Leatherface unmasked: Gunnar Hansen tells all in ‘Chain Saw’ memoirWritten by Brian Bohnert | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Within a matter of minutes, a teenage girl is impaled on a set of meat hooks; a spinning blade shreds the midsection of a wheelchair-bound paraplegic; and an innocent man is bludgeoned with a hammer and dragged away to face an even more vicious slaughter.
On Oct. 1, 1974, moviegoers nationwide experienced a cinematic horror unlike anything they had ever seen before.
Pegged as one of “America’s most bizarre and brutal crimes,” as a group of friends visiting their grandfather’s old farmhouse in rural Texas are hunted down, tortured and killed by a masked chain saw-wielding man-child and his family of deranged, malicious cannibals.
Internationally banned, bashed by critics and hailed by horror fans worldwide, Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was a colossal success, grossing more than $30 million and earning its rank as one of the most terrifying films of all time.
Now, nearly 40 years after the Sawyer family unleashed hell on Sally Hardesty and her ill-fated friends, Leatherface himself, Gunnar Hansen, opens up about the classic film, its place in history and the state of the horror genre itself in his new book, “Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made The World’s Most Notorious Horror Movie.”
‘Who will survive and what will be left of them?’
Published through Chronicle Books on Sept. 24, “Chain Saw Confidential” explores the grueling day-to-day production of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” as well as the film’s legacy and its reception among critics and horror fans.
“I started this book two years ago,” Hansen said. “I was approached by a publisher that wanted to do an autobiography. I didn’t want to do that; but, that got me thinking about this book. It was something I had been thinking of on and off for a long time. For me, I thought, this was the time to do it. Four of the five guys have died since the making of the film. And, this was something I thought that, if I did it right, this was a book a lot of people could find interesting.”
Hansen interviewed various cast and crew members for the book, including leading lady Marilyn Burns, who played Sally in the film.
“I really did not understand, until I interviewed Marilyn, the extent of her suffering; how the circumstances were really brutal for her,” Hansen said. “We all suffered, but it was nothing compared to what Marilyn was put through.”
The most notable example of Burns’ suffering outlined in the book was during production of the film’s climax: the infamous “dinner scene” where Sally is bound to a chair, tortured and taunted by Leatherface and company while pieces of cooked human flesh are presented as the nightly feast.
“She was terrified during the dinner scene because, as she put it, ‘I began to wonder, was this really a snuff film?’” he said. “She was tied to the chair at the table and all of that, I think, really scared her terribly.”
Hansen said filming that scene was both physically and mentally exhausting, shooting for close to 26 hours straight in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
“I also had to wear a coat at the dinner scene, on top of all of my other clothes and my wool pants,” he said. “And for 28 straight days, they wouldn’t wash my wardrobe. I wore the same clothes for these four weeks and they really smelled. The set itself smelled terrible during the dinner scene because everything was starting to rot.
“You put a film crew in there for 26 hours with a lot of light and everything smelled and I smelled the worst. One night, I was standing in the dinner line and one crew member told me to get out of line because I smelled so bad.”
With a schedule that required the cast and crew to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for four weeks, Hansen said he has plenty of memories of hellish temperatures, fractured bones and near-death experiences.
“During the chase scene, I fell with the live saw still running,” he said. “They had put 3-inch heels in my boots and I couldn’t see anything out of the mask unless it was directly in front of me. So, when I was running, I fell. And, when I fell, I pitched the live saw in the air. It went straight up and I couldn’t see it. So, I hit the ground and rolled over, and it landed beside me, still running.”
And what was the paycheck for the then 26-year-old Hansen? A modest $800, translating to roughly $2 per hour.
“I used to joke that I’d make more money if I’d worked at McDonald’s; and that actually turned out to be true,” he said, chuckling. “But it was a great experience, and I’ve been paid in many other ways.”
Hansen quit acting for roughly 10 years following a less-than-pleasurable experience on the 1977 horror film “The Demon Lover.”
“It was a brilliant example of incompetent filmmaking,” he said. “After that experience, I just didn’t want anything to do with the movie business. I didn’t like people I met, especially the producers, and I didn’t want to end up like them. So, I just started turning down movies. I turned down ‘The Hills Have Eyes.’”
In the years that followed he turned to writing, playing author to several books and documentary films, some of which he also produced and directed.
He returned to silver screen in 1988, starring as a Middle Eastern flesh peddler in “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers,” a B-movie about a group of chain saw-wielding prostitutes who carve up their suitors as sacrifices for their cult.
Evil wears many faces
In the summer of 2011, Hansen returned to the old farmhouse for a family reunion of sorts, playing a cameo role in 2013’s “Texas Chainsaw 3D.” The film, labeled as a direct sequel to Hooper’s original, follows a young woman as she travels to the Lone Star State to collect a family inheritance, only to learn her distant relatives have a very dark past.
“It was really fun,” he said. “This was really a great experience because they had very carefully built a replica of the original house. The original house was moved and restored, and it’s a restaurant now. So they photographed it and measured everything and they rebuilt the house identical in the front and in the inside rooms we used.
“The first day I arrived, it was surreal because they dropped me off in front of the building so I had to walk up to the house. Even the trees looked the same, and we shot this one in Louisiana,” he said. “It was an eerie experience. It was as if it was 1973 again, even though it was really 2011.”
Before being cast in the cameo role, Hansen was asked to consider returning to the franchise to wield the chain saw once more. Hansen said he was initially flattered by the request, but recognized the real-life limitations brought on by the four decades since the original.
“In truth, I think I’m just too old,” he said. “It’s been 40 years. I’m 66 years old and I have an artificial knee. I think it would be hard to ever play Leatherface again … unless you’ve got Leatherface as this old guy in the shadows hobbling around. Leatherface is not going to be chasing around young blonde girls anymore.”
“Texas Chainsaw 3D” is but one of the many incarnations of the franchise. The 6-foot-4-inch Icelandic-born actor said he recognizes the Hollywood trend toward sequels, prequels and remakes in the horror genre. He said it boils down to mainstream studios cashing in on horror’s popularity, sacrificing originality and quality in the name of a quick profit.
“Really great horror comes from directors who are marginal,” he said. “Directors, if they don’t have a lot of money, aren’t going to be worried about offending people … The next Tobe Hooper is not going to be some studio-bred auteur. It’s going to be some kid who raises a few thousand dollars through friends and family, and makes a movie that shocks everybody. That’s where horror should be coming from.”
When it comes to the enduring legacy of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” Hansen said it is all about the cathartic value of the horror genre, which allows the audience to return to their normal lives after facing something truly frightening.
“There is this idea that you can put yourself into a position where you feel like you’re in danger but you’re not,” he said. “You get the fear that your life is right at that edge, but you know you’ll get off that roller coaster safe and sound. That’s why people like to go to scary movies. You are confronting something that is bigger than your life and that is deeply frightening. You walk out of the theater seeing something you didn’t want to see — seeing the shadow — and it is maybe something you didn’t really want to look at.”
Tags: 1974, Chainsaw Confidential, Demon Lover, Gunnar Hansen, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Leatherface, Lone Star State, Marilyn Burns, Middle Eastern flesh peddler, Sally, Texas Chainsaw 3D, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Tobe Hooper