Fans of the horror genre know some of the milestones. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock, wanting to prove that a good movie could be made with a small budget, adapted the novel Psycho for the big screen, arguably creating the first slasher film. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), George Romero brought zombies into everyday American life—no longer something that existed only in Transylvania or as a curse from the past. Then, in 1972, Last House on the Left featured murderers as the horror, an inhuman human element that made it all the more shocking. But another big milestone came in 1974 when Tobe Hooper created The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That film redefined the horror genre by jumping right into the deep end of the pool and creating a sense of menace from start to finish. And who can forget Leatherface? The masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopath started a new trend in horror films. After that, we’d see a succession of masked horror villains in Michael Myers (Halloween, 1978), Jason (Friday the 13th, 1980), and Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984). The genre would never be the same.

With Dark Sky Films releasing an ultimate two-disc version of the classic 1974 film, which heavily relied on a single, hand-held camera, James Plath (then of DVD Town) talked with Hansen about his role as that memorable chainsaw horror villain, Leatherface.

Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Hansen moved with his family to the U.S. when he was five years old. The family lived in Maine until he was 11, then moved to Texas, where Hansen completed high school and earned a degree in English and Scandinavian Studies from the University of Texas. Having participated in a few theatrical productions, Hansen heard about Tobe Hooper’s auditions and decided to try for a part. After playing the mentally disturbed killer in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—his first acting credit—he would appear in 30 more short films and features. In addition, he wrote stories and documentary scripts, among them Portrait of an Island (1990), Maine: America’s Coast (1995), and Ralph Stanley: An Eye for Wood (2015). He also wrote a memoir titled Chain Saw Confidential. Hansen died in 2015 at the age of 68.

The interview took place by phone on August 18, 2006.

Are you basking in the glow of the new release—the renewed notoriety—or have you always found yourself, because of this role, sort of notorious?

I think this movie has always remained strong because of the fan base. The great thing to me about a re-release is that the attention brings in a new fan base—people who are younger and may have heard about Chainsaw, but when Chainsaw isn’t getting a lot of attention they’re not inclined to look at it.

Jimmy Buffett once sang, “I don’t want the fame that brings confusion, where people recognize you on a plane.” You’ve certainly not had that problem

It’s been great for me.

What are people’s reactions when they find out? And how do you bring it up?

Well, it’s nice for me, because of course nobody recognizes me, and I’m pretty private. So I like the idea that it’s a separate thing. People are very surprised when they find out. Obviously, at a horror fan convention it’s different. But when I’m just on the street and I’m introduced to somebody, they’re always taken aback . . . and they really don’t know what to say. I’ve asked my friends, “PLEASE don’t tell them I was in the Chainsaw Massacre as the first thing you say about me. Surely there’s something else that’s interesting enough,” because the problem with telling them that first is that they truly don’t know what to say. They’re shocked. And I find it’s better that they find that out maybe as the second or third thing.

So what are the first and second things you’d like people to know?

Oh, I don’t know. I’m a hermit who lives on the coast of Maine. Tell ’em I write.

[Laughs] Now you know you’re going to have all kinds of pilgrims trying to find your place. Don’t go any farther!

No no, I won’t. But, I mean, surely they could talk about being friends with me, or if they want to talk on a professional level, just tell them I write for a living, because that’s my primary work. Or tell them I make documentary films, you know?

Is that how you’ve spent most of your time since the film?

Yes. And in fact, once Chainsaw came out, I started getting asked to be in films. I was offered a role in The Hills Have Eyes. Bob Burns called me and said “I’m in L.A., we’re making this new movie, Wes Craven, nobody knows him, can you be in L.A. in two weeks? We’re shooting this picture.” And I said, “Uh, thanks, but no.” And the reason was that I wanted to be up on the coast of Maine just writing my stuff. So I actually turned down film work, because I really didn’t want to take my time away from writing.

What are the things you’ve written that you’re most proud of?

Ahh. Well, there is my Nobel prize-winning novel. Oh, wait a minute. I never wrote that  [laughs].

That’s coming, still.

I mean, I wrote for magazines for years, and then mostly now I’ve been writing and then directing and producing documentary films—which I’m proud of, because those kind of projects are very involved. And I’m pleased with what has come out of those, what the resulting films have looked like. I’ve written some screenplays, none of which have been produced, two of which I was hired to write (so I actually got paid for them), but I’ve got a couple of screenplays that I think are A-1 films. I think they could do very well. I think they’d be well-received. So I’m proud of those scripts. One of them, we pitched it to John Woo’s company and they liked it and they took it to Sony. But they turned it down.

Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Well, it was called Icebound, and it was a thriller that takes place in the Arctic. I wrote it with a writing partner, Gary Jones, who’s in L.A. directing. The premise was we wanted to make a classic kind of expedition film, like King Kong. Originally we wanted to place it in the twenties, but then we thought, no, given the fact that we’re start-up guys, we’ll never get a budget to do a period piece. So it takes place in modern day. It’s about a group who goes up to the Arctic on a Coast Guard cutter looking for the traces of an expedition—which was a real one that disappeared in 1850. What happens is, they find these graves, which actually do exist, and when they dig up the bodies, people on the ship start dying. They keep thinking that it’s coincidence, and then eventually they’re convinced that one of the crew members is a killer. Only when you get to the end of the third act do they start to realize that it’s the dead—it’s the bodies they dug up, It’s the ghosts.

It sounds like fun. I hope you place it.

Thanks.

Hansen as Leatherface

There’s a feature on the new two-disc version of Chainsaw where you go back to the house where it was set and give a tour of this place where a kind of Manson family of cannibals were operating out of. To me, that house tour seemed almost as bizarre as the film itself. Did the current owners know when they bought the house that this thing was filmed there?

Yes. They did, and they moved the house to Kingsland. And it’s funny about that film. There’s a part that I hadn’t seen before, which was a walk-through before the house was moved. I didn’t know about that footage, and that was fun to see. But when they moved the house and they fixed it up as a restaurant, if they didn’t know ahead of time they certainly knew right away, because Tim Hardin, who’s a big expert on Chainsaw, he talked to them and he brought some people from Chainsaw out there. Allen Danziger went out there—you know, “Jerry”—and then I went out there with Tim. I think Allen went too, and we had dinner there and they were kind of pleased about it. They thought it was kind of cool. But then, in 2000 when we went out there—this was during the filming of The Shocking Truth documentary—when we went out there and did the walk-through, at that point there attitude had changed., and I think you see it.

Oh, yeah.

What happened was, they had arranged it with the owners ahead of time and they agreed we’d come out during the day when they were not serving, so that we could walk through. And when we got there, they said, Okay, you can do this, but only me and one cameraman. That’s it. That’s all they were going to allow in the house. And they were not happy we were there. We did the walk-through and tried to be really unobtrusive. We just did the walk-through and came out. Then the cameraman wanted to go back in, just by himself, and do some pick-ups, and they locked the door. They wouldn’t let us back in.

[Laughs] That really comes across. It was strange. And it was also strange hearing about how you missed clearing the doorway with the chainsaw and cut a bit of the frame. If it were me, and it was my house that I bought, that’s the only evidence the film was shot there. I would have left it.

Yeah, yeah. It’s funny, though, because I don’t think that they were the actual physical owners of the building, they just owned the restaurant business And they sold that, and the current owners are apparently very cool about the Chainsaw Massacre thing. In fact, Alamo Draft House in Austin organized a huge barbeque at the house, and they did an outdoor screening of Chainsaw and there were like 200 or 300 people. And they loved it. The current owners are proud that the movie took place there. They don’t try to cover it up or anything.

So does anybody ever sleep there?

Well, it’s right next door to the Antlers Inn, which is another old Texas building that was brought in from somewhere else, like this building was. And that’s a bed and breakfast. Well, it’s a bed. They eat here [at the Chainsaw house restaurant]. A friend of mine wanted to organize a Halloween weekend where you’d stay at the Antlers and then we’d do stuff at the restaurant, including telling ghost stories and having a whole weekend of things going on, because of the Chainsaw connection.

Was it traumatizing or fun playing this psycho villain?

Neither. It wasn’t traumatizing because I never thought of myself as Leatherface. People would say to me, “How do you even psychologically play a killer?” And the answer is, you don’t. I played physically what this guy would do, but in my head I was never Leatherface. I always kept that separate. And it wasn’t fun, because it was extremely difficult, physically. We shot seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, it was a hundred degrees every day, give or take, and I was running in the woods. So it was grueling to do. But I’d finish at the end of the day and I wouldn’t think, Oh, that was creepy. I’d just go home and go to sleep. Even though it wasn’t fun, it was a great, great experience, because I’d never been involved with a movie before, and I got to see how a movie was made.

Did you have nightmares then or now, or do your kids, if you have any and you’ve told them about this? You know, clean your room or else . . . .?

No, I never had nightmares. I think it’s the kind of movie that for a viewer it gives you nightmares, because it’s disturbing. It’s an unnerving movie, versus a movie that just goes “Boo” and you walk out of the theater going, “Well, that was fun.” And I think that’s part of the reason the movie was so successful.

But making the film? Again, it’s so different when you’re making a movie. When the girl walks down the hall alone in the film, there are 12 other people in the room during the filming, so it doesn’t have that feel. There were a couple of moments when the cameraman got freaked out, because he was seeing it from the point of view of an audience member. There was one time when he just goes, “Oh, man, that’s awful,” and he stepped away from the camera. Then, of course, I mention this in the commentary. When I’m cutting the door, Danny Pearl jumped up and ran out of the room, because he was on the floor looking through the camera. And it so freaked him out when I kicked the door in and stepped in on him, he literally got up and ran. But luckily he left the camera going.

The Charles Manson murders were still pretty current. Was that much on Tobe Hooper’s mind or any of yours, while you were filming? The whole notion of a clan or “family” terrorizing people or killing them?

I don’t know, because the Mansons never came up in conversation during the filming. Nobody ever talked about a link to the Mansons, psychologically or in any other way. I mean, the only conversation I ever had with Tobe and with Ken, the writer, is that one night they explained to me that Ed Gein was the inspiration for the mask and the bone-and-skin furniture. He was a farmer in Plainfield, Wisconsin, who was arrested in the late Fifties. And he had killed a neighbor woman, had strung her up like a deer in his barn, and it’s thought that he had killed other people. They found body parts. He had dug his mother up out of her grave when she died and put her back in her bed, and he had furniture he’d made out of bones and a mask that he’d made out of skin. But it’s thought that he had dug up graves and used those things. There’s no direct evidence he killed anybody other than his neighbor. He was the inspiration for the movie Psycho, and so many people think Chainsaw is actually a telling of the Ed Gein story, when it’s not at all. I mean, it’s really only the mask. Because what Toby and Ken said was, Ed Gein was the inspiration for the background of the family—this context of the family—but the story was entirely made up. And that was the only time anybody made any references to anything in real time, or something that was actual, in reality. This conversation with you is the first time that anyone has suggested a link in any way with Charlie Manson.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget film. Let me play Johnny Carson here for a moment and ask you to describe, “How low was it?”

[Laughs] Well, Johnny, it was so low . . . . It’s funny, because Carson hated Chainsaw.

I’ll bet. But could you give an example, though, about how low-budget the thing was?

Sure. We had no trailer. We had no RV. We had one for a few days at the beginning, but we had no place to go just to get out of the heat. When we finished filming a scene, you sat under a tree somewhere. At one point the producer saw that I was completely exhausted and burned-out, and I was so burned-out I was just standing in the hot sun with my mask on, ’cause I didn’t have my wits about me to ask somebody to take it off. He got the make-up woman to take it off, put me in the passenger side of the seat of his car, took me for a drive, handed me two ice-cold beers, and turned on the air conditioning. It was the only time during the film that I wasn’t overheated. How low was the budget? It was so low we only had one chainsaw.

[Laughs] Yeah? Did it ever misfire or break down?

No. It was so reliable that that’s why there are two scenes in which I started this onscreen, live, because we knew it would start. I heard that they had like 40 chainsaws in the second Chainsaw movie, and they were constantly having problems with them. They couldn’t get them to run. You know, that was our chainsaw wrangler who just kept that saw going. But that was the only saw we had. Lou Carryman took care of the saw.

That’s funny. You know, Night of the Living Dead kind of brought horror out of the past and off of foreign soil and plopped it right into contemporary America, and I guess you could say that Texas Chainsaw Massacre started a trend of its own, toward a single, masked maniacal villain, you know? Because after that you’ve got Michael Myers and Halloween, and Jason and Friday the 13th, and Freddy Krueger and Nightmare on Elm Street. Did you have any sense that you guys were trailblazing at the time?

No. I mean, looking back at the movie, I realize things about it that were new. But at the time, I really just thought, Hey, we’re makin’ a movie, and I figured that if five years down the road there were a few fans who remembered it, that that was as much as I could dream for with this movie. I had no inkling what this movie was gonna become. Looking back at it, I realized that in some ways it changed horror movies. It’s like with Psycho. Psycho really changed horror movies in that suddenly you’ve got the heroine dead halfway through the movie.

One of the things that Chainsaw did, which was new, was that it wasn’t a polite movie. There wasn’t a moment in that movie when the audience member would feel safe. Most horror movies were a lot of talk, as if they didn’t have enough kills and they were just treading water while they waited for the next kill. And you always had moments when you knew you were safe. Suddenly you’re in Washington. You can tell because the guy was sitting at the desk and in the background through the window you could see the Capitol dome. And you knew that while you were watching The Deadly Mantis, for the next five minutes you could breathe easy. There’s nothing like that in Chainsaw. Once the movie started,  even though there’s no killing until a third of the way into the movie, you’re always on the edge of your seat, you’re always uncomfortable, you never know whether you’re safe.

That for me is a real difference, too, if you compare it to something contemporary that I think owes a debt to Chainsaw—something like Wolf Creek. For me, the first half of that film was pretty much a throwaway yawner until you finally get to the part where they’re doing the carve-’em-up stuff, like Chainsaw.

So many horror movies spend so much time setting up the story, you know? Setting up the killing. With Chainsaw, right away you start feeling, “Oh man, what is this?” You know? You pick up the hitchhiker and he doesn’t kill anybody, but he clearly makes this movie very uncomfortable. You know the freakiest scene in that movie, when I first saw it, was when they drive by the cattleyards and you get a tight shot on a long lens of a cow that’s panting and drooling. That, to me, was an unnerving image. Right then I thought, Oh man, is the whole movie gonna look like this?

But it’s true that so many horror movies talk and just talk, and there’s nothin’ goin’ on. I mean, an example is Scream, you know? When I went to see Scream, and there’s Drew Barrymore, and man, the action starts and they kill her right away, I thought, This is gonna be a really good movie. And then it became nothing, from my point of view. It was a great movie for the first seven minutes, and then it became like all the other boring horror movies. Lots of talk, lots of jokes, but, you know, there wasn’t enough going on in terms of anything really frightening.

But I’m really old-fashioned. I’ve mentioned this to people and they’re going, “Well you old fart, what do you know?” That’s how people react. It’s like my reaction to Dracula. When I watch that movie, and I’ve got a copy of it, I find that movie really boring.

The original? Oh, come on. I would have pegged you for one of the guys who put together those plastic models of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon when you were a kid.

No, no. But you mention Frankenstein. I remember it played in a local theater, like a 15th run theater or something, when I was a kid, and I found that movie absolutely terrifying. Even today, I really enjoy watching Frankenstein. But Dracula? I’ve never found Dracula appealing. Maybe it’s because it was a stage play, and maybe that’s part of why it’s so visually static.

So what are the horror/slasher films that you feel are the most tense, the most worth watching?

My favorite horror movie is The Haunting, the original. About three years ago I watched it again, and I thought, You know, this movie is every bit as frightening and tense to me now as it was 30 years ago. And in fact, it’s even more interesting, because when I was a kid watching it, I didn’t get a lot the resonances and a lot of the subtexts about lesbianism and whatever. So that’s a movie I really like. Another horror movie I like, which is funny, because in a way it’s got all of the clichés, is Alien. But Alien ultimately becomes a teenager-trapped-in-an-old-building movie, you know? It fits right into that type. But it’s a movie that I feel is thrilling as a horror movie, even though they do all the clichés—”Oh, we’re in grave danger, we’d better split up”; “Oh, I’m safe . . . oops, gotta go get the cat”—where you’re screaming in the theater, You IDIOT. But even with all the clichés, I still find that movie really a solidly frightening horror movie. I think those are my top two horror movies.

I like the original Nightmare on Elm Street, but it’s hard to make Freddy a sustainable character because he’s unkillable. You know? He’s a dream. And so it’s hard to continue doing sequels, and I think that’s part of the reason Freddy has become a sort of wisecracking character and not as frightening as he was.

So Jason didn’t scare you, and Michael Myers didn’t do a thing for you?

Michael Myers had his moments. I think Michael Myers, in the original Halloween, one of the most chilling moments in horror is when she’s killed him and then he sits up.

Kind of like that Glenn Close movie where she sits up in the bathtub. What was it called? Fatal Attraction?

Fatal Attraction, yeah. I never saw it.

Well, then [laughs], I’ve spoiled it all for you, haven’t I?

[Laughs] That would probably be my favorite horror movie.

One last question. Originally the film was called something like Stalking Leatherface, wasn’t it? Would that have been a better title?

It never was called Stalking Leatherface. “Stalking Leatherface” was the title of an article that was an interview with me right after we finished the filming. The original title on the script was Leatherface, and there was a discussion during the filming whether they should change the title to Headcheese . . .

[Laughs]

. . . and I was hoping that they didn’t, because I liked the fact that I was going to play the title character. So we were all shocked when it came out as Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I was really disappointed, because I wanted Leatherface. In truth, the title makes the movie. The current title makes the movie. The movie would have been every bit as good, but I don’t think it would have gotten nearly the attention that it has because of the title.