We’ve lost too many people this year. Horror has taken a huge hit and has begun a transformation into whatever it is going to be from what it was before. Like Wes Craven, Gunnar Hansen was not one that I was expecting to hear. This was not a death that I was prepared for, if there ever even is a death that you could be prepared for. At times like this, all we can do is celebrate the man and what he has done. Gunnar Hansen was, of course, most known for his portrayal of Leatherface in the seminal 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was the movie that effectively changed the landscape of horror. He gave an entire generation nightmares. And yet you would never have found a nicer, more softspoken person.
If any fans out there have not read Gunnar’s book, Chainsaw Confidential, I would absolutely urge them to do so. It’s an amazing account of the making of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are dozens of books and documentaries on the movie but this is the best and most honest of them. He holds nothing back in terms of exactly how hellish, how brutal the movie was to make. All of them nearly died, most of them multiple times. But at the same time, all of that experience helped to make the movie what it was. Had conditions been better, would Texas Chainsaw Massacre have been as effective? These are the sorts of questions that Hansen dared to ask in this tell-all narrative chronicling his most famous work.
His performance in that film is incredible. I don’t care if he doesn’t have any dialogue, I don’t care if we never see his real face. He uses everything else to make that work. It’s one of the best examples of physical acting I’ve ever seen. Leatherface may have been scary on the page and it might have been an extremely creepy mask, but when it comes down to the finished film Leatherface is scary because of Gunnar. Each mask he wears has a slightly different look and a slightly tweaked performance to accompany it. There’s intensity when Leatherface dispatches his victims, but then you have scenes like the moment where Leatherface is going around the house trying to figure out where these people are coming from, collapsing into distress and frustration. That’s acting.
But Gunnar Hansen was so much more than Leatherface, so much more than the guy who held the chainsaw, chased teens, and helped to shape modern horror. He was a nice, intelligent, humble human being. He was an accomplished writer and documentary filmmaker as well. Hansen’s own writing couldn’t have been further from the material he’s known for. He didn’t write horror; he wrote poetry and nonfiction. One of his best was Islands on the Edge of Time, a deeply thoughtful and personal account of his journey to America’s Barrier Islands. More recently, he had been making documentaries about the local history surrounding his home in Maine.
Immediately after the success of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gunnar began getting offers for a lot of similar roles and turned them down for a number of reasons. The first was that nobody had really had a fun experience making the original. It had been a miserable time for everyone involved. More than that, he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to be an actor. He’d gotten lucky on Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he’d been in the right place at the right time, but he hadn’t planned on devoting himself to acting. Among the movies he turned down were Wes Craven’s original Hills Have Eyes and of course Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. I think, only from what I know, that Gunnar was always a writer at heart.
Yet he did make his eventual return to film and of course to the horror genre. He came back and acted off-and-on almost right up until his death, for no other reason than the fact that he had fun doing it. He made appearances in low-budget indies that have gone on to become cult classics like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Mosquito. Over time, both of these have really gained an impressive audience. Many people of my generation, even those who weren’t horror fans, first saw Mosquito as a kid and remember it fondly.
He kept appearing in movies throughout his lifetime, just for the fun of it and as a perennial thank you to fans of the genre that made him so remembered and revered as a horror icon. As low as the budgets got, he gave them his all and never phoned in a performance. One of his last movies, Brutal Massacre, was also one of his best, which proves the energy and sense of humor he could still have almost forty years after the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre release.
Gunnar Hansen never set out to become a horror icon, but he absolutely embraced being one. He would constantly travel from his somewhat isolated Maine home to mingle with fans at conventions. He loved and respected the genre and always spoke eloquently of it. He completely got what made Texas Chainsaw Massacre work and why it had had the effect on people that it did. He was one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and the world is definitely a little darker without him.