Marilyn Burns played Sally in Tobe Hooper’s original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the 1974 horror masterpiece that I’ve seen more times than I can count and placed at the very top of my 2010 list of The 25 Greatest Halloween Movies of All-Time.
Burns was found dead today in her Houston home. She was 65.
In my “Chainsaw” write up I called Burns “one of cinema’s great unheralded screamers,” which still doesn’t do her performance justice. Of the five innocent twenty-somethings who walk into that insane horror show, Sally is the last survivor. For pretty much all of the third act, it is through Sally’s considerable wide and shell-shocked eyes that we slowly, and with increasing dread, discover the horrors behind the doors of Leatherface’s slaughterhouse.
Much of the success of the movie depends on Burns’ intense and intensifying fear. If we hadn’t bought into what Sally’s living through, we wouldn’t have bought into the macabre absurdity of it all. It is not going too far to suggest that had Burns not pulled it off and played it straight, the last act of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” could have collapsed under a pile of misfired camp.
Instead, you are filled with a searing, exhilarating, nightmare-come-to-life experience that proves a moviegoer can live without oxygen for twenty minutes.
Most importantly, you believe the extraordinary lengths Sally goes to in order to survive. Unlike too many of today’s screen heroines, Sally doesn’t defy gravity, punch like a man or kick like Bruce Lee. She survives due only to an unrelenting will to live that manages to burn itself on your mind without asking you to suspend disbelief.
Burns enjoyed a few credits afterwards, including cameos in a couple of “Chainsaw” sequels and a terrific turn as a Manson girl in the television movie “Helter Skelter.” But her immortal place in history was assured with her screen debut.
RIP Marilyn. Thanks for the memories, the scares, and even the nightmares.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC