they make overtures to you so that you weren't too freaked out?
MB: Oh, please! When they were shooting me tied to the chair, Ed Neal was leering at me to my right so I tried to get away from by leaning to my left. My chair fell sideways. I'm sitting there with my hands tied, my feet tied, the filthy gag in my mouth they just picked off the set (who knows where it had been) - and the guys goes, "She went out of the shot!"
TT: What about the cutting of your finger? That was real.
MB: I just heard in London that it was intentional. Maybe the knife thing wasn't working but all these years, I've said they forgot to tape the knife in every interview. And then I'm talking with Gunnar and he told some guy who's writing a book on the film that it wasn't an accident.
Then the guy interviews me and he goes, "Now you know, that knife wasn't an accident."
TT: And that was the first time you heard that?
MB: Yeah, it was the first time!
TT: Do you remember being cut?
MB: Oh, please! Like it was yesterday. I can see the blood spouting out of my little finger. My index finger. That was a bitch. I mean, it HURT!
TT: Was it real deep?
MB: No, but it was deep enough. Enough to give you the blood.
TT: And they didn't stop the filming at all?
MB: I think I reacted like I was supposed to, like they wanted...and they probably thought, "That's good!"