It is six minutes into The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before we see a living, breathing being. While Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 horror film is known as something of a slow-burn, even when the kids in the van are tossing a creepy hitchhiker out of their van – suck it, evil! – death is never far from our minds. From a cemetery robbery that left a corpse idol behind to running commentary on the operation of a slaughterhouse, the five kids road tripping through Texas seem trapped in the underworld from frame one.
The pacing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is almost uncanny, essentially cramming en entire horror movie into the middle thirty minutes of the film. It takes Leatherface roughly 15 minutes to dispatch the entire gang of travelers, and each death scene is (justly) more famous than the one it follows. Even if that was all there was to the movie, it would still be memorable. But Hooper’s odd pacing is a big part of what makes the film come alive. The opening 30 minutes, drenched in bright Texas sun, are surprisingly relaxed, making sure we know who each of these kids are and how they handle themselves when things get weird, thanks to an oddball hitchhiker they pick up. It displays a patience that few fright flicks possess and a willingness to make its characters obnoxious without pushing them into hatable. It makes them people. And it makes it all the scarier to see how quickly they disappear.
But it is the film’s final 30 minutes that really change the way The Texas Chain Saw Massacre works its sinister magic, focusing closely on Marilyn Burns’ Sally as she is captured by the cannibal family from hell and brought to the family dinner. Burns’ nonstop shrieking begins as grating, but quickly becomes piercing, and then unforgettable. It becomes a test of endurance, and her cries seem to become more… real. More present. If this was just a film, wouldn’t they have edited some of that out? Wouldn’t they have thrown in a chase? Wouldn’t they have done something to break up the noise? It is a punishing experience, unforgettable and utterly terrifying, and as the shrieks turn to sobbing laughter in the movie’s final moments, you realize that Sally is never, ever really walking away from this.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 lost the thread almost immediately. Hooper, returning to Leatherface 12 years later, knew he wouldn’t be able to replicate the grimy, miserable masterpiece that made his name. Instead, he took the series in a radically different direction, turning horror’s most terrifying film into a goofy horror-comedy. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 isn’t a great film, it is at least its own thing, a movie only Hooper could have made. The third and fourth films in the franchise, however, showed what happens when Hollywood tried to replicate the grimy, singular vision of a group of dumb kids with all the gloss and traditionalism of a normal horror film. They are remarkably similar films, giving Leatherface a revolving cast of colorful hillbillies with which to spree-kill unsuspecting teens, but largely ditching the original’s willingness to punish its audience rather than startle it.
Kim Henkel got his screenwriting debut on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974; 1994’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (originally titled The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) remains his only directing credit to date. The film follows Renee Zellweger as Jenny, an innocent high school girl heading to prom with her boyfriend and another couple. They get into an accident on a country road and go to try and find help before the other driver dies, only to run into a sadistic madman named Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey) prowling the night roads looking for new victims to bring home to his family. Which includes Leatherface, but, oddly, features the family ordering pizza in rather than dining on human flesh.
But where Wes Craven’s New Nightmare brought back the original writer for a series-defining statement, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (released, very briefly, the same year as New Nightmare) was trying to recreate the original in Henkel’s own image. Many of the iconic scenes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are present here, copied and amped up to 11. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had Leatherface in an apron serving food to his family, so The Next Generation has Leatherface applying mascara and lipstick before slipping on a revealing dress, because the ‘Creepy Crossdresser‘ was a popular trope post-Silence of the Lambs. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had a notoriously brutal scene where one of the girls is hung on a meathook, so The Next Generation has her hung on a meat hook… only to have her escape, get beaten with a stick, have her tongue bit off, be set on fire, and, finally, have her head crushed by Matthew McConaughey’s cyborg leg. “Everything you can do,” The Next Generation seemed intent on saying, “I can do better.” And then it took the final steps of what I can only imagine it thought was its victory lap, by revealing the hidden minds that had been secretly controlling the events behind the entire franchise as a well-dressed British man swoops in, raves about the importance of horror, reveals his stomach nipples, and then leaves.
Where Wes Craven’s New Nightmare understood on a fundamental level what made A Nightmare on Elm Street so creepy, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is a film that doesn’t even begin to get why people enjoyed the original. Kim Henkel, pushing 50 and looking at a career that never really took off the way Hooper’s did after their 1970s masterpiece, clearly hated the franchise by this point. The teenagers were despicable, the sort of characters you wanted to die, and none were punished so hard (or so insanely) as shallow ditz Heather. Leatherface, once a simple monster, was turned into an obnoxious, shrieking queen. Henkel didn’t just want to make a Texas Chainsaw movie; he wanted to expose something hollow about youth culture and horror storytelling. What, I’m honestly not entirely sure.
But, of course, the world wasn’t done with Leatherface. The purpose of this column is to look at the films that finally killed the various horror franchises, warranting a reboot or just flat-out stopping production, but that’s harder to do with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The second, third, and fourth films in the franchise are all soft-reboot semi-sequels, keeping some elements but tossing the rest, only tangentially acknowledging any sort of continuity (though they do technically all acknowledge it). Nearly a decade after the fourth film, Michael Bay produced a pair of movies intended to reboot the franchise with 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2006’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Despite initial popularity, the reboot quickly petered out. But then 2013 brought us Texas Chainsaw, an ostensible direct sequel to Hooper’s original 1974 film. And that’s where things really go crazy.
Though the film bills itself as a direct sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, even to the point of opening with footage from the original film, making it a period piece would have been… too hard, I guess? Most of the film’s early running largely avoids period signifiers, about an hour into the film, a police officer pulls out his cell phone and begins to FaceTime info back to his superiors as he investigates Leatherface’s hideaway. And yet, minutes later, when Alexandra Daddario needs help, she runs to the nearest convenient pay phone. Half the film’s soundtrack is bluegrass, but star Trey Songz has his character listen to and enjoy… the newest Trey Songz single. It was like they wrote the film to be a period piece (likely taking place in the early 90s) before deciding that they didn’t want to spend the extra money.
Texas Chainsaw stars Alexandra Daddario as a lost child of the Sawyer clan, kidnapped as an infant by one of the violent townies currently murdering her entire family in a fit of Southern mob justice and raised as their own daughter. When she discovers the truth, she decides to road trip with her friends down to Texas after her last surviving blood relative left her a gorgeous mansion in her will. There, she finds that her family legacy is one of slaughter, cannibalism, and old-fashioned Texas justice… and, while the first two-thirds of the film are pretty terrible, it is with that last discovery that Texas Chainsaw finally comes into its own.
Texas Chainsaw is, because of it, a far more fitting conclusion to the series (at least for now) than The Next Generation was. While it mostly fits into same mold as the later Chainsaw sequels, writers Debra Sullivan & Adam Marcus and director John Luessenhop found a novel angle for the material that fits in well with the underused Texas milieu, bringing the cannibalistic Sawyer clan up against a vigilante mob out for blood and asking us to choose between two evils. Neither is good, but Luessenhop’s film seems to argue that personal evil is far less insidious than systemic, culture-wide evil, and the film ultimately sides with Leatherface over the good ol’ boy mayor of Newt, Texas.
And if there was one horror monster that could inspire sympathy, it would be Leatherface, the simple, overprotective lug who, sure, murdered a bunch of people and then wore their faces… but, particularly in the first film, he did so only to protect his family and their land, because he didn’t know better. A monster, yes, but Texas Chainsaw posits him as a monster made in Texas who exists to protect his family from Texas. While it’s a rough idea, it’s also the kind of shot in the arm the franchise needed. Texas Chainsaw isn’t a good film, but it’s one that makes me approach the material in a new and interesting way, which is rare for a series that has been running since the mid-70s.
There are some horror franchises that offer up an easy path forward. Last week’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, suggested a fairly straightforward road ahead in its sequels. Freddy Krueger, teenagers, one or two memorable set-pieces – boom, you’ve got a serviceable movie (throw in the oft-missing ingredient, Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, and you’ve got a downright good one). But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was so simple, so harrowing, that no one (Hooper included) could figure out how to make a similarly memorable sequel. The elements were eternally recurring – the back woods, Leatherface, his hillbilly cannibal family, and some teens to terrify – but unlike Nightmare, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is far, far more than the sum of its parts. It feels, in its most intense moments, like documentary, in a way few horror films will ever be able to replicate.
Later films felt, well, like movies. We were being held at arms length, asked to enjoy the show rather than experiencing it. The elements of what would come to be known as ‘extreme horror’ are already present in the 1974 original, but when the series returned in the 1980s, it hewed closer to the rhythms and themes of slasher horror. Even the films made during the extreme horror heyday of the 2000s still misunderstood the original’s grit and purpose. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the Texas Chainsaw sequels, particularly Hooper’s pleasantly loopy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and the less-on-purpose batshit crazy Texas Chainsaw, but the original remains a singular experience, and duplicating its success evaded everyone who tried.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation ends on this monologue from the older gentleman, who is in no way representative of writer/director Kim Henkel, who masterminded the events of the film. It reads thus:
“This, all this, it’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincere apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. I suppose it’s something we all live with. People like us, who strive for something. A sense of harmony. Perhaps it’s disappointment that keeps us going. Unfortunately, it’s never been easy for me. One of my many failings.”
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