Great Character: Leatherface (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”)

In a month-long run-up to Halloween, our Great Character focus this month is boogeyman. This week, Jason Cuthbert explores Leatherface from the 1974 horror movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:

Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) has a burned face and razor glove. Michael Myers (Halloween) has that William Shatner-inspired pale mask and a kitchen knife. Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) rocks the hockey goalie mask and the butcher blade. But before any of these franchised boogeymen caused their first carnage – the slasher genre was officially born in 1974 with Leatherface – a maniac with a homemade human-skin mask and a chainsaw.

Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist) co-wrote with Kim Henkel, directed and produced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on budget of under $300,000, virtually unknown actors including a young John Larroquette (Night Court, Stripes, JFK) doing the opening narration and unreasonable temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit throughout production. A gut-wrenching mix of heinous violence covered by San Antonio newscasters and elements from the real life Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein (skin masks, body part home decor) led to the creation of Leatherface and his inbred family of butchers.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plot summary from IMDB:

Five friends visiting their grandpa’s old house are hunted down and terrorized by a chainsaw wielding killer and his family of grave-robbing cannibals.

Gunnar Hansen studied the movement and mannerisms of special needs children in preparation for playing Leatherface as severely mentally challenged. Leatherface is also physically deformed, obese, practically mute (with the exception of primal grunts) and takes in a little cross-dressing from time to time. Hansen described his disturbed character as “completely under the control of his family. He’ll do whatever they tell him to do. He’s a little bit afraid of them.” This makes for a refreshingly complex antagonist that has himself been brutally victimized by his own relatives.

It can be assumed that Leatherface is a traumatized collection of scars, emotional and physical, which his schizophrenic father, referred to as “Old Man”, has contributed to his cold world. Even when his son successfully kills new human sources of dinner and furniture, “Papa Savage” still must find a reason to lash out at Leatherface.

OLD MAN: [to Leatherface] You… you damn fool! You ruined the door!

Leatherface’s hitchhiking brother is not exempt from the verbal/mental abused either.

OLD MAN: [to the Hitchhiker] Shut up, you bitch hog!

He also has a twisted way of justifying cannibalism to his sons, while excusing himself from the harsher hands-on part of the process.

OLD MAN: I just can’t take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it.

Being that Leatherface has just below zero ability to communicate his innermost thoughts and feelings, his irrational outbursts around strangers and docile, submissive behavior among family will have to paint that putrid picture for us. He is the next generation of Frankenstein, mute but raging loud and clear with unhealed trauma wounds.

The filmmakers wisely withhold the exact details that caused Leatherface to become the furthest thing from college material. But the clues are all around him – an ex-killer grandfather living upstairs with a female corpse, a father that sells barbecued people platters at a road side restaurant, a brother who stabs himself – just because – and a home full of rotting flesh.

Imagine if Leatherface ever wandered any further than his family’s property? Look how his grave-robbing brother fared socially when he tried hanging out with the young victims in their van – and that guy can actually talk. Leatherface is unfortunately a tortured soul who is now inflicting torture on innocent souls with the same sense of normalcy as mowing the lawn.

For one of the most truly unsettling experiences that the horror genre has to offer, the dinner table scene towards the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will make you lose your appetite.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre expresses most of the morbid ills that make society suffer – murder, crime, abuse, domestic violence, rape, isolation, trauma, hatred, poverty, health problems and a lack of education. Leatherface represents the consequences of being raised with these horrific occurrences, spreading a poisonous ripple effect onto complete strangers. His chilling back-story, a visually unforgettable appearance and a complicated psychological makeup make Leatherface one disturbingly GREAT CHARACTER.

If I recall correctly, one of the inspirations for Leatherface was Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein. But as bad of a guy as Leatherface is, there was that sense, at least in the original movie, that the dude was actually cowed and bullied by his family, even forced to kill as a form of self-defense. Sympathizing a killer? That’s a nifty trick.

Thanks to Jason for the post. Next week, another cinematic boogeyman.

Meanwhile join us in comments for a discussion of Leatherface.