I always assumed I possess mild OCD when it comes to specific things. My room is a mess and I myself am a mess but my records need to be in two separate sections (pre-1990 and post-1990, alphabetically by artist) and I have to eat all of my fries before I touch my bacon cheeseburger (which I rotate and eat around until there's nothing left but the delicious and unhealthy center). Don't get me wrong, I sat on this assignment for months before I actually got around to it. I might have self-diagnosed OCD but I'm still very lazy.
The point is, I take movie marathons very seriously. They need to be well-planned and calculated to work properly. You need to be rested, there must be appropriate snacks on hand and all distractions should be dealt with in advance. So after rounding up all six Texas Chainsaw films and recently watching the latest in theaters, I cancelled my non-existent plans and popped the first disc in.
6:13PM: THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn't scary the first time I watched it.
I was eleven or twelve and my friend and I rented it along with the Zach Galifianakis comedy Out Cold (my marathon/double feature skills were not very good back then). I don't remember much about it because I probably wasn‘t paying any attention. It wasn't until I saw the documentary The American Nightmare that I rediscovered the film and simultaneously discovered Godspeed You! Black Emperor (I owe my life to that documentary). Late one night I decided to give it another chance and two hours later, I couldn't sleep.
From the opening credits with the infamous camera howls to the final Malick-esque shot of Leatherface twirling in the road, the film works. The funny thing is, it shouldn't work at all. It was only Tobe Hooper's second movie as a director and it was carried on the shoulders of first-time actress Marilyn Burns. The film is extremely flawed but it's a rare instance where the flaws really bring everything together.
There are many key scenes I could mention but I'll keep it to two. The first happens in broad daylight which is rarely accomplished. Kirk enters a strange house trying to find gas. A few steps in, he hears a pig squealing. Of course he doesn't run away. He's young, stupid and he really needs gas. Leatherface appears for the first time, bashes his head in with a cattle hammer, drags his spasming body out of sight and slams the sliding metal door shut. It only lasts about ten seconds but it’s shockingly unexpected.
The second scene is hilarious. Everyone thinks Leatherface when they hear Texas Chainsaw but no one remembers Grandpa. At this point in the film, Sally is invited to dinner by the Sawyer family (she's tied to a chair and force-fed). After a balanced, nutritious meal and enjoyable conversation, the clan decides it's time. She’s placed over a bucket and Grandpa is given the honors of, again, bashing her head in with a hammer (The Texas Hammer Massacre wouldn't have brought as many people to the theaters). The problem is, Grandpa is really old and can barely hold the hammer, let alone swing it hard enough to do much damage. It's a hilariously uncomfortable scene that slowly grows more terrifying as he becomes determined to hit his mark (fortunately for Sally, he never does).
I try to find the beauty in terrifying things. A lot of horror films are gorgeously shot and put together but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is ugly. It's roughly edited, grainy and realistically jarring but that's why it's so terrifying. Very rarely does a film accomplish that atmosphere and still come off so cohesive and brilliant. I've watched it countless times and while I can point out so many reasons why it works, I still can't put into words why it works so well.
Now if only the rest of the franchise followed suit.
7:47PM: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)
While the original makes a lot out of a little, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 makes little out of a lot.
Tobe Hooper returned to direct (after helming Poltergeist), Dennis Hopper plays the main protagonist and the great Tom Savini was in charge of gore and effects so it should’ve been a hit but what they ended up with was a barely cohesive movie. A bigger budget, better cast and a more experienced crew doesn’t save a messy script that’s just trying to turn a classic into a silly franchise.
The film opens somewhat strong as two frat guys drive through Texas, drinking beers and shooting mailboxes (frat guy stuff). They play chicken with an oncoming truck which happens to seat the Sawyer family who, 13 years after the events of the original, are on the road causing mischief and trying to win chili contests. This escalates into a drag race that takes place on a comically long bridge while Leatherface stands on the hood of the truck, sawing the main bro’s car and head off. It’s a ridiculous opening that immediately sets the tone and while it’s a completely different tone than the original, it’s a lot of fun. The rest of the movie is not. Dennis Hopper teams up with Stretch, a female radio DJ to take down the backwoods family. A Rambo 3 reference and forty minutes later, the film goes absolutely nowhere. The only scene that’s somewhat entertaining is when Leatherface and his brother (played by the usually great Bill Mosely) break into the radio station to terrorize Stretch and kill her friend L.G. but it eventually becomes uncomfortable in a distasteful way.
The film finally gets interesting when the two protagonists stumble upon the Sawyer family’s chili factory. There’s a solid fifteen minutes where all shit hits the fan and I’ll try to re-create it for you the best I can:
Stretch falls down a hole for what seems like hours and lands in a room full of body parts. Meanwhile, Dennis Hopper (strapped with three chainsaws) busts into the factory screaming “BRING IT ALL DOWN” like a banshee and starts wrecking stuff left and right. If stealth was his plan, it didn’t work. Leatherface finds Stretch and attempts to rescue her by putting a human face over her face and spinning her around. Dennis Hopper is still breaking shit. Leatherface leaves and Stretch finds her friend L.G. who was presumed dead but he’s still alive except he has no face. Where’s his face?! Is Stretch wearing his face?! After telling her that everything will be okay, L.G. actually dies. It’s pretty sad. Stretch takes off the face she’s wearing and puts it on L.G.’s lack-of -face so I’m assuming it was his face the whole time. There’s a quick joke about property taxes (because this is a social commentary). Dennis Hopper is still breaking shit. Stretch is captured. Grandpa shows up and it’s revealed that he’s 137 years old so apparently this is a fantasy film now.
The entertainment halts when they re-create the hammer scene from the original. The sequel tries to be something completely different which is respectable but they give up all originality by the end. Luckily, Dennis Hopper interrupts, says the awesome line “I’m the lord of the harvest” and kills Leatherface in a chainsaw swordfight. So no more movies, right? Right?! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 attempts to re-create the insanity of the first film but it borders on slapstick. It was made by a handful of great people that unfortunately weren’t at the top of their game. It definitely falls into the so-bad-it’s-good territory at times and the beginning and end are extremely fun but unfortunately they bookend a pretty dull film.
10:26PM: LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1990)
With Leatherface, the series manages to accomplish something rare. While big horror franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th pumped out movies left and right, Texas Chainsaw didn‘t. The first film was made in the 70’s, the sequel in the 80’s and almost twenty years after the original, the third came out in the dawn of the 90’s and the decade differences are very apparent.
It’s clear early on that Leatherface is a different beast. With a new director and bigger production company, the overall tone is more mainstream. The film starts by introducing Michelle, our obvious survivor and Ryan, an unlikable nerd. They’re driving her father’s car through Texas (duh) and come across a gas station where they meet Tex (Viggo Mortenson). It’s immediately obvious that he’s part of the Sawyer family and this is the main issue of the entire franchise. Almost every character besides the protagonists are revealed to be part of the family. While it was a nice twist in the original, the other movies use it as a crutch and it gets annoying very fast. The cinematography is smooth, the editing is less hectic and while not much happens script-wise in the first twenty minutes, Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) is eventually introduced as Benny and this is when the movie becomes and stays interesting. Equipped with an assault rifle and a handful of humorous quips, Foree brings something interesting and new to the Chainsaw table: an extremely likable hero.
We eventually meet up with Leatherface and the rest of his family even though the actors and characters are completely different. Some of the characters are dumb but these scenes are pretty tense and contain actual dialogue instead of loud nonsense like the previous films. Benny eventually shows up, starts shooting everything and lights Viggo Mortenson on fire. Leatherface fights him and appears to have won until Michelle smashes his head in with a big rock and politely says “I’m sorry”.
While part two had a promising beginning/end with disappointing filler, Leatherface has a slow beginning and messy ending with a lot of entertaining material in between. Some might complain that this entry took the franchise in a more mainstream and accessible direction but I thought it was a slow breath of fresh air after the insanity of the first two.
12:21AM: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: NEXT GENERATION (1994)
Next Generation is terrible but before I completely dissuade you from seeing it, let me say that it’s one of my favorites of the series.
With Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, the fourth entry has the most star power out of any of the films which is strange because it also has one of the lowest budgets. It was made before both actors blew up and I highly doubt that this was the movie that launched them but it’s interesting to see two familiar faces amongst this train wreck. Aside from them, the acting is atrocious, the movie looks like it was filmed on a Flip Cam (had they been invented) and the script was most likely written by an insane person.
The first third is pretty slow but a mental break at this point of the marathon was really nice. It’s prom night and a bunch of forgettable characters are introduced including Barry, a sexist daddy’s boy who eventually gets his head gloriously sledged in by Leatherface (now sporting a mullet). They wander around the woods for awhile and it isn’t until the inevitable reveal of his family that the film gets fucking ridiculous.
Matthew McConaughey gives one of his best performances as Vilmer, a character surprisingly similar to his heavily-praised Killer Joe (but with a cybernetic leg). As the leader of the Sawyer family, he screams, breaks a lot of stuff, cuts himself with a strait razor, lights people on fire, stomps a poor girl’s head in (again, cybernetic leg) and even pulls out a few of his famous lines from Dazed and Confused. It would be hard to walk away from the film and remember anything but McConaughey until they reveal that the Sawyer family has been working for the Illuminati this entire time. Yeah, you read that right.
A British gentleman arrives in a limo, unbuttons his shirt to reveal ritualistic carvings on his stomach, tells Vilmer that his job is to show people true horror and leaves. Zellweger escapes and gets chased until an Illuminati airplane swoops down and slices Vilmer’s head with it’s propeller. Zellweger is picked up by the limo and taken to a hospital where she see’s Marilyn Burns’ Sally from the original film being taken down the hall on a gurney. They lock eyes, the film cuts to black.
Aside from the trippy final act, Next Generation is most similar to the original which makes sense because it was written and directed by Kim Henkel who was heavily involved with the first film. It’s the type of movie you’d watch at ungodly hours with a few friends and in that sense, it’s a blast and disturbingly charming.
1:59AM: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003)
Almost ten years after the last entry and thirty years after the original, Michael Bay of all people decided it was time for the inevitable remake. It’s exactly what you’d expect out of a Michael Bay remake.
A handful of stereotypical kids with completely normal names like Kemper and Pepper are on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (ugh) with a pinata full of pot. They pick up a disheveled hitchhiking woman who rudely pulls a gun out from between her legs and shoots herself in the head, putting a huge damper on the Skynyrd concert. They contact the sheriff (R. Lee Ermy doing a great R. Lee Ermy impression) and it’s quickly apparent that he’s not the sheriff at all. I’m just going to skip ahead because we all know that there’s going to be some struggling, lengthy chasing, killing, etc.
Jessica Biel is decent enough but her character is so incredibly stupid that there’s nothing to root for. She tries to stealthily hide from Leatherface (equipped with a dumb Phantom of the Opera-ish skin disease) in a meat packing plant but screams every time she runs into a dead cow carcass and there’s at least three times where she has a knife and does absolutely nothing with it. Just stab him! Then stab yourself! Just stab this whole movie!
This is the most frustrating film of the entire series. It’s well-polished and looks decent but there’s so much boring filler and dumb, gross humor that it‘s impossible to take seriously. While the previous films had a few twists and surprises, this one is completely by-the-books which would make sense if it was a faithful remake but it’s not even that. There’s a few failed attempts to re-create some of the original’s better scenes but besides that, it goes in a different and boring direction.
3:41AM: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006)
I was skeptical about The Beginning. The film was, again, produced by Michael Bay and it came off as distasteful right off the bat but by the end, I actually kind of enjoyed it.
Set a few years before the events of the remake, two brothers and their girlfriends are traveling so the guys can enlist in Vietnam. This becomes a dumb plot point throughout the film as one of the brothers burns his draft card while the other is gung-ho to go. The group hits a cow and flips their jeep after being chased by a biker (I can‘t believe some of the shit I‘ve typed during this article). The sheriff shows up, kills the biker and takes the other three hostage (Chrissie, the fourth and obvious survivor girl was thrown from the jeep and watches this all from a distance). While the others are tortured, caught in bear traps and killed, Chrissie runs around and doesn’t do much of anything. I would be annoyed by this if she came out an undeserving hero at the end but after a quick chase scene, she gets in a car and approaches safety only to get sawed in half by Leatherface who was hiding in the backseat. He emerges from the wrecked car, walks into the sunset and punches his fist into the air while “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds plays over freeze-framed credits.
The film spends too much time explaining unanswered backstory from the remake but it’s overall a much better movie than its predecessor. It’s shot and edited more coherently, it’s a lot funnier and the gore is entertainingly brutal, not mindlessly disgusting. While the last film tried to be serious and ended up stupid, this entry embraces its stupidity which was comforting.
The Texas Chainsaw franchise is okay at most.
The original is a brilliant milestone of the horror genre and most of the sequels/prequels/remakes are entertaining but only a few of the films are actually good. Good enough to watch again? Maybe. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on the director’s cut of Leatherface and considering that was my favorite of the sequels, I’ll eventually buy it. I’d also like to watch Next Generation with a group of people and make sure I wasn’t just hallucinating its absurdity. Texas Chainsaw 3D came out in January and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It knew exactly what it was and accomplished being an absurd but entertaining film with a few new franchise twists and one incredible line of dialogue: “DO YOUR THING, CUZ!” While it might take a few repeat viewings to confirm, I’m pretty confident in claiming it as one of the better films of the series.
An eighth movie has already been rumored with an option of up to five more. Maybe I’ll give them the marathon treatment in thirty years but only if my mind is clear of the madness I just endured.