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Franchise Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974-1997)

June 21, 2011

While some films require an entire article for analysis, others (especially sequels in a long-running franchise) can be served well enough in a capsule review. Hence, the following article and others like it will look at a film series as a whole rather than dwelling solely on any individual chapter. Many great articles already exist on the original Tobe Hooper classic, so I will hold back the urge to give it special treatment here. This article will only cover the first four entries.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

  • Dir. Tobe Hooper
  • Released by Bryanston
  • Written by Kim Henkel
  • Rating: ****

After an opening scroll of text informs us of the horrible account we are about to witness, the screen goes black. Then a rustling sound can be heard, as well as heavy panting. Suddenly, a flash bulb goes off, and we see part of a decomposed corpse. Back to black, with more rustling, and then another flash of decayed flesh. After this repeats itself for several seconds, we see the corpse displayed in a cemetary. Move to opening credits over footage of sunspots.

So, how can Tobe Hooper’s infamous exploitation film hold up to that opening? With a mix of genuine horror and very dark humor, of course! As the story begins, five young adults are investigating a grave-robbing incident in rural Texas. After a terrifying incident with a looney hitchhiker, they stop off at the old home of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul Partain) Hardesty’s grandparents. Two of the teens decide to go for a swim, but come across a run-down house instead. Hoping to get gas for their van, they enter the house–and do not come out.

Very much a film of its time, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre subtlely comments upon the impact of Vietnam and the wavering 1970s U.S. economy on the American family. Much like its spiritual predecessor, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, this picture looks at the cultural crises through an almost documentary-like lens that makes the horror uncomfortably real. Also, considering the low-budget nature of this production, the cinematography by Dan Pearl is quite impressive.

For a film that focuses on a family of ex-slaughterhouse cannibals, including one who wears human flesh for a mask and wields a very nasty power tool (effectively portrayed by Gunnar Hansen), there is hardly any blood or gore. This movie instead succeeds through creating a genuine sense of dread. No better example exists than the dinner scene, which is almost enough to put one in shock. Brutal, violent, and unrelenting, this one is a must-see.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

  • Dir. Tobe Hooper
  • Released by Cannon
  • Written by L.M. Kit Carson
  • Rating: ***

I think that some quotes from Tobe Hooper’s horror-comedy follow up to his classic exploitation film can say volumes more than I ever could:

“S-C-E-X, sex. Ya had to find out about it, didn’t ya? You have one choice, boy: sex or the saw. Sex is…well, nobody knows. But the saw, the saw is family.” -Drayton Sawyer (the cook, played by returning actor Jim Siedow)

“Lick my plate, you dog dick!” -Chop-Top (the Vietnam vet, played by Bill Moseley)

“I’m the lord of the harvest!” -Lefty Enright (the vengeful policeman, played by Dennis Hopper)

So, what’s the plot? The Sawyers have packed up and moved away from the farmhouse, and now live in an abandoned amusement park in Dallas, where Drayton runs a lucrative business. Chop-Top and Bubba (aka Leatherface, played by Bill Johnson) decide to exact some road rage on two teens, not realizing that a local radio station was recording the whole thing.

Disc jockey Stretch (Caroline Williams) wants to assist Lefty (uncle of Sally and Franklin Hardesty from the first film) in stopping the family’s reign of terror once and for all. He reluctantly agrees to her help, but is too busy shopping for his arsenal chainsaws to arrive at the station before the Sawyers do. Hilarity ensues.

Instead of munching on hippies, the family now dines on yuppies. Likewise, Hooper serves ample helpings of satirical barbs aimed at Reaganomics and consumer culture. The humor and the gore are almost overplayed here (the film was released unrated to avoid an X for its grue), but the flick is all in good fun and manages to be madly entertaining.

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

  • Dir. Jeff Burr
  • Released by New Line
  • Written by David J. Schow
  • Rating: *

After Tobe Hooper evidently killed off his series before it could become yet another slasher franchise, New Line Cinema leapt at the rights, hoping to establish a second line of horror credit to go along with their A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Jeff Burr, who had the least creative control of any director to work on this series, brings us this sleeping pill of a sequel (which more or less ignores the events of the second film). We get a new chainsaw, a new mask, a new family…and the same old plot.

Wouldn’t you know that more people (Kate Hodge and William Butler, to be exact) would eventually stumble across the Sawyer house? This time they meet their grisly doom by the hands of not only Leatherface (R.M. Mihailoff), but newcomers such as Tex (Viggo Mortensen) and a psychotic little girl (Jennifer Banko). The only other holdover from the original film is the decomposing corpse of Grandpa (yes, he’s dead this time).

Of course, the story itself is also a holdover, lazily recycling scenes and story developments. One would expect new ideas from the splatterpunk-novelist-turned-screenwriter Schow, but New Line’s guidelines were too inconsistent to allow him to construct a story that could launch a satisfying line of sequels. The only fresh concept is Ken Foree’s gun-toting survivalist, but even he eventually falls into the Dennis Hopper role from the first sequel (before inexplicably surviving a mortal injury near the end of the film).

Frankly, this film looks too slick to be frightening (it was filmed in California instead of Texas) and lacks the edgy sense of humor that makes this series work. Although the titular character evokes the heavy metal rock star scene with his appearance and behavior, the movie seems disinterested in exploring the satirical potential of that creative choice or any other. It’s just more of the same, this time without the substance and with obvious meddling from both the studio and the MPAA, and the results are instantly forgettable.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1997)

  • Dir. Kim Henkel
  • Released by Columbia
  • Written by Kim Henkel
  • Rating: **

The Next Generation is the title of the 1997 release of the film. The original 1994 cut that was released in film festivals and the like was called The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it was slightly longer and slightly better. The screenwriter of the original film returns to direct this sequel, which only acknowledges the other two sequels in passing.

Jenny (Renee Zellweger…yes, that one) and her prom friends find themselves stranded in the woods and at the mercy of the looney Sawyer clan, led by Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey…yes, that one), who has a remote-control mechanical leg brace. This family prefers pizza over human flesh and are apparently affiliated with the Illuminati. Oh, and Leatherface (Robert Jacks) dresses in full drag, a la Divine.

Much like TCM2, this is a comedy, and it most certainly is kooky. It has the entertainment value (and bad acting) of the average Friday the 13th. However, the movie does have one delightful comment to make on its very existence. It mostly poses as a semi-remake, replicating a few key moments incompetenty, but the final act introduces a character who criticizes the failure of the new family at recapturing “the true meaning of horror.” This scene implies that Henkel deliberately made the film terrible in order to point out the pointlessness of sequelization. A bold move, no?


From → Film Criticism

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