“I just can’t take no pleasure in killing,” says an old gas station attendant and habitual cannibal in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. “There’s just some things you gotta do.” Hooper seemed to approach the film with the same tenacious attitude: his seminal slasher film, which cost a paltry $100,000 (in cash), is a relentless 90-minute excursion into the sun-dried bowels of hell, with little reprieve from the screaming and shrieking of its victims and villains. The film isn’t nearly as gory as its long-standing reputation insinuates – Hooper wanted a PG rating, a laughable reverie (he instead got an X, then after some cuts, an R) – but it pounds away at your nerves with perverse determination, abetted by the grinding and whirring of the sonic landscape, which sounds like a herd of mechanical animals in heat. A lot of the credit for the film’s infamy belongs to Gunnar Hansen, the 300-pound Icelandic-American poetry journal editor and sometimes carpenter who imbued the pivotal role of Leatherface with a kind of demented malaise that has afflicted few horror film villains, before or since.
Hansen, who died Saturday at the age of 68, was studying English and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Texas when he met Hooper. He took the role of Leatherface as a summer job, something he could tell his grandchildren about. The character is a severely mentally handicapped man who wears a mask of his victims’ faces sutured together in a grotesque quilt; you never see Hansen’s face unsheathed. When a coterie of young hippie types wander into Leatherface’s house, he greets them by bashing in their brains with a mallet, dangling them from meat hooks, and carving them up with the titular woodland instrument. Today, the minute size of the chainsaw he slings around (whose idiosyncratic spelling in the film’s title reflects the film’s singular DIY attitude) seems almost comical, given the histrionic elongation of on-screen weapons which bear increasingly little semblance to reality. Hooper’s film, anchored by Hansen’s performance, approaches its horrors with such fierce banality it feels surreal. What Hansen does feels less like acting than going insane on screen; Wes Craven said it looked like “someone stole the camera and started killing people.”
To get into the role of the murderous man-child, a character inspired by the exploits of notorious murderer Ed Gein, Hansen spent time with mentally handicapped people, studying their mannerisms, the things that upset them. As Jason Zinoman says in his essential chronicle of American horror Shock Value, “What many describe as a reckless and raw assault on the senses was also, however, a rather (for horror) nuanced portrait of a dysfunctional family and a disappearing class of people,” noting how the victims were by far less interesting than the craven family of cannibals. When he isn’t chasing skinny young things around with his chainsaw, Leatherface is actually pretty pathetic; he sits whimpering at the dinner table, swaddled with an ill-fitting suiting that makes him look like a squirming child at a family gathering, a bastardization of the 1950s family portrait.
The movie shot for 16 hours a day in sweltering Texas heat for three weeks with only one day off a week. The actors all wore the same outfits every day so by the final week of filming no one would sit next to Hansen, he smelled so rank. Right before filming the scene when he chases Sally (Marilyn Burns) up the stairs and cuts down a door to get to her, using an actual functioning chainsaw, Hansen scarfed down a few brownies someone had passed out earlier, not realizing they were special brownies. They kicked in as he was filming, and he was so high when he had to break down the door, he had a tough time concentrating. “I trust Gunnar 100 percent,” Burns said later. “But not Gunnar on brownies, with a chainsaw, running up the steps, take forty-four, oh no.”
Hooper’s squalid, low-budget movie infected movie theaters in 1974 and ended up becoming the most successful independent film of all time, culling over $30 million in box office revenue (John Carpenter’s considerably tamer Halloween usurped it in 1978).
Hansen didn’t have much success acting after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He appeared in a movie called Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, which did not become a classic (though it does contain the incredible line, “I’d stumbled into the middle of an evil, insidious cult of chainsaw-worshiping maniacs. I had to wonder if we’d let our religious freedom go too far in this country, or maybe our immigration laws were just too lax”), and co-starred with Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton in Mosquito, one of those fabled so-bad-it’s-good movies you often hear about but rarely see in the wild. Most recently, Hansen had been working on a film called Death House, which he also co-wrote, and which was due to come out next year. A longtime writer of books and scripts, he penned Chain Saw Confidential in 2013, a fun, breezy read about his grueling on-set experience. Also a naturalist, Hansen published a travel memoir about America’s barrier islands in 1993. He is survived by his partner, Betty Tower.