The 1970s were a time of cinematic endeavors and artistic effervescence. It seems like every film produced during this period was a terrific achievement. Witness the movies of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) and John Cassavetes (Husbands, Opening Night) for instance, which revolutionized American cinema. But during those years, a fringe genre was also evolving. Although horror movies were already popular, thanks to the Vincent Price flicks of the '60s, they were about to mutate into something completely different thanks to Tobe Hooper and his 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Apparently based on a true story, the movie spawned three sequels and a new interpretation of the original that hit theaters in 2003. So was it really based on a true story? Where do the facts end and where does the fiction begin?
In 1974, director Tobe Hooper envisioned the future of independent filmmaking as low-budget horror films. He approached a production company for some funds and luckily, they were happy to oblige. As it turns out, they were still counting their money from a little porno film they had produced in 1972 called Deep Throat. Hooper was handed $140,000 US to produce his screenplay, and he moved production to his native Texas. The now infamous story is about a group of teenagers who embark on a road trip, and wind up in a desolated house, after being spooked by a mysterious hitchhiker. Before long, a cannibalistic family, led by the maniacal chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, holds the kids captive. They are eventually tortured, sliced, diced, and impaled. The film was so horrifying in its day that movie-goers actually walked out of the theater. Some countries even delayed the release of the movie for years because of the gore factor. But in the end, it raked in revenues in the neighborhood of $30 million. But is the story really based on real events, as the promoters of the film claimed, or was this merely a marketing ploy? We know one thing for sure, the
character of Leatherface is based on legendary serial killer Ed Gein.
Edward Theodore Gein was born on August 27, 1906 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He grew up on an isolated farm and his mother Augusta was a fiercely religious woman. Not only did she teach her two sons that the Bible was the most important thing in life, she also instilled in her boys that women were all loose and immoral. All sexual desires were strictly forbidden; the fear of eternal damnation kept them in line. She also discouraged Ed and his brother Henry from making friends. Although Ed was only an average student, he loved to read, especially adventure
books and magazines, which allowed him to escape momentarily to his own world. He was shy and effeminate, which didn't exactly contribute to his social life.
In 1940, Ed and his brother were forced to take a series of odd jobs to provide for the family when their father died. It was babysitting that Ed enjoyed the most because he felt children were easier to relate to. In late 1945, his mother Augusta passed away from a stroke. Nothing could have been more shocking for Ed; she was his whole universe. As a result, he boarded off her favorite rooms of the house and preserved them as a shrine. He spent the majority of his time reading death-cult magazines and adventure stories involving Nazis, shipwrecks, and headhunters from the South Seas. This reading material gave him unprecedented knowledge of human anatomy, shrinking heads, and about the process of exhuming corpses. He would even repeat these stories to children when babysitting.
During the same period, he developed a new hobby. At night, he would visit the cemetery. When he had the chance, he stole corpses and body parts from their graves. He was especially interested in females. While he wouldn't have sex with them, he enjoyed peeling off their skin and wearing it. The sensation of himself being a woman fascinated him. He built himself a collection of body parts and took pleasure in showing it off to the children he babysat. On one occasion, a little boy told his parents of the preserved heads he had been shown, but they did not believe him. During the '40s and '50s, however, an alarming number of people began disappearing...
In November 1957, a hardware store was robbed and the owner, Bernice Worden, vanished. Since Ed had been seen loitering around, he was suspected of the crime. The police went looking around his farmhouse on November 17. They found garbage everywhere; the smell was atrocious. Then the officers saw a carcass hanging in the kitchen; it had no head. At first, they thought it was a deer but soon realized it was a woman. Upon inspection, the sheriff determined it was indeed Bernice Worden, the mother of one of his deputies. Soon after, the magnitude of what he was looking at sank in. There was a bowl made from a human skull. Human skin had been fashioned into an armchair, lampshades, and a wastebasket. There were preserved noses, hearts, heads, and female genitalia. There was even a belt made from nipples and a suit completely made from human skin.
While in custody, it took a little over one day for Ed to start talking about his crimes. He was cheerful as he talked about his graveyard escapades and the murders of Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan, another of his many victims. Those were the only murders he confessed to. The details of his crimes were rather hazy since he claimed that each time he was in a state of confusion. Nevertheless, he never expressed any remorse for these crimes. A battery of psychiatric and psychological tests proved that he was, to use the technical term, a total nutcase -- a few beers shy of a six-pack. Actually, he was deemed emotionally impaired, a schizophrenic, and a sexual psychopath. His relationship with his mother was believed to be at the source of his troubles.
As soon as Ed Gein was exposed as a serial killer, journalists from all across the globe flocked to Plainfield, Wisconsin. Ed was an instant celebrity: the combination of transvestism, fetishism and necrophilia shocked people, but they just couldn't get enough. Declared mentally incompetent, Gein was committed to the Central State Hospital in Waupun, Wisconsin. Ten years later, the court ruled that he was now fit to stand trial but he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Although acquitted, he was sent back to the Central State Hospital for the rest of his life. Described as a model patient, he was constantly quiet and even happy; however he would stare fixedly and disconcertingly at the female nurses and staff members whenever they stepped into his field of vision. Cancer eventually got the better of him and he died on July 26, 1984.
All this notoriety seemed to represent evil incarnate and artists felt inspired.
Author Robert Bloch saw in Ed a weird personality worth exploring. He wrote a story about a grippingly wicked character named Norman Bates. Alfred Hitchcock later adapted it into one of his masterpieces, Psycho. The Ghastly Gein, as he was nicknamed, was thrust back into public consciousness when Hooper released his film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. A decade later, novelist Thomas Harris also derived his inspiration from Ed, when he wrote The Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill, the chief villain is, like Ed Gein, driven to wear his victims' skin.
Hooper's film was influential in many ways. Most importantly, it was full of gore and bodily slaughter. While it wasn't the first movie to do so, its success inspired other filmmakers, and soon the teen slasher genre was born. These films, where a group of teenagers is stalked by a faceless murderer, picking them off one by one until only one girl is left, were soon a commercial phenomenon. In 1978, John Carpenter fine-tuned the genre with Halloween and dozens of copycats followed such as the Friday the 13th and Prom Night franchises. The era of ingenious murders lasted until the mid-'80s, but didn't stay dead for long. In 1996, screenwriter Kevin Williamson resurrected the teen slasher genre with Scream, by injecting it with self-consciousness and parody. In the end, even if the chainsaw was pure invention, there are definite similarities between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Ed Gein story. Are the similarities consistent enough to unambiguously state that the movie was based on a true story? After all, both Gein and Leatherface lived on isolated farms, impaled their victims, and wore their skin. It's up to you to decide.
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The Color Purple film review
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