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Chain Saw Confidential:
How We Made the World's
Most Notorious Horror Movie

by Gunnar Hansen

(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013.)
240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4521-1449-1.

Reviewed by Dr. Kirk Bane

Grim, unsettling, nihilistic---and utterly gripping---The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, released in 1974, stands as one of the most terrifying films of all time. Critic Rex Reed maintained that the low-budget independent picture, shot near Austin and directed by Tobe Hooper, "makes Psycho look like a nursery rhyme and The Exorcist look like a comedy. It is a horror movie to end them all!" In Chain Saw Confidential, Gunnar Hansen, who played the killer Leatherface, one of the members of a deranged, cannibalistic family (slaughterhouse workers thrown out of work by mechanization) who butcher a group of trespassing travelers, offers an illuminating, entertaining, intelligent, and clearly written account about the making of the infamous film, its reception, and its place in popular culture. Along the way, he discredits numerous myths that have, over the years, attached themselves to the gory feature.

Hansen, just out of graduate school at the University of Texas when he appeared in the movie, divides his book into twenty bite-sized (sorry!) chapters bearing such captivating titles as "My Family's Always Been in Meat," "Stinking to High Heaven," "You Boys Don't Want to Go Messin' Around in Some Old House," "Who Will Be Left and What Will Be Left of Them," "A Vile Little Piece of Sick Crap," and "A Grisly Work of Art." He fills his book with fascinating trivia; for example, Hansen discusses the chain saw (which had been borrowed) employed in the picture. Hansen calls it "a great saw-it was the only one we had, and it started every time on the first pull. It was a yellow Poulan 306A, modified with the fuel tank from a Poulan 245 and a muffler from a 245A…We covered the saw's name with a piece of black tape, so as not to raise issues with Poulan." As the book progresses, Hansen addresses important scenes. For instance, as to the gruesome fate of two of the victims, he observes, "Jerry follows the sound down the hall and into the bloody kitchen, where he sees the meat hook and the butcher-block table, and then hears knocking from inside the chest freezer. He opens it and up pops Pam, now blue from the cold…He jumps back as she flops forward, slumped over the edge of the freezer like a rag doll. Sadly for Jerry, Leatherface charges in, howling, sledge raised, and gives him a double-fisted overhead blow that takes him to the floor. Jerry is about to become sausage." Unforgettable, bloodcurdling stuff! Hansen also reveals that early, working titles for the film were Headcheese and Leatherface.

The movie, "based minimally" on the sanguinary crimes of Ed Gein which took place in Wisconsin in the Fifties, sharply divided critics. The Los Angeles Times branded it a "despicable film…Craziness handled without sensitivity is a degrading, senseless, misuse of film and time." And Stephen Koch, writing in Harper's Magazine in 1976, especially loathed the release, blasting it as "trash." The picture, he contended, "is a vile little piece of sick crap which opened…in a nameless Times Square exploitation house, there to be noticed only as another symptom of the wet rot, another step along the way…It is a particularly foul item in the currently developing hard-core pornography of murder…designed to milk a few more bucks out of the throng of shuffling wretches who still gather, every other seat, in those dank caverns for the scab-picking of the human spirit which have become so visible in the worst sections of the central cities." Ouch!

Conversely, other reviewers praised the film. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, called it "thoroughly professional, compelling, and gruesome. Squarely within the traditions of the Psycho genre, it is a fresh and extreme interpretation that should do for meat-eating what Hitchcock did for shower-taking." Chicago critic Roger Ebert also offered positive words: "the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can't imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it's well-made, well-acted, and all too effective." And in late 1975, Chain Saw won the "Critic's Choice" award at the London Film Festival, though it was banned in England for many years.

Other fans of the picture include John Landis (director of such features as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places) and Gunnar Hansen himself. "It's relentless," contends Landless, "that movie really, really had a profound impact on me…the sense of crazy is very real." And Hansen remembers seeing it for the first time in a south Austin cinema. "I loved it," he states. "It was so much more than what I had expected during those long, exhausting days on set. My heart was racing, not because I was scared-I already knew the entire story a bit too well for that-but because I was so caught up in Chain Saw's pacing…This movie delivered. I remember the screams in the theater. People walked out. But the audience that stayed was hooked."

Hansen discusses, as well, the controversial "money story" behind the picture. Suffice it to say that he received very little compensation. "The story of Chain Saw's money has been told before," he writes, "though these accounts vary so much that it is hard to know which details are true…Understanding the money story does not give us insight into what Chain Saw is about or why it has been so successful. Still, it is part of the movie's mythology, and it serves as some kind of cautionary tale…This is really two stories: the way the film was financed, and the way our money was handled by the distributor. Neither story is heartwarming."

Hansen offers a chilling interpretation of the film. "What is this movie about? Well, among other things," he explains, "it is about the end of the world, the apocalypse. As we learn in the beginning, the stars are out of alignment and brutal random violence is spreading…In most horror movies, evil is vanquished in the end and order is restored. But not on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre…The normality, the predictability of the world is gone. There is no punishment. There is no relief of suffering. There is no justice. There is no order. Without justice and order, how can we have meaning? It is all nothing…This is the real horror."

Hansen also examines how Chain Saw "changed horror movies." In the wake of Leatherface, masked murderers brandishing knives and power tools (think Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees) became common. Moreover, the film "creates a sense of dread from the very beginning…There is nothing safe about this movie. It quickly becomes a nightmare that does not end, even after the movie's last reel…Most importantly, perhaps, Chain Saw changed something fundamental in horror-good no longer always overcomes evil…The movie was nihilistic, and it allowed many others after it to be."

Hansen has appeared in more than twenty films since Chain Saw. Forever associated with Leatherface, his unforgettable first role, Hansen currently lives in Maine where he is a writer, specializing in poetry, history, and travel. In addition to the present work, he has authored Islands at the Edge of Time: A Journey to America's Barrier Islands.

Horror film enthusiasts and students of Texas pop culture will (ahem) devour this book, a tasty account of the making, meaning, and significance of Chain Saw, a landmark picture which "continues to evoke both love and hate" forty years on.

Review by Dr. Kirk Bane,
Central Texas Historical Association

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