Franchise Fanatic: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

If there’s any single movie that I remember being squarely terrified of just because of the title, it’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Even back in those days when I was far too scared to think about engaging in horror movies, when I would skirt around the horror section at the video rental bit of the library, eyes darting back and forth between petrifying titles and cover art, it stood out. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I mean, it doesn’t get much blunt (or, I suppose, more sharp) than that, does it?

Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic is one of the few iconic horror movies that truly lived up to it’s mystique for younger-me. Not only did it well earn it’s place on the Video Nasties list of banned productions in the UK in the seventies and eighties, but it’s just, genuinely, a brilliant piece of cinema. I’m not sure Tobe Hooper has ever bettered or even matched the work he did in this first movie: the way it looks, the way it feels, the way it sounds, that sense of grime under your nails by the time your done. Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface instantly and rightly earned cult-classic status in the horror villain pantheon; for all his terrifying, unsettling presence, he’s fundamentally a man trying to protect his family, someone with a curiously conventional morality against the backdrop of, well, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-ing.

To call it iconic is an understatement. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre film is the movie against which rural slashers are judged: even though it was released nearly fifty years ago, it still stands up as one of the most profoundly unsettling, genuinely disturbing, and totally twisted slashers ever made. If you can match TCM in terms of either quality or extremity, you’re doing something right, and the film became an instant success, the 12th-highest grossing film of 1974 (probably, in part, due to the fact it was falsely promoted as a “true story”). It was horror not just as shock, but as commentary – on the annexation of rural Americans, how twisted the nature of the family can become, and, most importantly, how scary it is to have some big fella swinging a chainsaw at you.

So it seemed inevitable that it would spring more from the well. But what’s interesting about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, I think, is how often the sequels have strayed from the tone of the original. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (which is credited with bringing horror legend and my own personal fantasy fiance Bill Moseley into the mainstream as the villainous Choptop), which was written by the originator Tobe Hooper, is straight-up more a parody of the original than it is a sequel. Featuring Dennis Hopper (the scariest of the lot, in real life) as a cop searching for the truth of his niece and nephew’s unfortunate murders in the first movie, it’s a downright stage-whisper wink down the camera: the terrifying cook from the first movie winning a chili cook-off with his human meat stew and everything. Bill Mosely landed his role here thanks to Hooper spotting him in a parody flick, for goodness sake. To call it ridiculous is an understatement – to call it brilliant, or even good, would be an overstatement, in my opinion.

But it’s certainly interesting that the franchise took such a sharp turn into the silly, especially at the hands of its original creator, and the couple of sequels that pock-marked the nineties continued this trend. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was cut down from its original form to allow for wide theatrical release, and generally labelled an entertaining but pretty crap entry into the canon. While the fourth movie, subtitled The Next Generation, is notable for starring both Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey in early and less-than-stellar roles, it’s also a pretty generic nineties prom-night slasher with little to impress as part of the wider franchise, despite some interpretations of it as an attempt to lean into the self-referential horror of the time. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Proper might be seen as one of the more serious and far less silly horror originators of the seventies and eighties, but what it spawned in the immediate sequels was almost entirely and specifically daft.

Of course, come the noughties, and most of the classic horror nasties were being remade in dead-serious, washed-out sepia with teen heartthrobs a-plenty and a distinct lack of any sense of fun. Texas Chainsaw was not free from this fate, with Michael Bay helming the reboot of the franchise with a 2003 remake. To be fair, I don’t think any of the remakes from this era are particularly good (the best, for what it’s worth, is probably Nightmare on Elm Street’s noble attempt to try something genuinely and earnestly different and interesting), but Texas Chainsaw is at the bottom of the barrel. Power-washed with blood and guts, the actual grit and grime of the original are worn off in this far-too-stylised retelling, a fundamental missing of the point that replaces the nuance of Leatherface (and yes, that’s not a sentence you’ll see written often) with as much shock value as humanly possible.

Predictably, it earned a sequel – or rather, a prequel, following the inception and invention of Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which is so stinkingly, screamingly dreadful I can’t imagine anyone has actually bothered to sit through it. In 2013, an attempt to cash-in on the 3D trend saw a weak-ass attempt at another reboot, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the franchise managed to turn out something genuinely interesting again.

Here’s a hot take: Leatherface is actually pretty good. Leatherface as a character is, for me, what’s always been the most interesting part of this franchise, and I feel like directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo understand that. An origin story for a character like this is often a risky move, serving to do little more than undermine whatever mystique they might have had, but by including the broader cannibal clan (and an especially formidable Lili Taylor as the matriarch), it leans towards exploration rather than an entire and complete excavation. Stephen Dorff, as the cop after the family, provides some focus, and the whole thing feels closer to the original than anything that’s come before it. And proves, most importantly, that this franchise can take itself seriously – as long as it has the effort and quality to back it up.

Which brings us to now: the 2022 requel is due out on Friday, and right now, it looks like it’s going to hit all those questionable requel beats: a returning final girl from the original (Sally Hardesty, recast after the passing of original actress Marilyn Burns), a hot new spin on the story (with influencers instead of hapless road-tripping teens), and horror veteran and Evil Dead reboot director Fede Alvarez at the helm. The question is – will it be able to capture the original’s dense, unsettling tone? And if not, is it going to opt for the sillier take of the original batch of sequels? All we can hope is that it avoids the straight-up mess of the first reboots of this century – and that it brings the brilliance of what Leatherface can be to a new audience.

Check back here later this week for our review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)! If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it, check out the rest of our Franchise Fanatic series right here, and please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!

By Lou MacGregor

(header image via Texas Montly)

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