Sunday, 8 November 2015

RIP Gunnar Hansen.

I don't have time for many regrets in my life, I think of them as generally a waste of time. What is done, is done, etc etc etc. However this morning I have a regret of major proportions.

A couple of years ago I had the chance to attend a Com event down in England, here one of the icons of modern cinema horror was appearing. 'Well I suppose that's reasonable exciting, but they happen all the time don't they?' I hear you ask. Well that may be so, in fact I have to be honest because that was actually my reaction. Never mind that the man in question was horror icon, Gunnar Hansen, or that he portrayed arguably the greatest of all iconic cinematic horror characters in perhaps the one of the most controversial and influential horror films of all time. No, because If that wasn't enough the film in question, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) happens to be my favourite film of all time.

So, my reaction to being able to meet one of my cinematic heroes was to pass up the opportunity. I do recall the reason was that I had some other things going on in my life (the subject of which I cannot remember what for the life of me), so it meant I chose not to travel down. I simply settled myself with thoughts that there would be numerous other chances to meet the great man.

Well this morning the news came through that indeed there would be absolutely no chances. Gunnar Hansen passed away today at the age of 68 and with it my selfish wish to meet him and ask him personally the hundreds of questions that I've had about him, Leatherface and the whole Chainsaw experience for more years than I care to remember. Sadly my chance has passed.

So I hope that you all don't think that I am grabbing an opportunity to take advantage of the news of his death, but I felt the only way to show my appreciation was to publish again a few self indulgent musings on the film that is still at the top of my all-time favourite list.

So ladies and gentlemen, I give you....

 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Let's stop here, what's the worse that could happen?....
Picture the scene - it's the early 1980's in a small Yorkshire town in England. A young man who has more than a few dreams in his head, stars in his eyes, and a growing obsession with all things Science fiction and horror, hears something startling and wondrous on a national news bulletin. Namely, a that particular movie which had over the years gained a reputation of controversial and mythical proportions, arguably as no other has in the history of movies, was finally to be released on video. Amazingly, some 7 years after its initial production the seminal horror movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was finally going to see the light of day over here in the UK. 

Believe me, this was big news. Since its release in the UK in early 1975, thanks in part to the usual suspects within our sensationalist and hypocritical tabloid press, the opportunity to see the movie in cinema's had been withheld by the British Board of film classification. Those bastions (I said, bastions) for the protection of the nations viewing sensibilities, believed vehemently that the magnitude of violence, particularly in two noted scenes and the feeling of claustrophobic terror in the last 3rd of the film, was far too much for the sensibilities of a British audience. Therefore deeming that it was unsuitable for a BBFC X certificate to be issued. Ah bless the BBFC for protecting us from making up our own minds.

So it finally seemed in those dark and distant days of 1981 that the British Board of film classification had finally seen sense it seems and permitted the movie's release. However, this respite of finally seeing sense turned out to be very brief as the video was soon to be removed from the video stores after new video classification rules came in ('Thank you', Margaret Thatcher...).

Seems legit......
Indeed, as it transpired, no theatrical or video release was going to take place for another 18 years thanks to the backward and miss-placed 'protection' of the the public sensibilities by the continuing preaching of sections of the press and political community - bastards.

However, before it was unceremoniously pulled from the shelves, a lucky few of us had managed to get our hands on the film, and it's iconic horror bad-guy, by now had achieved cult status of his own fabled proportions. I had managed to get a copy of the movie from a friend of mine, a grainy 5th of 6th generation copy which meant that the visual quality was less than perfect in some middle parts. But it was MY copy. It may be a lifetime ago, but believe me, it is still difficult to communicate the level of excitement and anticipation that me and my young friends were experiencing as we sat huddled around a VCR on a chilly February evening. Not only were we giving two fingers up to the establishment, we were about to see a colossus of Horror cinema that even today, though it may have been copied a thousand times, still has yet to be surpassed.

I'm not going to give anything near a detailed synopsis of the plot as any self respecting horror devotee will be at least familiar with the rudimentary elements - the other two people in the world can watch it for themselves. However, to basically sum it up... Loosely based on the true crimes of Ed Gein, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tells the story of Five teenage friends who are travelling across the State in order to pay a visit to their grandfather's grave after stories of vandalism and desecration have reached them. As they travel cross-country to the homestead they chance upon an old run-down property, where they are hunted and terrorised by a chain-saw wielding murderer and his not so lovable family of grave-robbing cannibals.

Just a man and his chainsaw hobby.....
Forget the basic storyline. Put aside opinions on the quite frankly ropey acting in a couple of roles (the cast taken mostly from Director Tobe Hooper's teaching friends and students). While you're at it, if you haven't ever seen the film (and where the hell have you been if you haven't?!), ignore the rather miss-placed and over sensationalised claims that you may have heard that the film is nothing more than thoughtless violence and nothing else. 

No, this is a movie that is much more than that as it takes you along with it on an adrenaline filled journey of barely suppressed terror. Indeed, there are times, particularly in the last act of the film when that the experience becomes more of a sensory and emotional overload - such is it's intense and unsettling power. There are scenes and images within this film that burn themselves onto your consciousness for a variety of reasons. Yes there are scenes of unyielding violence which will shock, even on repeated viewing, particularly from one of the true iconic horror characters, Leatherface, played impeccably by the legendary Gunnar Hansen. For me, there has simply never been a horror character as pitiful or frightening as Leatherface. Much of the credit obviously goes to the director and the editing of the film for this, but I must admit that I have always felt that Hansen has never quite received the recognition for his performance that he deserved. His movement, reactions and presence is quite magnificent.

The cinematography is frankly stunning, originally shot on poor quality 16mm film, this seems if anything to add to the overall atmospheric ambiance, partly in the external country scenes but particularly in the internal terror scenes that are at times genuinely suffocating in their claustrophobic intensity. 


Somebody won't be recommending this establishment
 on Holiday destinations.com
As I mentioned previously, it wasn't until 1999 that the BBFC realised that years of complete miss-interpretation of the movie had taken place. Contrary to popular misconception, there is no over-reliance on explicit violence in the movie (in fact there is a distinct lack of blood and gore throughout). Rather it is the often implied threat of violence and atmosphere that creates the power to shock and discomfort the viewer. 

I could also talk at length about Leatherface and his family's treatment of the teenagers being an evocation and allegory of America in the 1970's with such things as the Watergate scandal and Vietnam making it it quite clear that the modern world world was cruel and nothing like your childhood memories said it was. No one is safe, no-one can be trusted. The hippy peace loving days of the 1960's were long gone. But I'll leave that sort of discussion for those far more qualified and able than I.

I could also talk about the less than successful remakes, with the most recent an attempt to turn Leatherface into some sort of franchise leading character who we are meant to actually support and feel sorry for, thereby losing all the essential elements of this true classic original - but that is a rant for another time.

RIP Gunnar, you will be sorely missed.

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