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In Memoriam: Gunnar Hansen, The Original Leatherface from “THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE”

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An ugly, unfortunate fact that all horror fans have to face is the depressing nature of death. Even though we all live and breathe a genre that revolves around death, the truth is that death is a something we all have to face at one point or another. And in terms of the iconic filmmakers and actors who helped foster the love of horror in us all, the next ten to twenty years will remind us of the fact in the worst way.

In 2015, death has really been taxing on the horror crowd, having taken away screen icons such as Christopher Lee, Roddy Piper, Wes Craven, Betsy Palmer, Robert Z’Dar, and Tom Towles. Some of these legends were best known for their presence in the horror community, while others were known for their prolific work in their respective field. Yet few people could balance their reputation as an on-screen genre icon as well as a genuinely grateful member of the horror community as well as the dearly departed Gunnar Hansen.

Truth be told, this writer never met Gunnar Hansen throughout the years, having missed the opportunities to meet Hansen at various conventions/festivals. In fact, even my opportunity to meet Hansen at a 2013 FANGORIA/Times Scare event for his book CHAIN SAW CONFIDENTIAL came about too last minute for this writer to attend. However, the myriad voices from the horror world speaking of Hansen with a mixture of somber lament and appreciative memories paint a picture of a horror icon who genuinely reciprocated that appreciation towards his fans. And as an objective fan of the man’s work, however, I will always remember Gunnar Hansen as one of the most terrifying on-screen presences in horror history.

For countless horror fans, the moment Leatherface appears for the first time, hammer in hand, descending upon Kirk like a predatory animal, is unforgettable in the sheer horror. And for many of those fans, the second Leatherface slams that steel door, he robs us of our breathe and paralyzes us in fear. Even at face value, the idea of a man making animal noises and wearing dry human skin popping out of a narrow hallway with malicious intentions will put a knot in the stomach of even the most hardened horror hound. Yet without Gunnar Hansen behind that mask, offering a physical presence and visceral ferocity like none other in film history at the time, who knows if that moment would have played with a fraction of the fright it does today?

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But that’s not all: the infamous meat hook scene. Franklin’s chainsaw disembowelment. The dinner table scene. The climactic chainsaw dance. There’s a reason why Leatherface remained a constant in the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE franchise, and why it’s mask-adorning Hansen’s face spread across 95% of all TEXAS CHAINSAW merchandise. Hansen was not just an actor in the mask; he was a living, breathing on-screen monster, and he sold Leatherface as such.

Yet even with legacy aside, just think of what Hansen had to endure while giving his performance as Leatherface: the stocky actor had to wear layer upon layer of sweat-laden clothing in humid, dusty 100 degree weather all day long, masked in the scent of rotting meat from a pungent slaughterhouse located near the filming site. You can hear a hundred horror stories about on-set hardships and bad working conditions all day, but I doubt most actors didn’t have to put up with a tenth of what Hansen worked through willingly day in and day out for THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. And that’s before you realize the physical disadvantages of the role, Hansen’s insistence on researching the speech and composure of the mentally handicapped, and how much of Leatherface’s physicality was improvised by Hansen himself.

But Gunnar Hansen was much more than THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and if there was any horror icon who had a sense of humor about the role they originated, it would be Hansen. Hansen would later appear in THE DEMON LOVER, Fred Olen Ray’s HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, CAMPFIRE TALES (1991), MOSQUITO, FREAKSHOW, CHAINSAW SALLY, MURDER-SET-PIECES, BRUTAL MASSACRE: A COMEDY and even returned to the TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE with a cameo in 2013’s TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D. Hansen was also a horror convention staple, even before that was the “cool thing to do,” and was frequently very giving to FANGORIA during his appearances at our esteemed Weekend of Horrors. And Hansen also was a respected author in his own right, penning the definitive book on TEXAS CHAIN SAW himself with the aforementioned CHAIN SAW CONFIDENTIAL, a book this writer hopes many will discover in light of his tragic passing.

While Gunnar Hansen may not be among us anymore, his spirit will absolutely live on, and in many ways, has already shown itself by bringing together the hundreds of fright fans who attest to what a kind soul the man had. As for the rest of us, I doubt there will be a horror fan who hasn’t already reached for their copy of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE to spend a little more time being scared by Hansen’s inimitable Leatherface. And if you’ve got a Chainsaw locked up somewhere on your property, give ‘er a rev for old times sake; hopefully, if it’s loud enough, he might hear you, somewhere, someway.

Rest in Peace, Gunnar Hansen.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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