Chain Saw Confidential Review
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Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974, and it remains one of the most controversial, disturbing, and yet misunderstood pieces of exploitation filmmaking ever to be committed to both celluloid and our collective consciousness. Much has been written about Massacre, whether it’s Carol Clover’s feminist approach or Hooper’s own director’s commentary on the myriad of DVD releases. Now we have Chain Saw Confidential, a new entry into the mythos and history of the terror masterpiece, written by the headcheese himself, Leatherface, a.k.a Gunnar Hansen.

What better narrator for the making of a low-budget classic than the skin-mask wearing man-child himself? Hansen’s reminiscences and anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of the schedule, conflicts on the set, and specific performances—particularly his own—are told with humor and pathos, and they make for a story that’s surprisingly ego-free. As to Hansen’s portrayal of the movie’s mythical antagonist, I have always felt that Hansen (then a young actor and student at UT who was offered $800 and a fraction of a percentage point) channeled something special in his character of Leatherface: his body language, grunts, and squeals communicated a personality beyond the typical ‘slasher’ bogeyman. A personality or ‘persona’ that, at times, is both horrific and sympathetic, depending on the mask he dons. As Hansen reminds us, ‘persona’ is the Greek for ‘mask.’ The author’s take on his character, seen generally as a simple slaughter machine and psychopath, comes across as nuanced. After all, psychopaths cannot make emotional connections, yet Leatherface is devoted to family.

  
 
Hansen’s affectionate tone connects on many levels and hopefully will invite a new legion of fans to discover the movie. There is much to enjoy here, including the origins of the story, which Hansen tells us was modeled on a combination of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and (my personal favorite) the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel. The book also discusses Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl’s experimentation with tracking shots and low-budget visual effects, art director Bob Burns’s use of real human skeletons (cheaper than plastic) and sundry found items to dress the sets, the unbearable Texas heat and festering smell of head cheese, which lent a realism that would have otherwise been missing from a big-budget production, and the sometimes contradictory memories that individual actors have of the same event.

Hansen’s structure reads like an actor’s DVD commentary, walking us scene by scene through the filming of the classic—while, every now and then, breaking off into reminiscences and interesting facts. Later chapters comment on the magic created during the editing process and the dodgy financing deals, which left nearly everyone involved—including director and writer—hanging in the air financially, as well as the vitriolic reviews that the movie has garnered. One of Hansen’s fellow suffering actors—Marilyn Burns, who plays Final Girl, Sally—puts the experience in the context of performance and product when she suggests, “It was a pretty tough shoot, but do you know what made it good? It made it to the camera. All our misery comes out on the film.”

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a surprising bloodless classic, considering the subject matter. At the end of the day, its accomplishments lie in its endurance as a classic and its refusal to die. This massacre survives because, forty years ago, some young, naive filmmakers captured on camera a primal story that continues to court controversy and profoundly disturb audiences four decades after its release.

Ultimately, Chain Saw Confidential is more than a making-of. It’s the modest recollections of a man who helped create an icon.

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