It’s been over four decades since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre set the bar for unrelenting cinematic horror — and it still carries the standard for the genre. It’s also famous for many unforgettable images, sounds and angles — one of which is the famous low-angle tracking shot that follows actress Teri McMinn (a.k.a. “Pam”) from beneath a yard swing and up to the front porch of a house where she will ultimately meet her doom.
We recently tracked down Teri herself, who kindly set aside time to answer all our questions about the O.G. classic in great detail. Check it out below!
TOM HOLLAND’S TERROR TIME: In the film, you’re an animal activist, or at least seem to be one, and have an interest in astrology. Are those aspects true for yourself in real life?
TERI McMINN: At the time I filmed Chainsaw, I wasn’t yet a vegetarian. About four years ago, I went vegetarian; I’m now 99% vegetarian. As far as my interest in astrology, I’d been reading my daily horoscope since my early teens. I was 21 when we started filming and turned 22 on August 18th, around the time the picture taken of me sitting on the steps of the Sawyer house — the picture of me that is on Wikipedia [shown above].
I wouldn’t say I was as interested in astrology as Pam was; she was truly studying it, which I’d never done. I learned a lot from her!
THTT: Did you ever question all the low-angle shots, namely the “shorts scene?”
TM: Yes, [and I was] very troubled. The day we filmed the scene of me walking up to the house, Dotty Pearl (makeup artist) was touching up my makeup near the steps… and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Daniel Pearl, our DP/cinematographer, was lying down under the swing with his camera. I asked Dotty why Daniel was under the swing… she mumbled “I don’t know…” I asked Tobe and he told me Daniel was going to follow me up to the house from the swing.
That was when I realized if I was sitting in the swing and Daniel and his camera were under it, the camera was [at] 14 inches from my rear end. I told him there was no way I was going to film it. We argued and and argued. Finally, Tobe was exasperated with me and said, “Awww, goddamnit, Teri… we’re gonna shoot around it!” I wasn’t happy at all, but I unwillingly agreed.
He was so right — they did shoot around it… all around it! I was horrified when I went to a matinee showing of the film in Tomball, Texas, a tiny town right outside Houston, where I was born and raised. A friend and I hd driven down from Dallas to see the film. I was nervous to see myself, my work on film, and especially worried about that particular scene. I literally hid my face in my hands and sunk low in my seat, as I watched myself get up from the swing. It was agony. It seemed like it took forever as I watched [myself] slowly walking toward the steps, calling, “Kirk” over and over and over. I thought I sounded like a parrot. There it was, in cinemascope and vivid technicolor. I was mortified for 35 years! The truth is I was actually worried about my mother and my Aunt Gerri seeing it. I didn’t realize they’d never go to see the film… ever. So you see, all my worrying was really a total waste of time and energy.
When I first “came out” as Pam in 2008, and joined the cast at my first horror convention after three decades in anonymity, I was shocked and delighted to learn that fans loved the scene and that it’s actually used in directing classes around the world for young filmmakers. Of course, it’s hard to remember, or especially for young folks to realize how different things were in the early ’70s. What was shocking or even borderline in 1974 was nothing even five to ten years down the road. Things began to change in social mores and in film pretty quickly in the ’70s. Everything was changing — the music, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the peace movement, drugs, the oil prices skyrocketed. As you see in the film, at that time even getting gas was tough. It was often hard to find, and many times there were long lines. I go into all that, the history of that time, in my stories, particularly in my Facebook post “Pam Lives, Part II.”
THTT: Did you have any flames on set? To put it more clearly, were you involved with any of your castmates on the film?
TM: No, I was dating someone at that time, but no one connected to the film. Bill (Vail) and I hung out on the set together a lot between our scenes. We discussed our characters, came up with Pam and Kirk’s history, our background and relationship together. Marilyn [Burns], Allen [Danziger], Bill and I spent many hours together, talking, waiting for clouds to pass, or for the crew to set up the next shot. Paul (Partain) liked to stay in character as Franklin, so he kind of stayed apart from us.
THTT: I heard at one point the chickens in the Sawyer home were real live chickens, and that it was unbearably hot on the set. Were you sickened by the smell?
TM: There was that one poor little chicken in the cage, in the room where Pam trips over the bucket and falls in all the feathers — the “bone room.” I don’t recall any other chickens. The only scenes where there was a smell were the dinner scenes that went on for way, way too long, and the food was beginning to go bad with all the heat and the hot lights they had to use. Fortunately, I wasn’t in any of those scenes.
If you Google the temperature in Austin, Texas for July and August 1973, you’ll see it was between 95-100 degrees every day. We were outside in the heat all day, always trying to stay in the shade when we weren’t filming. We had no air-conditioned trailers. We did get a few lawn chairs after the first week as I recall, but before that we sat on the porch or the steps. The swing was still up on the porch the first two weeks of filming, so we took turns in that, and there was also a hammock. We took turns in that, too. Filming is a lot of sitting and waiting.
When we filmed the scenes inside the van, we had the director, cinematographer, and sound guy in the back, and the five of us actors inside together, so it was eight people. The last two days we filmed with the hitchhiker, so that made nine people sweating together. What most people watching the film don’t realize is the windows had to be closed to block road noise, and if the van had AC, we couldn’t have turned it on because of the noise. (I don’t think it had AC anyway.) That was brutal for all of us. If you notice, the sun is high and it’s already very hot, but trapped inside a van all day with eight people is hot. When we’d stop between scenes, the doors of the van would open and we’d all pile out and breathe.
THTT: If you were to rewrite The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, would you change anything? Obviously the answer would be “Yes, save Pam!” But other than your character’s demise, what would you want changed?
TM: There are three of Pam’s stories that might interest you — they can be found on both my personal Facebook page, and later I posted them as Pam’s “notes.” If you read them on my personal page, where they were first posted, you’ll see the many reviews from fans were unanimously raves. [Editor’s Note: Here are the entries for “Pam Lives,” Parts I, II and III].
THTT: What are your thoughts on the CHAINSAW franchise’s course of direction… or more specifically the prequel Leatherface?
TM: You should know, I have nothing whatsoever to do with any of the other TCM films, or the TCM franchise, other than the fact that I played Pam in the first film. The first TCM in ’74 obviously has little to do with the all the other films that followed — both in storylines, timelines, or the main characters: Pam, Sally, Jerry, Kirk, and Franklin. The killers, later called the “Sawyer” family, varied from one film to the next. In my opinion, the follow-up films in the franchise are each separate entities. I have no opinion on any of them.