By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Renee Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, and Robert Jacks
Directed by Kim Henkel
Written by Kim Henkel
It seems that no one has ever quite known what to do with Leatherface. From his first mallet-swinging, door-slamming, meat-hooking moments onscreen in Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), he was an icon, yet no characterization since has been able to capture the same compelling mix of endearing simple-mindedness and brute force that Gunnar Hansen brought to the role. Hooper wisely didn’t even try to with his follow up, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 (1986): A funhouse mirror reflection of the earlier film, with the previously sexless Leatherface portrayed as a horny lout, played by Bill Johnson with the idiosyncratic physicality of a silent film comedian. A big downswing began with LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1990) a film released by New Line who had been licensed the character to build a franchise upon–a la Freddy, Jason, and Chucky–but the film came a little too late and missed the slasher boom boat entirely by quite a few years. The early-aughts saw two attempts by those purveyors of mud-hued rehashes at Platinum Dunes to revitalize the character (one of which proved to be the most financially successful film in the entire franchise. quality notwithstanding) and in 2013, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D made the dire error of rebranding Leatherface as some sort of anti-hero. A full four years later, that film’s follow-up, simply titled LEATHERFACE, premiered on VOD–a boring, boorish origin story and the latest insult to fans of the titular character and his murderous clan.
In the midst of all this bland ineptitude sits one film that towers above the others (nay, above most “bad” films) in its awfulness, looming, to borrow a quote from Peter Brook on King Lear, like “a mountain whose summit has never been reached, the way up strewn with the shattered bodies of earlier visitors.” This movie, which Nostradamus may very well have predicted as a harbinger of the end of days, is 1995’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION.
Conceived and directed by Kim Henkel, co-writer of the original film, as a return to form (though, some claim it was actually intended as a middle-finger to fickle fans…or is some sort of unheralded precursor to 2011’s CABIN IN THE WOODS…but that way lies madness), the third sequel was shot under the title THE RETURN OF THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and was first screened in 1995 before a two-year shelving. In 1997, after its leads Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey became bankable stars, it was re-cut and released under its new title, proving a critical and commercial failure. USA Today called it,”The kind of cinematic endeavor where you suspect both cast and crew were obligated to bring their own beer,” while Entertainment Weekly stated that the film “recapitulates the absurdist tabloid-redneck comedy of the great, original without a hint of its primal terror.”The Daily Herald put it most accurately with, “a massacre might be less painful.”
The plot (such as it is) follows a couple, Heather (Lisa Newmyer) and Barry (Tyler Cone), who ditch their senior prom with friends Jenny (Zellweger) and Sean (John Harrison) in tow, only to find themselves waylaid on a country road by an automotive accident. After coming upon a real estate office run by the flash-happy Darla (Tonie Perenski), she sics her maniacal, tow-truck driver boyfriend, Vilmer (McConaughey) on the teens. Eventually, the group finds themselves at the infamous Sawyer family farmhouse, where they’re tortured by Vilmer, Darla, the pseudo-intellectual W.E. (Joe Stevens) and a wailing Leatherface (Robert Jacks).
Going into the film blind for the first time, my hopes for a fat slice of “so-bad-its-good” cinema were dashed faster than the roughly 2.5 seconds it took Zellweger and McConaughey’s legal teams to scrub any proof that they had been part of this country-fried crapfest from this release’s cover art…
Where does one begin with the almost innumerable assaults Henkel commits against his audience and the TCM name? The seemingly Martian-penned “teenspeak”, with its abundance of jokes about “prostrate” cancer? The conversion of Leatherface into a wailing idiot, who first appears in what looks like a WWE fan’s last-minute Mick Foley costume, then later emerges for the finale looking like a beefy, putty-faced Joan Crawford? How it borrows, beat-for-beat, from the original film’s structure but doesn’t have a single scare in it? The face-licking? Vilmer’s remote-controlled robot leg? The utter lack of purpose or tension? It’s all just too much!
All of these things are damn near unforgivable, but worst of all has to be McConaughey, who hoots and howls his way through the mid-film torture of Zellweger with such brio that it becomes something like misogynistic performance art. Nothing Marilyn Burns had to suffer in 1974 nears the humiliations Zellwegger faces as she’s cattle-prodded, smacked, and spit-upon by Vilmer for what feels like eons. This is all played for big laughs that never come, which is discomfiting to the viewer who is made party to a cruel, one-note joke that just isn’t all that funny. All told, however, Zellweger seems relatively unphased–even irritated–that she’s in this movie at all, and by the time her character tells the bawling Leatherface to “sit the fuck down and shut up,” she’s giving voice to the audience, who, by that point, is utterly tired of the Sawyer family and their shit despite having at least a half hour more of pathetic hellbilly pratfalls to endure.
Shout! Factory’s special edition release of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION comes with an HD theatrical cut and Henkel’s “director’s cut’” which is the same film with standard definition inserts. These inserts mostly give more screen-time to the Illuminati subplot, but it does next to nothing to improve what’s already there. The HD image is fine, and likely the best Henkel’s low budget feature will ever look. There are some dips in visual fidelity, but at the end of the day, it’s really just an ugly movie, and no amount of spit-shining can fix that. On the special features front, included are interviews with Director of Photography Levie Isaacks, aforementioned cast-member Tyler Cone, Special Makeup Effects Artist J.M. Logan, and Production Designer Deborah Pastor. These are interesting enough, but more so because of the information the viewer gets about the interconnectedness of the small, but mighty Austin, Texas film scene in the early 90s. The director’s cut also includes a commentary with Henkel, moderated by Fangoria’s Phil Nobile Jr., Joe Stevens, Brian Huberman, which is solely informational for those who happen to care just what went on behind the scenes of this cinematic abortion.
I know I’ve been rough on TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, but god knows it has its fans in the deepest, darkest corners of the blogosphere (they must hate themselves more than I possibly could) and Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition should be everything they could ask for. The joy of the age of the boutique Blu-ray label is that so many unsung gems that never got a fair shake are being rediscovered and warmly embraced by the cinephile community. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION is the opposite side of that coin, a film so incompetent and crass that a campaign to retroactively strike Henkel’s name from any public record of him having been involved in the original’s conception would surely be met with warm praise if it were released in today’s internet climate. Nevertheless, this nostalgia-drunk era has a way of turning even the closest thing to literal shit something can be without being the real deal into shinola, and Shout! Factory has brought their usual flair and professionalism to this release. This is a must-buy for fans, a hard pass for everyone else.