|A photo of Gunnar Hansen in his iconic role.|
Gunnar "Leatherface" Hansen died yesterday at the age of 68 from pancreatic cancer. I feel I should say something about that, because I routinely count The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) among my favorite films of all time, and Gunnar's a major part of that. I first saw the film sometime back in the '90s, when video stores still existed. I was making a point of seeing just about everything filed under "HORROR" at the local Family Video, and I thought I'd finally check out TCM, a movie I knew by title and reputation but had never actually screened. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, probably something cartoonish and over-the-top, but it certainly wasn't this: a weird, intense, almost artsy movie with the feeling of a genuine nightmare. In fact, this is one of the few movies to ever work its way repeatedly into my dreams. And in those dreams, frequently, is Gunnar Hansen, the man-mountain, with his blood-soaked apron, wildly unkempt hair, and mask made of human skin. Danny Peary once wrote that Gunnar Hansen makes one of the most memorable first appearances in cinema history, and it's true. When he comes bounding into the frame, wielding that sledgehammer, well... Let's just watch the scene together, huh?
There's nothing like the finality of that sliding door at the end of the scene. Tobe Hooper wanted audiences to know that the '60s were over, and he sent Gunnar as his 6'4", 300-pound messenger. In this respect, Leatherface is a hammer of God or maybe a chainsaw of God. In time, I've come to understand Leatherface as the loyal, simple junkyard dog protecting his family's property. His brothers, the Hitchhiker and the Old Man, are the sadistic sickos in the clan. Their (big) little brother is just following orders. It's interesting that Tobe Hooper rarely, if ever, leaves us alone in the presence of the killers. Besides the iconic "danse macabre" at the end of the movie, the one major exception is that marvelous little scene in which Leatherface is shown in a dither after placing Pam, his home's second intruder of the day, on a meathook. After dispatching Pam, the butcher runs down the hall of his corpse-strewn home, looks out the window to see if anyone else is coming, whimpers in utter confusion and dismay, then sits down and buries his head in his hands. "What else could go wrong today?" he seems to wonder.
I've dutifully watched all (or most of) the Chainsaw sequels and reboots, but no film in the franchise can touch the original for pure visceral power. Those other movies are trying to be shocking; the original is shocking. Maybe it's because its production was famously unpleasant, difficult, and even dangerous. The story is fictional, but some of the horror we're witnessing in Chainsaw is real. I've learned this over the years from DVD commentaries, articles, and documentaries about the subject. In those, Gunnar Hansen proved himself to be the very opposite of his character. When talking about the movie, he was uncommonly gentle, intelligent, and well-spoken, with a good sense of humor.
When I met Gunnar Hansen in person, he proved to be all of those things. Normally, I stay away from the convention circuit, but when my hometown of Flint played host to a massive comic book show about 15 years ago, I decided to attend because... well, frankly, because there was a young lady who said she'd be there and whom I wanted very much to impress at the time. It didn't work out with me and this young woman, a big Sailor Moon fan, but the convention did give me the opportunity to sidle up to Gunnar Hansen's table. This show was mainly geared toward comic books and animation, so Gunnar wasn't at all busy. We talked for quite a while, and he was incredibly gracious and patient. A class act all the way.
Good night, Gunnar Hansen. Maybe we'll meet again in my nightmares.