Way, way back in 1974 a horror movie came along quite like anything else around at the time. It was shocking, brutal, cleverly done and audiences were even fooled into thinking it was real (some people still think, to this day, that it’s a film of a true story when it’s actually inspired by the bizarre and disturbing crimes of Ed Gein). Yes, it’s fair to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre caused quite a hullaballoo when it was first released. Here in the UK, it wasn’t passed uncut until 25 years later. Which is why it makes a perfect movie to watch on the run up to Halloween. You could also watch one of the three sequels. Or the fantastic 2003 remake. Or the prequel to the remake. Just make sure that you’re up to speed before 2012 sees a new instalment arriving, complete with 3D spit and polish. Who would have thought, all those years ago, that the movie would spawn such an enduring legacy of fact, fiction and variable movie moments.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
There are a number of words that are often, rightfully, used whenever a review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is written. Raw is one of them. Relentless is another. Disturbing is often thrown in there. And influential.
It’s not for me to always go over the same old ground you can find covered in any number of horror articles, reviews, essays and books so I will just say that I agree with the use of all those words and completely admire this movie for the growling, intense beast that it remains to this day.
While it has it’s unavoidable flaws it’s also all, ironically, all the better for them. A handful of actors who can’t act all that well? It just makes it a little easier to watch them in jeopardy (especially Franklin, arguably the most annoying wheelchair-bound character ever to be on screen). No money for the spit and polish that so many other movies manage? Well, just keep everything extra down and dirty, turning it’s rough and raw energy into a major plus.
The plot doesn’t really need relating, it’s your basic kids get put in peril situation, so all you need to know is that Tobe Hooper’s greatest work still has power in it’s every frame. The revving of the chainsaw, the first appearance of “Leatherface”, the bizarre scene set around the dinner table, the implied nastiness that you don’t actually see, it’s all just as affecting and horrific now as it was back then. Well . . . . . almost. Of course many people will watch this now to challenge themselves and come away happily saying that they weren’t scared but watch it without setting yourself a test of courage, let yourself be sucked in to the mad visual and audio assault that the film provides and I think you can still feel some residue of the impact it has made on so many people over the years. A genre classic. It’s a shame that Hooper never really came close to anything like this again in his career.
DIRECTOR: TOBE HOOPER
STARS: MARILYN BURNS, EDWIN NEAL, GUNNAR HANSEN, PAUL A. PARTAIN, JIM SIEDOW
RUNTIME: 83 MINS APPROX
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
After a gap of many years, Tobe Hooper returned with another instalment featuring the family from Texas that knows just how to make their special meat dishes extra special.
A lengthy, narrated opening crawl informs the audience that Leatherface and co. were never found by police after the events of the first movie and that rumours persist of their activities throughout the state. Such rumours lead to the appearance of ‘Lefty’ Enright (Dennis Hopper), a lieutenant who has never stopped searching for his missing nephew, Franklin. The lieutenant gains an ally in the form of a young DJ named ‘Stretch’ (Caroline Williams), who believes that she was on the phone with two young men when they were killed by a chainsaw-wielding maniac. To flush them out, she agrees to replay the phone conversation over the airwaves, putting herself in serious danger in the process. But ‘Lefty’ is going to do his level best to keep her safe and punish the crazy family once and for all, even if he has to buy three new chainsaws to do so. Things could get messy.
The first time I saw this sequel, a few years ago now, I thought it was a terrible film. Dire in almost every respect. It’s amazing how opinions can change over time.
It’s no classic, and nowhere near the greatness of the original, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun in places and certainly raises the bar when it comes to chainsaw-related hijinks.
Where the movie falls down is in the constant use of humour. The first movie certainly had some dark, dark humour here and there but the sequel sees Hooper apparently trying to emulate the goofiness that Sam Raimi was able to get away with. This means that the killer family spend an annoying amount of time just toying with their intended victims and also leads to a few ridiculous scenes in which Leatherface (played this time by Bill Johnson) holds his chainsaw and uses it overtly as a buzzing phallus. Any way in which this might be deemed clever is undone by the unsubtlety of it all.
The second big downfall of the movie comes in the way it recreates a major set-piece from the first movie but just doesn’t do it half as well. It’s not a carbon copy, and fair play to Hooper for twisting the material slightly while repeating himself, but it’s close enough to warrant unflattering comparisons.
The script by L. M. Kit Carson throws in too many quirks and ramblings but also includes some inspired lunacy and a magnificent chainsaw duel that remains a highlight of the series.
As for the acting. Dennis Hopper is great value as a man obsessed with revenge, Caroline Williams makes a very good leading lady to root for, Bill Moseley makes quite an impression as ‘Chop-Top’, Jim Siedow is good fun as Drayton Sawyer and Bill Johnson whirls around his chainsaw with reckless abandon.
Judging by the other movies in Tobe Hooper’s filmography, it may be fair to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was as much a matter of luck as it was directorial skill but he does at least try to just go further and get more and more madness onscreen with his second attempt at showing that “the saw is family”.
DIRECTOR: TOBE HOOPER
STARS: DENNIS HOPPER, CAROLINE WILLIAMS, BILL MOSELEY, JIM SIEDOW, BILL JOHNSON
RUNTIME: 89 MINS APPROX (THOUGH DIFFERENT EDITS CAN BE FOUND OF UP TO 111 MINS)
Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)
Amazingly enough, despite many flaws throughout, this third instalment in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise improves on the second movie and stands up as a rip-roaring thriller that takes a step back from the comedy of the second movie.
Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) are driving across the country and find themselves running foul of the big man with the chainsaw and his latest family unit. Thankfully, they have the rough and tough Benny (Ken Foree) on their side after crashing into his car but the odds of survival dwindle fast when up against a whirring chainsaw.
The screenplay by David J. Schow takes the original movie as a springboard but then goes on to ignore many details from the previous two movies and sets up an all-new family unit to terrify those being pursued.
Director Jeff Burr does well with the material, overall. The violence is more often implied than seen (I suspect this is due to the many problems that the film had with censors at the time, leading the film-makers to err on the side of caution) but the atmosphere is impressively warped and dangerous throughout.
The cast all do quite well here. Kate Hodge makes for a sympathetic damsel in distress, William Butler is okay and Ken Foree is badass Ken Foree. There’s also an early onscreen turn from Viggo Mortensen, who does a fantastic job. Elsewhere, R. A. Mihailoff plays Leatherface and Joe Unger, Tom Everett, Miriam Byrd-Nethery and Jennifer Banko join in with the fun and all get right into the swing of things.
Going back to a more serious tone is, obviously, a brave move when considering how powerful the original movie remains but the film does well enough to warrant a fair amount of praise. There are one or two genre clichés throughout, and a feeling of de ja vu with the seemingly obligatory dinner table scene, but the movie still does a great job of blending the bizarre antics of the most dysfunctional family unit in America with genuine tension and thrills.
DIRECTOR: JEFF BURR
STARS: KATE HODGE, WILLIAM BUTLER, KEN FOREE, VIGGO MORTENSEN, R. A. MIHAILOFF, JOE UNGER, TOM EVERETT, MIRIAM BYRD-NETHERY, JENNIFER BANKO
RUNTIME: 85 MINS APPROX
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
I don’t get it, I just don’t get it. Anyone who complains about the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the low point of the franchise clearly hasn’t seen this instalment. Surely. Because I am struggling to think of anything polite to write here.
The plot sees four kids (one of them, Jenny, played by Renee Zellweger no matter how strenuously she may try to expunge it from her C.V.) wandering about the woods after crashing their car. It’s not long before they’re being terrorised by crazy folk who have a chainsaw-wielding Leatherface in their midst.
Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the story for the original movie, steps up to tackle both writing and directorial duties here. And fails miserably at both.
More of a black comedy than a disturbing horror movie, this film just keeps making one large mis-step after another until it destroys everything fans loved about the movies in the first place. You like seeing someone in peril? How about watching Renee Zellweger get put in peril. Then escape. Then get put in peril. Then escape again. Then get put in peril again. Repeat ad nauseum. A big fan of Leatherface (played this time by Robert Jacks)? Wait till you see him trying on the feminine side of his wardrobe and hopping around onscreen like some demented Ricki Lake with a chainsaw. Like the quirkiness and warped humour of the first three movies? Well, just wait to see how much can be piled up in this film with random moment after random moment lined up and no explanations for anything.
Zellweger does okay but the real highlight here is a wild and crazy turn from Matthew McConaughey (though I’m sure it’s not included in his showcase reel either). Tonie Perensky, Joe Stevens and Lisa Marie Newmyer also do okay but are hampered by a script that veers between the godawful and the just plain stupid.
There’s no skill shown in the technical department either though everything is competent, I suppose. Perhaps worst of all, this terrible movie also includes one of my biggest bugbears – the potential victim running ahead or behind an oncoming vehicle but staying on a road when the option to dive into the relative protection of sturdy trees is offered at either side. And that sums up the laziness and poor quality of this particular “buzzkill”.
DIRECTOR: KIM HENKEL
STARS: RENEE ZELLWEGER, MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY, TONIE PERENSKY, JOE STEVENS, LISA MARIE NEWMYER, ROBERT JACKS
RUNTIME: 95 MINS APPROX, UNCUT
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
The sonic boom that was heard around the world when it was announced that Michael Bay was producing a remake of one of the all-time favourite horror movies of all time was actually the sound of every horror fan on the planet fainting. Luckily, the end result proved to be a pleasant surprise.
Transposing many of the elements from the original movie (including audio cues and semi-familiar scenes), this film works so well because it turns into quite a different beast though shares the same feel of the original despite the time gap. Every frame feels grimy, dirty, bloodied and infectious. It’s unpleasant throughout yet balances this with some impressive, visceral shocks.
The basic plot is the same: kids in camper van get caught up in the hell that is being watched over by an insane family (one of whom happens to be pretty handy with his beloved chainsaw) and the tension and scares mount up to almost unrelenting levels.
Where this actually improves over the original is in the acting department. All of the characters are given just enough sketching to be effective and actually get you on their side, even though you’re aware of the forthcoming massacre (well, the clue is in the title and also in the enjoyable “doco-reel” that bookends the film). Jessica Biel makes for a gorgeous and strong female lead and, obviously, gets most of the attention when on screen but the rest of the younger crowd all do well. Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhesen, Mike Vogel and Eric Balfour all make enough of an impact to have you worrying about them when the chainsaw revs up. On the side of the baddies, R. Lee Ermey does a great job with his sadistic character and Andrew Bryniarski lends impressive physicality to the iconic role previously played by Gunnar Hansen. Every role is well-cast and well-acted.
The other main plus point for the movie is the look of the thing. Drained, dark, full of wood and earthy tones ready to be splattered with blood when things go horribly wrong. Then, of course, there are quite a few fan-pleasing shots of the titular chainsaw causing it’s devastation as doors and other barriers prove no obstacle to “Leatherface”.
Director Marcus Nispel must have been aware of the burden he was taking on with this movie and kudos to him for making a modern remake that handles the fine balance so well. Mixing some wince-inducing gore with moments of genuine tension, it’s a real powerhouse of a movie and something everyone involved with can be proud of. Does it fare better than the original? No, simply because that retains a raw power to this day that cannot be replicated. Is it a damn good modern horror? It certainly is.
DIRECTOR: MARCUS NISPEL
STARS: JESSICA BIEL, MIKE VOGEL, ERIC BALFOUR, R. LEE ERMEY, JONATHAN TUCKER, ERICA LEERHESEN, ANDREW BRYNIARSKI
RUNTIME: 98 MINS APPROX
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
A prequel to a remake of a classic horror movie was never going to be an easy sell and I agreed with everyone else who was disappointed when I first saw this movie. Repeat viewings, however, reveal that it holds up well and is quite solidly put together considering what it has to do. It’s got to entertain fans of the franchise and it has to get to a certain point leading in to the start of the 2003 movie. And it does both just fine.
Audiences this time around get to see the actual birth of Leatherface (also named Thomas Hewitt) and the moment he first reached for his beloved chainsaw. Meanwhile, a quartet of youngsters (Jordana Brewster, Taylor Handley, Diora Baird and Matt Bomer) are driving across country before the boys sign themselves up to head over to Vietnam. Fate, in the shape of a violent biker chick, intervenes and the kids find themselves thrown into the most terrifying situation of their lives.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a nasty movie. It keeps the same grimy quality as the 2003 movie, adds on another layer of putrescence and then just keeps piling on the pain and violence and masochism. But it does so with characters that you take an interest in, decent acting onscreen and a storyline that fans will watch with interest as they look out for various character developments.
Taylor Handley and Matt Bomer are just fine as the two brothers in peril, with the former being a young man reluctant to actually sign up to the army but unable to tell his brother. Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird are both beautiful women and always seem to do well with horror genre fare. R. Lee Ermey is as good as ever, bravely making himself look weaker and more like a standard old man at the beginning of the movie, before he finds his new role and grows into it. Andrew Bryniarski returs to wield the chainsaw and is still an imposing presence. Terrence Evans, Lee Tergesen, Marietta Marich and Kathy Lamkin all make quite an impression too.
Sheldon Turner’s screenplay hits all the right marks and Jonathan Liebesman directs competently but there are failings. The movie spends a bit too much time trying to show you “the man behind the mask”, there’s a feeling of de ja vu throughout because of similiarites to both the original classic movie and the remake and there are a couple of those eye-rollingly bad character choices that often plague the genre.
Still, it’s an enjoyable horror movie for those who don’t mind a bit of graphic gore onscreen and it’s a pretty good prequel.
DIRECTOR: JONATHAN LIEBESMAN
STARS: JORDANA BREWSTER, DIORA BAIRD, TAYLOR HANDLEY, MATT BOMER, R. LEE ERMEY, ANDREW BRYNIARSKI, TERRENCE EVANS, LEE TERGESEN
RUNTIME: 96 MINS APPROX
And there you have the story of the saw so far. Grab a few movies and rev up towards Halloween with a notorious classic.
Note: As with so many movies of this notoriety, there are numerous edits available. I have tried to list the runtime of the best available version, whenever possible, between the UK and USA discs on the market.
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