Leatherface lives, quietly

FILM

October 31, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

We're sitting here in this cramped little office in a corner of a movie soundstage, tucked away in an anonymous-looking warehouse area in White Marsh, having as pleasant a conversation as humanly possible, and the only thing I can think is, "Man, a chainsaw could do some serious damage in this place."

That's not exactly a surprising thought, given that the man sitting across the desk is Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, the man whose power-tool rampage in 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre created a movie icon for the ages by chopping people up, hanging them from meathooks and generally performing all manner of unpleasantries.

Hansen, in town to film his role in a movie titled Chainsaw Sally, smiles. He's encountered this sort of thing before, and gets something of a charge from people's inability to separate actor from role. As an occasional guest at horror conventions throughout the country and frequent visitor to haunted houses this time of year ("It's my busy season," he says with a smile not the least bit sinister), he understands he's not always the easiest person to approach.

"I meet people at fan conventions who are either relieved or disappointed," says Hansen, 56. "Some of them are relieved, because they were so scared of me, and they realize I'm not that way. Others are disappointed because ... I think they have some curious sexual fantasy, like I'm such a jerk, I'm going to take them to my room and whip them into some sort of frenzy. In fact, I'm just not that way.

"It's always funny to me," he adds with a shake of his head, "how much people think that the character you play is the personality you are."

Well, maybe they should be excused. As the mute, homicidal and infinitely perverted Leatherface, Hansen cut quite a swath through movie screens back in the day. And while he turned down the opportunity to be in the Chainsaw remake currently in theaters ("They only were going to pay me union scale," he says dismissively. "They wanted my endorsement of the film, they wanted my name on the poster, and they thought they could get it for $600"), he's managed over the years to turn his film debut into something of a cottage industry.

Not that he defines himself by that one role, in a low-budget shocker thrown at an unsuspecting public 29 years ago. No, since then, he's carved out a far more conventional life for himself, living on an island community in Maine's Acadia National Park, acting in the occasional film and writing TV documentaries.

"In fact, I have two lives, and it's a great balance," he says. "My primary life, my day job is, I sit at my computer and work, or I go out and do interviews. It's a pretty quiet existence."

But the legacy of Leatherface will not be denied, and Hansen's comfortable with that. In fact, it's why he was in Baltimore for a day of filming earlier this week. He's playing the father in Chainsaw Sally, a movie in which the title character does pretty much what you'd expect. It would be hard to imagine more appropriate casting.

"A friend of mine told me that there was this Web site [www.chainsawsally.com], and I ought to look at it, because this character, Chainsaw Sally, loved Chainsaw Massacre," Hansen explains, with the air of a man for whom such an obvious connection is both amusing and flattering. "I liked the site so much. I was so impressed, I sent a quick little e-mail saying, `Hey, saw your site, loved it.' That's really what started the association, and here I am."

JimmyO Burril, the director of Chainsaw Sally, met Hansen at a horror convention in Baltimore over the summer and asked him to be in the movie. "We really didn't expect him to say yes," says Burril, whose wife April plays Chainsaw Sally and whose 10-year-old daughter, Lily, plays Sally as a young girl. "But I'm a big believer that if you don't ask, you don't know.

"It's a horror fan's fantasy to work with the Leatherface."

Perhaps this should be stressed again: at no time during Hansen's visit were the residents of Baltimore in any danger. Hansen, a native of Iceland who moved to the United States with his family at age 5, is a hulking 6-foot-5, with a mane of graying hair that looks vaguely Grizzly Adams-ish. But he's also soft-spoken and thoughtful, the kind of man who sits down with Lily Burril and patiently practices line readings.

Without a chainsaw, or other power tool, anywhere in sight.

"He may play Leatherface," says JimmyO Burril, "but he's really a great big teddy bear."

"I do horror movies, and I do horror movies because I was Leatherface, and that's just fine with me," Hansen insists. "If people want to talk to me because of [Chainsaw Massacre], I'm delighted.

"I'm proud of that movie. I've always been proud of that movie. I work really hard, and I don't know if I did a great job or a good job in that movie, but I know I gave my best effort. I've never been embarrassed to say I was Leatherface."

Bloopers

A few mea culpas from your Sun film critics:

In an article on the films of Quentin Tarantino a few weeks back, I referred to the bank robbery at the center of Reservoir Dogs. Of course, I knew it was really a jewel heist - wanted to see how many of you were paying attention.

Michael Sragow would like to add his regret that two weeks ago, he crossed French and German and referred to the great Touchez Pas Au Grisbi as Touchez Pas AUS Grisbi.

And last week, a gremlin got into the review of Beyond Borders and changed the character of Nick Callahan to Nick Ward.

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