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Kelso: Documentary on man who put the gore in ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’

John Kelso
Promotional photo of a scene from 1973’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which the late Robert Burns worked on. (Source: Bryanston Distributing Co.)

Joe O’Connell is doing his part to promote Austin’s eccentricity.

O’Connell, an old newspaper guy who has written about film for several Texas papers, is shooting a documentary about the late Robert Burns, the man who put the gore in the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with your blood and guts horror classics, Burns did the macabre artwork for the film. Although you wouldn’t guess he’d head in that direction if you met him; Burns was a real sweetheart, a soft-spoken guy with what I suspect was a genius IQ.

There’s never been another one like Robert Burns. They didn’t throw away the mold, because there was no mold. Although his South Austin home was a bit moldy.

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Burns lived in a two-story dust-collector in South Austin furnished with props from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” There was the arm chair, so-called because of the prosthetic arms Burns attached. When I visited Burns, a battery-powered rubber hand was crawling across the floor upstairs with a knife run through it, a prop Burns put together for an upcoming film project.

What project? Who knows? But I’m betting it wasn’t “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

During my visit Burns sat me down and showed me the massacre movie on a small TV. His review? He had one complaint: All that screaming from characters being hacked to pieces made the film extremely loud.

There are still people around Austin who recall with fondness their appearances in the film. Take Allen Danziger, who had a business called Three-Ring Service. The business would send somebody to your house dressed in a gorilla suit, if you needed somebody in a gorilla suit for your special occasion.

“In the movie, I get killed by a sledge hammer to my skull,” Danziger said. “Forty years later and I’m still getting headaches.”

Danziger played a guy named Jerry, who made the mistake of picking up the wrong hitchhiker. “Also,” he said, “I stopped picking up hitchhikers after the movie was over.”

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OK, I’ll come clean. I’m a horror movie chicken. It started with “Blood of the Vampire.” I was probably 12. I went and hid in the lobby.

When I was 16, I went to see “Psycho” in my hometown theater. I could tell by the stunned expressions on the faces of the people leaving the theater that this was no walk in the park. During the scene when the old lady corpse spins around in the chair, I hid behind the seat.

The documentary O’Connell is putting together includes Burns’ intense interest in Rondo Hatton, who suffered from a malady that caused too many growth hormones. The condition made his feet and face swell up, giving him the perfect look for a horror movie character. Hatton had been a journalist, a good-looking guy as a young man.

The distorted look gave Hatton a career in Grade B horror movies. His tour de force? In 1944, he appeared as The Creeper in the Sherlock Holmes film “Pearl of Death.”

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Burns claimed to be the world’s foremost authority on Hatton, and even threw him a 100th birthday party at his house, though Hatton wasn’t there. Hatton died of a heart attack at 51.

“There’s a connection between Bob Burns and Rondo Hatton — something about looking below the surface, that things aren’t always what they appear,” O’Connell said. “It’s an interesting notion for a guy like Bob, who worked in the bloodiest movies around.”

You never knew what you’d get out of Burns, who killed himself in 2004 at his home in Seguin by setting fire to charcoal briquettes and breathing the fumes. Burns had cancer and didn’t want to deal with it. I’ve had cancer several times, so I can relate.

Burns couldn’t exit the planet without adding some flair. So he let his friends know about his demise by sending out a card, postmarked so that it appeared he’d sent the card after he’d died. The note came with a photo of Burns stretched out in front of a fake gravestone decorated simply with his last name. On the front of the envelope was the message “Greetings From Far, Far Away.”

“I’ve never understood why people would stay in the theater after it became obvious that the rest of the movie would not be enjoyable,” Burns wrote. He even personalized the card for me.

“Kelso,” he wrote, “next time you get a column tip from me, you’ll know it’s time to sober up!”

Burns had a wicked sense of humor. He created Halloween costumes decorated with various manikins. He would wear these outfits on Sixth Street on Halloween. One costume made it appear as if he was being lugged down the street by a deranged person.

In another, Burns appeared tangled up with his French maid. Later in life, Burns appeared on stage in a musical trio that consisted of him and his two manikin sisters, Powder Burns and Heart Burns. Burns did all the singing, of course, and the trio performed in Seguin nursing homes.

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And the wit. Burns kept a collection of his mother’s hats, so many that he had them strung up on wires across the room. There was the wide-brimmed, bright red number, suitable for a Prince concert.

“Mom, as Super Fly,” Burns said of the red hat. I’d heard he didn’t like his mother.

All of this was too much for O’Connell to ignore, who’s seen plenty of horror movies over the years.

“My dad used to drop me off at the old State Theater on Congress in the ’70s when it was still a dump,” O’Connell recalled. It was such a dump, he added, that people would hit him up for spare change in the men’s room. “I’d see movies like ‘Frogs’ and ‘Sssssss.’”

There was actually a movie named, “Sssssss”? Yep. 1973. Snakes. Lots of snakes. Nothing but snakes.

These days, though, instead of watching the movies, O’Connell is shooting his own.

“I was a horror movie kid growing up in Austin, but I wasn’t really a ‘Chainsaw’ fan until much later on,” he said. “Not a favorite for me, but I think Bob’s creepy-crawly stuff makes it.”

Yeah, like a battery-powered hand, crawling across the floor, with a knife run through it.