Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a horror masterpiece. His 1986 Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a horror comedy masterpiece. The rest of the series ain’t so great. With another Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot due next year, we decided it was time to sift through the bones and revisit the rest. Are they really as bad as we remember?
After Texas Chainsaw 2, New Line acquired the rights to the series hoping Leatherface would jump-start another cash cow franchise in the vein of Nightmare on Elm Street—but the response was pretty underwhelming, and Freddy Krueger-style success did not follow. Honestly, it’s not a terrible movie, it just feels kinda slight, and is nowhere near as cleverly, vomit-inducingly macabre as what came before. Its opening crawl informs us that part one’s only surviving victim has since passed and that the cannibal family’s only remaining member was tried and executed by the state of Texas.
Except, that’s not at all true. As the title suggests, Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff) is still running around making trouble—like, he’s not exactly stealth, how did Texas authorities miss him?—with the help of some new characters who rather suspiciously resemble the first film’s creepy hitchhiker and the second film’s scalp-scraping Chop Top. The clan also includes a sadistic cowboy played by Viggo Mortensen as well as a creepy matriarch, an even creepier little girl, and the standard mummified Grandpa character.
The set-up is familiar: road-tripping city kids stumble into chainsaw territory while traversing rural Texas, though the welcome addition of a survivalist character (played by Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree) means the fight’s not quite so one-sided this time around. However, despite a gritty aesthetic that makes Leatherface more kin to Hooper’s films than the slicker entries to come, there’s not much about the film that lingers once it’s over (aside from its surprisingly decent metal soundtrack). Despite the title, there’s only a halfhearted attempt to further characterize the hulking, skin mask-wearing scamp that everyone calls “Junior.” Horror legend tells us the film had to be recut before release to avoid an X rating, which would’ve been the kiss of death in those days—but a bit more gruesome excess sure would’ve made things a bit more memorable.
The Next Generation is most famous for its cast—it stars Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, whose careers took off between the time the film was made and its eventual theatrical release in 1997. And this isn’t some “Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th” supporting-role situation; Zellweger is the main character and McConaughey is the primary antagonist. Kim Henkel, who’d co-written Hooper’s 1974 original, wrote and directed this one, and The Next Generation could be read as a subversive send-up of the series, considering how it upends most of the established lore—Leatherface’s unhinged kin actually live pretty darn close to the city limits this time. They dine on pizza, not human flesh. There’s a left-field subplot about how an Illuminati-like secret society is actually motivating the family’s murder streak. Leatherface (Robert Jacks) spends most of the movie dressed in drag—which is never elaborated on beyond being a visual gag—and he shrieks louder than his chainsaw while he’s chasing people around.
The entire cast was seemingly encouraged to take it way over the top, especially a scenery-devouring McConaughey. Zellweger, who’d just found mainstream fame with Jerry Maguire when Next Generation finally came out, makes for a surprisingly fierce final girl, fighting back in her prom dress (since the movie somehow starts at a school dance). However, the novelty of seeing two future Oscar winners flail through this crudely humorous bloodbath wears off far too soon.
Was any horror fan ever sitting around wondering what a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie with an actual production budget would look like? Producer Michael Bay got his claws into the franchise next and out plopped this mud-colored, faux-gritty remake. Though original cinematographer Daniel Pearl returned, the whole affair is directed with sledgehammer precision by Marcus Nispel—a director of music videos and commercials who made his feature debut here, and later went on to helm the 2009 Friday the 13th remake.
You wouldn’t know Chainsaw is set in the 1970s if the intro didn’t make that explicit; mostly it’s a bunch of telegenic early-2000s kids (Jessica Biel, clad in a midriff-bearing tank, plays the lead) acting like such entitled assholes you’re basically counting the minutes until Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) starts dropping bodies. Among the supporting cast, R. Lee Ermey has fun as a sleazy sheriff who is In On It, and established spooky kid actor David Dorfman (The Ring) does what he does best, this time with a full set of nasty prosthetic teeth. But there’s not a shred of suspense or even much of a plot to be had here—we know exactly where this Chainsaw, which really feels more like a calculated cash grab than anything else, is going from the first frame.
Yeah, about that cash grab: the 2003 remake’s hefty box office take all but guaranteed this next entry. Jonathan Liebesman’s prequel returns to the urine-hued world of the 2003 movie, inching the action back four years so it can incorporate returnees like Ermey’s self-styled cop, as well as introduce new victims like Matt Bomer (Doom Patrol) and Jordana Brewster (the Fast and Furious series). That said, we actually begin in 1939 with the birth of Leatherface—which literally occurs at the franchise’s fabled slaughterhouse when his mother goes into labor mid-shift—before jumping to 1969, when the mountainous 30-year-old (“Tommy” in this telling) is storming away from his own job at the slaughterhouse on its last day of operation.
With plenty of free time on his hands, and all sorts of meat-preparing skills just going to waste, things don’t look great for anyone set to cross his path—including (inevitably) two brothers and their respective girlfriends having one last hurrah before the boys head to Vietnam. But the real villain here might just be Ermey’s torture-loving character, who makes the executive decision that his family should start trapping travelers as a food source. That said, we do get to see Leatherface (Bryniarski again) upgrade his wardrobe by scraping the face off Bomer’s character...a rare high point in a movie that just kind of propels itself forward without any creative spark or genuine scares.
Texas Chainsaw 3D is presented as a direct sequel to the original—which makes it not quite a re-reboot?—and begins with a prologue set just after the 1973 killings. Vindictive locals massacre Leatherface’s family (who appear far less inbred in this version) and burn their home to the ground. A surviving infant is stolen away to be raised by crass adoptive parents. Cut to the present day, and Heather (Alexandra Daddario, clad in a midriff-bearing sweater) has grown up unaware of her true heritage—though she does work as a butcher, wink wink—until she’s informed of a surprise inheritance: a mansion and land in small-town Texas. But there’s a catch, in the form of a cousin who prowls the property...wearing his human-skin mask.
Once Leatherface (Dan Yeager) realizes he’s got company, John Luessenhop’s film has to kind of pause its main plot about Heather confronting her family history so that people can get sawed in half. But Texas Chainsaw 3D does score points for at least trying to inject a shred of originality into the proceedings, even if it stomps all over continuity to get there. It also features the first Black characters in a Chainsaw movie (including musician Trey Songz as Heather’s doomed boyfriend) and the first Chainsaw script with any women involved (the movie was co-written by Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan, and Kirsten Elms). Still, the whole thing has that familiar whiff of “Why was this made again?” Bet that 3D looked pretty cool in the theater, at least.
French filmmaking duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (their breakout was 2007's notoriously icky Inside) bring a certain degree of stylistic flair to this prequel to the 1974 original. It goes into more detail than 2006's The Beginning while throwing anything resembling continuity out the window, which to be fair, is par for the course for any Chainsaw movie at this point. Stephen Dorff (as a vengeance-minded Texas Ranger) and The Conjuring’s Lili Taylor (as Leatherface’s mother) elevate the cast, but once again, the whole thing feels extremely unnecessary. Isn’t a chainsaw-wielding killer way scarier when he comes out of nowhere, rather than analyzed with a movie that exposes every detail of his troubled past?
We’ve had two near-perfect Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies since 1986. The rest are just exploiting what was already an exploitation film to begin with. Even now, Hooper’s 1974 original remains shocking and artistically interesting. It shows us how a horror film can terrify audiences by stirring up fears they didn’t even know they had—the title alone conjures up unholy nightmares, and framing the story as inspired by true events is genius. You’re already freaked out before the movie even begins! Hooper’s sequel may not be as scary, but it turns the satirical dial sky-high and has a blast making you laugh while you’re deciding whether you need to barf.
Stay on the main road, don’t go poking around in run-down old gas stations and farmhouses, and definitely do not eat the barbecue. And please, no more Chainsaws.
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