A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #23: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait” (1988)

by A.J. Hakari


I don’t like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Okay, maybe that’s putting it a little strong. The film definitely has its effective moments, and considering the string of rotten failures that succeeded it, no wonder it’s seen as director Tobe Hooper’s crowning achievement. But despite having watched it about three or four times, it’s always been more of a screechy annoyance than a pulse-pounding plunge into Hell’s dunk tank. Still, its impact on horror is undeniable, and from what a few key actors have to say in the reunion documentary The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait, the experience of filming it was every bit as unpleasant as what emerged onscreen.

In the summer of 1973, Gunnar Hansen, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, and John Dugan joined the cast of an independent movie being shot on the cheap in rural Texas. What they didn’t know was how gut-curdling and grueling the process of shooting the damn thing would be, not to mention the great success it would be in the years to come. That film was, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, starring Neal as a self-mutilating hitchhiker, Siedow as a shifty general store proprietor, Dugan as a senior citizen with a bloodlust, and Hansen as the grand daddy of power tool-wielding madmen, Leatherface. It was a production that would render each of the men veritable horror gods, though as they explain in a one-hour series of sit-down discussions, it also very nearly cost some of them their minds.

If you’re curious as to why A Family Portrait leaves Hooper, Marilyn Burns, or any other Chainsaw vets out of its interviewees, look again at the title. The doco really is a family affair, in that it’s the actors portraying Chainsaw‘s clan of endearing nutbags who get to be the center of attention. It’s one thing to hear the director talk about nailing down financing, but having the bad guys discuss the toll playing their roles had on their minds and careers unveils a whole other fascinating level. As a guy who’s fairly sharp on his horror history, not a lot of what’s dished about in A Family Portrait is news to me, though it’s still cool hearing all these stories come straight from the killers’ mouths. Each of them appear to be nice, well-adjusted gents, which makes moments such as when Hansen describes losing himself during the notorious dinner scene’s 26-hour shoot all the more sobering.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait is as informal as the movie that spawned it. It’s very brief, shot on video, and not edited with any particular direction in mind. I’d love to see an epic, Never Sleep Again-style retrospective on the entire Chainsaw franchise, but til that day comes, A Family Portrait does a fine enough job giving fans the buzz behind the buzz.