The original "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" probably cuts it as one of the scariest movies ever made because the conditions under which it was filmed were almost as grisly and miserable as the horrors depicted onscreen.
So says Gunnar Hansen, who roared through the raging center of this drive-in snuff-fest classic as Leatherface, one of the most frightening villains ever to chew up low-budget scenery — with a lot of help from a gas-guzzling power tool.
"We didn't have a trailer; we didn't have anyplace that was air-conditioned or a place where you could sit down," the 6-foot-4 actor said in a recent phone interview. "Because we had a small budget, we shot seven days a week, and we shot 12 to 16 hours a day. ... And, of course, it was Texas, just outside of Austin in August and into the beginning of September, so it was a hundred degrees every day, give or take. You know, the classic Texas humidity, and you know how it makes Texas a lousy place to live except during November, December and January."
Such heat had to be rough on a native of Iceland, who moved to Maine at age 5 before relocating to Texas at age 11. After high school, he attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he did some theater work while majoring in mathematics and English. In summer 1973, he heard a young Texas filmmaker named Tobe Hooper was casting an independent film and thought it might make for an interesting summer job.
The script, by Hooper and Kim Henkel, told the nightmare story of five college students on a road trip through Texas who are sidetracked by a family of cannibalistic madmen, including the masked, mute, chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, who was the maddest and meanest of all.
Hansen said Hooper allowed him to develop the character however he wished.
"I was stuck in the sense that I couldn't use my voice or my face," Hansen said. "And I thought, ‘Well, I've got to use my body. So, I went out to this campus school for retarded persons, and it was residential. I started walking, and I sort of watched the way people moved. I started picking little body movements or postures that I thought worked for me. And after a couple of days, I realized I could walk down the campus and if I passed a staff person, they assumed I was a resident there."
Most of the filming was done in and around a remote farmhouse that was filled with lamps, chairs, couches and tables constructed of real animal bones and upholstered with a latex material designed to look like human skin. To complete the gruesome charnel house effect, art director Robert A. Burns drove around the countryside, loading up on the bones of cattle and other animals in various stages of decomposition, which he used to litter the floors of the flesh-eating family's house.
When the time finally came for the climactic "dinner scene," wherein family members relentlessly torture and terrorize the Sally Hardesty character, the main course played by Marilyn Burns, the cast was already deeply exhausted, irritated, sick of the sight of each other, and literally sick to their stomachs from the awful stenches — both human and dead animal — that were rising in the unbearable heat.
"That was part of a 26-hour day," Hansen said.