Horror icons are fascinating to me. In some cases, the actor who plays the role is so integral to the character that it's impossible to imagine someone else playing the part. In other cases, the actor is buried in a way that makes it easy to hand the character off from one person to another.
Take, for example, the Frankenstein monster. Boris Karloff is the most famous actor to have played the role, and when people talk about the character, Karloff is who they name most frequently. But the image you know of the Frankenstein monster, the one you see on licensed products and repurposed in other places, is just as likely to be Glenn Strange, who played the monster the same number of times that Karloff did, in three different movies. One of the reasons he got the part was because make-up artist Jack Pierce noticed that Strange's face and head were built the same way as Karloff's, and under make-up, it's hard to tell the two of them apart.
One could argue that Leatherface is the sort of role anyone could play. I was hired for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood back in '91, and I was cast as Leatherface. They hid me in a giant metal shipping container along the tram route, then attached a safety cable to my back so that when I heard a tram pull up alongside me, I could turn on my chainsaw, making a hellacious noise, and run full speed out of the end of the container, leaping at the tram only to get snapped back by my safety line. I eventually was awarded “Best Scare In The Park” at the end of the season, and it was a blast to do something to cathartic and absurd.
Every single night, though, I had a picture in my head, and that picture carried me back to a day when I was way too young to be sitting in a drive-in theater watching a horror movie double-feature. The second film on the bill was Tobe Hooper's “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and just the title scared the shit out of me. I was sure I didn't want to see what they were going to show me, but I was equally sure I couldn't look away.
If you haven't seen the film (and, believe me, I can understand how people might even now be afraid to put a film with that title into a player), it is surprisingly gore-free. It ranked #3 on the HitFix Horror Poll on a list of the 100 scariest movies ever made, and if you're just worried about actual bloody violence, the film is almost completely free of it. But that's not what makes the film such a visceral, ugly experience. What Tobe Hooper got right, and what makes “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” such a powerful nightmare even now, is a feeling of encroaching dread on the edges of mundane reality. Hooper's film feels like a documentary, something that Daniel Pearl's photography underlines effectively, so when we finally make it to this strange house in the middle of nowhere and head inside, it feels real. And then a huge metal door slides open and this towering freakshow stumbles out, and I remember my reaction on that first showing. Hell, it's easy, because I feel the same thing every time I return to the movie. Leatherface's first appearance is as close to capturing the feeling of a nightmare as anything I've ever seen onscreen.
And he was never scary again.
Gunnar Hansen, who passed away this weekend at the age of 68, deserves credit for the way he approached the role. There is something very childlike about the performance, but Hansen's size and the brutal physicality he brought to certain sequences makes Leatherface a fully realized character even though he never stops to deliver a monologue about his backstory or to tell you why he's using the chainsaw. He is a terrifying figure, and you can't just discount his work by saying that Leatherface is what's scary. It's not true. In film after film, people have tried to recreate that character, and they've failed completely. Hansen may not have ever connected in another role the way he did in this one, but that doesn't negate how important he was to making it work. Leatherface is a perfect balance between design and performance, and even now, looking back at the 1974 film, it is clear that there is only one true Leatherface, and this weekend, we lost him. I only met Hansen once, but he struck me as a guy who fully understood how special a moment he had enjoyed, and who was grateful that he had been part of something that spoke so deeply to audiences. Sometimes, that one moment is all you get, and Hansen handled his (both at the time and in the years since) with grace and with a sense that he knew it was special.
He will be remembered as long as that film keeps traumatizing people. I can't wait for him to give my own kids nightmares in a few years. Our thoughts are with his friends, family, and fans around the world.