Desolate Madness: A Look at the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Franchise Part 4
As part of October, the scariest movie month of the year, MovieBabble is looking back at one of the most prominent horror franchises out there: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. The following article is part four of the retrospective. To read part one, click here. If you need to catch up on part two, check it out by clicking here. For part three, click here.
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is the part of the franchise when Tobe Hooper, the original auteur of the original, loses all creative control of the property. After Cannon Group was crumbling under the weight of their financial woes, New Line Cinema bought the rights to the franchise.
New Line Cinema might now be mostly known as the production company that introduced many moviegoers to Middle-earth, but back then, they were famous for inducing many viewers to sleepless nights by introducing the most imaginative of slasher-icons: Freddy Krueger.
It was the commercial appeal of this knife-gloved, dream demon that saved New Line Cinema from their own financial ruin. And from then on, NLC was appropriately nicknamed ‘The House that Freddy Built.’
So they sought another horror icon on which to capitalize. They wanted another Freddy. Their eyes were focused on a certain cannibalistic chainsaw-wielding psycho, Jedidiah Sawyer — affectionately known as “Leatherface.” The fact that he most certainly perished in his last cinematic appearance, by having been gutted by Dennis Hopper with a chainsaw and then blown up, didn’t matter to New Line Cinema. As any horror fan knows, no horror-icon ever really dies so long as there is money to be made.
All they had to do now was retcon the previous film, which screenwriter David J. Chow did — though the film does have a few significant references to the second TCM film, including a vocal cameo by previous heroine Caroline Williams. This third film would return to the old-school horrors of the original, doing away with any of the slapstick gore that was introduced in the second film.
Before they even hired director Jeff Burr, they filmed a teaser trailer to promote the film. The teaser promised a twisted version of the Arthurian legend with Leatherface as the legendary knight and Excalibur being unsurprisingly replaced with a massive chainsaw — when you watch it you really wish the eventual end-product was more like this film. This teaser starred the most infamous of Jason Voorhees performers — Kane Hodder as Leatherface — who was also the third film’s stunt-coordinator.
While the teaser is undoubtedly awesome, it already hints at a production struggle as the advertised release date, November the 3rd 1989, would later be pushed to January 12th, 1990.
In this article we will take a deeper look into the production struggles of the second sequel and the eventual entertaining yet slightly schizophrenic end result.
The New Nuclear Family
Like any half-decent Texas Chainsaw Massacre film, it stars with an opening scroll read out loud by a reporter or journalist. It’s charming that they would continue to do this in all sequels even though they can’t possibly think that any viewer can believe this is a true story. But they’ve done this in other films too, such as The Strangers franchise. Perhaps many viewers enjoy the charade of it being a true story. The acknowledgement that this (extremely) loosely based on true events film makes it just a little scarier. In the case of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s the story of Ed Gein.
The opening scroll conveys the film’s retcon of the previous film’s events: instead of the Sawyer running a successful barbecue business, the authorities followed up on original final girl Sally and apprehended one of the Sawyer relatives. Though he’s not named, it’s obviously Drayton. Instead of blowing himself up like in the previous film, he lived to see the trial and died in a gas chamber.
The infamous Leatherface on the other hand was never found. The jurors, for some reason, concluded that he was merely the alternate personality of Drayton, which was activated whenever he would don the flesh mask.
But Leatherface actually found refuge with other Sawyer relatives and continued their family tradition of rounding up human cattle and preparing them for dinner. The film’s unfortunate protagonists are two bickering city-slickers, Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler), and an armed survivalist, Benny (the always reliable Ken Foree).
The psychotic family is much more extensive than the previous two films. First we have “Tex” Sawyer (a young and upcoming Viggo Mortensen), the most seemingly level-headed member but is as sadistic as they come. There’s Alfredo Sawyer (Tom Everett), the foul-mouthed, mumbling, and deeply perverted gas station attendant — who also picked up Nubbins’ hobby of peddling his own horrific photography. There’s also “Tink” Sawyer, probably the smartest (and most racist) of the Sawyer clan whose technical ingenuity leads to the creation of many creative slaughter devices.
We also have a wheelchair-bound matriarch to the family this time, “Mama” Anne Sawyer (Miriam Byrd Nethery), who talks through a voice-box and suffers from some disturbing leg sores. There’s also a little girl in the household now, presumably Leatherface’ daughter (let’s not ask ourselves whose supposed to be her mother), Babi (Jennifer Banko), who is eager to join the family’s cannibalistic business. And in case you’re wondering, yes, Grandpa is still around. He’s a mummified corpse, but they are still feeding him blood.
Instead of going the corporate route, they just keep to themselves and collect as many victims that come their way. In the beginning of the movie, we see that the police finds a mass grave of bloated corpses, so they’ve doing pretty well so far — too bad for them they started messing with Ken Foree.
The film is much more straightforward than the previous film. There’s no satire, no social-commentary on Reaganomics, it’s just a simple survival horror film. It’s not mindless, though. There’s a character arc to Michelle’s character. She starts the film as someone who isn’t even able to perform a mercy kill and later, in the finale, is able to kill when called upon. With a survivalist hero in the mix, the theme seems to be that a world with dangerous people, isolated in their own desolate madness, are capable of committing unspeakable acts in the name of twisted logic. If logic actually needs to be applied, sometimes it’s just about fulfilling their sadistic desires.
At the end, it seems that Benny, the kind yet initially kooky character, was the most sensible character of all of them. He even becomes the true hero of this tale. Following this film’s logic, the message seems to be that we should be more like him, a survivalist. We should prepare ourselves against these crazy cannibals out there. We should arm ourselves wherever we go, just so we can defend ourselves if we must. Just so we can take out as many psychotic cannibals as we can.
While the concept itself seems promising enough, despite lacking the satirical and ambitious bite of the previous film, the production was unfortunately mired with internal conflicts…
Conflict 1: An Independent Director and a Franchise-Hungry Production Company
The studio had a hard time finding the right man for the job. They basically wanted a yes-man, a competent director who could get the shots done in time and not go over budget. The purpose of this film was not to make one movie, it was to start a franchise, similar to A Nightmare on Elm Street. I’m sure this is no shocker but movie studios generally care less about making a great movie and more about making lots of money.
They eventually settled on Jeff Burr who proved himself with little horror films like The Offspring and Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy. Big studios often hire up-and-coming directors, especially the ones who are willing to put aside their own artistic inclination in favor for commercial appeal. It’s harder to control the directorial whims of an established auteur. The auteur will fight for his vision. He will be inclined to say no and do what he damn well pleases.
Upon first glance it seems this directing gig was Jeff Burr’s big break, but the experience was unfortunately not a pleasant one. Burr had a difficult time conforming to studio politics, especially when it came to the tight shooting schedule. They began micro-managing the production, taking as much control away from Burr as possible. When it became clear that Burr might commit the greatest studio sin of all — going over-budget — Burr was promptly fired, weeks before the end of the shoot.
Days after his firing however, Burr was rehired when they couldn’t find anyone to replace him. Burr’s vision was unfortunately further tampered with as New Line Cinema continued trying to make the film as commercially appealing as possible…
Conflict 2: Reshoots
Jeff Burr’s bitter reflection on directing Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III says it all: “the film can never be yours… that was probably my mistake in the movie, trying to have it be mine while it never could be.”
If the confrontation with the studio wasn’t enough, there were reshoots behind Burr’s back. After test-screenings reacted favorably to Ken Foree’s character — which is admittedly one of the best things in the movie — his initial fate was altered. Originally his head was supposed to have sawed in half by a chainsaw during his swamp fight with Leatherface. Instead the film quickly cuts away from his gruesome fate and his character disappears. After Michelle bashes the head of Leatherface with a giant rock, she ventures further into the night, trying to get as far away from the Sawyers as possible.
Upon early dawn, she comes across Alfredo’s pickup trick. She initially fears dying in the hands of that mumbling pervert, but surprise, surprise: Benny comes out of the car with only the most insignificant of flesh wounds on his head. ”You made it!” yells Michelle as she jumps to hug him. “Of course I did,” says Benny.
Leatherface’s fate was also altered. Originally he wasn’t supposed to survive after being continually pummeled with a rock, but in the final scene of the original cut, we see Leatherface in the background, following the heroes on foot. The idea was to feature these characters in the sequel — which unfortunately never happened.
The original ending was much more downbeat. Besides Benny and Leatherface dying accordingly, it would feature burned-up Tex surprising Michelle and then getting pierced by one of the Sawyer’s traps.
The final scene sees Michelle in the early morning calling out to a cop car. Michelle thinks she’s saved, but then she sees Babi in the backseat with her skeleton toy, waving and smiling sadistically at her. Since the car belongs to the sheriff it’s clear that he might know about (and possibly participates in) the Sawyer’s cannibalistic habits. Michelle then sees a sticker in the back of the car with the quote: “don’t mess with Texas.” Knowing then that she won’t make it out alive, she drops to her knees and laughs madly, as the car drives away.
Even though the original ending would be more reminiscent of the original movie, with Michelle being left to die in her own desolate madness, I still prefer the reshot ending. Yes it’s a cop-out having Benny return, but he was such a likable character that I don’t really care. They probably could have done a better job. Perhaps have Benny escape the chainsaw instead of suddenly appearing out of nowhere. But I still smile whenever I see Benny’s smiling face in the end.
My biggest issue with the film lies with the lack of visceral gore…
Conflict 3: A Resentful MPAA
The MPAA has always been the bane of horror cinema especially during the eighties and nineties. Many great gore effects were exercised because of the narrow-minded MPAA. Probably the franchise that suffered the greatest of all was Friday the 13th, as many imaginative Jason kills were neutered just to avoid an X-rating.
The MPAA always loathed the mere existence of the TCM franchise. Their resentment towards the film spawned all the way back to the original film, which despite its lack of gore, was pressured to reduce some of its visceral intensity.
Cannon Group made the smart choice releasing TCM 2 unrated. But New Line Cinema was not going to go that route, since they wanted this to be their new big horror franchise. When they showed the film to the rating board it was quickly slapped with an X, which is mostly reserved for pornographic film.
But an X-rating isn’t so much about the sleaze that’s attached to it, it’s more about the money that is lost in the process. An X-rating means many cinemas will refuse to play it. It means it won’t be advertised as much. It means it will be banned in more conservative-minded countries, especially Britain or Australia.
From that moment on, the film was constantly re-edited just to appease the MPAA and to retrieve that R-rating. This is quite noticeable in the finished product as the camera annoyingly cuts away whenever something deliciously gruesome happens. The long back-and-forth between the MPAA took so long that the film eventually missed its release date.
Even the uncut version seems incredibly tame now. There are some extra bits of depravity, but it still seems to be missing much of the necessary cinematic carnage.
Ironically, despite all their efforts, the film was a commercial and critical flop. Critics noted the lack of graphic violence and the constant appeasement to the MPAA eventually harmed the finished product.
The film barely made $6 million from a $2 million budget — this does not include the advertisement cost that’s often kept secret from the public.
How Does it Hold Up?
When I first saw this film, I wasn’t impressed. It felt like a generic, run-of-the mill slasher movie with much of its edge cut off since so much bloodshed was removed from the film. Though the original lacked gore too, that one compensated for it with an unsettling atmosphere, something that a big studio film, no matter how hard they try, simply can’t replicate.
As I stated in my first article, the original film is partly so successful because of the dreadful circumstances of its creation. This film could never get to that beautiful dirty place which spawned the original TCM film. All it could do was follow it up with an entertaining, if recycled, genre film. It mostly succeeded, even though it was heavily compromised by studio-interference. I do wish the film had that satirical bite introduced in part 2. The film doesn’t do anything new, it just wants to play it safe.
Despite the film’s problems and the compromises made to release the film overseas, I still adore this film. It’s certainly not as good as the previous two films, or the 2007 remake and its prequel. But it has a certain charm to it that keeps me going back to it.
I love the New Sawyer family and I wish we’d seen more of them. We only get a glimmer of their brand of desolate madness and I’d happily opt for a longer cut, if it means spending more time with these deranged cannibals. Their twisted kinship is what makes these films so entertaining in the first place.
But it’s hard to deny the artificial, studio quality of the film. Their madness, however well-played, doesn’t feel as real as the first movie. It feels mostly like people “acting crazy” rather than truly embodying the homicidal madness that the Sawyers are imbued with.
Ken Foree basically steals the show, and if he would have died in the end, I probably wouldn’t have had the need to revisit this film. His reactions to the Sawyer’s insanity, veering between dramatic and comic outrage, are often the highlights of the film. He also gets a few great fight scenes, one with Viggo Mortensen (where he actually broke his rib in one shot) and R.A. Mihailoff.
This Leatherface is different from the previous two versions. While still wanting to please his family members, there’s a fiercer savagery to his presence. He seems to have lost his childlike quality. While still the mental imbecile we saw in the first one — watch out for one of the film’s funniest moments when we see him spill “food” continuously on a small computer — he doesn’t seem at all conflicted with his violent actions. The bumbling heartthrob of part 2 is also gone. He’s just a mean savage that will saw you in two if you get in his way.
Luckily the film also shows some of his softer side, such as his affection for Mama and Babi. I also love his new look — so much so that I’m considering buying the action figure.
While he’s not necessarily my favorite, Mihailoff does do a fantastic job with the role. He has the most bad-ass chainsaw in the franchise, a chrome machine of beauty, with the infamous quote from part 2: ”the saw is family.”
Overall, I grow to like this movie more as time goes by. It’s certainly not a great film. It lacks the intensity of the first one, the humor of the second and the mindless gore you hope would come in its place. Instead we have a great cast who all have splendid chemistry together; Leatherface waving around the coolest chainsaw ever built; and it’s got Ken Foree kicking ass. It’s hard not being satisfied with that.
Next up we will head towards the franchise’s lowest — and most hilarious — point. It stars two actors who have become giant celebrities since. One of them absolutely steals the show. To give you a hint who: “alright, alright, alright…”
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise? Comment down below!
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