March 4, 1947 - November 7, 2015
The man who will always be Leatherface, the great Gunnar Hansen, died yesterday at the age of 68.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him - via the archaic email of the day - for my university dissertation, 18 years ago. A very patient and obliging gent who put up with all my silly questions about chainsaws and symbology. A sad loss.
I present below an abridged transcript of our interview from 1997, which helped inform my final dissertation - Is That A Chainsaw In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Pleased To See Me? (Exploring the strong female role models in the chainsaw films of Gunnar Hansen).
To this day, it amazes me that a major star like Gunnar would take time from his schedule to humour some geek from across The Pond, writing a thesis on horror films.
This was in a time before DVDs and commentary tracks, so the only way to get a 'unique' perspective on a piece of work - other than quoting from other text books - was to go to the source.
I still consider it something of a coup for my dissertation that I managed to secure an interview with the star of the two main films I was writing about, namely Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM) and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (HCH).
(1) What aspects of these characters drew you to the roles?
Well, in both cases, the characters had nothing to do with drawing me to the roles. With TCM, I saw an opportunity to be in a movie, something I had never done. With HCH, Fred Ray told me what the movie was about, and I thought it would be fun to do, since it was really a comedy, something new for me.
(2) What were your characters' attitudes towards the womens in the films; do you feel this was put across successfully to the audience?
In TCM, I don't think Leatherface had any particular attitude toward women -- it was the same as toward men. They were to be killed if they got too close to the house. That was the mistake, I think, in TCM2, that Leatherface was agonizing over whether to kill the woman or screw her. Given how we defined the character in the first movie, he would never have had that hesitation. He would have just killed her.
In HCH, the "Stranger", as he was called in the script, really thought of women as his slaves. His role was to tell them what to do, and their job was to do it. Beyond that, I don't think think there was any characterization - that was as far as the script developed his attitude to women.
(3) Who do you feel these films are aimed at and what genre would you place them in (for example, do you consider the Texas Chainsaw Massacre a black comedy)?
TCM was aimed at the horror audience - which we tend to think of as teenage boys, though in TCM's case has been a much broader audience. It seems to appeal to men and women, teenagers up to people in their 50s. No, I would categorize TCM as a horror movie, an out-and-out horror. There are elements of black comedy in it, but they come out in later viewings. To make the comedy (black or not) in TCM more overt would have undermined the horror intent of the movie.
The HCH audience was a bit more mature - adult fans of horror who would appreciate the joke, the parody of old '60s horror. So I would categorize it as a comedy.
(4) Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers is the more obviously comedic of the two films. Do you feel humour, especially in this Grand Guignol style, is an effective tool in films of this ilk to avoid the explotation of their, primarily, female cast?
It would be hard to categorize the cast of TCM as primarily female. It would also be hard to say the females in TCM were exploited (there are three male victims and two female, one of whom escapes), unless you want to say that any female in a film is exploited. And that, aside from being untrue, is also pointless.
As for HCH, I couldn't say.
(5) A question you must have been asked a thousand times before: why chainsaws... and not any other power tool? What do you see as the psychological fascination with these weapons?
They're big, they're loud, they're unsubtle. There's nothing polite about being attacked with one.
[Before the interview Gunnar mentioned Carol J Clover's book Men, Women And Chainsaws, but he felt she missed the point with TCM and failed to notice that Leatherface wears two female masks in addition to the first-seen "killer mask", i.e. the "old lady" face, complete with apron and spoon, when the cook brings Sally home; and the "pretty woman" face, with heavy make-up, during the dinner scene.]
(6) You mentioned the "female masks" that Leatherface wore - please could you expand on the meaning of this feminine side to the enigmatic killer.
I'm not sure that Leatherface has any more feminine sides than anyone else. He is, as Tobe [Hooper] and Kim [Henkel]defined him, dependant on his masks to express his personality. He is getting ready for dinner and so puts on his "old lady" face, which seems to be appropriate for being in the kitchen getting dinners ready for 'the boys'.
Likewise, he puts on a "pretty woman" face because he wants to dress up. But I'm not sure how far one wants to carry this - the faces are, in a way, evidence of his asexuality - one gender is as good as another for the face; what matters is what he is doing - and thus the sexual element in his personality in TCM2 is untrue to the character as originally defined.