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‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’: The Lovable Insanity of Horror’s Strangest Slasher Franchise

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Not only is it a near-perfect scary movie, but it (alongside Bob Clark’s Black Christmas) also ushered in a new era of horror, setting the groundwork for countless Slasher flicks. Being such an influential property, it’s not surprising that the mad and macabre exploits of Leatherface and company would become a major Hollywood franchise, though no one could have predicted the sheer batshit insanity of the ensuing sequels and reboots.

When Hooper once again revved up the saw in 1986’s darkly comedic Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, he set a curious precedent for future films in the series by completely disregarding the style and tone of the original, instead focusing on making this strange sequel as entertaining as humanly possible. Since then, TCM movies have become unpredictable smorgasbords of bizarre and outlandish ideas, pissing off generations of horror hounds in the process. That’s why I’d like to look back on the films that succeeded Hooper’s original two Massacres, as I believe that this irreverent approach is exactly what makes the franchise so special.

2018’s Halloween may have caught some flack for disregarding an entire franchise in order to follow up on the first film’s original vision, but the TCM movies have been doing this for decades now. Part 2 may have been a definitive end to Hooper’s involvement with the series, but not even the climactic death of the Sawyer family could keep this Texan nightmare from resurfacing a mere three years later. In what would become a franchise tradition, Jeff Burr’s Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 mostly ignores the events of the previous film (and some of the first) in a quintessential Slasher flick.

In some ways, this third installment feels like a reinterpretation of the first film through the lens of a Friday the 13th sequel, complete with extreme practical gore effects (at least in the unrated version) and an insanely troubled production. Despite focusing on schlocky scares, the movie keeps some of the comedic elements of Part 2 while also providing us with a memorable performance by a pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen as the lovably sleazy Tex. If that’s not enough to convince you that this sequel is still worth a watch, the film also boasts one of my all-time favorite movie trailers, which makes me wish for an Army of Darkness rip-off featuring Leatherface trapped in medieval times.

Horror Queers Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Plagued by censorship and studio meddling, 3 was both a critical and box-office flop, but that didn’t stop the newly-hired Kim Henkel (co-writer of the original film) from doubling down on the exploitational silliness with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (also known as The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) in 1997. Over the years, this entry has garnered a reputation as a film so bad that the lead stars attempted to sabotage its release once they became famous, but I say it’s one of the most madly entertaining Slasher flicks ever made.

The opening narration mentions the previous sequels as minor incidents related to the original Massacre, but any semblance of continuity is once again thrown out the window in favor of unhinged creativity. The Next Generation may be an undeniable mess, but its commitment to narrative lunacy makes it insanely watchable. Matthew McConaughey is a joy to behold as the cyber-legged Vilmer, and the novelty factor of seeing a young Renée Zellweger being pursued by a gender-confused Leatherface never gets old. The madness even culminates with the film suggesting that the titular Massacre is a recurring event orchestrated by a secretive organization. You don’t have to like it, but I can’t be convinced that a movie where the literal Illuminati sponsors a family of cannibals is anything less than a masterpiece.

The franchise would remain dormant for a while after that (the Illuminati business might have been a bit too much for mainstream audiences), but evil would return with a fresh face in 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Our own Joe Lipsett and Trace Thurman have already made an excellent case for the reappraisal of Marcus Nispel’s surprisingly grim remake on the Horror Queers podcast, so suffice to say that it’s simply one of the scariest Slashers to come out of the 2000s. Once you separate it from the gritty realism of the original, it’s easy to appreciate how this rebooted nightmare goes places that Hooper had only hinted at, reframing Leatherface as a truly terrifying figure.

The following prequel also has its share of memorable moments, subjecting us to the literal birth of Leatherface while also painting the “Hewitt” family in a slightly more sympathetic light, revealing the hardship that led to their embrace of cannibalism. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is by no means a perfect movie, but the brutal gore and slick production value make this another entry worth revisiting, if only for the gnarly kills.

Naturally, this rebooted timeline didn’t last long (though it gifted us with some great supplemental material in the form of tie-in comic books), as 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D once again turned to Hooper’s original film for inspiration. This time, the story begins immediately after Sally’s escape, leading to copious amounts of three-dimensional gore and continuity issues. This may be one of the most hated sequels due to its baffling interpretation of the franchise mythology (plus some regrettably disposable leads), but I appreciate the sheer absurdity behind the decision to turn Leatherface into a sympathetic anti-hero.

In some ways, this bold choice is truer to the intent of Gunnar Hansen’s original character than all of the other incarnations, as Leatherface was originally conceived as a childlike figure being manipulated by an abusive family. If you can stomach some wonky CGI, this fresh take on the franchise’s main antagonist combined with a charming leading lady in the form of Alexandra Daddario (her deadpan delivery of “do your thing, cuz!” still echoes in my brain from time to time) results in some highly entertaining 3D shenanigans.

Of course, this less-dreary interpretation of the series antagonist wouldn’t last, as 2017 would see the release of one of the more somber and down-to-earth entries in the franchise with the criminally underseen Leatherface. While this is another case of a weirdly promising movie being butchered by studio interference, Leatherface still has a lot going for it with its French Extremity roots and subversive script that sidesteps continuity issues by taking place before all the other entries. Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (the duo behind hits like Inside and Livid), this road movie from hell is a surprisingly poignant prequel chronicling a daring escape from a 1960s mental hospital.

While the finished product isn’t quite what the directing duo had intended, bits and pieces of their original vision still manage to leak through the cracks of this strange little feature. Trying to guess which of the escaped patients will grow up to be the titular cannibal is a lot of fun, and the movie also benefits from a memorable performance by Lily Taylor as Verna Sawyer. While I’d like to see a proper director’s cut someday, Leatherface still deserves more love in its present form, and is further proof that every single one of these releases has something special about it.

Keeping with the franchise tradition, David Blue Garcia’s upcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre will once again take us back to the original timeline, though there’s no telling what’s in store for the rumored “Old Man Leatherface”. At this point, all we can hope for is that this movie will also do its own thing, adding even more strangeness to one of the oddest Slasher franchises of all time.

At the end of the day, I can’t honestly claim that these sequels and reboots are all Oscar-worthy cinema, but I believe that each new installment brings with it a fresh take on an iconic story, and that’s good enough for me. These movies can be silly, and sometimes even absurd, but they’re never boring, and that’s why I think there isn’t a single “bad” entry in the entire Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. Every one of these schlocky flicks is worth a watch for drastically different reasons, and I’m always looking forward to Leatherface’s next makeover.

TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE