Saturday, December 7, 2019

A Brief History of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Franchise

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

Sequels and franchises are tricky business – but they have been a part of cinema history from its earliest days.  The year 1916 saw the release of a film entitled Fall of a Nation, a sequel to DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation released a year prior.  Generally speaking, Fall of a Nation is often credited with being the first sequel.

In the 1930s, serials like Zorro and Flash Gordon, with their episodic nature and cliff hanger endings were a way to ensure people returned to the theaters each week to see how Zorro and Flash managed to avoid death.  Side note – once these episodes were compiled into a single film, they ended up with run times even longer than The Irishman…if that is conceivable. Still, one could consider these serials the first franchises.  Additionally, by 1934, MGM had a hit on their hands with the Myrna Loy and William Powell fronted The Thin Man which also spawned a number of sequels (and each one is amazing in my ever so humble opinion).

By the time cinema got around to the James Bond franchise, things started to get a bit trickier, however. For instance, your actors change. Even if Sean Connery had decided to never leave the franchise and it continued to be a hit for many decades, would an 80-year-old James Bond be believable.  Would the last film just be his retirement party and/or funeral? So new actors, writers and directors migrate in and out of the franchise universe.  Each with their own take on the character. Not to mention, characters have to deal with the consequences of their actions in the previous film.  When those consequences painted everyone into a creative corner…bam, new James Bond and a new take on the character (sort of).  For instances, the opening of For Your Eyes Only serve to remind us and acknowledge the death of James’ wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so even though actors changed, continuity didn’t (yet).

One thing didn’t change – sequels still had to deal with possibly poor choices from the previous film and serve to right the course.  Example – 1985’s Nightmare on Elm Street 2, while successful, was not entirely beloved by Freddy fans initially, although time appears to have been kind to that film.  So, producers used the 1987 sequel Dream Warriors to bring back Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, as well as a number of more experienced actors to augment the tension and better resemble the feel of the initial film, while moving the franchise in a specific direction.  Another example is Friday the 13th –The entire franchise. it always felt to me like every other film in the franchise was in some way a course correction from the previous film based on the likes and dislikes of the franchise faithful (although I sometimes feel like the only person who liked Jason X).

Then something happened that changed everything – Halloween.

The first two Halloween films were very successful and generally liked by horror fans, especially continuing the Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis characters into the next film.  I don’t blame Halloween III for anything because it was a brilliant change and didn’t follow the Michael Meyers saga.  Hell, even 4 is enjoyable.  But, it looked like 5 and 6 had finally nailed close the Meyers coffin.  Mediocre returns and poor fan response seemed to have put an end to the franchise as well as the overly complicated and entirely ludicrous Curse of Thorn.  

So, what do you do when you’re standing on your creative tip toes in the painted corner?  You do what you can’t do in real life.  I don’t get a mulligan on the years 1987, 1994 or 2016. But, in 1998, 20 years after the release of the original Halloween, the decision was made to tell everyone that all the movies we’d watched afterward…never happened.  They were taking a mulligan and starting the sequels over with Halloween H20.  This would give the filmmakers a chance to ignore a thousand poor decisions with the story and set things right…which eventually gave us Halloween: Resurrection.  So, in five years, in spite of their mulligan, they still managed to ruin the Halloween franchise faster than the previous iteration. 

What do you do now?  The same thing.  Halloween got another mulligan and we were told, yet again, nothing since 1978 had happened.  During this time, Rob Zombie decided to really shit on Michael Meyers and turn him from the bogey man into …well, whatever that was – I’ve only been able to sit through the Zombie versions once…and I can watch Manos the Hands of Fate every weekend, so let that sink in.

You may be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?  I’m glad you asked.  

1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an amazing film. Like nothing that had come before it.  14 years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made a human the monster.  It probably wasn’t the first film to do that, but, prior it was a human exposed to radiation or a human transformed into a monster due to a dozen other forces.  But, in Psycho a generally normal looking person turned out to be a mad man. Now, maybe I’m way off to suggest that TCM wouldn’t exist without Psycho or maybe I’m not the first person to suggest it (I probably should do some research) but I think Hooper, being the student of film he was took that concept, added the horror he saw every night on the news and really drove the concept home. 

Less than a decade and a half later, Hooper contracted with the great Cannon Films for a three-picture deal which provided, the original TCM notwithstanding, my three favorite Hooper films.  The sequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre part 2 is a direct continuation of the original film.  Returning was Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer, the role he originated in the first film. Also, around, but mummified is Nubbins, the hitchhiker from the original picture.  And to continue the continuity, a Texas Ranger portrayed by the amazing and greatly missed Dennis Hopper is on the trail of the Sawyers hoping to find his nephew, Franklin Hardesty, the wheelchair bound brother of Sally from TCM.

Although I’ve read there is a gallows humor in parts of TCM, I guess I’ve never really picked up on it.  However, the humor is as thick as the horror in Hooper’s follow-up and serves as a distinct commentary on the decade of the 80s.  However, if filmmakers thought the 80s were the “Me Decade”, the 21st century has been exponentially worse (end of rant).

What followed were two less well received sequels. Although both Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation are known for showcasing the work of actors who would eventually become very well known.  In Jeff Burr’s generally okay Leatherface film released four years after Hooper’s sequel, Viggo Mortensen stars as Tex and Kim Henkel’s The Next Generation starred both Matthew McConaughey and RenĂ©e Zellweger.  I’m unsure, how or if Henkel’s film is actually a part of the original story as the names moves from Sawyer to Slaughter but it is an interesting film if for no other reason than the inclusion of an Illuminati or secret society subplot.  Wikipedia suggests the film is more a parody than continuation.

So, much like the Halloween franchise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre found itself at a creative crossroads. After the failure of Burr and Henkel’s films, was it time to simply shutter the franchise? Possibly – Hooper and Henkel moved on and it seemed like TCM had run its course.

However, in 2001, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, and Brad Fuller founded Platinum Dunes production company – a company geared exclusively towards the production of films in the Horror Genre… and their first slated film – a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The new film, released in October 2003, was, for all intents and purposes, a straight remake of the original. It offered a bit more insight into the family (now named Hewitt) and was significantly bloodier than Hooper’s original.  I’ve found that people usually believe the original TCM is much bloodier than it is, but, any episode of CSI or Bones is infinitely bloodier than the original TCM.  The remake seemed to believe that if you made the cast look sweaty, put the female cast members in short shorts and played Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio, the viewing audience will just accept the 70s motif.  Some did, but it didn’t work for me.  I did find the jump scare during the end credits impressive and I thought R. Lee Ermey’s work was even creepier than his performance in the Willard remake which had come out earlier in the year.  All in all, some parts of the film, directed by Marcus Nipsel worked…and some of it didn’t.  However, the film did earn back ten times its budget, which meant the Chainsaw still had some bite in it.  

The Wikipedia page for the remake provides a number of quotes from film critics, including the reliably obnoxious Roger Ebert, who managed over the course of his career to suck the joy out of every single thing he ever discussed – ‘"Manohla Dargis of the Los Angeles Times praised the polish of Pearl's cinematography (in contrast to his grittier work in the original), though noted: "The remake moves faster and sounds louder, but comes off as callous rather than creepy."[21] Robert K. Elder of the Chicago Tribune rated it 3/4 stars and called it "an effectively scary slasher film" despite its absurd premise.[22] William Thomas of Empire rated it 3/5 stars and wrote: "You'll have to overcome resentment towards this unnecessary remake before you can be properly terrorized but, on its own terms, it plays well."[23] Roger Ebert gave the film a rare 0 stars out of 4, calling it "A contemptible film: Vile, ugly and brutal. There is not a shred of reason to see it. Those who defend it will have to dance through mental hoops of their own devising, defining its meanness and despair as 'style' or 'vision' or 'a commentary on our world'."[24] Variety gave the film an unfavorable review, writing that the film was an "initially promising, but quickly disappointing retread of a hugely influential horror classic".[25]"’  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that Ebert’s review almost forces me to give the film more credit than it deserves just as part of my protest against such a bully of a man.

Of course, a sequel was greenlit, however, instead of a sequel, the producers opted to do a prequel - to offer some causation for the family and its murderous rampage? I’m not in the film industry, but I don’t think that is the decision I would have made.  Nevertheless, the film was released in October 2006, and though it was profitable, it did not have the legs the remake had three years prior.  By January 2007, Platinum Dunes announced it would not move forward with a proposed third movie.

Once again – the saw was at a crossroads and would remain that way for almost 7 years.

And then, TCM got the Halloween treatment with a mulligan called Texas Chainsaw 3D in 2013 and another prequel, Leatherface, following in 2017.  However, in retrospect, these films should have been done in reverse order.  Both films ignore all the sequels and previous remake, which, I feel, works out for the best.

I didn’t see the film on its initial release as I’m generally not a fan of 3D movies.  That has more to do to the fact that I’m mostly blind in one eye and don’t have depth perception to any extent, so 3D films are mostly lost on me.  However, I did see it on a streaming platform some years later and enjoyed it and then watched it again recently on Amazon Prime… and suddenly I found the film more nuanced and better than I originally had. I know that some of my feelings for the film are because since its release we’ve lost Hooper, Hansen and Burns and several other cast members as well from the original.  I loved seeing Marilyn Burns and Gunner Hansen in the film (albeit as different characters), as well as Bill Mosley doing an amazing job as Drayton Sawyer.  

The opening scene of the film, which takes place shortly after the escape and rescue of Sally Hardesty feels remarkably true and spot on.  Vigilante justice is paid on the Sawyer family because, as Burt Hartman (Paul Rae) tells the sheriff, “You can’t argue with the good book”. 

The film then jumps many years to the present day, as Heather Miller discovers she has inherited the estate of Verna Carson – formerly Verna Sawyer (this is an important development in the prequel that would follow four years later).  Heather finds out from her less than stellar parents that she is adopted as she leaves to accept her inheritance.  What follows is both a tribute to the original film, and something entirely original, with Heather finding out that she is both a Sawyer…the last surviving Sawyer other than what is living in the basement, and that her entire family was massacred in an act of savage vigilantism.

Texas Chainsaw 3D has its failings, mostly in logic, an issue that has plagued horror films almost from the beginning.  Sometimes to move a story along you are required to have characters do things in the film that no logical person who do in a similar, real life situation. But, in my opinion, this only happens in one very significant sequence. Failings aside, if you have lived your life believing you could never root for a Sawyer, you’ll be amazed when Heather Sawyer slides Leatherface his chainsaw and says “Do your thing cuz” because, as the sheriff ironically notes near the end of the film, “You can’t argue with the good book”.  Although the film has flaws, I feel like the ending of the film leaves the series in a good place to move forward in future films. And when I first watched the film some years ago, I assumed that was indeed the plan. 
However, it turned out the plan was very similar to Platinum Dunes a decade earlier – a prequel called Leatherface.

This prequel, now being produced by Campbell Grobman Films, attracted some truly stellar acting talent.  Lili Taylor is Verna Sawyer/Carson. Lili Taylor is probably best known for her role in The Conjuring, but I first took notice of her in the 1991 film Dogfight where she starred with River Phoenix and I’ve appreciated her work since then.  Playing Sheriff Hal Hartman, the father of Burt Hartman in Texas Chainsaw 3D, is Stephen Dorff, who starred along with Lili Taylor in the 1996 picture I Shot Andy Warhol.

The film opens with the Sawyer family doing what they do… murder.  However, eventually they murder the wrong person… the young daughter of Sheriff Hartman.  When Hartman arrives, he is infuriated by the death of his daughter and doesn’t accept the story of the Sawyers that they simply found the body and Hartman begins to arrest them.  Verna arrives and begins to defend her family, incensing the Sheriff even more and so he tells her, “You take one of mine, and I'll take all yours, Verna. All of 'em”.

The film shifts to a juvenile mental institution where the patients are little more than experimental rats for the hardhearted doctor who runs the hospital – Dr. Lang (Christopher Adamson). What this prequel succeeds at doing is creating sympathy for at least one of the young Sawyers – a patient that did not need to become the murderous Leatherface.

As the film progresses, Verna goes from Verna Sawyer to Verna Carson and also comes into money. With the change in station, she  hires an attorney to assist in letting her see her son. I enjoyed the continuity of the lawyer being a young Farnsworth (Nathan Cooper) earlier played as the much older attorney for Verna Carson in Texas Chainsaw 3D by the great Richard Riehle from countless films but possibly best remembered for his roles in Office Space and Hatchet.

By the way, when a lawyer tells you to read the letter…read the letter, but I digress.

The film has the most international casts than the previous TCM movies because this film was not shot in Texas, California or Louisiana…but Sofia, Bulgaria. Sometimes it can throw off your viewing because if you’ve ever been to South Texas you know it does NOT look like Bulgaria.  However, the dollar goes much further in Bulgaria and great care was taken to give the impression of Texas and I would say it works well and also gives us our first British Leatherface.

Where does this leave the franchise?  In a world of mulligans and reboots it is hard to say.  I think the storyline of TC3D provides a way forward, but what the story would be is hard to say – I have ideas but nothing solid. But, if I was a betting person, I’d suspect we’ll see a third reboot/retelling of the murderous Sawyer family because each production company that acquires the rights seems intent on providing their own spin on the Sawyers.

Personally, as much as I enjoyed TC3D and Leatherface, the original and Hooper’s brilliant sequel will always have a special place in this old fart’s heart and with Hooper now gone, perhaps it is time to let the Sawyer family go and just appreciate what Tobe Hooper gave us.

I’ll just wrap up with some thoughts on Tobe Hooper.  I think during his career he was not appreciated as much as he should have been and that remains a tragedy.  I still see comments from time to time on websites and Twitter suggesting he did not direct Poltergeist.  The film Poltergeist does look different from his previous work mostly because it was the first time he had a substantial budget.  But, simply viewing the films he made while under contract to Cannon it becomes clear the film was in fact directed by Tobe Hooper.

Hopper was, in addition to being a genius, a generally easy going and self-effacing person.  Because of this, I don’t know that he stood up for himself as often as he should have. But, I know I will always be advocate for his work and acknowledge and defend his talent because he deserves it. Hooper gave me two of my best drive-in experiences with Eaten Alive (the title I saw the film under although a number of titles were used) and of course TCM.

Godspeed Mr. Hooper – you are truly missed.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up. The whole idea of franchise horror is so depressing, never more so than with the "Halloween" films, right down to the last terrible reboot they did last year, which we will now get not one but TWO sequels. It's like an abusive relationship -- I don't understand why audiences keep tolerating it.