The Underrated Scream Queen
Dead at Aged 65
By Rob Watts
Actress Marilyn Burns passed away suddenly yesterday due to unknown causes. Sadly, many people reading this have no knowledge of Marilyn Burns or her short—yet fantastic body of work. She’s best known for her roles in Tobe Hooper’s independent classic films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Eaten Alive (1977.) She also took on the role of Linda Kasabian, one of Charles Manson’s devotees in the film Helter Skelter (1976.)
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania and raised mostly in Houston, Texas, Burns had a love for the arts at an early age, and as a result of that passion, she attended The University of Texas at Austin. There she earned her degree in Drama. Although she’s best known for her appearances on film, Burns appeared in various stage productions, most notably a musical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From there, she made a few small appearances on film, such as her big screen debut Brewster McCloud in 1970. Later on, she’d appeared in 1975s The Great Waldo Pepper.
But it was a low budget production project that made Marilyn Burns a household name, at least in the homes of horror fans. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in 1974—a full-year after production of the film ended, but eventually went on to become the 12th highest grossing film of that year—mostly due-in-part by the false marketing campaign that the film was in-fact, based on a “true story.” Grossing more than 30 million dollars at the box office. Not too shabby considering its low-budget production. It was the highest grossing independent film at that time, until John Carpenter’s Halloween hit the 47 million mark in 1978.
But unlike Carpenter’s own scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis or even Olivia Hussey in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), Burns was a genuine scream queen and quite frankly, the true key element to “Texas Chainsaw’s” success. Where Jamie Lee Curtis took the title for far-too-lengthy of a tenure, mostly due to her mom being Janet Leigh, the Ill-fated hotel guest in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Marilyn Burns was an unpolished diamond in the rough. Basically taking the role of Sally Hardesty as just another acting job while working for the Texas Film Commission, no one could have predicted that her on-screen performance would be above and beyond legendary.
When I first watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre back in my early days of High School, I was astounded (in a good way) at what I was watching on screen. Sure, I had seen Halloween at the tender age of 5, and was instantly attracted to the sheer adrenaline that came along with watching such a terrifying film. After all, that’s what horror films are designed to do; awaken and stimulate your senses. What I loved about both Halloween and Texas Chainsaw was that what was unfolding in front of you on-screen was a potential real-life situation. They weren’t about Vampires, Zombies, Blobs, Aliens or any of those other unrealistic villains. The commonality shared between Halloween and Texas Chainsaw was that at any given time, an everyday person could stumble upon a mentally Ill maniac, thus forced to fight for your life, if you were in-fact fortunate to do so. We all know how most horror films end.
In the case of Marilyn Burns, her fight for life was undoubtably the most convincing performance committed to film. Unlike Laurie Strode in Halloween, who possessed a certain level of naïveté—always comfortable with tossing the knife away once she thinks she’s killed the killer, Burns did what you’re supposed to do when pursued by a homicidal maniac. You Run!
And run she did. In-fact, the highlight of her performance came when she was first faced with the chainsaw wielding killer, Leatherface. She ran and screamed like no other woman on film at that time. Minute after minute with very few cuts in between. This was a woman who conveyed sheer panic and disorientation like I’d never seen before. It was natural and uncontrived. Her portrayal of fear was, for lack of a better word, fearless. It was a performance like no other, before, and I’m sad to say after.
Horror films have been produced by the thousands since Texas Chainsaw debuted 40 years ago. Not many have achieved the notoriety and success that Chainsaw has. In a day and age where horror films are produced with only dollar signs in mind, Texas Chainsaw was made for the sheer love of the art. Back then, the word “independent” was a dirty word. It meant that your film was pure fodder, unworthy to be shown in one theater, let alone a thousand. Today, we have “independent” films that are quietly produced by big-budget studios. Casting one lame-ass actor or actress du jour over and over again, leaving many of us scratching our heads as to how one justifies Ryan Reynolds or Kate Hudson as an appropriate choice for a horror film.
Thinking of Marilyn Burns today, I’m reminded of what drew me to horror films in the first place. The authenticity, the realism, the flaws, the naturalism, the do-it-yourself feel. Gone are the days of a film being made out of a genuine love for the art. Now we are left with gratuitous violence for the sake of shock value, and poor casting due to a promised three-picture deal. Film scores that consist of the popular bands of the day and a nauseating slick and over-polished production feel. When these films come out, I find myself increasingly passing them over or turning them off halfway. Most are sadly unwatchable. Unimaginative and boring. Texas Chainsaw was a pioneer. It was groundbreaking. And above all, the performance of Marilyn Burns was what made the film the classic that it is today.
In 2007, my sister (another horror fanatic) and I had the good fortune of meeting Marilyn Burns. I had the chance to tell her how much she had meant to me growing up. That she was beyond amazing in Texas Chainsaw and made it such an exciting film. She look at me somberly and said “if only people felt the way you do back when the film came out.” It felt sad to hear her say that, but looking back, I kinda get it. The film was far bigger than any one actor or actress portrayed in it. Perhaps no one really gave much thought to her the way I have—that she was the driving force of that film. Perhaps, as is evident in the piss-poor acting skills of much of Hollywood today, it’s obvious that no one has ever matched Marilyn Burns’ frantic and hysterical performance in Texas Chainsaw since its release. Maybe, just maybe they are incapable of doing so. After all, that would require a wee bit of skill.
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