1974. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel made a movie so shocking and powerful that it changed horror cinema forever. When we talk about the modern horror film or slasher movies, we seem to think they began with John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’. But Leatherface was there first.
The story, which purports to be a true one but, thankfully, isn’t, is pretty simple. These days, it even seems formulaic: a bunch of young people end up in a bad place and are brutally picked off one by one. You’ve got a masked and anonymous killer with a signature weapon. You’ve got a clan of crazed, cannibal hicks. Heck, you’ve even got a Final Girl (a term for the ubiquitous lone female survivor in slasher films). But to be fair, these tropes and clichés still had that new car smell when Hooper put them out for display. Besides, it’s not the story, it’s how the story is told…
I’m not gonna even bother to recap this movie, because if you haven’t seen it, you should. But I warn you: it’s intense and disturbing. Unlike many slasher films that treat human life as cheap and often play the murders for laugh value or merely inventiveness, what happens to the people in TCM is awful. You feel extremes of pity and revulsion and there’s no doubt these characters are suffering. The actors, too: this was almost a no-budget affair and filming conditions were, well, harsh.
The movie doesn’t have a resolution, per se: it just ends. Sure, a character manages to get away, but there’s no sense that everything’s going to turn out all right. There’s no real explanation as to how or why this nutjob family started (literally) butchering and eating people – and using their skin and bones to make furniture and decorative like a deranged Martha Stewart – and there is no reason at all these particular young folks are put through this ordeal. They aren’t even subject to the horror convention of punishing the sinful. They honestly just picked up the wrong hitchhiker and ended up in a bad situation. Pure, random horror. That’s perhaps the scariest aspect of the whole thing.
Well, this movie had an impact, to say the least. Many countries banned it outright. Many critics savaged the thing and nobody was sure just what the heck to say about this rather extreme movie. I mean, it’s pretty gruesome NOW; in 1974 it was like a nightmare of depravity.
Well, it would normally go without saying that any movie with this much buzz would get a sequel. In fact, it took twelve years before this happened.
Now, as brilliant, subversive and outright shocking as TCM was, my absolute favorite entry in the entire series is Part 2. for one thing, it’s even more violent than its predecessor. For another, it’s a comedy. A dark comedy, certainly, but no less funny for all that. And it has the immense benefit of a budget. The Sawyer family (you know, the crazy murderers) are also, apparently, very good at making chili. Of course, it’s what the chili is made FROM that’s kind of a problem. You get a story of a cop who’s out for revenge, Leatherface falls in love and we’re introduced to Chop Top, who is a Sawyer we didn’t meet in the last flick because he was stationed in ‘Nam. Chop Top is played by Bill Mosely, who shows up in a lot if Rob Zombie movies. Which is fair, because Rob Zombie rips off Texas Chainsaw a LOT. I mean, a WHOLE LOT. Then again, so do a lot of people, and at least Zombie does it well.
Well, the buzz was back, so another flick was nigh inevitable. It took another four years, but we got one. Unfortunately, this is where things get hinky…
In the days of home video, the trailer for ‘Leatherface: the Texas Chainsaw Massacre III’ was an instant classic: the saw rises like Excalibur from the water, then Leatherface turns around – brilliant!
Too bad the movie sucks. It’s not that it’s mediocre, but that it’s a mediocre follow-up two TWO great films. Tobe Hooper’s absence is greatly felt and the whole thing is just the usual, formulaic blah.
1994′s ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Next Generation’ is largely known for featuring early performances by Matthew McConaghey back when he wore shirts and Renee Zellweger, who even then looked like she was sucking on a lemon. In this one, Leatherface is a cross-dresser. Yes, really. Also, he’s way underused. Now, there are a few little things that acknowledge the other movies happened, but it seems clear that this is pretty much a reboot.
If so, it didn’t lead anywhere. Like part 3, TCM:TNG failed to ignite the franchise. Clearly, there was no way to recapture the intensity and style of the original.
Now, in the 21st Century, it became apparent that Hollywood had run out of ideas. Pretty much everything was a remake, remaining or adaptation of a huge bestseller, which means studios started playing it safe in a big way. After the slasher revival of the late 90′s fizzled out, Platinum Dunes (a production company headed byMichael Bay, who is everything wrong with modern movies) started remaking pretty much every big name horror franchise of the 80′s. These mostly sucked. However, there is one case where it all came together just right.
Yes, you heard me: I’m praising a remake. I normally hate them, but my thinking is that they have real value when something new or interesting is done with the story. The Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes failed miserably at this, but 2003′s Texas Chainsaw is a great example of a remake done right.
The story is pretty much the same, although the crazy cannibals are now named Hewitt rather than Sawyer. There are, however, some nice twists that really make this thing work. Moreover, it has a budget and some serious star power going for it, which should be detrimental, but in fact, is a great help, since everyone went all out to capture that sense of terror and misery so vital to the success of the original. They also kept the 1970′s setting and even got John Laroquette to reprise his narration from that film. It may have helped that Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were on board as producers.
It also did great, so again, sequel time! Well, actually, prequel time.
Now, ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning’ flopped. Which is a shame, because as prequels go, I thought it was great, even better in some ways than the remake that it’s a prequel to in the first place – although not better than the original movie or my beloved Part 2. It explains exactly how the Hewitt family became what they are and gives some interesting backstory to Leatherface himself. But sadly, it just did not go over well. I mean, if Diora Baird in her underwear isn’t enough to save your movie, nothing is!
Now, Part 3 had been a partial reboot – at least they had to seriously ignore some major continuity issues – and Next Gen was almost completely a reboot, while the 2003 remake and 2006 prequel were an entirely reimagined continuity, so there was really no particular continuity to which anyone was beholden anymore. So the newest entry, 2013′s ‘Texas Chainsaw 3D’, decided to go the ‘Superman Returns’ route.
See, ‘Superman Returns’ was a continuation of the Chris Reeve Superman films of the 70′s and 80′s. But Returns is ONLY a sequel to the first two and simply pretends that the other films in that series don’t exist. If you’ve seen them, you can probably understand why.
So TC3D is a direct sequel to the original, 1974 Texas Chainsaw, which discards any and all of the other films – even Part 2!
That said, it’s actually very good. It really makes you feel for Leatherface, even though you still realize that the best thing for him would be a nice trip through a wood-chipper. It manages to follow up on the first film while telling a new story and even keeping it interesting. Sure, it lacks the intensity, but that’s true of almost every one of these.
So, that leaves us with a major continuity tangle. Which ones count? Do you (as I do) assume the first two, that Hooper did, are the only legitimate entries? What about part 3? Or Next Gen? Or 3D? Of course, the remake series presents no such difficulty: those films are directly connected, right down to the cast.
In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. I mean, ideas like continuity are almost irrelevant in horror movies: almost no series in the genre has any, going back to the Universal Monsters. So what you’re left with is a series of memorable images: Grandpa sucking the blood from a cut finger, Chop Top scratching under his steel plate, the horrific bone furniture and, of course, Leatherface spinning around in fury, his chainsaw slicing the air, as a lone survivor laughs madly from the back of a pickup. Pretty apocalyptic stuff!