Franchise Corner Entry: THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE ***** U.S.A. 1974 Dir: Tobe Hooper 80 mins
Tobe Hooper made several clever, hugely entertaining and witty movies, though, when he died in August 2017, only one dominated the obituaries. It needs no introduction – whole books have been written and various documentaries made about its making. Studios will be making TEXAS CHAIN SAW movies for as long as horror movies exist, just as HALLOWEEN will never stop being remade or sequelised.
It has perhaps the most unsettling build-up in modern horror. With John Larroquette’s portentous opening voiceover (a recurring element of the sequels that followed), the abrasive camera flash sound everyone remembers and a deluge of macabre images, it is terrifying long before anything violent actually happens. Following Romero’s trend-setting debut, sinister news reports heard on the radio reiterate that this is a horror film unfolding in our real, Vietnam-era world (though, as in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the old school horror cycle is wittily referenced: one of the ill-fated teenagers notes that Ed Neal’s Hitchhiker looks like Dracula). The news is entirely occupied by fragments of a broken world: grave robbing, unexplained suicides, tragic building collapsed, unprovoked murders…
Black humour defined Hooper’s career and is inherent in CHAIN SAW from the start, with one character warning of “a disturbing and unpredictable day” courtesy of “American Astrology” – talk about an understatement… By the final reels, the film has evolved into an uncomfortably funny sitcom from Hell, as the central villain flails and wails around in drag while the previously only suggested on-screen violence is captured with a perverse kind of slapstick brutality : Leatherface falls on his own saw and is hit in the face with a hurled wrench ; Granpa’s queasily clumsy hammer “attack”. The movie misbehaves wilfully and wants us to be deeply uncomfortable – we’re meant to laugh, right?!
Among Hooper’s bold decisions are making Franklin (Paul Partain) one of the most obnoxious characters in horror history. Gunnar Hansen’s unmatched, intimidating physical presence cannot be underestimated, though Jim Siedow’s maniacally grinning “Cook” is just as disquieting, while the production design – all teeth and bones and skulls – enhances the suffocating sense of moral and physical delay. Technically, it’s outstanding for a low budget film of its period, with the merciless editing and sinister low-angled dolly shots now the stuff of legend. The soundtrack is designed to grate, from Franklin’s shrill whining to the increasing dominance of squealing animals, crying women, screaming and cackling – and that ‘saw.
For all this – and one of the most uncomfortable fade-outs in cinema history – much of the power lies in the small details, from the wince-inducing extreme close up of heroine Marilyn Burns’ eyeballs to the human skin lampshades and the fleeting shot of Burns’ finger being sliced so that Grandpa can suck on it. Hooper never made a movie as intense as this – but, then, no one else did either.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 ***** U.S.A. 1986 Dir: Tobe Hooper 100 mins
Long underrated, this anarchic, extreme experience gave post-Freddy / Jason, Reagan-era audiences everything the original merely hinted at (and then some). It did so at such an intense pitch that most viewers, including CHAIN SAW fans, were alienated. Hooper and writer L M Kit Carson set the tone immediately, opening with a self-deprecating revision of John Larroquette’s narration (“It seems to have no end…”) followed by a shoal of 1980’s pop culture references (“Bright lights big titties!” / Rambo) and a pair of obnoxious yuppies falling victim to a chainsaw attack between two moving vehicles, incorporating a Tom Savini-crafted bisected cranium.
Determinedly avoiding standard horror sequel clichés – not a disposable teen in sight – it reintroduces “The Cook” (Jim Siedow) as he wins The Texas Oklahoma Chilli Cook Off) for the second year running while Dennis Hopper – the uncle of deceased Franklin from TCM – manhandles three outrageously large chainsaws in a hardware store. Sultry DJ protagonist Caroline Williams is the 80’s second best DJ heroine (after THE FOG’s Adrienne Barbeau), her radio station unforgettable invaded by Bill Moseley’s Chop Top. Requesting Iron Butterfly, wearing a Sonny Bono wig and excruciatingly scraping at his post-‘Nam cranial head plate with a rusty coat hanger (and eating the bits of scalp that fall), Chop Top is one of the great horror movie grotesques, and his arrival heralds the most harrowing sequence of 80’s splatter, bludgeoning Lew Perryman (“Incoming mail!”) in unflinching detail.
For all its knockabout humour, eccentricity and broad political satire, the movie is mostly intent on making us very uncomfortable, just as the original was. One notable highlight is the incendiary moment in which Leatherface (now played by Bill Johnson) caresses Williams’ crotch in a perversion of sexual inadequacy while she asks repeatedly “How good are you?”. It has three appropriately manic, in-your-face performances : Moseley’s frenetic turn is equalled by Hopper’s full-tilt performance, while Siedow is as close to a snickering cartoon villain as it might be possible to get. It’s only natural that the game Williams, echoing Marilyn Burns, ends up on the same hysterical level. The set design is hugely impressive, with Hooper maximising Cannon Films’ money via the vast “Texas Battle Ground” subterranean backdrop and a reworking of the infamous dinner table sequence that ends with an awe-inspiring pull-back shot. In addition to capturing a cinematic madness few others have managed to do since the 1974 film, Hooper also benefits from an endlessly funny, quotable script: “The small businessman always gets it in the ass!”
LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III *** U.S.A. 1990 Dir: Jeff Burr 85 mins
Director Burr has contributed to more horror franchises than most (THE STEPFATHER, PUMPKINHEAD and PUPPET MASTER), though his foray into CHAINSAW territory proved a traumatic trial by fire, with a much-publicised battled with the MPAA in America neutering the brutality and battles with the studio (New Line Cinema, snapping up the franchise just as Freddy’s spotlight was waning) resulting in a reshot ending. The unrated version – with alternate ending as an extra – has long been available though, in any form, the movie sadly fails to live up to its unforgettable Excalibur-inspired teaser trailer, or its illustrious predecessors (from this point on, Tobe Hooper’s credits on the franchise are purely a contractual obligation). It’s not without merit, however.
David J Schow’s often witty script mirrors the plot and structure of the original, ignores the events of the second film and opens with the traditional voiceover, explaining the fate of Marilyn Burns’ character before employing only Leatherface (now played by the oddly unremarkable R A Mihailoff) from the previously seen Sawyer clan. Bickering couple Kate Hodge and William Butler (also killed by Jason in PART VII) make the mistake of stopping at a gas station ran by a sexy yet psychopathic young Viggo Mortensen and Hodge is soon nailed to a chair and tormented in the CHAINSAW heroine tradition.
The new extended CHAINSAW family are the most impressively twisted of all the non-Hooper chainsaw clans, notably the paraplegic “Mama”, who speaks via a voice box and gets the sickest lines (“Junior likes ‘em private parts…cut mine out years ago…”) and the cackling pre-pubescent girl who’s a dab hand at hurling sledgehammers – her role in the mayhem was reduced in the MPAA-approved cut. There are some excellent one-liners, including a mockery of Californian underwear and “Is it soup yet?”, alongside visual nods to Hooper (armadillo roadkill). Hodge, who doesn’t descend into hysterical madness like her predecessors, channels post-ALIENS Ripley in her resilient fight for survival. It’s too bad that the awful studio-enforced ending (involving the famously unlikely survival of Ken Foree’s character) undoes a lot of the good work preceding it, though it’s still an often engagingly twisted, if flawed, entry in the series.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION (a.k.a: The Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) ** U.S.A. 1994 Dir: Kim Henkel 84 / 95 mins
A curious but redundant return to the franchise for the original’s co-writer, Kim Henkel, who lifts several whole sequences and images from the 1974 film, and opens with a (deliberately?) rambling and meaningless narration. A quartet of Prom Night teens, headed by school geek Renee Zellweger (a beauty when she takes her glasses off!) get lost in the woods and run off the road by psychotic Matthew McConaughey. Zellweger, like Kate Hodge in LEATHERFACE is a relatively tough final girl as she is terrorised by the rest of his family – a feisty Matriarch substituting for the Cook, a new Leatherface played by Robert Jacks and a Hitchhiker-inspired raving goon. After a weak opening stretch, this offers a virtual remake of Hooper’s original, including a sledgehammer attack and meat hook scene employing some of the same specific shots. Zellweger’s torment duplicates the outstanding dinner table sequence, right up to Leatherface’s final chainsaw dance. All of which begs the question: What’s the point? Best remembered now for the prominent roles taken by the two Hollywood stars, it gives Zellweger little of note to work with, though McConaughey makes for a wild and intimidating, brutal killer. Only at the very end does Henkel deviate from the ‘unofficial remake’ feel, as the narrative continues after the heroine’s escape and dangles a baffling X FILES-era plot thread apparently linking the family “and people like them” to events like the Kennedy assassination.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE **** U.S.A. 2003 Dir: Marcus Nispel 98 mins
Thanks to the more liberal MPAA of the 21st century and the work of Greg Nicotero, Hollywood’s remake of CHAIN SAW (from Platinum Dunes, who also oversaw various other genre reboots in the same period) is far more graphic in its on-screen chainsaw action than its insidiously suggestive predecessor attempted to be. Its highly profitable 2003 release accompanied a surge of 70’s throwback horror movies (including WRONG TURN, CABIN FEVER and HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES), all of which pay unsubtle homage to Hooper’s film. The effectively creepy found footage framing device cashes in on the post-BLAIR WITCH cycle, while a neat touch involves the return of original narrator John Larroquette to set the scene. In a nice touch, it unfolds in the year of the original film’s release, as five pot-smoking teens, enroute to a Lynnrd Skynnrd concert, run into a distressed female survivor of the kind of atrocities they are about to endure. In the most vivid of the film’s departures from the original, this ill-fated inversion of the Hitchhiker role has a truly startling pay off.
Almost completely avoiding the obnoxious post-SCREAM self-aware streak (other than a dumb visual gag involving Harry Knowles’ fat head on a plate), this satisfyingly grim remake lingers on open wounds, bodily fluids and suffering. In another coup, original cinematographer Daniel Pearl, working in vastly different circumstances than before, gives it an oppressive, often eerie look. Director Nispel (later responsible for Platinum Dunes’ FRIDAY THE 13TH remake) gets to replay some of the original’s iconic scenes and images (though wisely doesn’t even attempt the dinner table sequence), though the decision to establish a sympathetic back story for Leatherface – expanded upon in subsequent sequels and reboots – is a misstep. Similarly, although the corpse-groping, wild-eyebrowed R Lee Ermey is a hoot as the most prominent new addition to the CHAIN SAW clan, the familiarity of his aggressively hilarious drill-instructor screen persona means he’s far less memorable than Jim Siedow’s Cook character.
Since it’s 2003, the youthful protagonists all look like Gap models, with the skimpily dressed heroine (Jessica Biel) falling victim to various excuses (rain, sprinklers, splattering blood) to keep her soaked. A far more active female lead than the ultimately hysterical heroines of the Hooper CHAINSAWs, she fells Leatherface with Buffy-style kicks, hotwires cars when the plot needs it and even rescues a small child. This may be a positive, resilient female figure to behold (though very much a standard, exploited babe from leery producer Michael Bay’s stable), but it’s fair to say that Leatherface isn’t quite as terrifying once you’ve seen him getting his arse kicked by a skinny girl. There are many reasons why this movie was never going to match its illustrious precursor (including the replacement of the jarring musique concrete of Hooper’s film with a generic horror film score), but give it credit for delivering an intense ride anyway.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING **** U.S.A. 2006 Dir: Jonathan Liebesman 92 mins
With a story credit for David J Schow, writer of the much-maligned CHAINSAW III, this brutal prequel to the 2003 remake only offers a fleeting depiction of Leatherface’s upbringing, from an appropriately unpleasant 1939 prologue in which he claws his way out of his mum’s womb on a slaughterhouse floor to an opening title sequence offering glimpses of those difficult formative years. (No adolescent scenes of him wanking in hardware stores, alas). Sheldon Turner’s script mostly uses the prequel format to present another reworking of the established CHAINSAW format, complete with a fresh hottie (Jordana Brewster) in low-rise jeans and small top, one of a quartet of young folks taking an ill-advised trip through the in-bred black heart of Texas. In one of the film’s very few moments of humour, Brewster gets the most crowd-pleasing line: “Do you fuck all your cousins or just the good looking ones?”
The main action is set in 1969, so we get to see how the deranged R Lee Ermey turned to cannibalism after being a P.O.W. and became “Sheriff”; Leatherface’s (the returning, impressive Andrew Brianarski) first time wearing a freshly skinned face; and Uncle Monty’s (Terrence Evans) farewell to legs. The solemn voiceover from John Larroquette provides further continuity to the franchise’s origins. The period setting also results in the neat touch of the two ill-fated male protagonists never making it to their appointment with the Vietnam War – a war that, of course, had a prominent impact on the early 70’s American horror film, especially Hooper’s original). In the franchise’s most Monty Python-esque portent of things to come, our heroes hit a cow en-route to their destination – which promptly explodes – , while Ermey steals the show in a terrifying extension of his 2003 character and Kathy Lamkin returns as the relatively personable “Tea Lady”.
Evidently striving to compete with the wave of graphic, post-SAW horror films, this is the nastiest of all CHAINSAW movies, with a suitably gruesome variation on the first film’s dinner table sequence, a sledgehammer face-shattering and a nihilistic climax in which the heroine is casually offed with a chainsaw, having failed to notice the towering Leatherface hiding in her car with a massive power tool. Since it’s a prequel to the 2003 movie, we know who has to survive, but it’s a movie that sustains a real intensity better than any of the non-Hooper entries and, for a major studio release, shows no mercy whatsoever.
TEXAS CHAINSAW (a.k.a. Texas Chainsaw 3-D) *** U.S.A. 2013 Dir: John Luessenhop 92 mins
The opening title sequence of this nostalgic entry – co-written by JASON GOES TO HELL’s Adam Marcus – compiles highlights from the 1974 movie, positioning itself as a sequel to that movie rather any of the official sequels or, indeed the recent remake and prequel. The prologue unfolds right after the events of the original, depicting a siege situation involving cops and local yahoos at the Sawyer residence. Guest stars Bill Moseley and Gunnar Hansen (finally appearing in his second CHAINSAW after much-publicised earlier bids to return as Leatherface) are among the extended Sawyer clan hiding the cowering Leatherface, now played by the relatively weak Dan Yeager. It ends in a massacre but, in the present, the baby rescued from the siege has grown up to be buxom beauty Alexandra Daddario (whose character, confusingly, should be about 40 according to the film’s timeline). She is on a road trip with her slutty friend and their boyfriends to sign papers regarding her Granma’s recent death. Rife with homages to earlier CHAINSAW films (armadillo roadkill, caged chickens, the line “Welcome to Texas, motherfucker!”), in jokes (“Sheriff Hooper”) and cameos (Marilyn Burns is Daddario’s Gran and John Dugan returns to the “Granpa” role after four decades), this is a gimmicky, corny but fun no-frills splatter movie. Although it unforgivably wastes an opportunity for mass carnage during Leatherface’s pursuit of the heroine through a carnival, KNB still deliver face-peelings, chainsaw-bisections and sledgehammer whackings at regular intervals, and there’s a nicely callous variant on the original’s girl-in-the-freezer sequence. It inherits the remake’s misstep of instilling sympathy for Leatherface and offers nothing particularly new or notable, but Daddario is very easy on the eye and it’s never dull.
LEATHERFACE *** U.S.A. 2017 Dir: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo 90 mins
Ignoring the previous prequel elements found in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING and TEXAS CHAINSAW, this latest attempt to reinvigorate the 43 year old franchise is the American debut for INSIDE’s French filmmaking duo of Maury and Bustillo. It opens with an intense variation on the original’s infamous dinner table sequence, portraying the birthday celebrations for Jed (the future Leatherface), centering around his induction to murder. Nodding to the uncomfortable black humour of Hooper’s film, the scene depicts Jed failing to finish the job of chainsaw-killing an enforced guest. It’s Texas, 1955 and Lili Taylor is the loyal matriarch of the Sawyer clan, engineering a break-out when her minors are taken into psychiatric care (where, predictably, the “system” proves as barbaric in its “therapy” as the family itself), while vengeful Texas Ranger Stephen Dorff is on their trail, his daughter having been among their victims.
Taylor is typically strong in this proficient, mean-spirited movie, though her character is under-used and, after the break-out sequence, the film settles into a fairly repetitive groove following the teenage Sawyers and their nurse hostage. Maury and Bustillo overdose on Shaki-Cam for the violent scenes, and revel in gruesome detail to almost comical effect – note the corpse-adorned sex scene and the moment in which three characters improbably hide inside a rotting animal carcass in record-quick time. Bookended by two family scenes with Jed at two defining moments of his life, the film at least strives to deviate from the standard CHAINSAW format, forcing the audience to empathise with the antagonists rather than the usual ballsy heroine. It’s a well-made flick, with a suitably bloody climax though even loyal, long-term fans will gain very little from finding out more than they need about Leatherface and, no matter how much it yearns to be different, it somehow ends up feeling like more of the same.
Reviews by Steven West