Dissecting Gunnar Hansen (RIP!)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

GUNNAR HANSEN (1947-2015)

Man, what a bummer about Gunnar Hansen. Forever cemented in the annals of horror cinema or not – and he most certainly is – 68 years is too damn early to depart this mere mortal coil. If you didn't hear, the hulking six foot four Icelandic native succumbed to his battle with pancreatic cancer this past Saturday. Incredibly sad. So first off and upfront, RIP Gunnar…you'll be more than missed!

But hey, let's not get all morose and misty-eyed just yet. We shall, instead of crying for the loss, weep celebratory tears of gratitude for all the gain of our lives as horror movie fans have amassed in Hansen's honor. Sappy perhaps, but no less true. I know that myself, long secure in knowing THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE will always be my favorite horror movie of all time, what an immeasurable amount of terror, unease, dismay, excitement and ultimately, inspiration – that Hansen has fomented in my filmgoing memories. And I always love him for it.

With that friends, we ask you join us below in a special celebratory dissection this week. Consider it a fan-fueled autopsy as we look back at the wondrous genre career of the late great Gunnar Hansen!



Intentional or not, desirous or not, Hansen's inimitably verisimilar turn as Leatherface in Tobe Hooper's searing TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE – for which he earned a whopping $800 – has, 40 years later, risen to priceless heights among all time horror history. Shite's downright iconic! Of course, being his very first film ever, Hansen never could have predicted such. In fact, he only took on the part as a lark, and wasn't entirely sure he had it in him to plumb the utter depths of depravity the character called for. To boot, the man had absolutely no intention of becoming a household name of horror movie lore, and on the contrary, found his post-MASSACRE popularity a bit of a surprise, if not a nuisance. Stories of receiving phone calls in the middle of the night by creepy Leatherface fans breathing heavily in a sick inbred tonality made Hansen – a seemingly unflappable hulk of a man – rather nonplussed. Talk about a man with priorities and heartfelt integrity. In fact, Hansen quit acting altogether for a good decade after doing the odious DEMON LOVER (1977), even turning down the chance to reprise Leatherface, never feeling the need or pull to capitalize on one tired and trampled sequel after another.

Not that Hansen's wasn't, or shouldn't have been, proud of his portrayal of what he called "homicidal, brutal, a simple personality, but he's a real freak, a retarded maniac." By all accounts, Hansen's real life personality couldn't have been more diametrically opposed to that of Leatherface. Instead of a huge, squealing, hideously deranged man-child, Hansen was said to be a quiet, thoughtful, gentle-giant of a man who'd never harm a soul in real life. This makes his performance doubly impressive, for it'd be relatively easy to play oneself onscreen, but to take material so thoroughly antithetical to your own moral compass and turn it into one of the most unsettling and deeply disturbing turns we've EVER seen from a horror villain…the plaudits can't come glowing enough. Really. I mean, Leatherface hardly has an intelligible line of dialogue in the entire film, yet through his overbearing physical presence, frenzied body language, emotionally exigent torment, the harried squeals and nervous grunts, and not least of which, his eruptive fits of violent rage…first movie or fortieth, I don't care who you are, it cannot be done much better!

And it wasn't easy to achieve. Take the following quote Hansen is on record giving in regards to his turn as Leatherface:

I never thought I had it in me. Just before production started, I was sitting in a drugstore, had nothing at all planned for the summer, heard about the casting call, and decided to try out on a lark. I was 26 years old, just out of graduate school, when I met Hooper [Tobe Hooper] and writer Kim Henkel. They asked me three questions before they hired me. "Are you a violent person? Are you crazy?" When I replied, "No, not more so than normal," they finally asked, "Can you do it?" "Sure, it's easy," I said. They loved the fact that I filled the doorway. Tobe Hooper said, "We'll put high heels on you and make you a little bigger."

A little bigger? Frankly, in my eyes, there's no one horror performance that stands taller!



While it's a bit easy and even cheeky to cite that the chainsaw as a death-weapon is Hansen's most obvious calling card – having used it once a decade (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE – 1974 HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS – 1988, MOSQUITO – 1995, CHAINSAW SALLY – 2004) – I'd actually argue it's the man's sheer size and stature that ought to be considered his most noticeable asset. After-all, without such a hulking frame, he'd likely never have been cast in the aforementioned chainsaw pictures, particularly the first and most important one. At a 6'4'', Gunnar's towering physique and proportionate girth made for quite the formidable foe, regardless of the part played. The grand irony of course is that, even winning the part for his size, Tobe Hooper actually put Hansen in high-heels when playing Leatherface, bumping the already large 6'4'' frame up a few feet to 6'7'' or so. The result speaks for itself!



The two deep cuts in Hansen's body of work I really want to call attention to are so damn elusive that I couldn't even find a single image or clip from either on the internet. Subterranean! Both flicks – which deserve mention mainly because they feature Gunnar performances that play against type – come at the turn of the century, one a$25,000 movie shot on video and one a darkly humorous horror anthology. Ladies, gents…what do you know about WITCHUNTER (2002) and NEXT VICTIM?

WITCHUNTER is about a fiendish coven of witches who sacrifice small children in order to pump new life in their decaying little town. Hansen plays a private dick, gruff and brusque as you'd imagine, playing a bit part in a movie that calls for him to do the exact opposite of what he's known for. Creepily atmospheric little unknown chiller, made on a shoestring, in which Hansen gets a chance to branch out a tad as an actor. A pleasant surprise!


As is NEXT VICTIM, a 3-part 2003 horror-comedy omnibus in which Hansen serves as the expository wraparound lead. That is, Gunnar dons the white lab-coat as the devious Dr. Howard, a maniacal madman running the Suncrest Rehabilitation Center. When a new inmate arrives, the good doc takes the opportunity to spin three twisted yarns about how three other more infamous inmates ended up in the asylum. The three tales are solid on their own, but with Hansen clearly reveling in the fun with his over-the-top quirkiness and mad-scientist mien, the overall experience is that much richer. Trust us, you've never seen Gunnar like this!

As for a couple of higher profile but equally appraised stones, how about the 80s B-movie cheese-fest MOSQUITO, in which Hansen indeed pokes fun at his chainsaw wielding persona? Or how about the insidious little horror anthology FREAKSHOW, or Troma's HELLBLOCK 13, the latter sees Hansen share the screen with the great scream queen Debbie Rochon. Hell, what about more recently when Gunnar lent his namesake to fellow Icelandic countrymen for HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE? Not a great film, but a pretty fun one. I think the real point is, no matter how many horror flicks he partook in (or didn't, Hansen reportedly turned down chances to star in EATEN ALIVE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, but pursued writing instead), they all kind of remain shrouded by the massive shadow cast by his indelible role of Leatherface in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. A blessing and a curse no doubt, but one that will live in infamy ad infinitum.


Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching facets of Hansen's untimely death is that he won't be around to see whatever fruits of his screenwriting labor will bear out. See, as a longtime screenwriter and script doctor, Gunnar actually wrote a movie called DEATH HOUSE currently in preproduction under director Harrison Smith (CAMP DREAD). Even cooler (and now, even sadder) is that Hansen was set to play a part in the film, doing so alongside such equally venerated horror mainstays as Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, Danny Trejo, Bill Moseley, Dee Wallace, Barbara Crampton, Doug Bradley, Michael Berryman, Ken Foree and Camille Keaton. Peep the synopsis for DEATH HOUSE below:

Two federal agents fight their way through nine levels of Hell inside a secret prison known as the Death House. A facility-wide prison break turns their flight into a tour of horrors as they push toward the ultimate evil housed in the lowest depths of the earth.

Damn, does that not sound like the tits? An absolute who's who of horror icons, all conceived by the great Gunnar Hansen. As sad as we are we won't be able to partake and see how the film pans out, we're more than grateful he left us all with at least one promising piece of horror cinema to look forward to. Not just as an actor, but as creator!


What can we say. The loss of Gunnar Hansen at 68 years young can't be overstated. It sucks. It sucks we won't be able to see him any new movies moving forward, and it really suck he himself won't get a chance to see the blueprints of his DEATH HOUSE get fully realized. That said, what doesn't suck is the legacy left behind. Yes, most of that entails being inexorably linked with Leatherface in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. And not that there's anything wrong with that – Leatherface truly deserves a facade next to Freddy, Jason and Michael on the Mount Rushmore of horror villains – it's just that, that wasn't the whole of Gunnar Hansen as a creator. If it were, he likely would have reprised the role through all the insipid sequels, rebirths and refashioning. That to us, is just as impressive a choice off-screen as any he made on it. Fare the well good Gunnar, as much as you'll be missed, your lasting legacy endures!

Source: AITH

About the Author

5371 Articles Published

Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie.