Those eyes! How they are engrained in my memory. The most ingenious shots of Tobe Hooper's 1974 film are the ones in which he simply focuses on the eyes of Sally Hardesty, our terrified victim. The camera flutters around them at obscene angles and close ups pulling the viewer into the fear. It wasn't enough to experience the terror that led to this level of panic...oh no...Mr. Hooper decides to visually rape you and submerge you in her hysteria. This fete could not have been accomplished without the performance this young actress gave.
Marilyn Burns was a Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas when Tobe Hooper and his crew were casting the low budget horror film that would become the classic it is today. With very little money they knew they would have to cast unknown actors so they of course went with locals. Who knew they were about to stumble upon an actress who would forever redefine the genre and single-handedly create the concept of "the final girl?"
Sweltering heat and uncontrollably miserable conditions plagued the cast and crew. During the legendary dinner scene the temperatures rose to over 110 degrees on set causing some of the culinary props and set dressings to rot. The actors were working 16 hours a day. Their costuming had remained on for weeks unwashed and mania had begun setting in. Miss Burns' costume was covered in stage blood that had dried and stiffened. Gunner Hanson who played Leatherface was notorious for remaining in character throughout the shoot having researched his role in a facility to mentally retarded people. Yes....conditions in the farmhouse were deplorable indeed.
As the camera cruelly and shamelessly draws us into Sally's deranged screams the viewer is supposed to feel a sense of anxiety along with her. This poor girl....look at what they have put her through and the enjoyment they are getting out of it. She brilliantly portrays the fear and as the time comes for her to be killed she really lets the emotion loose. She is knelt over a bucket for the old decrepit character of grandpa to kill. Her extreme panic and adrenaline shoots into overdrive and she somehow breaks loose of the assailants jumping through a window leading to the front of the house. It is here that I find Miss Burns at her most brilliant. She pauses on the ground, still pleading for her life...yet suddenly notices it is daylight. There is an extremely brief moment of hope and it is clearly painted through the brushstrokes of her intricate performance. That doesn't stop our girl from getting the hell out of there. She runs off the property being chased and slashed by the brothers before flagging down a truck and narrowly escaping.
Many people have debated the final few shots and what her motivation is. As the truck drives away Miss Burns begins to laugh. Some say she is so profoundly relieved that she laughs. Some say she has gone insane. Others think she is giving a final "fuck you!" to Leatherface and his family as to say "I beat you!" My personal opinion is that all 3 of these things are occurring. This poor woman has been through hell at this point. She is so mentally and physically exhausted that her only defense is to laugh. It is a laugh of victory and one of impending psychological problems she will surely endure.
Horror fans have lost an icon this week. She created the way we look at the "final girl" concept and still 40 years later we are copying it. For that she deserves a big place in the horror hall of fame. Rest in peace dear Marilyn, the original scream queen.