These Massacres Could Have Been Avoided By Mike Malloy. Nineteen seventy-four’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a gory film. Really, it’s not. In fact, it’s not even a very bloody film...
Nineteen seventy-four’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a gory film. Really, it’s not. In fact, it’s not even a very bloody film. And while Cashiers du Cinemart readers may understand this fully, just try impressing this point upon someone who hasn’t seen the movie.
So why does TCM, a film seemingly known by everyone, suffer such a false reputation? Could it be that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was made as a landmark, milestone, groundbreaking, watershed horror film... only to have its reputation re-written by three needless sequels (1986, 1990, 1997) and an equally unnecessary parallel series (2003, 2006)?
Whatever the reason, it is a cold, hard fact that TCM is misunderstood. Hell, just ask an actor – remaining anonymous here – who auditioned for the part of hulking chainsaw murderer Leatherface in the 2003 remake.
"The main thing [the producers] kept talking about was: ’It wasn’t going to be gory like the original.’ And it made you wonder if they had truly seen the original!"
And after Tobe Hooper, director of the original TCM attended a 2003 Hollywood screening of his 1974 film, he joked, "It wasn’t nearly as gory as I had heard."
So if not a bloody gore film, what is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? It’s a powerful film about violence, largely transcendent of the horror genre.
Oh sure, it works on a horror-film level. Viewers bite their nails while watching Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) escape the clutches of the backwoods clan that killed and butchered her brother and friends.
But the true, deep horror to be derived from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre comes not from chainsaw killings or chases through the dark Texas woods. It comes from the film’s realistic look at a very depraved, degenerate extreme of human existence.
As with 1972’s Deliverance and the pawn shop scene in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre reminds us that some really sick shit goes on behind closed doors when no one is looking.
So how did the later films of the TCM series go so far astray from the important vision of the original? A look at the six films (often mistakenly called a "franchise" – the films were made by four different companies) reveals that little care was taken in maintaining the tone of the original, in securing the return of original actors, and in preserving the overarching story continuity.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974 (TCM)
"TCM was a ’docu-drama,’" says one of the film’s stars, Edwin Neal. "Lots of people thought we had used stock footage from police archives. Do you get that sense from the others?"
In this simple statement, Neal hammers it on the head. The original TCM, doubtless shaped by Tobe Hooper’s background in documentary filmmaking, has been described as a film about killings so realistic it can almost be mistaken as snuff. But even snuff and documentaries are filmed with an audience in mind, and the audience is conscious of this. Hooper’s TCM skillfully erases viewers’ awareness of the filmmaker-audience relationship, putting the viewer in the thick of the terror.
We are "there" when Sally and her friends – Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), Jerry (Allen Danziger), and Franklin (Paul Partain) – run afoul of the depraved cannibalistic Texas clan – Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the Hitchhiker (Neal), the Cook (Jim Siedow), and Grandpa (John Dugan). We are watching from the screen door – too scared to go in – as Kirk is beat over the head with a mallet and dragged to the slaughter. We peer into the kitchen just long enough to see Leatherface sawing up a victim’s body (Oh, heavens that must be Kirk’s body! It’s hard to tell! His face is obscured by a meat grinder in the foreground!).
The only shots that take the viewer out of the documentary feel are the extreme close-ups of Sally’s eyeballs during the dinner scene. Those shots, while squirm-inducing, break the doc feel with camera work that calls attention to itself.
And it wasn’t just the unobtrusive camera work that made TCM a piece of high horror realism. The intense, hazardous working conditions also contributed to the sense of actual danger. In Brad Shellady’s documentary Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Family Portrait, Edwin Neal and Jim Siedow talk about violence that was more real than staged. Siedow apparently beat Marilyn Burns until she fainted, and Neal said he felt his skull cracking during a scene in which he was beaten with a hardwood stick. Also in Family Portrait, Gunnar Hansen talks about covering his head for dear life as he blindly waits for a flying chainsaw to land. And there was the insanity-inducing, now-legendary marathon 26-hour shoot of the dinner scene.
Also integral to the film’s realism is the entirely plausible, credible living arrangement of the villains. Leatherface and his family are, for the most part, cut off from regular society. They live primitively. But unlike the unrealistic backwoods characters in such Deliverance knock-offs as Backwoods and Hunter’s Blood, the TCM clan are not part of some lost, forgotten-by-time pocket of civilization. They have an electric generator. The Hitchhiker has worked in a slaughterhouse. The Cook works in a filling station/barbecue shack.
It seems entirely plausible that, as late as 1974, rural peoples could be living on the outermost fringes of society, committing unspeakable atrocities undetected.
Sometimes TCM is mistakenly credited with giving birth to the "teens vs. slasher" cycle of films, which had its heyday in the early ’80s with such films as Friday the 13th and Prom Night. But, despite the fact that the film’s opening narration notes that the victims were "youths," the teenagedness of the characters is not played up and seems to be of little relevance. Sure, one of the girls is wearing short shorts, but that’s appropriate to the era. And unlike the ’80s teen horror films, the protags of TCM are not on teenage business. They are not out on prom night. They are not having a slumber party. They are not babysitting. They are engaged in perfectly adult business: discovering whether their grandfather’s grave was molested.
But were they intentional, all these elements that contributed to TCM’s realism, timelessness and greatness? Perhaps not. Dugan reports in A Family Portrait that Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel wanted to work in some cheap sexploitation by having Marilyn Burns’s shirt ripped off. And Hooper has repeatedly bemoaned that audiences didn’t find TCM to be as funny as he intended it to be. Maybe, then, the film is partly a happy accident of filmmaking.
Released in late 1974, TCM became the third highest-grossing film of 1975.
Sadly, most of the performers received only paltry remuneration from the profits, despite their endurance of long hours and physical pain. They would suffer more disrespect when being considered for roles in the sequels.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, 1986 (TCM2)
"When I first met Tobe," relates TCM2 star Bill Moseley, "He stunned me by telling me that he thought the original was very funny, it was a comedy. And I didn’t think there was anything funny about it."
And while Moseley is right – the 1974 TCM should not be viewed as a boffo film – he too had been able to find the original as a source of humor. Moseley was discovered and cast in the sequel because he had spoofed the Hitchhiker character in an early-’80s short-film parody entitled The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. In fact, Moseley had also written Chainsaw Manicure.
With a director lamenting that the humor in TCM went unappreciated, and with a principal actor who was cast because he had parodied the original, there was little chance that 1986’s TCM2 would try to capture the raw, dead-serious power of the original.
But Hooper did make attempts to maintain some continuity with the first film. The director was wrapping up a three-picture deal with Cannon Films, and although Hooper was originally meant only to produce a TCM sequel for Cannon, he ended up at the helm. The director tried to cast the stars of the original, but Cannon was only able to offer union scale (minimum wage, in studio film terms). Edwin Neal was reportedly holding out for 2½-3 times scale, and Gunnar Hansen has often said he merely wanted some payment above and beyond scale. Only Jim Siedow returned to reprise his role of The Cook.
If Neal had been cast in TCM2, would he have played the Hitchhiker, who appears to have been flattened by a tractor-trailer at the end of the 1974 film? Or would he have played Chop Top, the very Hitchhiker-esque character that Moseley would go on to embody?
"My recollection is that it was to be simply an extension of the Hitchhiker," says Neal. "And only later when I wasn’t cast... was it rewritten and Chop Top was born from the ashes."
As it is implied in the sequel (and apparently stated more expressly in one of the film’s deleted scenes), there is a good reason why Chop Top is similar in manner and appearance to the Hitchhiker.
"Chop Top is the Hitchhiker’s twin brother," says Moseley. "And I was off fighting in Vietnam while the Hitchhiker was getting run over by that semi."
Despite efforts on Hooper’s part to maintain the series continuity, TCM2 has little to do with the original. Drastically different in tone, the sequel plays like a repulsively gory cartoon.
Picking up the story of the cannibalistic central-Texas clan 13 years later, TCM2 finds that Leatherface and Co. – dubbed "the Sawyers" in this outing (Get it? The SAWyers. Haw haw haw) – have moved from their remote, rural location to an abandoned theme park, "Texas Battle Land." Armed with a shiny new pick-up truck, car phones, and knowledge of pop culture (at least enough to crack Rambo III jokes), the cannibals are sawing their way through Utah football fans, winning chili cook-offs, and terrorizing a local disc jockey. Oh, and there’s a 137-year-old Grandpa.
The protagonists are given such names as Stretch and Lefty, the latter played by Dennis Hopper in an over-sized cowboy hat. (In one small bit of continuity, Hopper’s character is the revenge-seeking uncle of Paul Partain’s ill-fated Franklin character from the original film.)
But whatever its failings, at least Hooper’s second TCM film has an effect on the viewer, even if it is to repulse and haunt the viewer with the gratuitous gore and the nightmarish underground lair. While Hooper’s TCM2 makes an impression, future installments have trouble even making that claim.
Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, 1990 (TCM3)
"The only continuity is the sound of a chainsaw," says director Jeff Burr, regarding his TCM entry, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Burr’s film did not involve Tobe Hooper in any way, was not filmed in Texas, did not see any returning cast from the original, and featured very few returning characters.
Burr says he was forbidden by the studio, New Line, to contact Hooper.
"They said it was some contractual thing where I couldn’t talk to him – which... could be B.S."
And although Kim Henkel is credited as Creative Consultant, Burr says his contributions were negligible, if any.
"Kim Henkel was initially going to be some kind of consultant on it, and he still retains that credit in the movie. But I literally didn’t meet him. He was never on the set or anything." Burr says it was a "difference in opinion" of Henkel versus New Line producer Mike DeLuca and screenwriter David Schow as to what kind of film to make.
Understand, TCM3 was not so much meant to be a continuation of the existing TCM series as it was meant to be the beginning of New Line’s new TCM franchise. New Line was doing well with their Nightmare on Elm Street series, and the slasher films were just coming off their profitable heyday.
There are plenty of signs pointing to the fact that TCM3 was meant to make the Leatherface character into a new screen slashing superstar, a la Freddy or Jason. In fact, the film’s full title – Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III – bears the character’s name out front.
"The first script I read was [titled] ’Leatherface,’" says Burr. "No question in mind that it was very consciously done. Which is strange because Leatherface doesn’t have a heck of a lot of screen time in the movie."
"They had no definite time[table]," says actor R.A. Mihailoff, who played the title role in TCM3. "But I had a contract option that spelled out my compensation for two more sequels, and I had been given the impression that it was going to be a franchise. All this led me to believe that there would be more pictures coming, which I was absolutely ready to do."
At the time of our interview, Mihailoff said of the Leatherface character, "I truly intended – and still hold out hope – to be the first one to play the role twice." (Sadly, the nice-guy actor did not get his wish, as Andrew Bryniarski accomplished that feat with appearances in the 2003 and 2006 films.)
Although Burr says he intended to return to the mean-spirited nastiness of the original, he was a last-minute hire and says New Line only wanted him to do a "workmanlike" job shooting Schow’s script.
"I got hired two and a half weeks before we started shooting. In those two and a half weeks, I was casting – none of the movie had been cast – I was supervising the building of the sets that were still being built, I was storyboarding the whole movie as much as I could, and hiring the crew. Almost every decision was on a pragmatic level, not a conceptual level."
And so Burr didn’t try to re-write the script, which inexplicably puts Leatherface together with a new backwoods clan.
"That’s one of the first questions I asked Dave Schow. Who is this family? And he really didn’t have a definitive answer that satisfied me. Who is this fucking family? I don’t know. Basically, what it was was just a bunch of like-minded people that kind of gravitated toward each other."
"They just fell together in some kind of family group by circumstance, by a common interest," echoes Mihailoff.
"A more interesting movie would have been: How did these people get together?" notes Burr.
Burr’s film was watered down by cuts from both New Line and the MPAA ("it was re-submitted 14 times to the ratings board....and we missed the released date because of this, which is almost unheard of"). And the film’s ending was re-shot by another director.
"The film was never a masterpiece, never a brilliant movie at all," says Burr. "But there was a moment where it was actually a pretty darn good – for what it was – horror sequel. And certainly it could be compared favorably to, like, a Friday the 13th sequel, or whatever."
But a "pretty darn good horror sequel" is still not a worthy follow up to the original TCM.
TCM3 features elaborate, Most Dangerous Game-style mantraps in the woods that just don’t seem consistent with the clan’s crude style, which in the first film consists of beat-them-over-the-head-with-a-mallet-and-drag-their-convulsing-bodies-to-the-slaughter methods.
And the film takes pretty Hollywood actors like Viggo Mortensen, puts them in overalls, rubs soot on their faces, and expects viewers to believe these are degenerate backwoodsmen.
Perhaps the single neatest moment in the film is Caroline Williams’s six-second, unbilled, wordless cameo. As fans may remember, her disc jockey character survived the gruesome events of TMC2, and in TCM3, she is a TV reporter, still on the fiend’s trail.
The film opened 11th at the box office. New Line did not care to make a TCM4.
So as the third entry in the existing series, TCM3 doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps had it spawned its own horror franchise it would have fit better in that context.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1997) (TCM:TNG)
At the very least, Kim Henkel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation brought the series back to Texas.
"I had heard about it," says Mihailoff of the fourth film’s production, which used The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a shooting title. "I heard they were going to do it in Texas, non-union. And I didn’t want to step out from behind the aegis of the Screen Actors Guild."
It’s uncertain whether Mihailoff was ever considered for reprising his Leatherface role in the fourth TCM, but Hansen says in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth that he had again been offered the part. Again, for money reasons, his casting as Leatherface fell through. Similarly, Henkel was unable to secure the return of original cast members Siedow and Neal, although Neal said he did come in and read for a part.
"Again, I suspect that money and the coke budget came into play," jokes Neal about why they couldn’t afford to hire him. "Those two on theatrical projects have historically been difficult to reconcile."
Henkel, who was following up his screenwriting of the 1974 original by both writing and directing part four, made sure to get some of the classic cast to return, if only in cameos; John Dugan, Marilyn Burns, and Paul Partain all turn up at the end for just a brief moment.
But Leatherface and fam are played by series newcomers, including late Austin musician Robert Jacks as a mullet-coifed Leatherface and a pre-stardom Matthew McConaughey as the homicidal madman, Vilmer (the star of the film, really). A then-undiscovered Renee Zellweger played the heroine.
Despite the fact that Next Generation is not a numbered sequel, the film is also not a remake. It is set after TCM3, and the opening title card and narration acknowledge both the events of the original ("news of bizarre chainsaw wielding family") and of the two sequels (which are dissed as "minor, yet apparently related incidents").
And while not a remake, so many moments from the original occur in TCM:TNG that it is perhaps best described as a reworking of the elements from the original (much as Brian De Palma lifted a shower scene and a cross-dressing killer from Hitchcock’s Psycho and reworked them into an entirely different story, Dressed to Kill). The meat hook, the flashbulbs, the chainsaw dance and "Look what your brother did to the door!" from the 1974 Chainsaw all re-appear here.
And while there is much to dislike here (including a camped-up Leatherface, a gratuitous tit shot, a remote-controlled robo-leg, and a European business associate), the production and art design are really pretty good. The Texas farmhouse is not only decrepit; it is also messy as hell – junked up with human remains, pizza slices, hardware and blank keys.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2003 (TCM2003)
A single story perfectly illustrates the wrongheaded approach taken by the filmmakers responsible for the 2003 remake.
According to the self-important 76-minute documentary Chainsaw Redux: Making a Massacre, the Texas farmhouse used in TCM2003 had to be treated for mold before they shot at that location.
Can you imagine how long these prissy filmmakers would have lasted during the marathon 26-hour dinner shoot in the 1974 original? Would they have been able to stand the smell of rotting meat cooking under the hot lights and sweltering Texas heat, with crew members running outside to projectile vomit? Not likely.
So the remake missed out on the very real insanity and intensity that translate from crazy production methods.
And several frames of the finished 2003 film prove just how poor director Marcus Nispel’s note taking was. Did he miss the fact that the ’74 original has been repeatedly lauded for its suggestive meat hook scene, which skillfully implies the meat hook penetrating Pam’s back without actually depicting it?
He must have, because in the 2003 version there it is, plain as day: the meat hook penetrating the back of Andy (Mike Vogel).
In fact, the 2003 New Line remake of TCM missed the point on a number of counts, further proving that today’s filmmakers just don’t get it.
Whereas the 1974 original had locations and characters that were realistically bedraggled and dingy, the remake, subscribing to today’s filmmaking style of perpetual ante-upping, didn’t have a single surface in the whole film that wasn’t covered with blood, slime, brain matter, or other filth. If TCM3 was guilty of being too clean, the remake was guilty of being too scum-covered.
Scum-covered, yes, except for the protagonistic group of young stars and starlets. What a beautiful lot. There’s no room for a fat, invalid Franklin amongst the protags in this film, no sir. And predictably, it is the jiggliest, juggliest member of the group – Erin (Jessica Biel) – who lives to be the film’s final girl.
But Erin doesn’t just live to escape, movie over. That would be too realistic for a Hollywood product. In order to appease modern audiences’ blood lust and Buffy-esque girl power ideas, the Jessica Biel heroine lives not only to escape, but to hack Leatherface’s arm off with a meat cleaver and to repeatedly run over the evil sheriff with his own patrol car.
But what else would you expect from a film so sorry it had to buy off influential internet film critic Harry Knowles with a disembodied cameo?
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) (TCM:TB)
It’s almost pointless to review The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in the context of the TCM series, as it is much more a product of new-millennium Horror Remake Mania than anything else. By the time this "remake prequel" was made, the process of producing horror re-treads had been reduced to an artless science. The hit Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), for instance, featured Johnny Cash warbling a country song over scenes of doom in the opening credits, and so predictably, the 2006 Hills Have Eyes remake had Webb Pierce warbling a country tune over scenes of doom in the opening credits. Similarly, whereas we’re introduced to the TCM2003 protagonists under the familiar classic-rock guitar riff of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Sweet Home Alabama," we’re introduced to the Beginning protagonists under the familiar classic-guitar riff of Free’s "All Right Now." This type of filmmaking has been boiled down to pure formula.
With all due respect to Jeff Burr’s idea that an origin story would be intriguing (and with all due respect to an origin script that Mihailoff apparently wrote in the ’90s), such a prequel is, in fact, a dubious idea for the TCM concept, as it means spending a majority of time with the family; this premise works best when you only see the villains through the eyes of the unsuspecting protagonists.
That said, if you plow ahead with the origin idea (and assuming you want to horrify the way the ’74 film did), you must make the tone as realistic as possible. TCM:TB’s idea of the family resorting to cannibalism out of financial destitution (the local slaughterhouse closed its doors) is a serviceable one. But instead of showing a family becoming gradually hardened and sociopathic by survival necessities, the story plops all the characters in a surrealistic world of pure cruelty, where everybody is crass, disgusting, callous and self-motivated. The abattoir supervisor stands by impassively while Leatherface’s mom goes into painful labor on the slaughterhouse floor. The outgoing sheriff makes small talk about massaging horse innards to bring the beasts to sexual climax. This sort of bizarre, cruel universe may work fine for stylized genres like the Spaghetti Western. But the effectiveness of the original TCM (and what should have been the point of the entire series) was based on "terrifying because it could really happen."
In the TCM:TB’s DVD audio commentary, the filmmakers effectively eschew the essence of the 1974 original by making it clear their film has no interest in the implied violence of Tobe Hooper’s movie. There is repeated commentary discussion about envelope pushing, and apparently, the on-set mantra was "more is more."
All that remains is a return to voice-over duties from original narrator John Larroquette, a re-use of the iconic tuning-fork noise, and a couple of shots during the dinner scene (yes, this film has one too) that were meant to reference Hooper’s compositions and framings. But at this late date, the series has no spiritual connections to its origins – which is somewhat ironic for an origin movie.
Time, history, sequels, a remake and a remake prequel have re-written the reputation of the original. And it ain’t over yet. At the time of this writing, a new TCM sequel – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D – is set for a 2012 release. The proposed gimmick of this sequel – besides the one obvious from the title – is that it jumps back to the 1974 film, picks up the story, ignores all the sequels, and then jumps ahead 35 years.
But for horror fans who know and care, there will only be one worthwhile TCM.
"I get to go to the conventions, celebrity golf, haunted houses, fan gatherings at nifty gated homes all over the country," says Edwin Neal. "I get taken to dinner by fans. And it will be me deliriously happy at the tremendous good fortune of getting to sit at a table and write my name on pieces of paper and photographs for $20 a pop instead of having to work for a living – and hear over and over and over, ’What the fuck were they thinking?’"
"The best part is, I never have to say anything. My defense for years has been mounted by the public, and I haven’t had to spend a dime on lawyers! Life is good."
Perhaps director Jeff Burr, though not involved in any way with the ’74 original, has the best understanding of TCM’s success, as it derived from both pure serendipity and a maverick filmmaking method that makes studio films pale in comparison.
"(The Texas) Chain Saw Massacre, for what it is and what it intended to do and what it does, it is almost a perfect movie. You cannot hope to attain that kind of thing again, because it was an accident. It was alchemy. Literally because of the people involved, the heat in Texas that summer."
"It’s not just nostalgia. It’s craft, it’s commitment. That film is a seminal independent movie. Forget ’horror film.’ It’s a seminal independent American movie. And it was made with incredible care and craft and insanity. And commitment. And that’s what you don’t get [these days]."
"To make a really truly groundbreaking or breakthrough horror film, it’s got to be made outside the system. Because New Line ain’t going to make that movie. Like primitive folk art, outsider art. Dimension’s not going to make that movie. New Line’s not going to make that movie."
And there you have it.
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