Yesterday brought the sad news of the passing of Gunnar Hansen, the man who played “Leatherface” in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hansen passed away Saturday at his home at the age of 68 from pancreatic cancer.
Hansen was, in his own right, a horror icon. While he only only played Leatherface in the original film, it was his portrayal that cemented the character as one of the most notorious and iconic slashers ever committed to film. To this day, the scene of Leatherface hitting Kirk with the hammer, dragging him into the abattoir, and then slamming the metal door shut is one that gives viewers nightmares.
I don’t know what it is about Leatherface that makes him such a fascinating slasher. He has no lines and his movements are, if you stop and think about it, almost Looney Tunes-ish in nature. Remember when Sally is running from him in the dark? There’s a moment where Sally runs along the side of a house through a fence gate. Leatherface could’ve easily gone diagonally through the gate and continued without breaking stride. Instead, he keeps going straight, comes to a stuttered halt (just add a cartoon “screech” sound and it’s perfect), and then continues after her. It’s comical in its innocence, even with a chainsaw blaring.
This idea is furthered when you take into account that Tobe Hooper, in the documentary The Shocking Truth, states that Leatherface is a “big baby”. Additionally, Gunnar stated that the character was defined to him as, “…as someone who was severely mentally retarded and severely mentally disturbed [Source].” The infamous “chainsaw dance” at the end of the original film is essentially an exaggerated temper tantrum, the throes of a child who didn’t get his way.
David Gregory, director of the documentary, explains, “…Leatherface…put the family in jeopardy by committing a string of murders after he misinterprets a group of teenagers looking to find gas and leave as a group of home invaders.” This helps put one of my favorite scenes from the original film into perspective. Leatherface is scrambling around the bone-filled living room, frantically trying to see if there is anyone else that is invading his home. He then sits down, his hands fidgeting and beating his head. It’s the actions of a child that knows he’s in trouble and isn’t sure of how to get out of it.
A quick little addition is that Leatherface is also a character that is concerned with his appearance, using only the nicest faces to cover his own and applying makeup in a measure to beautify himself. No other slasher that I can think of has that kind of interest in their own appearance, as though he is fully aware of the ugliness of his actions so he tries to cover it with his own ideal of beauty.
Gunnar brought all of this to a role where he didn’t have a single line. He knew how to portray a character that pushed boundaries, created abject and absolute terror, but also inspired sympathy. There was a poetry to his portrayal of a character that is often seen as a big, dumb lout. But he was our big, dumb lout and we loved him, flaws and all.