A few days after he chased an actress through a forest at night in a mask he could barely see through while wearing cowboy boots with three inch heels and wielding a fully operational chainsaw, poet-turned-actor-turned-professor Gunnar Hansen found himself teaching freshman English at the University of Texas.
It's a minor miracle that Hansen and the rest of his Texas Chainsaw Massacre castmates made through the shoot more or less intact. While the violence in Tobe Hooper's 1974 mother of all slasher films was fake, nearly everything else captured on screen, including the exhaustion, the frustration and anger, was real.
Hansen revisits the chaos in new memoir Chain Saw Confidential (Chronicle Books, Sept. 22). Cast as Leatherface primarily because of his height—a strapping six foot three—Hansen tells Co.Create "I had no real movie experience. Writing was always my real interest. I just worked on Chainsaw because I thought it would be an interesting job and it would be fun to do. It was interesting, although it wasn't fun."
Case in point: Chainsaw's horrific dinner scene was filmed during a marathon 26-hour session inside a house where temperatures reached 120 degrees. "The inside of the house smelled peculiar. We had animal hides on the wall, skeletal bones from different animals, taxidermied critters. The food on the table rotted so fast they had to throw it away every couple hours and put out fresh head cheese and sausage."
Hansen, who got paid $800 for his work in the movie, wore the same clothes for the entire shoot and became sickened by the stench. "They wouldn't wash it because they were afraid it would change color or the laundry would lose the wardrobe, so I smelled the worst. You could lean my suit up against the wall at that point because it so was hardened from the sweat. The bickering among the family members was made that much stronger by the fact that we were so worn out. It was horrendous."
The grueling shoot imbued Texas Chainsaw Massacre with an authenticity that helped the film pioneer a new standard for reality-based horror. The movie, like Psycho, found its inspiration in Wisconsin killer Ed Gein and has alternately fascinated and repulsed audiences since its theatrical release in 1974.
Hansen talked to Co.Create about the Chainsaw Effect that continues to crop up in horror movies 39 years after Leatherface freaked out movie audiences by appearing to hang a hapless Texas tourist (Teri McMinn) on a meat hook.
"Found footage" thrillers dating to the Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity franchises owe a direct debt to Chainsaw Massacre's prologue intoned by a young John Larroquette that set up the massacre as a factual event. "Many people are shocked when they find out that this is not a true story. One of the great myths about Chainsaw is that this is a detailed account of a series of murders that happened in Texas, which is certainly not true. Part of the power of this movie is that it gives you the illusion that this was a real event. That helps people suspend their disbelief if they think they're watching a film about a real event."
The jittery camera moves and imperfect film textures that define the Saw torture porn series also owe a stylistic debt to Chainsaw. As Hansen notes, "A lot of Chainsaw's influence on more recent horror films comes indirectly from the low budget. They couldn't afford the camera rental, film stock or processing for 35 millimeter film so they had to shoot in 16 millimeter. When you have limitations that don't let you be as slick as you'd otherwise like to be, it becomes 'Let's make it look crude on purpose.' That contributes to this sense that some guy just happened to be there and filmed this on his home video camera."
Chainsaw made it okay to make movies that were gritty and dirty and sweaty. The movie felt real," says Hansen. In Chainsaw you have a psychological darkness that was very unusual at the time. It was un-Hollywood. It was hard for me to look at the Hammer films for example, and be horrified. Chainsaw gave you a glimpse of real horror."
Hansen says "You have a lot of movies that seem like faint echoes of Chainsaw where they just go 'lets try another power tool' or use the term 'massacre.' They don't even pretend that they're not copying the Chainsaw concept. And of course the masks—I don't think you'd have Michael Myers or Jason without Leatherface originally." And Chainsaw created some things that have become clichés, like kids in a van or the complaining fifth wheel.
Hansen lives most of the year in a small coastal town in Maine where he enjoys his anonymity. He rarely gets recognized as the man behind the human-skin mask whose name has become pop culture shorthand for "Nightmarish Freak." He says, "Leatherface is almost like an archetype for a certain type of villain, but at the same time, you never see my face in the movie, so no one confuses me with my character. I'm proud I played a part in a movie that had such a big effect, but I like my privacy. I get to walk down the street and nobody has a clue that I was Leatherface."
[Images: Copyright Vortex. Inc, courtesy of Chronicle Books]