Monday, August 18, 2014

Marilyn Burns 1949 - 2014

When I read the news of Marilyn Burns passing, my heart sank a bit. I did not know the actress but I still felt some sadness because Marilyn's portrayal of Sally Hardesty in Tobe Hooper's 1974 seminal horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was one of my favorites in all of horror cinema. I have only seen a few of the films she starred in but I thought I would just take a moment and present my thoughts on her role that made a permanent mark on me.

A great shot of Sally before the madness.

Without going through a detailed synopsis of the film, the basic story of Texas Chainsaw is that of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her invalid brother Franklin and three friends taking a trip into Texas to check out Sally’s family grave site at a cemetery which had been hit by some grotesque vandalism (filmed so perfectly in the opening credits). They pick up a strange hitch hiker who attacks Franklin with a straight razor and they kick the stranger out of their van. Afterwards they visit the now dilapidated family home in which Sally and Franklin grew up. One by one they are picked off by members of a deranged family that live close by.  The members of the family include the hitch hiker, an older man known as “the cook” and of course the iconic younger brother “Leatherface”. Everyone is basically killed off a little more than halfway through the film and the rest of the film hangs on the performance of the deranged family and their captive, Sally. 

Texas Chainsaw is a film that completely delivers on a visceral level yet does so without spilling the ole crimson all over the screen. The film hits you visually and audibly with camera movements, settings, a minimalistic and eerie soundtrack and of course screams. No one conveys terror quite like Marilyn Burns does in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  I believe the reason why this works so well is the fact that Burns sells her character right from the get go. She is presented as an everyday Texas girl, somewhat of an innocent. She is free spirited which makes her very likeable and her character is presented as someone that you can relate with.  One moment in the film has her lashing out at her brother Franklin, only to apologize later showing her remorse and solidifying her relationship with her brother, making her “real” to the audience. If you have siblings you know that feeling and you relate with it. 

My second viewing of the film was when I noticed the "arms".
When Sally is kidnapped by “the cook” after fleeing through the woods being chased by Leatherface, this is when the film really cranks up the sadistic factor. We’ve already seen Sally’s friends meet their demise and their demises are pretty sadistic but that is just a warm up to the horror that Sally faces once she is dumped in a gunny sack, taken to the abode of the damned and then tied to chair half made of human appendages. Sally is a special “dinner guest” at the Sawyer family table and you’re never quite sure exactly what is on the menu. We know these people are cannibals so that sausage on the plate could be made from anything or anyone. Burns’ performance here is overwhelmingly terrifying. Her eyes convey the fright but also convey the madness in which she is being exposed to. She is presented to “grandpa” who is a half alive and decrepit old man who can hardly move. Her finger is cut and grandpa suckles on it like a baby on its mother’s breast. All the while she screams in terror at the old man. Her screams and expression really come across as genuine. She is beaten about the head with a hammer as well before finally escaping the chaos through the dining room window. 
The terror and joy of survival.

Fleeing down the dirt driveway towards the main road, she is pursued by the hitch hiker. He stays within arm’s length slashing at her back with his straight razor. Leatherface joins in the chase with his chainsaw but lags behind. Again Sally sells her terror and her pain until making it onto the main road and flagging down a tractor trailer. The tractor trailer inadvertently runs over the hitch hiker killing him. The driver and Sally are then chased around the tractor trailer by Leatherface. Sally flags down another driver in a pickup truck and jumps in the bed of the truck. The image of her riding away from the madness is iconic in of itself.  Her blood caked face expresses the relief but also the mental torture she has endured. Her screams are mixed with laughter than gives you that cringe factor. The scene is only rivaled by the closing shot of Leatherface “dancing” with his chainsaw and the film abruptly ends. Marilyn Burns completely sells this role from start to finish. I believe the way her character was written by Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel coupled with Burns’ ability to convey innocence and terror equally, is what makes her performance so powerful.  Her realistic portrayal, the gritty documentary style filmmaking and hinted at gore combine to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre what it is, a complete terror ride. 

Helter Skelter (1976)
Marilyn Burns also had a role in Tobe Hoopers follow up to Texas Chainsaw, Eaten Alive (1977) and again her performance is believable and genuine. It is sad that because of her death, I am propelled to really dig into her limited screen time. She also starred in the 1976 film Helter Skelter which I only have seen bits and pieces. I truly need to check this film out as well.

 Rest in Peace Marilyn Burns and thank you for being part of this monsterkid’s cinematic journey.