It was a typical day at the office for Bill Moseley.
“I was lying on the floor of the house, right inside the front door, and down the hall the sliding steel door was open and there was red felt with a bunch of animal skulls,” the actor said on a recent sunny morning over coffee, recounting his experience shooting the new horror film “Texas Chainsaw 3D.” “People were stepping over me because I was staying in position for the next shot, and I was covered with blood and a bunch of chicken feathers and it was hot and I was all squishy, but I had that moment of, yeah, I’m home.”
Mainstream moviegoers might not immediately recognize Moseley’s name, but the 61-year-old character actor is well known to horror fans. Since his breakthrough role as the character Chop Top in 1986’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” Moseley’s carved out a gruesome niche for himself with parts in such movies as “Army of Darkness,” “House of 1000 Corpses,” “Repo! The Genetic Opera” and “2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams.”
In “Texas Chainsaw 3D,” the Lionsgate horror sequel that opened Friday, he plays the father to the power-tool-wielding villain Leatherface in a 1970s-set prologue.
Moseley is one of a community of actors — Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Doug Bradley, Ken Foree, William Forsythe, Linnea Quigley, Debbie Rochon and Dee Wallace, among others — who appear in genre films together and frequent the international circuit of horror conventions the way some performers make the rounds of film festivals each year.
Moseley’s filmography includes “Pink Cadillac,” starring Clint Eastwood, and Disney’s Jack London adaptation “White Fang,” and he’s appeared on television series including “ER,” “The Practice,” even “Days of Our Lives.” But more often, it’s grimmer fare that pays the bills — cannibals, child murderers, he’s even due to play Charles Manson in a movie set for release later this year.
“It’s cool to know that you can love monsters,” Moseley said. “For most kids, that’s a phase. For me, I’m so grateful to have been able to extend it for a few more years.”
It’s an unusual career for a Yale grad with a degree in English who still enjoys reading Dostoevsky. But to hear Moseley tell it, his path to acting, specifically his involvement with the “Chainsaw” movies, might as well have been preordained.
He already had graduated from college and was working as a copywriter at an ad agency in Boston when he caught a double feature of “Enter the Dragon” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in the city’s seedy adult-entertainment district then known as the “Combat Zone.” He doesn’t remember the year exactly, maybe 1975, maybe 1976. But the images in Tobe Hooper’s film stayed with him.
“To me, it was so powerful,” Moseley said. “I kept desperately looking for the zipper in the costume, the boom shadow, something to give me a bit of distance. Never happened. It really disturbed me. I’m from rural America, Northern Illinois, it just kind of bent my view of country folk.”
Moseley wasn’t alone in his assessment. Hooper’s dark nightmare of murder and cannibalism in the American South has become, in the years since its original release, a landmark in the horror genre and in the world of independent filmmaking. Along with George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is one of a wave of subversive underground horror pictures released in the late ’60s and early ’70s that channeled the anxiety surrounding contemporary social issues — civil rights, the trauma of the Vietnam War, economic woes — into transgressive cinema.
The story recounts the events that befall five friends on an insufferably hot August day. After hearing reports of grave desecrations, the group — Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), her boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger) and friends Kirk and Pam (William Vail and Teri McMinn) — drives to a remote cemetery to ensure that the remains of the Hardestys’ grandfather are intact.
Along their route, they offer a lift to a strange-looking hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who turns out to be less than the ideal travel companion. Clearly mentally disturbed, the man takes out a dirty blade and begins to slice open his palm while the friends look on in horror and disbelief. They manage to evict the creep from their van, but before long, they’ve stumbled on an old farmhouse, accidentally wandering inside the building into a nightmare involving a group of disfigured and depraved men who have taken the family profession of butchery to new extremes.
Before long, the travelers are at the mercy of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a chainsaw-wielding madman who wears a mask made from human skin. The character, now one of the chief members of the slasher pantheon, was loosely based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and therefore takes on some of Gein’s most abhorrent proclivities.
In a review published Jan. 1, 1974, Roger Ebert described “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as a “real Grand Guignol of a movie … without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose.” Still, he pointed out “it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.”
“What I tried to do is to see the movie – that was back in the day when videotape was just coming in so it was harder to get a hold of ‘Chainsaw’ or see it in the theaters,” Moseley said. “I probably ended up seeing it another 10 times, just to try to make it so familiar that I’d finally be able to get over it. Every time I saw it, it just pounded that spike deeper, it didn’t relieve me of whatever had twisted me.”
In a final attempt to come to terms with his strange fixation with the film, Moseley made a five-minute short called “The Texas Chainsaw Manicure,” about a woman who asks to get her nails done at a salon and is taken aback when Leatherface turns up to perform the service. Turns out, he does a smashing job, and the woman shows off her nails to her husband, played in a cameo by Moseley, dressed as Neal’s hitchhiker.
At the time, Moseley was living in New York working as a freelance writer, and he tried to sell the short to late-night comedy shows, “Fridays” and “Saturday Night Live,” with no success. But some screenwriter friends in Los Angeles who had an office on the Paramount lot adjacent to Hooper told Moseley they’d take a copy to the filmmaker.
Moseley remembers a genial phone call from Hooper who told him, “Gee, Bill, if I ever do a sequel I’ll keep you in mind.”
A couple of years later, he was in Austin working on the movie.
“I got over my fear of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ that was what did it,” Moseley said. “It was a mind-blower. All of a sudden I was a part of the ‘Chainsaw’ family and I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
Growing up in Barrington, Ill., Moseley would sneak into the family library when his father, a former Marine, was asleep, to watch atomic age horror movies — “Beginning of the End,” “Attack of the Giant Leeches” — on the black-and-white TV. He says his family was “Halloween-friendly,” always willing to engage in spooky practical jokes, so his interest in ghoulish entertainment didn’t raise an eyebrow.
He traces his transformation into a full-time monster not to Chop Top, but to his performance as Otis in Rob Zombie’s grindhouse extravaganza “House of 1000 Corpses.” The pair met at the 1999 Eyegore Awards, the annual ceremony that helps kick off Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights event, which Moseley hosted as his “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” character.
A few weeks later, the actor was offered a starring role in Zombie’s feature directorial debut about a family of sadistic killers who abduct and torture four college kids — other horror film favorites including Karen Black, Haig and Tom Towles were cast in the film.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Moseley said. “All actors go through highs and lows, and I think at the time I was having trouble getting extra work, frankly.”
Still, after the movie was completed, it sat on the shelf for years when Universal, citing concerns over its graphic content, chose not to release the film; it ultimately found a home at Lionsgate, which finally opened “House of 1000 Corpses” in 2003. Zombie made a sequel, “The Devil’s Rejects,” in 2005, and between the two projects, Moseley said his career regained momentum.
“Once ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ came out, I guess that firmly established me as a horror guy,” he said. “Everybody who liked ‘Devil’s Rejects’ was interested in hiring me for their movie, [playing] different kinds of characters, that’s pretty much the story.”
He says he truly enjoys the niche he’s found and doesn’t spend much time wishing for a career in more overtly commercial movies. He watches all the films in which he appears and stays current with other horror titles too.
“I’m a big fan of [Takashi] Miike, ‘Audition,’ ‘Ichi the Killer’ is one of my faves,” Moseley said. “I liked ‘I Saw the Devil.’ They’re pretty extreme, but I loved the two ‘Human Centipede’ films from Tom Six. Those movies are fun because they’re well-made. They’re crazy and psychotic and perverted and twisted, but they’re really well-made.”
Moseley spent about five days in 100-plus-degree temperatures filming his scenes for “Texas Chainsaw 3D” last summer on a set, just outside Shreveport, La., designed to look exactly like the Sawyer house from the original film. In preparing for the new role, he went back and watched the original one more time.
Finally, Moseley had a chance to admire the handiwork of Hooper and his team, including cinematographer Daniel Pearl, on a film that is now a part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the basis for what a new team of producers is hoping will be a successful horror franchise.
“What I was noticing was just how beautifully it was shot,” Moseley said. “It was the first time I was able to pull away from the story and just look at some of the artistic aspects of the moviemaking, what an amazing Leatherface Gunnar Hansen was, how much I owe to Ed Neal’s performance, I’d never seen any character like that. I don’t think I’d ever seen a scene before when the monster actually scares you by hurting himself. Everything about that movie was so groundbreaking and such a mind-blower.”
— Gina McIntyre
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