Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most re-made/re-booted horror franchises in the history of horror movies. Over the years we’ve see 7 versions of the film, some good, and some bad. But are all of the films in the Chainsaw franchise worth watching, how are they connected, if at all? Why does Hollywood continue to make these movies? The horror purists, such as myself, will freely admit that while we watch (and own) several of these films we will always say that there is only one true Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it was released in 1974. But because love these characters and apparently enjoy self-torture I have seen them all and own most of them. So, because I care so much for your viewing pleasure I’m going to break down each film as best I can to let you know which ones are worth your time and which ones to avoid.
Some say that Halloween is the most influential horror film; others proclaim The Exorcist as the most terrifying, and I would agree with both of these statements. But I would also like to add that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the most disturbing horror film. There are a few reasons the movie works on your nerves so well even by today’s standards. First let’s talk about the atmosphere of the film. The fraying of your nerves begins with the opening credits; “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of youths…” as the narrator goes on we are convinced that what we are watching is real and could happen to us. Add to that the quick, flash bulb images of what appear to be rotting appendages and you are already developing an unsettling feeling about what is to come. The sound design, photography and music all suggest something is not right and keep you wondering when that hammer is going to drop right up until it literally does, directly into poor Kirk’s skull. Up to that point the movie never gives away just how much terror these teens are walking into.
The performances of the cannibalistic family are another reason the film works to near perfection. Most fans of the film already what the cast went through while filming; all night shoots, forced to wear layers and sometimes pounds of makeup during a sweltering Texas summer and rotting food spread out on the set. I was lucky enough to chat with Gunnar Hansen- the original Leatherface-at a horror convention a couple years ago and he talked about how he was not allowed to change his shirt or the mask for the entire shoot for fear that cleaning them would alter his appearance. But through all this the performers were able to lock onto subtle and interesting quirks that brought their characters to life; Ed Neal’s childlike performance as “the hitchhiker” made you squirm the moment he jumped into the van and Jim Siedow as the paternal figure is able to express sheer delight in tormenting Sally and then switch immediately to show ambivalence to that same torment. Gunnar Hansen utilized body language to make Leatherface more of a creature born into this life, with no choice but to do as he’s told rather than an evil force of nature. Texas Chainsaw also has a reputation for being extremely violent, ask anyone that hasn’t seen it and I can almost guarantee you that they will cringe and proclaim “can’t watch it, too much blood”. A lot of people think it’s on the same level of gore as modern “torture porn” flicks like Hostel or SAW. But there is actually very little gore in the picture; movies like Death Wish and Beyond the Door (both released that same year) contained more scenes of blood and gore than Chainsaw did. The only real moment of gore in the entire film is near the end when Leather falls and cuts his own leg with his chainsaw. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the one of those films I think everyone should watch at least once. It is a shining example of how to create an authentic, disturbing, white knuckle film experience without all the schlock and gore audiences are accustomed to with modern horror.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is very different from the original; it gave the audience some comical moments to ease the tension and there was a fun play on the classic beauty and the beast story as Leatherface falls for the female lead Stretch (played wonderfully by Caroline Williams). The performances in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 are intense and memorable. Dennis Hopper was in full bonkers mode as Lt. Lefty and Jim Siedow returns as the cannibal god father; Bill Moseley’s performance as “The Hitchhiker” is one of my all-time favorite horror film performances to date. The make-up effects (Tom Savini) were ramped up for this one and the set design was very impressive. While it is not as good as the first Chainsaw film it is a very coherent and fun black-comedy movie. Personally, this is one of my all-time favorite horror movie sequels; it manages to honor its predecessor while creating a fully realized identity for its self.
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is an alright horror film on its own. It was an attempt to re-boot the franchise; none of the original characters return (expect Leatherface of course) and we are introduced to a new psycho family. There is also less humor than what we observed in TCM 2; this one went for a more typical edge of your seat horror experience. The first part of the film is rather boring, the way our two college kids end up at the house is not very inventive. Once we are introduced to this new family the movie starts to show signs of living up to the original; again we see strong performances from a cast of virtual unknown actors (no one knew who Viggo Mortensen was back then) creative and fun set designs and a great soundtrack to accompany the disturbing torment of our heroine. But it ends up just short of being a really good entry into the Chainsaw family. I think the most inspired part of the film is the addition of the little girl into the cannibalistic family unit, there is something particularly unsettling about seeing a 12 year old girl squirm with glee when she’s offered a chance to torture their guests.
Now we have arrived at what is, in my humble opinion, one of the strangest movies ever made:Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, both on the cusp of superstardom, played the main characters and to their credit they were the only truly believable performances in the film. Next Generation really plays out like a spoof of the original; the dialogue is riddled with cheesy one liners and talkative nonsensical character background descriptions. This new family has no depth or emotion like we’ve seen in the past and is essentially only there to provide the jump scares that show up every 20 seconds. In the end I can understand why Zellwegger and McConaughey have made every effort to and distance themselves from this movie. It’s a train wreck.
In 2003 we saw a direct re-make of the original staring Jessica Biel and R. Lee Ermey. My main gripe with this film is that it looked to clean, all of it. None of the sets looked like they were natural, everything in the movie looked as if it was carefully placed for a specific shot, right down to the oh-so-perfectly situated smear of blood on Jessica Biel’s well-toned tummy. The acting, even R. Lee, was forced and clichéd, and there was none of the character development we’ve seen in the past. It has a weak script, weak acting and weak editing; it was just plain weak. In the end this was a re-make done by a group of people that apparently had not seen the original; and unfortunately because of a great marketing campaign (and teenage viewers that had no clue) the movie did well at the box office ; so well that Hollywood decided we needed more remakes. I would argue that 2003’s version of Texas Chainsaw is the film that opened the flood gates for the glut of horror remake throughout the decade.
2006 saw the prequel to the 2003 film released, and while it has nothing original to offer it does give us a consistent and genuinely unsettling atmosphere, it also has a more lucid story then the 2003 film. The cat and mouse game between Leatherface and the “final girl” (played convincingly by Jordana Brewster) is fun and there is some dark humor splayed throughout that plays well. But in the end it is just as predictable and uninspired as its predecessor.
Finally we come to the one I wish I could forget: Texas Chainsaw 3D. This one claims to be a direct sequel to the 1974 classic. But in reality it is a lethargic, unimaginative, heaping pile of shit. Our main character, the “final girl”, is introduce to us as new born baby in the beginning of this film (stay with me) which we are told takes place at the ending of the first film (still with me). Then we fast forward 39 years to 2012-which the film makers clearly display as the year the film takes place by showing the audience a headstone in a grave yard scene which reads “here lies so-and-so, died 2012”, really?!-and our new born baby has only aged 22 maybe 23 years, who knew cannibalism was in fact the fountain of youth? The special effects were pretty much CGI all the way through, the acting was atrocious and the “story” was just plain stupid. I honestly cannot find anything good about this movie; if I was a professor of film I would show this Texas Chainsaw 3D to my students to demonstrate how NOT to make a movie, so very bad.
Well there you have it, my thoughts on all seven Texas Chainsaw films. Leatherface is an icon in American cinema and I think we will see more incarnations of him in the future. And I’ll be the first to admit that the Texas Chainsaw franchise has had more than a few bumps in the dirt road over the years; but I and many others just like me cannot wait to hear the familiar roar of the chainsaw one more time.