Retrospective Reviews #10: Deep In The Heart of Texas Chainsaw

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise really isn’t one that seems to merit a franchise. The 1974 film was groundbreaking at the time, providing audiences with an authentic sense of terror that hadn’t felt since Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both were partially based on real life serial killer Ed Gein, but take that inspiration to very different story, one that feels rather finite. Yet, we got three sequels and a couple remake/reboots/reinterpretations over the last forty or so years. We’ll explore most of them today, give or take The Beginning or Texas Chainsaw 3D.

04/5/16: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Re-Watch)

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Bryaston Pictures

If Halloween introduced the formula for the slasher film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre served as the initial rough outline. One covered in stain marks, grease and the occasional blood soaked feather. Much of the praise for the 1974 film came from how authentic it felt, which shows in the grungy macabre detail of the sets and naturalistically trashy use of lighting. All of the environments feel lived in, allowing us to explore them with these relatively normal young road trippers traveling through Texas. It’s an appropriately dingy aesthetic that feels like exploitative journalistic reporting of the time, showing off the destructive detail that lies at the heartland of an America gone crazy. The detail of the environment allows us to fill in the blanks when things become horrific yet oddly free of gore later on. It’s all pretty damn impressive… and a shame it has to be showcased through some pretty unremarkable main characters. With our main group of road trippers, we’re not really allowed to grow attached to most of them, with the possible exception of expert screamer Marilyn Burns during the climax. Everyone else in that VMW is pretty much a non entity, either there to get us from Point A to Point B or whine endlessly in the case of the wheelchair bound Franklin. It’s a real shame that we spend roughly half the film with these soulless vessels, yet our villainous Sawyer clan manages to feel far more dimensional. Seriously, this backwards warped family has more of an actual cohesive unit in the iconically chaotic dinner table scene than the others do in the first half of the film. We get a sense of each person’s role in the Sawyer family, from Jim Siedow’s abusive father to Nubbins’ weaselly motivator to Leatherface picking up the slack as the labor/muscle/homemaker, all of whom worship the ground their beloved decrepit grandpa walks on. This all feeds into the believability of this crazed family existing somewhere off in the backwoods of Texas… just a shame some realistically bland leads had to drive us there.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Meat Hammers

04/5/16: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Re-Watch)

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Cannon Films

So, after a rather grounded horror exploration of the Texas backwoods, how could one possibly follow it up? Well, for Tobe Hooper, you take 12 years, make one of the most iconic ghost films of all time… and then turn the second film into a carnival ride that feels like it’s constantly on the verge of breaking apart. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a crazed geek show of a movie, completely abandoning the subtle gore and grounded terror of the original in favor of brazen budget spectacle with all the insanity of a rickety roller coaster being held together by Elmer’s glue and duct tape. Given the film was made through Cannon Films, the carnival barkers of films studios in the 1970s-80s, this is no surprise. Yet, what separates it from that studio’s intense schlock output of over the top action films starring Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson is director Tobe Hooper’s vision. Hooper emphasizes far more on the black humor that can be seen under the grime of the original film, going full hog as he spits in the face of expectation and convention by throwing the Sawyer family into disturbed set pieces of gore and confused depraved sexuality that culminates in a literal chainsaw duel. Much of that insanity comes from the members portraying the Sawyer clan, such as Jim Siedow’s returning abusive father with a crazed cannibalistic capitalist edge, Bill Johnson’s turn as Leatherface that has a warped awkward burgeoning sexuality and Bill Moseley stealing every damn scene he’s in as the manically demented former Vietnam vet Chop Top. Their bizarre trinity tries to contend with the tactile yet terrified lead Caroline Williams and the vengeance seeking madness of a chainsaw wielding sheriff Dennis Hopper. It all may be profoundly out of touch with the original… but it’s honestly all the better for it. Removing it from the shackles of the first film’s iconic moments – with the possible exception of the Grandpa sledgehammer scene that’s pretty similar to the original – allows for less direct comparison and more creativity within the concept. I just wish some of the other sequels had realized this.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Dented Plates

04/06/16: Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

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New Line Cinema

After the lesser reception of the second entry, New Line Cinema picked up the rights to the franchise and decided to go for a bigger budgeted take on the more grounded horror of the original film. Or at least, that’s what I could assess in between the muddy cinematography and bouts of boredom. Leatherface is the type of franchise continuation that turned the horror genre stale, emphasizing on elements that made the original work without adding much of anything truly new. The same premise of people on a road trip encountering the Sawyers, running through the woods, getting captured and trying to escape this bizarre family is all there, but with none of the nuance to make me feel invested. The woods elements are especially infuriating, given that a solid third of the film is set there and barely anything can be seen thanks to the extremely dark and incompetent cinematography that muddles the attempted scenes of gore. The film’s infamous issues with the MPAA over said gore baffles me in retrospect, given there’s so little of it abound even in the unrated cut I saw. Yet, the structure of the film still feels incredibly choppy, considering most of the death scenes and character moments are rather rushed and unearned, particularly with this film’s half assed attempt at giving our female lead a Ripley style arc into badassery. The few intriguing moments come from the rather brazen performances of horror favorite Ken Foree as one of the more competent non-Sawyers of the franchise and relative unknown Viggo Mortensen as the one interesting member of the Sawyer clan. Everyone else in the family has rather generic quirks that have little to them, including Leatherface’s bizarre fascination with a Speak N Spell. None of this is enough to excuse this dull excuse for a follow up. Short of 2013’s excruciating Texas Chainsaw 3D, it’s pretty much the low point of the series.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Severed Ears

04/06/16: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation

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New Line Cinema

I’m not sure what this was. Tobe Hooper’s co-writer on the first film Kim Henkel at some point wanted to make something similar to the original film, clearly copying the basic concept with a group of teens coming across the Sawyer (or “Slaughter” for this film) clan in the backwoods of Texas. From there, things seem to really go awry, but it’s not an awry with a consistent creative vision like the one Hooper had in the second film. The awry here is just with basic moments of plot structure, editing or set pieces that makes this a rambling incoherence of a film sort of tough to watch. Even so, the weird ambition of adding more emphasis on Leatherface’s transsexuality, a gag about malfunctioning body cast tech and a conspiracy thriller plot about the “Slaughter” family’s past makes it instantaneously more watchable than the previous entry. Well, that and obviously seeing Renee Zellwegger fumble through a “meek to badass” arc or Matthew McConaughey channeling everything from his Dazed and Confused role to a Tusken Raider from Star Wars with his performance. It’s a bizarre mess, but not even a very memorable one.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Female Faces for Leatherface

04/09/16: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) (Re-Watch)

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Platinum Dunes

Starting a bad trend isn’t always commendable. This 2003 remake of the 1974 film was the first of many attempts by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes to take classic horror properties and rework them with a sleek modern vision. This is obviously in steep contrast to the original film’s grimy look, despite both being shot by cinematographer Daniel Pearl. On the one hand, it’s probably for the best that the film decided not to replicate the iconic grit of the original, instead evoking the decrepit nature of this environment more with the set design and simple yet effective ratty clothing. Yet, the choppy editing and look of someone like a Leatherface clash with the visceral look of the sets or other costumes. One can’t believe for a second that any of Leatherfaces’ masks aren’t rubber, which is sort of key in the fear. Leatherface is pretty generic as a monster here, including having the first bland backstory added to an iconic monster with his face deformity that clumsily explains his iconic mask. The better characters are ones with more left to the imagination such as R. Lee Ermey’s Sheriff Hoyt, who owns some of the most intense moments in the film. The same can’t be said for the leads, who – aside from maybe Jessica Biel – are pretty one note like the leads of the original. For a remake of a revered classic, this one at least goes for more invention and crazy gags that make it more watchable than the dreadfully forgettable Platinum Dunes remakes like A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Weed Piñatas

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