Desolate Madness: A Look at the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Franchise Part 5
As part of October, the scariest movie month of the year, MovieBabble looked back at one of the most prominent horror franchises out there: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. Lucky for you, we’re continuing the conversation beyond the Halloween season. We always need our horror fix! The following article is part five 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. Click here for part four.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is commonly regarded, quite rightly, as the lowest point of the franchise. Its biggest selling point isn’t the rural macabre of the original or the whimsical splatter of the second, or even the Ken Foree charm of the third installment. It’s that it stars both Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger before they reached mainstream comfortability. It was made when they were still trying to make it, when they were grateful just for getting a role in the fourth installment of a notorious horror franchise.
It was their eventual fame that caused Columbia Pictures to rescue it from its purgatory state of being ‘shelved’, two years after it received some devastating feedback from its initial screenings. But neither their good looks or precocious charm could salvage any chances of it receiving financial prosperity. It would become the franchise’ greatest financial failure — making only a poultry $185,898 from a $600,000 budget.
Its critics slammed it for not bringing anything new to the table, for its lack of genuine scares, from its worn-out and tired formula. Upon my first viewing I agreed on most of these points. It was a massive chore watching this from beginning to end. For the first time, I didn’t care about any of the victims. Their cringeworthy acting made me wish for their horrific demise. This even includes Miss Zellweger, who, all though comes out mostly unscathed, didn’t show any of her potential star capabilities.
Were it not for this one ridiculously entertaining performance I might have shut this film off midway through. It’s the performer who made a series of annoying romantic comedies until he eventually redeemed himself by playing meatier roles, particularly playing one nihilistic ‘true detective’. Yes the jail-bate chasing David Wooderson saved this movie. McConaughey had such a blast playing the part — which he would later admit too — that I almost considered this movie worth it… Almost.
It was only later on, upon reflecting upon its content that I realized the film might not have been such a monstrous abomination of cinema. It might have been actually smarter than I initially gave it credit…
Meet the ‘New Generation’
My favorite part about these retrospectives — besides having an excuse to talk about my obsession with this insane franchise — is writing about the continuous changes made to the Sawyer family lore. It started so small, with just four cannibalistic lunatics, all four of them seemingly annihilated by the end of part two. In part three, only Leatherface survived the retcon and now he was a fundamental part of his own nuclear family. In part four, we have another extensive family, though the psychotic little miscreant and her skull doll is absent.
First we have Vilmer, played by the great Lincoln spokesperson himself. Vilmer might be a contender for the most insane Sawyer family member — and there’s mighty competition there. He walks around with an electronic brace, made from all sorts of spare parts, which he controls by remote control and makes loud and cartoon-sounding robotic noises throughout the movie.
Even though he’s absolutely nuts, it also becomes clear throughout the movie that he’s trying very hard. Maybe a little too hard. He wants to truly represent the desolate madness that have been the cornerstone of the Sawyer family but it doesn’t exactly work in the end, as I will explain later.
Then we have the most pretentious Sawyer family ever to grace the screen: Walter Edward Slaughter (played by Joe Stevens), mostly named W.E. His exact relation to the Sawyer clan is a little unclear but apparently he’s Leatherface’s brother — thought he might just merely be a member of the secret society controlling the Sawyers, but we’ll get to that.
Walter likes to show off how educated and cultured he is by spouting literary quotes to family members and potential victims. Apparently he misquotes most of his literary references, so he’s probably far dumber than he realizes himself.
Then we have the flirtatious Darla Slaughter (Tonie Perensky). She’s the sister-in-law to Leatherface and wife of Vilmer. Upon first glance she seems the more stable member of the family, yet it becomes clear that her mind is filled with governmental paranoia which, according to the logic of this film, might have an eerie resemblance to the truth. According to her, the Sawyer family have been murdering people for over hundreds of years. Including John F. Kennedy. Go figure.
There’s a grandfather Sawyer in this version (played by Grayson Victor Schirmacher). I’m not entirely sure if he’s supposed to the same old grandfather, and if he is, that blood he’s been feeding on must have been very healthy, since he’s not wheelchair bound anymore. He can actually walk now. Other than that he probably does less in this movie than in the first two movies. Admittedly he does more than in part 3, since he’s mummy in that one.
And then there’s Leatherface… Well he wears skin-masks and wields a chainsaw but he’s not exactly the terrifying personification of the desolate madness which he saw in the first one. He’s not even the maniac with the buffoonish crush from the first sequel. This time he’s an effeminate-transvestite, the polar opposite of what we saw previously in part 3. He’s played amusingly by musician Robert Jacks, even though it’s admittedly hard to swallow this version on first glance, especially since he/she continuously screeches throughout the movie. He’s absolutely not scary in this movie.
The victims in this fourth entry of chainsaw extravagance are four hapless teens. This makes it more reminiscent of the original film, where the targets where also teens. This also makes the film feel more conventional, as the teens have often been subjected to cinematic psychopaths — and the reason for this is partly due to the immense legacy of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Conventional or not, the main problem with these four teens is that they don’t feel real and that the acting is frustratingly uneven. They actually feel like parodies of the genre.
First we have the final girl, Jenny, played by Renée Zellweger. A meek and soft-spoken girl, she’s continually suffers from ridicule from her friends. At first Zellweger’s performance seemed very one-note. She’s was definitely the best of the four but nothing to brag about. It’s only that during the later parts in the film when she finally claims agency that she becomes a decently compelling final girl.
It’s Jenny who suffered the most from the cutting room floor, as distributors were scrambling to make the most conventional film they could make from this mess. A subplot was scrapped in which we witness her suffering abuse and sexual harassment from her stepfather. It would make her eventual defiance against the Sawyers far more engaging. There’s apparently an extended cut somewhere that includes that exorcised scene.
Then we have Barry (Tyler Shae Cone), a small-minded jock and his dimwitted girlfriend Heather (Lisa Marie Newmyer). Their portrayals are the most uneven of the film but their dialogue is consistently awful, especially the part where Barry justifies cheating on her because if he doesn’t get enough sexual gratification, he can get prostate cancer. The fact that she even starts to believe this is exactly my point. They aren’t real characters. They are just played for laughs.
Admittedly Barry’s consistent swagger, even amid certain doom is quite humorous at times. One moment in particular stands out, when Walter forces him to enter his domicile on gunpoint and Barry goes ”okay, okay. I need to use your bathroom anyway…”
Then there’s Sean (John Harrison) and there’s really nothing noteworthy to tell about him only that his death is pretty hilarious. Vilmer chases him down in his truck and instead of jumping into the bushes like a sane person would do, for some reason Sean runs left and right on the road so that Vilmer only needs to make a modicum of effort to run him over.
Even though Jenny does grow on you, the other victims are both some of the worst characters the slasher-genre has to offer, since they have no depth to them and are just lambs for slaughter. The other problem is that they never seem afraid. There’s never that glint of terror in their eyes.
At the same time, there’s something to be said about the blatancy of their portrayal. There’s something quite unpretentious about them. And perhaps the weird dialogue and almost satirical tone of these characters are part of a greater point.
Let’s examine that.
Is It a Parody?
A common excuse for a film’s inadequacies are that it’s “intentional” — like Tommy Wiseau‘s assertion that his supposed cinematic ineptitude has been misinterpreted because The Room was “always supposed to be funny.”
You could say about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. It’s not scary or thrilling but it isn’t supposed to be. The laughable frights are intentional, part of a greater goal. There are in fact some merits to this theory.
Case in point is the reveal that this Sawyer family has been under the control of a ‘secret society’. An underground group of rich evildoers who seek greater transcendence through terrorizing random people. As we saw at the end of the movie, a figurehead of this organization, Rothman (James Gale) loses faith in the Sawyer’s capabilities of fulfilling their sordid mission. We see this in how Jenny eventually stands up to the Sawyers, as she seizes to be afraid of them, even telling Leatherface to sit down and “shut up” — which he actually does!
Critic Russel Smith wondered whether or not Rothman represents “the insatiable horror audience” as the audience want to be scared but have become so saturated with horror films that nothing can be considered scary anymore.
Instead of the frightening presence he was in the original film, Leatherface has now become a screeching wimp, who fails to scare the final girl or even kill someone with a chainsaw. His balls have been cut off, he’s become ineffective. He’s become a laughing stock.
Most notably, the dinner-scene that was infamously terrifying in the original has now been modernized to such goofy extremes that it seizes to be scary. It’s become funny because the Sawyers, particularly Vilmer, are trying too hard.
One could even scrutinize whether Rothman represents the greedy Hollywood executives. They demand a scary film to entice the audience but the magic is gone and their cinematic monsters simply can’t deliver anymore.
Then there’s the stereotypical teens and their idiotic dialogue that almost feels self-aware. They’ve become a hollow shell of the teens that were initially the victims of this family. This next generation has been saturated by the constant recycling of horror classics. The horror genre has lost its soul and so it’s natural that these teens are deprived of the necessary humanity that will make you care for them.
A Progressive Message
In the 1994 behind-the-scenes of TCM: TNG, we are introduced to the surprisingly eloquent Kim Henkel. Henkel, with his erudite dictionary and distinguished mustache, appears more like literary professor than the man who co-wrote “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” It’s fascinating listening to him.
In the documentary he describes the psychoanalytical background of Leatherface, his “confused sexuality” that is both”complex” and “horrifying”. There were literary ambitions in the writing of this film, nothing was supposed to be cut and dry.
He describes his intent of the teen-characters, how they are intentionally “cartoonish” as “certain representatives of teenage types.” He talks about his inspiration to the original source material, Ed Gein, how he represents what he considers “genuinely terrifying” because he wasn’t just some monster, he was human. He believes, as do I, that the monsters on screen can never be as terrifying as the human monsters that roam the street in real life.
All of this makes it clear that TCM: TNG was not some soulless cash-grab, something the horror genre was quite notoriously filled with. He had greater ambitions than making a profitable studio sequel, something which, however much I enjoy the film, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 basically was. It wasn’t about continuing the same formula, about the monsters chasing down their victims. It was about what was behind the monsters and the growth of the person who survives them.
There was greater purpose to Jenny’s character. She wasn’t a 90’s replacement to scream queen Sally, she had her own purpose. Knowing how women are often meek victims in horror films, he wanted her to break conventions. She might seem to be an easy victim to dominate in the beginning but it’s her that eventually tells Leatherface to “shut up” and “sit down.”
This is why her subplot of the abuse she suffered from her father is so important to the film’s theme. In an e-mail to John Squirer, writer from Bloody Disgusting who had long admired this bizarre TCM oddity, Henkel stated that the Sawyers represent a “nightmarish version” of her own abuser. Therefore her eventual defiance against the Sawyers also becomes her poignant stance against the abuse she suffered throughout her life.
A progressive and strong feminist message is even visually represented throughout the film by how her prom dress gets continually shed throughout the movie — proving that it in this case it wasn’t about mindless T & A. Her outfit is that of the typical American prom dress, signifying an obedient woman. And as this costume is torn and stripped, so does she find freedom from her patriarchal constraints. As Henkel continues in his e-mail correspondence to Squires: “Jenny’s a butterfly” and she “emerges from the constraints of oppression, she sheds the constraints of her costume, her guise….”
Even though she probably has a long road ahead of her after her nearly fatal confrontation with the Sawyers her defiance is the beginning of her “salvation.” As Henkel said: “it’s her story. It’s about her transformation, her refusal to shut up, to be silenced, to be victimized. And by extension her refusal to be oppressed.”
In TCM: TNG we see the conspiracy lunacy that has now been popularized among both left and right-wing circles. After decades of deception from their governments, people have now been seeking comfort in anti-establishment figures, who are often proven to be facades, part of an even deeper nefarious brand of the establishment.
Even though the film does show the Sawyers and their reign of terror are organized by a secret society, Henkel didn’t necessarily want to justify conspiracy theory. To his mind, as described in his e-mail correspondence with John Squires, the secret-society subplot represented our obedience to our culture was “all of the characters in the film, including the family, served as the various forces of authority and culture… As a sense of a higher, unseen, power that informs the family’s actions.”
The Sawyers are merely slaves to their culture and all the delusions that come with it. Just like many of us, we are often controlled by unseen forces: cultural norms, religious rites, political affiliations that decide our actions and contributions to society. Often times, even with our best of intentions, our allegiance to these unseen forces can have devastating consequence, especially to those who don’t share our values.
The making-off was probably the closest to the original with its low-budget and the certain hazards that come with that, as Renée Zellweger would later reflect: “it was dangerous! I don’t know if any of it was legal! It was a great workout. Running from a guy with a live chainsaw is excellent motivation. It was a lot of fun.”
Matthew McConaughey only seems to have happy memories on being part of the film. His eventual casting in the film was a riot as Henkel pointed McConaughey to his secretary and merely told her “scare the shit out of her,” culminating in Matthew throwing furniture around and threatening her with a spoon.
For all its flaws, it’s a film that deserves more respect, especially for its deeper intellectual subtext and its satirical ambitions. It remains a deeply flawed but fascinating oddity of the TCM franchise.
Next time we will have to say goodbye to the Sawyers for a while and become acquainted with a different but no less dysfunctional family: The Hewitt’s.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise? Comment down below!
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