“Everything means something, I guess.” Remembering Marilyn Burns

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Marilyn Burns gets top billing for THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and is the closest thing the movie has to a heroine but director Tobe Hooper seems for the film’s first forty to fifty minutes disinclined to do much with her — there are whole patches of the first reel where she is simply absent from the frame. Her character, Sally Hardesty, has a little bit of business early on when the protagonists hop out of the van on the periphery of a desecrated Texas cemetery and she makes some noise about looking for her grandfather’s grave (the character’s local contact is — rather disconcertingly for fans of HEE-HAW and civil liberty — John Henry Fauk, scourge of the Hollywood blacklist, playing a credible hayseed) yet just as this scene pushes towards the promise of a reveal, Hooper takes us back to the van. And then they’re on the road again. The protagonists stop at an abandoned house and some of them get out of the van and look around… but not Sally, who is obliged to hang back with her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain). These two speak sluggishly about some of the things they have seen and Sally offers a shard of backcountry wisdom: “Everything means something, I guess.” We’re nearly 45 minutes into an 83 minute horror movie and this is the best she can do. What the hell kind of heroine is this? 

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And suddenly, everybody is dead. Rather, everybody else. Franklin and Jerry (Allen Danziger) and Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMin, who seemed to have had the most dialogue to learn), leaving Sally at the mercy of a freak in a fright wig and mask (later we find out it’s made of human flesh) who is brandishing a chain saw. Sally screams… and never stops. Marilyn Burns’ screaming helped put THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) on the map, even before the so-called Leatherface (Gunnar Hanson) became a weird cinefolkloric hero who recurred in sequel after prequel after remake. (We won’t discuss those titles here.) The film has a wickedly simple structure. First Act: mystery. Second Act: reveal. Third act: screaming. As you know, Sally is abducted by the cannibal family for whom Leatherface is a sort of maître d and over the course of the next twenty-odd minutes she is beaten and terrified and driven to the backdoor of insanity, as she screams to within an inch of her life.

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In its broadest strokes, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is not so very different from any number of matinee westerns in which travelers across the prairie are waylaid by savages, the majority killed outright, and one nubile, blonde young thing carried off by the savages to endure a gauntlet of abuses on the road to… well, we’re not quite sure. We don’t see what Natalie Wood’s character endured in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956) that made her identify at long last with her abductors, with the killers of her family, and that’s what THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE did for us or to us in 1974 and 1980 (the year of re-release) and all those years in-between when we just had to remember exactly what we had seen: it makes explicit what was long withheld from us. It gets specific. It goes there.

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In sporadic interviews published over the years between the film’s release, its rediscovery, and its embracing by the horror community as a seminal text (Mark Gattiss’ 2010 BBC-produced A HISTORY OF HORROR begins with three film clips representative of the genre: James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, Terence Fisher’s HORROR OF DRACULA, and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE), Marilyn Burns maintained that she wasn’t doing much acting in those scenes. It was really that awful, it was really that hot, the actors were all on the actual cusp of madness, and she was really bleeding. She didn’t need to ask Hooper for her motivation, she just had to act naturally as he pushed and pushed and pushed.

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The effect is extraordinary, to put it clinically and with a touch of academic distance. It’s also profoundly pornographic. The link between horror films and porno is not my discovery but was made ages ago by some tweedy toff who noted that the scenes of serial violence that recur at more or less predictable intervals in horror films are akin to the raunchy “numbers” in adult films… but what’s pornographic about THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is not explicit violence. Despite the phallic implications of the chain saw blade, which Leatherface does plunge deep into his victims, there are no vaginal wounds or geysers of bloody ejaculate to solidify the analogy. It’s when you watch the film for the fourth or fifth time that you realize Hooper doesn’t show you much in terms of violence – instead he shows you the impact of violence on one tender soul and that, it turns out, is much, much worse.

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Sally Hardesty isn’t much of a character by Robert McKee standards. We barely know anything about her, from start to finish. She has no defining monologues or quirks of character by which we can brand her worthy or unworthy of being a heroine, she has at the outset no mission, no journey. Nowadays she’d have a backstory and an ass pocket full of tart rejoinders and she’d kick ass and handle, at some point, a pump action shotgun. But that wasn’t the case in 1974, when Sally Hardesty was brought to something like life by Marilyn Burns to serve as a linchpin, of sorts, between the classic horror movie heroine — the one who faints at the sight of the beast and gets carried a short distance by the monster before being rescued by the hero — and what was next in the sea change of 70s horror.

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Sally Hardesty (and, by extension, the actress who played her) became known in the 80s as a prototype “Final Girl,” common name for the sole survivors of fright films — in particular, slasher films — the ones that get away (at least until the sequel). In time, Final Girls would learn to fight back, would turn the tables. Jamie Lee Curtis was a touch more proactive in HALLOWEEN (1978) but still needed a man to vanquish (or not) the Bogeyman; Adrienne King, too, was just an average suburban teen in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) but she did take the killer’s head — lucky shot though it was. Final Girls were quick to get smart and get strapped as the archetype aged but soon this too got to be as hoary as the heroine in the diaphanous gown who stifles her scream with the back of her well-manicured hand. We’ve been worrying this device for forty years now as if we can actually perfect it but I think we all know that all that needed to be said was said in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.

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Horror movie fans can be quite hard on horror movie characters, and cruel, even to characters from the classics. There are more than a few aficionados of the grotesque and arabesque who hate, with a passion that borders on psychopathy, awkward Mary Henry in CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) or anxious Eleanor Lance in THE HAUNTING  (1963) or catatonic Barbara in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) or the lachrymose Lambert in ALIEN (1979) with her red nose and sensitive amygdala. These same opinion-holders do not, as far as I know, talk smack about Sally Hardesty. For Sally, they hold their tongues and tip their caps and stand at attention. Sally Hardesty’s incomprehensible trial-by-ordeal in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the almost microscopic attention lavished on her epic suffering, the manifestation of Sally’s subdued, shuttered will to live, and the birth cry of her awakening animus, of her barbaric yawp, obliterates criticism. The movie’s soundscape, the burping rip of the chain saw, the shouting and braying and caterwauling of its characters, the relentless thumping musique concrète, and Sally’s ceaseless guttural screaming all work in concert to supplant ideas with empathy. Opinion? Obliterated. Aesthetic? Obliterated. Preference? Obliterated. We don’t rate atomic explosions – they are all awesome in its truest definition – and the performance tendered by/taken from Marilyn Burns in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is no less apocalyptic, no less world-shattering, representing as it does the end of everything.

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Marilyn Burns outlived Sally Hardesty, who had been disposed of before the start of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II (1986), written off, dead and buried for whatever reason — and, really, what more could she do? Come back and kick ass? That might have seemed attractive then but it would have been unforgivably reductive — anyway, that’s what Ripley is for. No, Sally Hardesty had a terrible life and died young and we are stuck with that. Marilyn Burns, on the other hand, passed away at the age of 65 on Tuesday, in her home in Houston, Texas, having enjoyed if not the filming of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE then at least her participation in it and the recognition of her character as belonging to the same bloodline as Little Red Riding Hood, Marion Crane, and Sharon Tate. (As fate would have it, Burns played Manson acolyte Linda Kasabian in the 1977 TV miniseries HELTER SKELTER, the lookout who stayed in the car, whose reaction to the screams of the victims was so extreme that she was moved to provide damning testimony against “the family.”)

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In mourning Marilyn now, in eulogizing her, we are not paying court as we so often do (and as so many newswire services are doing at this moment) for a cult figure but rather we who understand, we who get it, are burying a part of ourselves that lived with Marilyn Burns in her performance as Sally Hardesty and suffered her terrors with her — hell, inside her, it seemed — a part of our consciousness from which we could not disengage while watching, the part of us that understood that we were seeing truth,  disempowering as it was. Certainly, little of all that was by dint of Marilyn Burns’ choice on those sweltering days in East Texas back in 1973, when all she could do was react to what was happening around and to her, but by choice or by ordeal she served as a conduit to our honest terror, to that inner child who cannot be protected or saved. However we resent or resist that glimpse into Hell, she showed us the way. And that definitely means something.

13 Responses “Everything means something, I guess.” Remembering Marilyn Burns
Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : August 7, 2014 1:58 pm

The greatest Scream Queen of all times, from one of my favorite
movies. What sad news.

Rest in Peace Marilyn Burns.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : August 7, 2014 2:56 pm

You wrote an excellent post about Marilyn, Sally,Horror and Truth. You did it just right. All I can add is that 65 awfully young nowadays to die.

Posted By Doug : August 7, 2014 4:24 pm

Well said, Richard.

Posted By Dave Stewart : August 7, 2014 4:39 pm

Terrific piece, Richard. Honestly. It’s funny the effect Burns’ death has had on the horror community. I think it really feels like we lost someone… something… Like a character who was our stand in, who survived about the worst that filmmakers can throw at a character, finally succumbed to something trivial, almost meaningless, so anti-climatic. And in the end, all we can feel is that emptiness. Pretty dramatic impact from someone whom I never met, but I am actually saddened by her death. I think one of the things that is so terrific about the character of Sally and the way Burns plays her, is that, as you write, she was just one of five people in the beginning of “Texas Chain Saw”… anyone could have emerged as the hero/heroine, and Sally was able to become that heroine through a combination of good luck and pure, simple will to live. She’s a very real character who gets as frustrated by her brother as we do, who, as you say, doesn’t come supplied with a bevy of one-liners and the ability to us a pump action shotgun. She’s like us.

Posted By Ned Merrill : August 7, 2014 6:07 pm

Really well done, Richard. Thank you.

Happened to just revisit the film via the newly-restored DCP at Drafthouse Yonkers a couple weeks ago, with Joe Bob Briggs doing an entertaining and informative intro. 65 is way too young…rest peacefully, Marilyn.

Posted By AL : August 7, 2014 10:21 pm

thank you, Richard.

Posted By spence : August 8, 2014 1:30 am

How did she go?

Posted By Arlene Domkowski : August 8, 2014 2:34 am

Best piece on Marilyn and the film I have read since the sad news crept upon my page.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : August 8, 2014 7:33 am

Excellent article. Thanks.

Posted By Stephen White : August 8, 2014 6:04 pm

Texas Chainsaw Massacre was filmed in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, which no one who lives in Texas would call “East” Texas. More like Central, maybe North Central Texas.

Posted By Doug : August 8, 2014 10:24 pm

Just noted at blu ray dot com that the 40th Anniversary Blu Ray ‘Collector’s edition’ arriving September 16th will include multiple commentaries, including one with Marilyn Burns:
http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=14680
The report also mentions a “Black Maria Deluxe Edition” with fewer features but a…Leatherface apron?
Nope. I’d rather have the extra features/commentaries.
Bye the bye-I know that some fine folks out there have resisted the Siren call of Blu Ray-it really is a very good format.

Posted By george : August 9, 2014 2:30 am

Sad that CHAIN SAW didn’t open doors in Hollywood for Marilyn and the other cast members. For a long time, having that movie on your resume was a black mark. It was harshly criticized and condemned — by people who never saw it. Tobe Hooper got work, but only as a horror director. (He wanted to direct comedy.)

The fact that it was released by Bryanston, a company with alleged mob ties, probably didn’t help. These were the same guys who financed and distributed DEEP THROAT.

Posted By CJ aka Darkamor : August 23, 2014 5:53 pm

thank you for the well written salute to actress Marilyn Burns (my favorite role for her is in 1985′s FUTURE KILL as Dorothy Grim)

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