Sunday, November 8, 2015

RIP, Gunnar Hansen

Another titan of terror has passed away.

Sadly, Gunnar Hansen, author and actor best known for his iconic portrayal of Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), died Saturday at his home in Maine.  It was pancreatic cancer.  He was 68 years old.
As any horror fan can tell you, Leatherface is one of the absolute best movie villains of all time, a terrifying hulk of a man wielding a chainsaw while wearing a mask of human skin.  He would be the grandfather of all masked killers to come.  Hansen played Leatherface not as a straight-up murderous psycho, but as this lumbering simpleton who was equally confused and confrontational.  It remains a tremendous achievement for the genre.
Hansen wouldn't return to the role for any of the sequels, but he did cameo in the most recent Chainsaw 3D (2013) as a different character.  He would follow the original Chain Saw with a film called The Demon Lover (1977) but shortly after he decided to give up acting and focus on becoming a writer.

Hansen would intermittently return to acting, starting with 1988's Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.  He would also star in 1995's Mosquito and, honestly, those are the only other two of his films I've seen or heard of.  His filmography seems to be full of small films with low profiles, the kinds of things you act in if you believe in the project/filmmakers.
As author Hansen wrote a travelog, 1993's Islands at the Edge of Time about his time spent at America's Barrier Islands.  In 2013 he would publish Chain Saw Confidential, a making-of book covering the (rather grueling) production of Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  The book serves as a bit of a memoir and is essential reading for fans of the franchise.

I just rewatched Texas Chain Saw for about the 100th time a few weeks ago during October and it still maintains this power as a raw, terrifying series of events that just escalates into insanity.  By the time Sally is escaping and Leatherface is dancing with his chainsaw I've got chills, as the terror becomes almost unbearable and the madness is palpable.  It truly is the greatest horror film ever made, and Hansen is a big part of why it's so indelible.

If you happen to live in the Portland, Oregon area, there will be a screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the wonderful Hollywood Theatre with stars from the film, Edwin Neal, Teri McMinn, and John Dugan, in attendance on November 14th.  It's part of the Living Dead Horror Convention in town Nov. 13-15 (for more info on that, go here) and while it was for sure going to be a special screening before, it will most likely now take on a more somber and reverent tone with Hansen's passing.  For fans of the film, it might be an event to not miss.
I never got a chance to meet the man, but from his interview appearances and by accounts of those who knew and worked with him, Gunnar Hansen was a sweet, kind, intelligent, bear of a man, just a wonderful and thoughtful individual.  It's terrible that he's gone, and even though he might not have had as many contributions to the horror community and world as others, his singular portrayal of one of the most iconic killers in all of cinema is more than enough to earn his place in the annals of horror history.

Rest in Peace, Gunnar, and keep dancing.

drawing by Nathan Thomas Milliner
Hansen behind the scenes on The Demon Lover (1977)

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