It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone that my favorite movie featuring Gunnar Hansen and chainsaws is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a monument to gritty, independent cinema that drips with sweat, (mostly imagined) blood, and 1970s-era fears of the collapsing working class. Hansen himself is perfect as Leatherface as he imbues the character with layers that give him sympathy without taking away from the fact that he’s still utterly terrifying. Cap it all off with perhaps the greatest final frames ever put to celluloid and you have a grindhouse masterpiece.
But then there’s my second favorite movie featuring Gunnar Hansen and chainsaws, which kicks off with the following warning:
The chainsaws used in this motion picture are real and dangerous! They are handled here by seasoned professionals. The makers of this motion picture advise strongly against anyone attempting to perform these stunts at home. Especially if you are naked and about to engage in strenuous sex.
Said film, Fred Olen Ray’s 1988 Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, isn’t so much a monument to independent cinema as it is to a monument to D-grade sleaze. It’s a film that barely has enough plot to fill its approximately 75-minute runtime and is essentially a means to ensure that literally every woman on screen will take off their top at some point before splattering copious amounts of watered-down blood on as much of the cardboard sets as possible.
The cheap gimmick shenanigans kick in even before the movie really begins, as we see a production company card with the letters AIP. If you’re like me, that’ll invoke the great American International Pictures, a company that gave us some classic flicks in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. But if you’re like me, then you’ll also remember that American International Pictures folded in the early ’80s, and a second look will reveal that Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers comes to us from American INDEPENDENT Pictures.
So where does that get us in terms of story? It’s your “classic” neo-noir tale, with private eye Jack Chandler (Jay Richardson) on a missing persons case in search of Samantha (Linnea Quigley), a girl who ran away from home and landed in Los Angeles where she seems to have gotten caught up in a (checks notes) cult of prostitutes who worship an Egyptian chainsaw god. Said cult is led by The Stranger (Gunnar Hansen), who directs this army of prostitutes to sacrifice their unlucky johns with the business end of their god-like chainsaws. Chandler, of course, must try to get Samantha out before they both become the next offering to the chainsaw gods.
Look, every single person involved seems to know exactly what kind of movie they’re making, starting with director/co-writer Fred Olen Ray. This is a dude that, according to IMDb, has 159 directing credits to his name, with no fewer than 12 of them having the word “bikini” in the title. His is a career filled with low-budget horror and soft-core porn films. At least, that is until around 2012 when he pivoted to made-for-TV Christmas movies that I have to assume were also low budget.
So it’s not going to shock you to learn that Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers is chock-full of all the things you’d expect from someone who’s done variations of horror and soft-core porn his whole career (maybe not so much with the festive holiday feeling). It’s got a Troma-like tendency to throw as many jokes and quirks at you as possible, and while I wouldn’t say the majority of them land, there are certainly some fun spots, particularly when Chandler’s standard private eye narration doesn’t quite match what’s actually happening on screen. Speaking of Chandler, actor John Henry Richardson (aka Jay Richardson) has 143 roles on his résumé (via IMDb), and I recognize not one of them. But he’s completely serviceable here, putting on a combination of Humphrey Bogart and Bruce Campbell that I swear ain’t as bad as it sounds.
Gunnar Hansen’s Stranger is about as far from Leatherface as you can get, and I’ll admit it was actually a little jarring to actually hear Hansen speak dialogue beyond frantic squeals. He’s really leaning into the schlock villain here, laying on some stilted dialogue that I’m choosing to believe is a deliberate choice to fit the tone of the film. I’ll also say that his costume design raises an eyebrow, as the Icelandic native’s shift to Egyptian cult leader includes some hair dye and what looks to be some assisted tanning that drifts dangerously close to brownface.
And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to the great Linnea Quigley, who by 1988 was already a pro when it came to doing a lot with a little in terms of script. After all, I can’t imagine her character Samantha had much written on the page, but, as always, she brings a quirky personality to the proceedings that reminds you why she was a go-to horror vixen throughout the ’80s.
So, as is often the case with sleazy exploitation flicks, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers begs the question of whether a cheap ploy for some dirt merchants to make a couple of bucks can still be worth your time. For me, the answer is a resounding... sure, why not? We certainly won’t be seeing this one pop up in the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but if you’ve got a hankering for a helping of girls wielding chainsaws and bad puns, then this will definitely scratch that itch.