Thursday, May 12, 2016
Film Appreciation - There's Roadkill All Over Texas
Cody Hamman revs up some Film Appreciation for 1990's Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
The 1980s were an incredible time for a kid to get into the horror genre. It was a glorious period packed with classics and characters who would join the ranks of the Universal Monsters as genre icons. I often wish I had been slightly older during the decade, I wasn't even born until the end of 1983, but I made the most of the little time I had to watch horror in the '80s. By 1989, I was already an established fan of the major franchises, and '89 was quite a year for them. It was a year that saw the release of new sequels for the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween franchises, and a new Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also in production. That was the year I saw my first F13 and Elm Street movies on the big screen - I caught both Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child during their theatrical runs. Halloween 5 passed me by for whatever reason, but I had my sights set on seeing Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, which just barely missed being an '89 release. It came out on January 12, 1990.
1989 was also the year I obtained my first issues of Fangoria. The November and December issues, #88 and #89. Both of these featured articles on Leatherface, publishing the diary that screenwriter David J. Schow kept during the process of working on the film. I read those diary excerpts over and over, I was fascinated by this peek behind the scenes, and I was blown away by the pictures from the film that were on the pages of the magazine. Although I was only five or six at the time, I already dearly loved The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, so I couldn't wait to see the story of Leatherface continue.
I had to wait a little longer than I hoped, though. I had seen the latest killing sprees of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger on the theatre screen just months before, but Chainsaw 3 was off limits because of one word. A tagline on the poster made the hyperbolic statement that this was "The Most Controversial Horror Film Ever". Mom wouldn't take me to see something "controversial". I believe we even went to the theatre and she asked an employee exactly what made this film so controversial. I don't know what answer she got, but it didn't convince her to let me see Chainsaw 3 in the theatre. I had to wait for VHS.
Leatherface is far from being the most controversial horror film ever, but the use of the word controversial wasn't unjustified. The filmmakers had fought a hell of a battle with the MPAA to get it a wide theatrical release. The ratings board insisted that it deserved an NC-17, and distributor New Line Cinema didn't want to follow in the footsteps of Cannon, who had released TCM2 unrated, because being unrated would limit the amount of screens the film could play on and hamper the marketing. Their Elm Street series was starting to wrap up, and New Line was hoping that Leatherface would be their new big horror franchise, so they wanted to be able to get Chainsaw 3 as much exposure as possible. So they hacked away at its violent moments until the MPAA gave it an R.
The MPAA issue was far from the only problem encountered during the making of Leatherface. Pre-production was well underway by the time director Jeff Burr signed on to the project, landing the gig after New Line had considered nearly every other major genre director of the late '80s, including Peter Jackson and John McNaughton. Many creative decisions had been made without him, he was really expected to just bring to the screen what was already in place. Leatherface is not the movie Burr would have made if he had been involved with the development from the start, and he butted heads with studio representatives constantly along the way. At one point he was basically fired from the film, at another he tried to get his name removed from it.
All this kerfuffle over what is a perfectly servicable sequel. It's not nearly on the same level as the classic original, it doesn't have the brilliant insanity of part 2, but it is entertaining in its own right. It is very much a typical, straightforward slasher take on the concept, but that's fine for the third entry in a franchise. It's fun.
Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III begins, as the preceding films did, with scrolling text read by a narrator, although there is confusing information conveyed in this one, as well as the disappointing news that the first film's heroine Sally Hardesty not only sank into catatonia, as the scroll in part 2 told us, but even died in a private health care facility in 1977. This scroll tells the story of a man named W.E. Sawyer, a member of the series' murderous family of cannibals who is accused of being Leatherface himself and executed in the gas chamber in 1981. This is confusing because there was no W.E. Sawyer in the previous movies. The Sawyer name was introduced in part 2, a sign at the gas station in part 1 had the name W.E. Slaughter on it, but W.E. and Sawyer were not combined until this scroll. Who the hell is W.E. Sawyer?
Whoever W.E. is, he's not Leatherface, because the character of Leatherface is still alive and well and has gone on to join a new clan of cannibalistic crazies, his brothers Drayton, Chop Top, and Nubbins having not made it out of part 2. Just exactly who his new companions are isn't quite clear, which is one of the issues Burr had with the story. He felt the situation needed to be explained further. While screenwriter Schow describes them as simply being likeminded individuals who have gravitated to each other, I've always just assumed that they were another branch of the Sawyer family. That Leatherface and his brothers weren't the only ones killing and eating people in Texas, they had cousins and other relatives doing the same, and after losing his brothers Leatherface moved in with these different family members. There is some indication of blood relation within the film as well, and the group certainly interacts as if they're related.
It's interesting that New Line chose this approach. If they weren't going to attempt to bring back the siblings from 1 and 2, they could have made a film in which Leatherface was completely unrestrained by family, working on his own. Instead, they surrounded him with a bunch of new characters. It's not surprising that they sort of forced in the family element, however, because they didn't stray far into originality with this one. In fact, it mirrors the original in many ways.
The story starts, as part 1 did, with young people on a road trip through the Texas countryside. In this case, Michelle (Kate Hodge) and her pre-med boyfriend Ryan (William Butler), who are transporting a car from California to Florida for Michelle's father. One difference that immediately stands out is the terrain: the couple is driving through an expansive desert that wasn't actually in Texas at all. This was the first film in the series not to film in the titular state, instead shooting in California, not far from New Line home base in Los Angeles.
Part 1 began with news reports of grave robbing, corpses dug up in a small cemetery. Similarly, this one has news reports about the discovery of a mass grave containing somewhere in the range of fifty bodies, presumably victims of Leatherface and his cohorts. In one grotesque scene, we get to see a couple men in hazmat suits cleaning out the body pit, pulling heads and limbs out of a disgusting grey slop that is more than just mud. Schow lets us know, via Ryan and the coroner, that the decomposition of the bodies has resulted in adipocere, a "creamy breakdown of body fat", and a person could get gas gangrene just from touching these bodies bare handed. As they take Polaroids of their finds, we hear the same sound effect that accompanied the flash photography of corpses in the original film.
During the body pit scene, we get a surprise cameo from Caroline Williams, who played the heroine Stretch in part 2. Burr, who had just worked with her on Stepfather 2, invited her to show up as an Easter egg for fans - although on screen she's just a television news reporter who's smoking a cigarette and looking unnerved, in Burr's mind she was actually reprising the role of Stretch, setting up a possible Stretch / Leatherface reunion in a sequel that never happened.
Also brought back is armadillo roadkill. This time instead of just seeing a dead armadillo, Michelle accidentally hits the creature, critically injuring it. As it lies suffering on the side of the road, neither Michelle nor Ryan take note that the animal seems to have a strange silver earring dangling from one ear. A tag from a character we'll meet later. Michelle wants to put it out of its misery by bashing it with a large rock, but she can't bring herself to do it. She has to have Ryan do it for her. This, along with her saying the line "Violence is no answer to violence" earlier (regarding what should be done to the person who made the body pit), is part of her character arc. By the end of the film, she will be answering violence with violence, and will have no compunction about inflicting any sort of harm she has to in order to escape the situation she finds herself in.
With those callbacks out of the way, Michelle and Ryan begin to meet the members of Leatherface's new family. A remote gas station is run by Alfredo, a character who is essentially a mash-up of part 1's The Cook and The Hitchhiker with a pathetic sexual predator. Alfredo even takes a picture of Michelle and offers to sell it her, just like The Hitchhiker did to Franklin in the first movie. Alfredo is a sicko and a creep, but he does have some memorably hilarious lines, and actor Tom Everett does a great job in the role.
Also present at the gas station is a hitchhiker, a pre-fame Viggo Mortensen as a fellow who prefers to be called Tex. At first, Tex appears to be a good guy, a charming smooth-talker who calls Alfredo out for creeping on his customers and points out a shortcut for Michelle and Ryan to take. Of course, that's not a shortcut, and Tex is actually leading them into a trap. When we see him with the family later, he displays some of the same crossdressing tendencies as Leatherface has in some of the movies, sporting painted fingernails and a woman's apron.
The first good reveal of Leatherface himself is a work of slasher movie art. After taking Tex's route, Michelle and Ryan are chased down by a pickup truck and run off the road. They need to change a tire before they can continue on, but as Ryan works on that Michelle notices a rhythmic squeaking sound somewhere out in the night. She shines a lantern around, but never catches sight of anything.
The squeaking is coming from a metal leg brace that Leatherface wears in this film. He's slowly walking toward the car, and in one shot from Michelle's P.O.V. we get a glimpse of his shadowy outline move against the background as he takes a step forward. Michelle doesn't notice this, the light of the lantern doesn't reach him, but viewers can see that he's out there. Michelle turns back to Ryan as he finishes the tire, then as she rises and turns, there's Leatherface right up in her face, chainsaw roaring to life.
Burr tried to bring back original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen for this sequel, but a deal couldn't be made with him - the studio didn't see the benefit of having Hansen back and didn't want to pay him more than scale. So Burr hired hulking actor/professional wrestler R.A. Mihailoff, who actually did a fantastic job with what he was given to perform here. This Leatherface is quite different from the previous ones; meaner, more of a vicious, malicious killer. He is truly a slasher this time out. He's not as obsequious as he was before, either. He has reached a rebellious stage in his life, and if another family member tries to dominate him like Drayton/The Cook did, he stands up to them and shuts them down.
Mihailoff wasn't a stuntman, so for some of the more physical moments Leatherface was played by a stuntman with some major slasher experience: Kane Hodder, who at this point had played hockey-masked slasher icon Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (where he killed a character played by Chainsaw 3 co-star William Butler) and Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. He would go on to play Jason twice more.
Michelle and Ryan aren't the only ones who get hunted by the killers in this film. A second car accident, this one instigated by Tex, strands another motorist in the wilderness, and this is a guy who knows how to handle himself: Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree as survivalist Benny, who happens to be packing an assault rifle. And you better believe he puts that rifle to use. It may be slightly ridiculous to have a character blasting away with an automatic firearm in a Texas Chainsaw movie, but Benny is a very likeable character and Foree is a icon of the genre. I can never fault his inclusion in a film.
Through Benny, we meet another member of Leatherface's family, Joe Unger giving an intimidating performance as Tinker, a hook-handed man obsessed with technology, steel, and chrome. He's the one who would have given the armadillo an earring. After his encounter with Tinker, Benny also meets Toni Hudson as Sara, a girl who is going insane after a week spent in the wilderness trying to avoid the killers. Her survival quest doesn't last much longer.
Chased by Leatherface through a wooded area rigged with boobytraps, the characters eventually find themselves at a quaint farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The home of Leatherface and his new tribe. Although re-designed a bit over the years, apparently the house built for this film still stands to this day, and it's said that it was used as the home of another family of cinematic killers in Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects.
Captured and nailed down to a chair at the dinner table, a more extreme version of what happened to Sally Hardesty and Stretch in the previous films, Michelle meets a few more family members: Jennifer Banko (another F13 Part VII: The New Blood alum) as a twisted, unnamed little girl with a skull-faced doll she calls Sally; Miriam Byrd Nethery as family matriarch Mama, who is wheelchair-bound and has an electrolarynx; and the only returning Sawyer aside from Leatherface, Grandpa. Grandpa isn't doing so well these days. Actually, he's dead, but the family still keeps his body at the table and still feeds him his strict liquid diet, pouring blood down his throat.
The little girl's youth, innocent looks, and obvious insanity make her an unforgettable character, as does the fact that it's insinuated that she may be Leatherface's daughter. Characters mention that they let him play with their female victims these days, and he makes sweet babies.
Nethery also turns in a fine down-home performance as Mama, who seems to refer to Grandpa as "Papa", which is one of those indications that these are indeed blood relatives.
The "chase and trap" portion of the film largely out of the way and all of the characters finally introduced, the film settles in for a stretch of lunacy set in and around the home of the killers. During this time, Leatherface is given a gift that you can imagine would have become his trademark weapon if New Line had made sequels to this film. Remember, they wanted him to replace Freddy Krueger as their horror star, and Freddy had his very unique razor glove. Leatherface just had random chainsaws. He needed a special one. Tinker has made for him the "Excalibur saw", a shiny monstrosity covered with gold and chrome, with an inscription down the bar, a line spoken in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2: "The Saw Is Family".
The Excalibur saw was part of the film's teaser trailer, the only trailer made for the movie, which copied the moment in the 1981 film Excalibur where the hand of the Lady of the Lake rises out of the water, holding King Arthur's sword. In the teaser, the Lady of the Lake is holding this chainsaw instead, and she tosses it to Leatherface, who is standing on the shore. He catches it, lightning strikes it, starting it up, and Leatherface turns to the camera. Freeze frame. The title appears. End of teaser. I remember seeing that trailer in the theatre in 1989, probably when I saw Elm Street 5, and - not being familiar with Excalibur - not knowing what the heck was going on with some magical woman in a lake throwing a chainsaw to Leatherface. It's fancy and all, maybe even clever, but it doesn't really represent the film, and I can imagine that it could repel some potential viewers because if you take it seriously it looks absurd.
Everything builds to a climax full of gunfire, physical altercations, a callback to that moment with the armadillo, and even an explosion. Many of the new family members introduced in this film don't make it to the end credits, once again raising the question, even though they are an entertaining bunch, of why they were created in the first place. If New Line had gone ahead with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4, they would have had to start all over with the family building, or do what they could have done in the first place with this one, have Leatherface go solo.
The final scene of the film is another issue Burr has with it. That's not the ending he shot, that was a reshoot that he wasn't asked back to direct. He said the director's name during a recent Q&A that I attended, but I can't recall what it was, I didn't really catch it... Regardless, that's another director's work, and it features the return of a character who appeared to have died earlier in the film, resurrected by the will of test audiences. Despite that, I actually love this ending, and feel that it takes the film out on a great action beat.
The very last shot is one that makes a promise: Leatherface will return. He's still out there, Excalibur saw in hand, waiting for more people to wander into his clutches. I remember the first time I ever saw that shot, when I finally got to watch the movie on VHS, and how that sight and sound got me hyped that a part 4 could be on the way.
Unfortunately, the messy production, the struggles in post, the creative issues, the lack of marketing, and presumably disinterest, for whatever reason, from the general audience resulted in a film that, while decent, was also a financial failure. It came and went at the box office, opening at #11. New Line did not have a new franchise on their hands. Chainsaw 3 did go on to find its audience on home video, where an unrated cut was made available that had alternate scenes and more bloodshed. It earned a solid fan base for itself, but it didn't get a direct sequel. Everything established here was brushed aside for future entries in the series. New Line did get back into the Texas Chainsaw business thirteen years later to distribute the remake and its prequel.
Although I was never quite as blown away by Leatherface as I was by the first two movies, I did embrace it whole-heartedly, and there was a period of time where I would never watch the three films on their own, I would always watch them together. I had a VHS tape with all three of them recorded onto it, and I would come home from school, put that tape in the VCR, and let the films play out back-to-back-to-back for days and days in a row.
I have continued to watch parts 1 and 2 very frequently, but viewings of part 3 have become more rare. It's a film I love and have a great deal of nostalgia and appreciation for, it's just not one I feel like watching as often as its predecessors. It's a troubled film that could have been much better... but it also could have been a lot worse, and as far as slashers go, it is pretty awesome.