Keep telling yourself, “it’s only a photo-opportunity… only a photo-opportunity… only a photo-opportunity…” In fact somebody tell Gunnar Hansen, because the big lug is threatening to throttle me to fucking death! That’s right folks, the currently glowing crimson countenance of your intrepid reporter isn’t attributal to the warm glow of bonomie occasioned by yocking it up with two of the big screen’s baddest bogey-men, nor to any intake of intoxicating liquor. The only nip I’m feeling the effect of is the one Hansen’s exerting on my carotid artery and vagus nerve. Marilyn Burns’s reminiscences of his heavy hand with that Texas Chainsaw, which I’d previously dismissed as a bit of memoir embroidery, start ringing in my ears… or is that just my pounding blood? Careful with that hack, Eugene. Who will survive and what, indeed, will be left of me…
It’s the 25th of June in this Year Of Our Lord 2000 and we’re at Leicester’s splendid Phoenix Art Centre for Last Chainsaw On The Left, a groundbreaking extravaganza organised by Phoenix honcho and ace anti-censorship crusader Alan Alderson Smith, Exploited mainman David Gregory and laddish academic Xavier Mendip. The event comprises the UK’S first ever public screening of Last House On The Left (apparently in defiance of furious rearguard action by our pals at the BBFC) supported by Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and Gregory’s Shocking Truth documentary about the making of the latter), personal appearances by David Hess and the aforementioned Scandinavian strangler, while Harvey Fenton is here to launch a raft of excellent FAB Press publications. I’m also here to shoot some footage with David Flint (who’d like you to know that he prefers the billing “Britain’s most eminent sex film historian” to being described as “filthy”) and Louisa Achille. Really guys, you shouldn’t have missed this one…
The following conversation with messrs Hess and Hansen was taped in between on-stage appearances and signing seesions, as they familiarised themselves with the delights of Yorkshire pudding and Theakstone’s ale. “Old and peculiar”, mused the now silver-haired Last House psycho: “… just like me!”
Bob Freudstein: Well, you’re looking pretty well on it.
Hess: Really ? I’m alive anyway, and very much kicking, 40 films and numerous films scores later… well, six scores but I am a musician, essentially.
Bob Freudstein: You wrote stuff for Elvis, yeah?
Hess: Right, started working when I was 14. I sometimes look back… you look at yourself and you ask what you did in your life, right? And I think, do I remember as little as everybody else remembers or is it just me that doesn’t remember a lot? I don’t remember a whole lot of my life is what I’m saying, what do you think? I remember bits and pieces but here I am. I’m going on 58… I look back and I say where do all those years go? Where have they fucking gone?
Bob Freudstein: They say if you can remember the 60’s you weren’t there… but what was that led to all of these tough movies coming out in the early 70’s? People say Vietnam, people say Manson…
Hess: All of the above, you know… in the 60’s we were the love generation and they took our love and just crushed it with all these assassinations and everything. That was really the first generation in the US that was idealistic and socialistic and they just crushed this whole innocence out of us. So when that happens people get a little harder and they become, you know, a little pessimistic about things. I think that is reflected in the kind of film that comes out… not just film, but art in general. I mean, look at Andy Warhol’s art… look at it! What is it, it’s total pessimism… it’s not even two dimensional, it’s one dimensional. I think that a lot of it had to do with us growing up in our 20s and 30s and having this counter culture… kids always have that, you know, have to push against authority, but they do it in a way that’s optimistic. We had our optimism taken away from us and it reflects in the way that we, as artists, reflect society. That’s the best answer I can give you. Did I answer your question?
Bob Freudstein: Spot on… do you know if the makers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre were influenced by Last House?
Hess: Well, no doubt Gunnar will shed his light on this when you talk to him, but I feel that Tobe must have been influenced by it. But TCM is such an original piece… Gunnar and I were discussing this last night, I’d been in to see a bit of the film and I hadn’t seen it in such a long time. Last House is really an urban horror film… even though a lot of it takes place in the country and a lot of it takes place in the house of the victims, it has an urban feel.
Bob Freudstein: They adjourn to the country to do what they do, but what created these people was an urban environment…
Hess: Exactly, whereas TCM, on the other hand, is very much a rural film. I think Tobe was probably a country boy and Wes was a city boy. That’s the essential difference between the two, but the films make very similar statements. Your cutting edge usually does come from the city and makes its way out into the country so it doesn’t surprise me that TCM followed on the heels of Last House… (enter Gunnar Hansen) Hey Gunnar, we don’t need you any more, I’m answering this guys questions for you!
Bob Freudstein: Hi Gunnar, it’s great to meet you at last. How are they treating you here today?
Bob Freudstein: Terrible! No, great. The audiences are really up for it, it’s amazing for me to see how many people know Chainsaw, despite it being banned over here for so long and also Last House, at every screening it was apparent that most of the people there had seen the movies. David says they must have been to the pirates.
Bob Freudstein: I was just speculating with David as to whether Last House had exerted an influence over the makers of TCM…
Hansen: Well I dunno, I’d never seen Last House when we were making Chainsaw, but it’s certainly feasible – and I think probable – that Tobe had hit upon using the chainsaw from seeing the end of Last House. There is it’s first use in a movie, I would expect. Makes sense.
Bob Freudstein: We were also talking about the factors that contributed to this eruption of really tough films in the early 70’s.
Hansen: I think it’s hard to say, and certainly we had no ideas about this when we were actually making the film. There’s a scene in the van where the kids are discussing a period when horrible things are going to happen because of the influence of the stars, so you can certainly see that as a statement about the times in general. Another way to look at it is to say everyone knew that horror movies were really moribund, they were going nowhere… we’d had Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, “The Three Stooges Meet The Space Monster”, whatever… so quite apart from what was happening in any sociological context, in the medium it was obviously time for the horror film and the business to break free. After Psycho in about 1960, whatever the politics or the zeitgeist of the thing, it was time to move on. Texas Chainsaw didn’t actually change the horror film industry, Last House didn’t either, but certainly they and some other things were part of this big change.
Hess: Last House busts a lot of balls and breaks a lot of taboos… it’s the end of an era, of that big ’60s love-in, and the first of the neo-horrors… that realistic strand of horror film-making. We ended up with this intense docu-drama style, I don’t think consciously, but actually because we had less time and material to work with… and probably less money.
Bob Freudstein: Wes Craven has admitted that he didn’t really know anything about shooting a film, he didn’t even know to do cover shots, and so on…
Hess: What we did have, though, was this family atmosphere on the shoot. I mean, it was a love-in. It was like we all grew up on the ’60s and went through all that loving counter-cultural revolution so it was the natural thing, to be friends, and out of this friendship evolved a repertory, ensemble kind of film, and that ensemble thing is what you’re feeling.
Bob Freudstein: Both movies are so raw and in your face, but they came out of very different circumstances: Last House from this very “comfortable” production, as David has described it, Chainsaw from a notoriously gruelling shoot…
Hess: The exact opposites, totally. Gunnar and I have been talking about this throughout the tour and we’ve talked about it before, but it’s really coming through.
Hansen: I’m not convinced that Texas Chainsaw could have been the movie it was if everybody had been happy on the set.
Bob Freudstein: Is it true that everybody hated Paul Partain?
Hansen: Oh yeah, everybody hated Paul because he was so into his character, and he talks about this in David Gregory’s documentary, that he was so afraid of losing the character that he stayed in it. So everybody was glad to see him go. I don’t know about anybody else but I didn’t like John Dugan much, the guy who played grampa, because he was so difficult… his refusal to wear the make-up more than once is the reason that we had that shoot which went on for 28 hours non-stop, or whatever it was. Ed (Neal), Jim (Siedow) and I got on just fine, but I don’t think that the film would have turned out anything like as good under other conditions, without that total state of sweaty exhaustion.
(As if drained by the memory, Gunnar wanders off to sort out some food)
Bob Freudstein: David, the similarity of your dialogue in different films for different directors suggests to me that you improvise a lot of it…
Hess: Absolutely! I’m a very organic kind of guy in general and my training is Actor’s Studio, so improvisation is my strength. I mean, I can do a script, but if I’m allowed to improvise, then something might pop up which is very original. Wes was wonderful that way, he let me loose and he let me improvise… Ruggero (Deodato) didn’t speak a word of English so I had to improvise. With Franco (Nero) and Pasquale (Festa Campanile), Franco spoke a certain amount of English but I was the only native English speaker on the set, so a lot of what you see in both Hitch Hike and House On The Edge Of The Park are my ideas.
Bob Freudstein: So, were you directing set ups?
Hess: It’s not directing… I know set ups and I’ve directed before, but it’s similar to doing a play, giving reasons, establishing motivation and all of the things that go towards making up a scene. They asked me to do that and I felt very honoured to do it.
Bob Freudstein: You did Sartre’s No Exit on stage, which has a similarly claustrophobic feeling to your most noteed film roles…
Hess: I did No Exit just before Last House and I was off Broadway doing Dark Of The Moon, you know, the Thurber piece…
Bob Freudstein: Did you study any real-life serial killers as preparation for your roles as Krug, Alex or Adam?
Hess: You don’t study, per se. I’ve had a lot of disparate experiences in my life, not the least of which was that when I was at college at Columbia I worked at the Ellison Clinic for Schizophrenic Children over the summer… I was able to take some notes and really integrate myself with those kids. A lot of what psychosis is, is not being understood. You may well be understood, but it’s your personal interpretation of what being understood is.
Bob Freudstein: How you’re coming across…
Hess: Exactly, that creates a psychosis. So I used that and I dug into my own past and found situations where I was really put up against the wall, so to speak, physically or emotionally and tried to use that. How did I react? What did I do? I’ve always been a very physical kind of person, and at the time I was playing rugby. When we were filming Last House I was actually captain of my rugby team…
Bob Freudstein: I didn’t realise that rugby was such a big game in the States…
Hess: I was the captain of the US team for a couple of years. I was a pretty good player and reached a good level. If you know anything about rugby, and I’m sure you do…
Bob Freudstein: Sure, they made us play it at school.
Hess: … you become an animal, The only way to can survive on a rugby field is to become an animal. I was a number eight and I never took or gave any quarter. I shook hands before and after the game, but in those 90 minutes in-between… if you got in my way I tried to kill you! That was a very good metaphor for Krug Stillo, and as I was playing rugby at the time, I just transferred a lot of that energy and that animalism into the role. Most people don’t know that, but it’s an awful large part of Krug’s character.
Bob Freudstein: What about the ridiculous plot twist that closes House On The Edge… was that in the script when you signed to play it?
Hess: Yeah, that’s the way he wrote it.
Bob Freudstein: It’s just so far fetched…
Hess: Well, he’s crazy anyway. Ruggero and I always had a love / hate relationship. When he’s OK and I’m OK, we’re bosom buddies, but he’s very schizophrenic, has a very sort of Hitlerian attitude towards the world… and having been brought up as a nice Jewish boy, and been through all that for years, I wasn’t about to buy all that fucking shit.
Bob Freudstein: Never again, right?
Hess: Exactly. So we butted heads a lot. I have nothing but good things to say about him. He is an idealist, he has wonderful, wonderful ideas… it’s hard for him sometimes to bring them to fruition because it’s kind of hard for him to explain what they are. The idea of a social counter culture is what House On The Edge is all about, going amok when you have such social and class division and such obscene and arcane concepts with the class structure. I think it’s wonderful, I love that and I loved it when I read it, which is why I agreed to do the film. It’s very ironic that the upper class, with all their ennui, has to descend to the same level as the underclass, that’s what the film is all about.
Bob Freudstein: Were you aware of Ruggero’s contoversial filmography up to that point… Cannibal Holocaust, and so on?
Hess: That’s his whole thing, the clash of cultures.
Bob Freudstein: When I interviewed him…
Hess: What did he say about me?
Bob Freudstein: “Big crazy American guy… big presence”… he didn’t say anything bad about you…
Hess: I wouldn’t say anything bad about him and I feel badly that we don’t speak. Maybe that’s a question of proximity more than anything. We didn’t get on during the last thing that we did, the TV series with Bud Spencer and Paul Michael Thomas… We Are Angels… I finally got a chance to do that, you know, to do some comedy. We were probably under the gun and it was very pressured. I got on very well with the producer and I’m gonna meet with him when I’m in Italy, which is where I’m en route to right now.
Bob Freudstein: Is there much film making going on over there these days?
Hess: There’s fucking nothing going on anywhere, because the studios have finally got what they wanted. They’ve taken over the whole goddamned business, they’re making multi-billion dollar films and they can stick it up their asses as far as I’m concerned, because they’re destroying the film industry in my opinion.
Bob Freudstein: You went to the former Soviet Union with Castellari… what was that like?
Hess: Incredible experience, the film notwithstanding… I think Jonathan Of The Bears is a really good film…
Bob Freudstein: And nobody’s seen it!
Hess: And nobody’s seen it… we filmed 24/7, like a guerilla production, and Franco (Nero) had put his own money into this film so he wanted to make very sure that it got done. We would drive on Saturday and Sunday to the set, and this was about 15 kilometres outside of Moscow, in a place called Alibino, and they had the major tank force for the Soviet Army. We would drive in the mornings and actually see dead bodies littering the highway between Moscow and Alibino. I was just totally shocked because these were people who got drunk in the night and they just couldn’t cross the street and they’d get hit by a car and the car would just leave them there. I’m not talking about one, I’m talking about dozens.
Bob Freudstein: This is what you were saying, about society breaking down
Hess: Unbelievable, I’ve never seen so much drinking in my life. The Russian women are not to be believed, they’re the most gorgeous, giving, loving, sexual, sensual creatures that walk the face of the earth. They are unbelievable. The men are wrecks, total wrecks.
Bob Freudstein: My friend Mariano Baino made a horror film – Dark Waters – in the Ukraine, and he was up against corruption, people in the crew stealing the film stock and selling it, you name it…
Hess: We had that problem. The story about the money changed every day, every day they would turn up and there would be some new problem. But I think a lot of that had to do with the fear in that country, I mean you have no idea how terrified those people are. They have no money and they have no idea of where the next meal is coming from. They’re sitting in their apartment which is owned by the government, or the government just sold it to some landlord, and they have nothing, they have no security whatsoever. Consequently, the energy level is very high and I think it would be the best place in the world to make a horror film because everybody is a leaping, screaming paranoiac!
(Gunnar Hansen reappears)
Bob Freudstein: Do you guys have any thoughts on the dialectical process by which the likes of Last House and Texas Chainsaw start off as pariah movies and end up being embraced by the Art-house set?
Hess: Movies have a long shelf life, they are timeless so they don’t follow the generational time frame we all have to follow, and generations change their opinions…
Hansen: The very same thing that cuased the controversy, which is the movie’s power, is what keeps people wanting to see it thirty years later…
Bob Freudstein: … and other people from trying to stop them seeing it.
Hansen: I was here several years ago on a promotional trip and people were bringing me all these Texas Chainsaw sleeves to sign and I remarked that they were all photo-copies, at which point somebody told me that the movie couldn’t be released over here. I was amazed. I mean, what is the mind-set of the people who decide these things? Do they think that British people who see the movie will all become serial killers? How can they defend such a preposterous position? All of these people were finding ways to see it anyway, and they seemed OK to me. So what’s the point?
Hess: I’m not surprised that censorship exists, anywhere, but it’s silly. Your censorship committee have been particularly silly to ban Last House because it’s just a film, you know… to coin aphrase, “It’s only a movie!” You don’t have to watch it, you can walk out… leave the theatre. If you want to see what happens though, you’ve got to stay to the end. There’s a chance that you might see something which will shake you up. But that has to happen if a film is going to be an educational experience, be worthwhile.
Bob Freudstein: So are people in The States shocked when they learn about the state censorship that goes on over here?
Hess: I don’t think they give a fiddler’s fuck, to be honest with you. But I’m not worried about censorship… it’s a passing thing, so I don’t really pay too much attention to that shit… and there’s always this loophole, be it pirate copies or whatever. The authorities are always going to be fighting a rearguard action on this. In the US at the moment there is a kind of ultra-Republican backlash, but it’s clear that at the grass roots level the people will not accept this kind of fundamentalism. The revolution is still going on…”
Stillo crazy, after all these years…