A “Texas Chainsaw” Retrospective – Part 1
It’s hard to believe that it will soon be forty years since the first movie was released, but there is no arguing that Leatherface has become an iconic horror figure. Director Tobe Hooper may not have begun the slasher genre, but he definitely helped to refine and define the genre for generations to come.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Set in 1973, five teens, including Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her wheel-chair bound brother (Paul A. Partain), are on a road trip to check on their grandfather’s grave site after it’s been discovered that someone has been robbing the graves. On the way back, they decide to check out his old homestead.
After an episode with a hitchhiker goes, badly, the teens find themselves in an even worse position when they go looking for gas for their van. They encounter the Sawyer clan, the hitchhiker’s family which includes his two brothers, the human-skin mask-wearing Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), Old Man (Jim Siedow), and the world’s creepiest Grandpa (John Dugan, who was only in his early thirties at the time). Death and chaos ensue (particularly at the wildest family dinner ever). The movie ends with Leatherface doing a bizarre chainsaw dance as Sally, the soul survivor, escapes in a passing truck.
Like “Psycho”, the movie was largely inspired by the Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein. Director Tobe Hooper wrote the script with Kim Henkel. It was shot on location using a largely amateur cast of local talent. While most people tend to think of the movie as a gory thriller, there is actually little gore in the film and (believe it or not) Hooper was going for a PG rating. Most of the action occurs with clever camera edits or off-screen, but it is shot so effectively that viewers offer think they saw something that wasn’t actually onscreen. The MPAA didn’t agree with Hooper’s assessment of the film, and it was initially given an X-rating until some cuts were made to bring it to an R-rating.
I was not initially a huge fan of the franchise. The first movie came out when I was seven, and I didn’t see it until years later when videotapes became popular. By that time, I’d had my slasher cherry busted on “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. In my mind, Leatherface just didn’t measure up to Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, so though I’ve seen all of the films, they just never had the impact on me that the later slasher films did. I’ve grown to admire how groundbreaking the first film is, but I just don’t have that emotional connection to it that I do with the other films.
Rewatching the first film after a couple of decades, I was struck by how original the film was and how much genius is involved both in the story and the execution. So many movies that came after have pulled elements from this movie. I also didn’t remember how much dark humor was included in the original film. It should serve to today’s young independent filmmakers how much can be down with so little.
The cast is their own sort of brilliant, particularly Gunnar Hansen. He gives Leatherface an almost Frankenstein-like quality, a mentally-disturbed victim of his dysfunctional family. The movie is definitely a masterpiece of the horror genre.
Edwin Neal, who plays the Hitchhiker, takes bizarre to a whole new level. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the documentary “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait” (embedded below). It interviews the cast about the making of the movie, and Neal is just about as “interesting” in person as he is as the Hitchhiker character.
Ahead of its time, the movie was one of the original virally marketed film as it set up its premise as a true story which brought audiences to the theater in droves. Up until John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978, it was one of the most successful independent films ever produced.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986) – After more than a decade of legal troubles, Hooper was finally able to make a sequel to his film. The problem? In the meantime, the world had been introduced to Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. The other problem? Rather than create a true horror sequel, director Tobe Hooper decided to pull in a lot of black comedy, creating a movie that is far more silly than scary.
This time out, we learn that Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper), a former Texas Ranger and uncle of Sally Hardesty and her brother have been looking for the killers ever since, especially since the events have been swept under the rug by law enforcement.
Radio DJ “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams) is doing her radio show when two wild teens call in and tie up her line. Unable to get rid of them, she unwittingly tapes their death when they run into Leatherface (now played by Bill Johnson) and his brother Chop Top (Played by Bill Moseley, he is a twin to the Hitchhiker who was serving in Vietnam during the events of the first film.) Reprising his role from the first film, Jim Siedow returns (now billed as “the cook”). He tries to keep his other two brothers in line, as he has built a successful chili business using their special meat (I may never eat restaurant chili again).
Stretch and Lefty work together by playing the tape on the air. This brings out the Sawyer clan. They attack Stretch and kill her sound guy. She only escapes by flirting with Leatherface. Stretch and Lefty follow the Sawyers to an abandoned amusement park where they battle the clan. The movie ends in a similar fashion to the original film with Stretch battling Chop-Top. Despite being wounded, she grabs a chainsaw and attacks Chop-Top. Knocking him from a tower, the movie closes with Stretch emulating Leatherface’s chainsaw dance from the first film.
I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but Moseley is even more bizarre as Chop-Top than Edwin Neal was as the Hitchhiker. I guess he was supposed to star in his own “sequel” called “All American Massacre” (directed by Tobe Hooper’s son William), but it was never released. (From the look of the trailer, that’s probably a good thing).
The whole movie is pretty trippy, and it bombed on its initial release. It has since gone on to collect a cult following since its initial release on VHS (yes, kiddies, there was a precursor to DVDs and Blu-rays).
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) – Ever wonder what Viggo Mortensen did before “The Lord of the Rings”? Wonder no further. One of Mortensen’s early roles was playing “Tex” Sawyer, another brother to Leatherface.
This is the first film released by New Line Cinema after obtaining the rights to the franchise. It was intended as a reboot of the franchise (which killed off the characters in the previous film). The movie begins with Leatherface (now played by R.A. Mihailoff) killing a girl and making his mask.
A couple (Kate Hodge and William Butler) driving across country stumble stop to get gas at the Sawyer’s gas station, now run by Alfredo Sawyer (Tom Everett), a character similar to the Hitchhiker and Chop-Top. They also meet “Tex” who seemingly helps them escape when a crazy Alfredo comes after them with a shotgun. After the couple stops to fix a flat tire, they are attacked by Leatherface. Barely escaping, they then get into an accident with Benny (Ken Foree), a survivalist who becomes an ally when Leatherface attacks again. After being attacked by Leatherface and his brother Tinker (played by Joe Unger – how many brothers does this dude have?) they flee to a house in the woods where they think they have found help, only to learn that they have found the Sawyer’s new homestead.
The movie is a return to the more traditional format. It still keeps the dark humor of the original film, but it is far gorier. We also get to meet our first female Sawyers – Mama (Miriam Bird-Nethery) and little girl who we later learn is Leatherface’s daughter (by another victim) played by Jennifer Banko (who’s first acting role was that of Young Tina Shepherd in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood).
The movie made a profit for New Line, but just barely. Despite not being a huge success, this is probably by favorite of the sequels, prequels and remakes.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) – You would think that a film written and directed by one of the original writers of the first film would be the perfect reboot to the franchise. Instead what we got was a steaming pile of crap.
The movie is considered a sequel by some and remake by others as the plot is so similar to the first film. The most dubious recognition the film has received comes from two of its stars, Matthew McConaughey just before he broke out in “Dazed and Confused” and Renee Zellweger before she completed Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire”. According to the film’s producers, the film was buried by Zellweger and McConaughey’s connection in the film industry after they’re success. Whether that’s true or not, it means nothing since the film is just plain bad.
I’m not a fan of Zellweger (at all), and this only makes me wonder more how this woman has any career at all. McConaughey chews through the scenery and seems to be having a great time as Vilmer Sawyer (another brother).
This time out, teens end up in a car wreck in the wrong part of Texas. Seeking help at a local insurance company run by Darla (Tonie Perensky), she calls her husband Vilmer to bring his tow truck. It doesn’t take long for our teens to realize Vilmer isn’t right. In their attempts to get away from him, they run into Leatherface (now played by Robert Jacks) and his brother (!) W.E. (Joe Stevens) who loves quoting famous people from history.
Leatherface almost gets pushed to the background as McConaughey holds court as Vilmer. The producers also throw in a plot twist about Vilmer working for some secret organization. Initially, we are lead to believe this is part of his delusion, only later to discover it’s the truth when they show up to make sure he’s doing his job.
The worst part of this already abysmal film though is the poorly constructed Leatherface character, starting with some of the worst makeup effects ever. There has always been a little bit of cross-dressing element to the Leatherface character, but here they producers seem to focus on that, and it turns one of the iconic bad guys of cinema into a sad parody of himself.
If you can’t get the character of Leatherface right, you have no business making a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie. The movie does feature cameos from three of the actors from the original film – John Dugan, Marilyn Burns, and Paul A. Partain