Strange Things That Happened On The Set Of Serial Killer Movies
Hollywood has a weird obsession with serial killers. Some become the center of psychological thrillers that critics love. Others wind up in slasher movies that earn a dozen terrible sequels. And whatever the movie, the filmmakers are left trying to portray someone monstrously inhuman.
In the push to capture this inhumanity, directors and actors often make bizarre and questionable decisions — even more so than putting Vince Vaughn in a remake of a classic Alfred Hitchcock film. And, sometimes on and unexplained incidents occur while making these disturbing films. Here are some strange things that happened on the set of serial killer movies.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” changed the face of both horror and independent film. Its pseudo-documentarian narration by John Laroquette, over the top brutality, and completely fabricated, as per Pop Matters, “based on a true story” mythology elevated it (or plunged it, depending on how you look at it) to a visceral, primal place in the cultural zeitgeist.
Filming was a low-budget nightmare, for two reasons that are right there in the title. First, shooting took place in Texas, in summer, and inside the dilapidated, ancient murder-house temperatures reached up to 115 degrees, noted Texas Monthly. Second was the chainsaw, which they didn’t have the budget to fake or put a guard on. Actor Gunner Hansen, while boiling alive in a rubber suit with impaired visibility and also on drugs during at least one scene, as per The Telegraph, was waving around a very real running chainsaw the entire time. At one point, he slipped, losing hold of the chainsaw, which crashed down and only by some miracle didn’t massacre him for real.
Near the end of the film, one of the most intense and nearly unwatchable parts of the movie is the dinner scene, partially because at this point, even the actors themselves were beginning to lose touch with reality. The scene was shot over the course of 27 hours inside the unbearably hot house, with the actors taking Dramamine breaks to get over the smell of blood and rancid meat. A prop busted, which led to Hansen slicing actress Marilyn Burns’ finger open on camera. In fact, by then even Hansen had lost track of the difference and thought he was really there to murder Burns. The screams, the deranged laughter, and terror of that scene is significantly more realistic than most would prefer when they know the background. It led to some truly unforgettable cinema, but for everyone involved, “unforgettable” was probably the last thing they wanted.
David Fincher is a notoriously difficult director to work with, and while filming 2007’s critically acclaimed serial killer flick “Zodiac,” he pushed his actors to new extremes, averaging a mind-boggling 70 takes per scene, as reported by The New York Times. With all that footage to work with, he then got sadistic delight out of torturing actors like Jake Gyllenhaal by deleting hours of said takes right in front of him, just to see if he could make him cry over it (via Gawker).
Robert Downey Jr. reached such extreme levels of passive-aggressiveness that he left jars of his own urine around the set in protest over long working days with questionable results, as per the Chicago Tribune.
Silence Of The Lambs
“Silence Of The Lambs” is a gruesome yet beautifully crafted thriller about transformations. As such, it’s fitting that the actors themselves immersed themselves into transformative roles. During filming, stars Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster never socialized outside of shooting. Hopkins spent his off-time in the various cells his character Hannibal Lecter was caged in, like a fierce-eyed wild animal biding time for an opening. By the end of shooting, both actors were legitimately terrified of each other, according to Entertainment Weekly.
It wasn’t just human actors who took on profoundly transformative onscreen roles. One of the most iconic repeated images in the movie is that of the death’s-head hawkmoth, a species of moth that just absolutely did not enjoy the weather during shooting. Instead, the moth wranglers painted the distinctive skull-like markings on press-on nails and glued them to the back of local tobacco hornworm moths, noted Rolling Stone. The moth larvae found in the throats of the victims were molded Tootsie Rolls, and for one scene, an entire tiny silk and polymer costume was made to disguise a particular tobacco hornworm moth (via Entertainment Weekly). Whether the moth danced in front of a mirror in the costume has not been disclosed.
By 1996, the slasher film genre was considered over. The “Nightmare On Elm Street” series was put to bed, Jason went to hell, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was self-parody, and the “Halloween” series was at its lowest point, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Then “Scream” came along with its self-aware meta-commentary, humor, and distinctly ’90s sarcasm and made the genre cool and relevant again, as per AMC.
One of the things “Scream” brought to the table was returning stakes and consequences to the murderer’s body count. Instead of two-dimensional bimbos and jerks quickly and gorily mutilated by a monster you rooted for, the victims were people whose welfare you worried about and whose deaths haunted you. This difference is put front and center from the very beginning, noted The AV Club, with Drew Barrymore’s character crying and suffering death inches away from her parents, whose attention she desperately tries and fails to get before being dragged away.
Barrymore’s very real-seeming tears cement the character to us and pull at our empathy strings, and they came from a very odd place. She and director Wes Craven had worked out a particular story he could tell her, which set her up to cry on demand (via Entertainment Weekly). That’s probably one of the creepiest superpowers ever heard of, but you can’t deny the results.
One of the quintessential slasher films, 1978’s “Halloween” is unique in that its main character has a blank, cypher-like quality. He’s not supernatural, he never says a word, his backstory doesn’t reveal much of anything as far as motivation. He’s just an extremely broken person in a bleached-out William Shatner mask getting his stab on. It’s part of the horror. You can’t reason with him or out-think him. You just have to keep running. Meanwhile, he lumbers just behind with his distinctive gait.
That gait of his arrived purely by chance. Nick Castle was a friend of director John Carpenter and found himself just sort of hanging around on set watching his friend work. When it came time to start filming scenes with the killer, Carpenter told Castle to slap on the mask and get in there because he apparently had the perfect walk, as Castle revealed during a “Halloween” Q&A panel. Castle seems to have a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing, considering his close friend pretty much told him he walks like a serial killer.
Looked at in context, “American Psycho” is a very strange product of a very strange time. Based on the tediously macabre and obsessive-compulsive critique of 1980s excess by enfant terrible author Bret Easton Ellis, and filmed by feminist director Mary Harron (via The AV Club), it pulled genuine humor out of the thickly sardonic ichor of the novel while keeping a tasteful amount of blood. But Christian Bale’s incredible performance as the charmingly dead-eyed Patrick Bateman really sealed the deal.
Multiple times in the film, Bateman hires bored then increasingly wary sex workers, who begrudgingly pleasure him. To prepare for the scenes, Bale and Harron watched a lot of porn together, reported Vulture. That sort of employee-manager relationship usually winds up with an HR complaint, but here, it merely added to the absurdity of the final product.
House Of Wax
“House Of Wax,” besides being the film that paid up on the advertised promise that you could “Watch Paris Hilton Die,” is an otherwise forgettable remake of an old Vincent Price horror film, noted Fangoria. A shame really, because Elisha Cuthbert really gave that film her all with her performance.
In a scene where Cuthbert is captured and has her lips glued, she had them really super glue her mouth shut – and the scene of her peeling her mouth open was similarly real (via the Chicago Tribune). She also had trouble with the ending of the film, fighting her way out of the titular house burning down. The “melted wax” she found herself wading through was a pool of peanut butter, and though at least she wasn’t allergic, she did get stuck in the stuff a whole lot.
Natural Born Killers
“Natural Born Killers” is a surrealistic take on the nature of celebrity, blending dozens of narrative and production techniques to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. At the worst possible time, these lines blurred on set during a prison riot scene that erupted into an actual full-blown riot, reported The Telegraph. It didn’t help that at one point during filming, they cast a real-life convicted murderer at that same prison in a featured role in the riot simply because he terrified Oliver Stone that much.
Also, Juliette Lewis broke actor Tom Sizemore’s nose. Cinematographer Robert Richardson got his camera smashed into his face by a heavy prison door, leading to swelling they cut open with a pocketknife so he could continue filming. And this is all in scenes that appear within five minutes of each other in the movie.
Then Tom Sizemore got in a fistfight with the captain of a plane shuttling the cast back to Los Angeles and was charged with air piracy. It all makes Robert Downey Jr.’s bizarre choice in accent in the movie seem tame by comparison.
Before spinning off into increasingly elaborate mythology expansions and character examinations of the sequels, the first “Saw” film was a relatively minimalist affair filmed on a comparatively microscopic budget. The budget was so tight that in many cases, takes originally intended as rehearsals wound up in the final film, reported The AV Club. The car chase scene was done in the most old-school low-budget way possible, with two stationary vehicles in a warehouse being physically shaken off-screen while lighting effects were used to simulate motion, as discussed in “SAW,” by Ben Poole.
Shawnee Smith, one of the handful of characters who survived the first film and one of two who appeared in the second, performed all her shots while hiding a pregnancy (via Bloody Disgusting). She kept it a secret until filming wrapped because she wanted to hold on to the role. Her most iconic scene in the second film is the needle pit trap, which had to be postponed because some real needles fell in among the thousands of fake ones, and they had to sort them out before shooting, revealed director Darren Bousman in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. A daunting task like that with dangerous consequences seems like it could have itself been a Jigsaw trap of sorts.
After debuting with a tedious, cerebral, and not-well-liked “Alien” sequel, David Fincher came up with “Se7en” as the film where people really started to take him seriously as a director. The creepy thriller starred Kevin Spacey as a methodical and meticulous serial killer carrying out murders in accordance with the seven deadly sins. It’s not a film you want to jump into after a large spaghetti dinner.
It had its own particular mishaps on set. While filming a chase scene, Brad Pitt slipped on the hood of a car and smashed his arm through its windshield, reported Entertainment Weekly. Rather than halt filming, they wrote the injury into the movie, and he wore his actual cast throughout the filming, keeping it off-screen in scenes that precede the injury. According to another Entertainment Weekly article, actor Gene Borkan, who played the corpse “Greed,” did not realize he would have to be naked and right there on set renegotiated his pay and still convinced them to at least let him wear underwear. Heidi Schanz, who played “Pride,” found herself pretty amused by how much Fincher seemed to enjoy dousing her naked body with fake blood. She remarked as much, and Fincher, deadpan, replied, “I have demons you can’t even imagine.”
Damn, Fincher. You’re kinda creepy.
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