Monday, August 22, 2016

Film Appreciation - Hells Bells, It's Party Time

Cody Hamman shows some conflicted Film Appreciation for 1994's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.

The existence of a fourth film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise was first brought to my attention by an article in issue #136 of Fangoria. The September 1994 issue, and it contained a report from the set of a movie that was then being called The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it instantly got me hyped to see the film. Not only was I more than ready to see the return of Leatherface four years after Texas Chainsaw Massacre III ended with him revving up his chainsaw, but this particular sequel sounded very promising because it was being written and directed by Kim Henkel, who wrote the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre with its director, Tobe Hooper. (And later co-wrote Eaten Alive for Hooper.)

Tobe Hooper had made his own TCM sequel with 1986's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and now Henkel was making his sequel, twenty years after the release of the first movie.

I was desperate to see The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which would eventually be re-titled Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation by the distributor. I read that Fangoria article over and over... And as the wait for Henkel's film turned out to be much longer than anticipated, those numerous readings were stretched out over a period of years.

As time went by, there would be mentions of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation in other publications, as two of the film's stars went on to have massive Hollywood success before this low budget slasher they filmed in Texas was ever given a wide release. Those stars were Matthew McConaughey, who I was already familiar with from his awesome role in Dazed and Confused before I ever read that Fangoria article, and Renee Zellweger, who I became a fan of through the movies Jerry Maguire, Empire Records, and Love & a .45 while I was waiting for TCM: TNG.

Three years after being featured in Fango, TCM: TNG finally made it to theatres in August of 1997, but it was a very limited release. It only played on screens in less than twenty cities around the United States. A release too limited for me to be able to see it. The first time I saw footage from the movie was in late '97, when my father rented the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Maximum Risk on VHS. The movie was preceded by a trailer for TCM: TNG that promised it would soon be coming to home video. When that trailer started playing, it was a complete surprise to me. I was overjoyed, my hype levels went through the roof. I had been waiting for this movie for years, and now here was a short preview of it - seven years after TCM3, I was seeing clips of Leatherface wielding a chainsaw in a whole new movie! I watched that trailer over and over.

And I waited. Almost another year went by. Finally, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation was released on VHS in September of 1998. I rented it the day it hit video store shelves.

After four years of waiting, TCM: TNG was a bit of a disappointment. Henkel did not catch lightning in a bottle all over again. His sequel not only didn't come close to the '74 film he co-created, it also didn't measure up to the two sequels that preceded, sequels that Henkel seemed to have some disdain for, seeming to view The Next Generation as the "real" sequel to the original.

There is a clear disdain for parts 2 and 3 evident even in the narrated text that the film opens with - text which doesn't crawl like the text the previous three movies began with, but instead just stays locked in place. This text gives some background on the events of the first film, then brushes off the sequels as "two minor, yet apparently related incidents". That's the sort of hubris that can bring you crashing down - if you're going to call two movies with passionate fans "minor", you better be delivering something incredible yourself. Not something like TCM: TNG.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the VHS version of the movie that I first watched in 1998 had been hacked up by the distributor, apparently cut down by 9 minutes. I didn't see the uncut version of the film until a few years later, when I purchased it on DVD. The DVD I bought happened to be released in Canada by Lionsgate, although I think it was complete chance that I happened to buy that particular release. When I put in the DVD, I expected to see the movie as I had always known it, and instead got a version 9 minutes longer. For the most part, those 9 minutes weren't made up of extra scenes, but simply scenes that played a little longer and were edited differently. The cut down version made the filmmakers look rather incompetent at times. The uncut version is still a messy movie, but it's a substantial improvement over the shorter version.

Zellweger stars as Jenny, a teenage girl who has become meek and frumpy due to traumatic experiences at the hands of multiple abusive, creepy stepfathers. Henkel put callbacks to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre throughout The Next Generation, and he goes especially heavy on them at the beginning of the film - while Jenny gets ready to go to her high school prom, she's listening to news reports on the radio. The original movie started with radio news reports. When her mom takes pictures of her and her date Sean (John Harrison), the camera makes the same grating sound as the camera taking pictures of an unearthed corpse at the beginning of TCM '74. Cut to the high school and we see a guy taking a pee beside a parked van, just like the character Franklin did at the start of the first movie.

Prom night goes south for a strange, dimwitted girl named Heather (Lisa Newmyer) when she catches her jerk of a boyfriend Barry (Tyler Cone) making out with another girl. Heather attempts to speed away in Barry's car, but he hops with her, and soon they discover that they're not alone - Jenny and Sean were in the back seat, getting high.

These actors give some very awkward line deliveries as they speak highly questionable dialogue given to them by Henkel. True to her character, Zellweger speaks rather quietly, which doesn't come off well in the film's sound design. While Heather aimlessly drives them out into the countryside, the group discusses subjects like whether or not prostate cancer can be caused by blue balls and if girls will get breast cancer if they'll not felt up enough. Barry also makes a keen observation while confronting Jenny about her shyness - "Afraid someone might find out you have tits? Girls have tits."

A car accident strands the teens out in the middle of a wooded nowhere, the front of Barry's car going off the road and into a ditch. I'm not quite sure why four people working together wouldn't be able to push the car back onto the road so it could be driven away, but as dumb as the characters have been shown to be so far you can't expect much from them.

Seeking help while Sean stays behind at the wreck, Jenny, Heather, and Barry get some assistance from a very odd real estate agent named Darla (Tonie Perenski), who will use any excuse to flash her silicone-enhanced breasts and seems to have an inharmonious relationship with the "old man" who works at the gas station across the way. Darla's boyfriend Vilmer happens to run a towing service, so she gives him a call.

When the tow truck shows up at the scene of the crash, take note of the fact that the company name on the side of the truck is Illuminati Towing - that's a bit of foreshadowing for a story element that will come up later. Behind the wheel of the truck is The Next Generation's greatest saving grace, Matthew McConaughey as Vilmer, a total psychopath who sports a remote controlled brace on one leg. The actor was clearly committed to portraying the definition of bugnuts insane on the screen, and he didn't hold back a bit. His performance was turned up to 11 for every single second he was in front of the camera. The energy he brings to his role gives the film as a whole a substantial boost - the questionable choices made during the development of this film and the things that are lacking about the finished product can almost be forgiven solely because of McConaughey's Vilmer.

Vilmer gets the film's first kills as Jenny, Barry, and Heather make their way back to the crash site, which was about a mile down the road from Darla's. These characters only have to walk around two miles total, but for physically fit teenagers they have a surprisingly tough time dealing with this distance, so much so that Barry and Heather ditch Jenny to follow a passing car down a side road in hopes of catching a ride.

This road eventually leads them to the house inhabited by The Next Generation's iteration of the killer cannibals at the center of the franchise.

It's a house that I went searching for in the summer of 1997, three years into my wait for this movie and a year before I would get to see it, before I had even seen the trailer. I didn't have an address for the house, just the town where it was located - Pflugerville, Texas, just outside of Austin. Beyond that, the only information I had, gleaned from Fangoria, was that the house had previously served as a filming location for the 1986 Willie Nelson movie Red-Headed Stranger and the 1993 Dennis Quaid/James Caan/Meg Ryan/Gwyneth Paltrow thriller Flesh and Bone. Well, I was familiar with Flesh and Bone, I liked that movie, so I watched it again and found what I assumed was the house that would go on to become the Texas Chainsaw Massacre house. I accompanied my truck driver father on a job that would take him through Austin, and when we reached that area he unhooked the trailer we were pulling and went driving throughout the Pflugerville countryside, searching for what I figured was the Flesh and Bone/TCM: The Next Generation house. It was a pretty hopeless mission, and I did not spot the house I was looking for. The search was not helped out by the fact that the Flesh and Bone house was not the Next Generation house after all.

Flesh and Bone
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
I didn't find the house, but Barry and Heather do. Bad luck for them. Like places the killers lived at in previous films, there are some decorations made out of body parts both animal and human, like a chandelier of bones. This time, the set decoration even includes full bodies of stuffed, taxidermied people. There is also a whole lot of clutter. There's more random junk strewn around this place than anything else.

There are two residents home at the time when the teens arrive, one of whom is Joe Stevens as a character named W.E. This is a name Henkel would not let go of when it came to Texas Chainsaw projects. It's on a sign at the gas station in the original film, "W.E. Slaughter". Henkel had talked about character named W.E. with Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III screenwriter David J. Schow, who did not write such a character into his film, but a "W.E. Sawyer" is mentioned in the opening text. Here W.E. is the gas station owner who doesn't get along with Darla, and the majority of his dialogue is made up of quotes from the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, John Paul Jones, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Shakespeare. McConaughey/Vilmer is the film's MVP, but W.E. isn't so bad himself.

The other resident is the iconic Leatherface, here played by Robert Jacks, who unfortunately passed away in 2001. Leatherface is really overshadowed in this sequel, all of the other family members have a stronger presence he does, which is at least partly by design - Henkel is taking Leatherface back to his browbeaten roots in the original, where The Cook was always yelling at him and threatening to beat him. Here it's W.E. who is constantly tormenting, while Darla does her best to baby and protect him. There is nothing intimidating about this version of Leatherface, even when he's committing violent acts he seems to be bumbling around, and takes frequent stops to scream at the top of his lungs. It's all just too much for him. Jacks doesn't seem to have the mastery of the chainsaw his predecessors displayed, either. The way he waves the chainsaw around doesn't ring true, it appears more like Jacks felt like he should always be moving the chainsaw rather than like Leatherface is trying to use it as a striking weapon.

As in the original film, Leatherface wears three different masks of human flesh over the course of The Next Generation, and they're the same types of mask as Gunnar Hansen sported as the character in 1974. There's a Killing Mask, worn when he's first going after his victims; an Old Lady Mask, which he wears while doing housework; and a Pretty Woman Mask, which he puts on at dinnertime. In '74, Leatherface paired the Pretty Woman Mask with a suit, but in this film he puts on a dress and a long wig. There's also a scene where we see him putting on makeup as the Pretty Woman. A scene like that was shot for the '74 movie but cut before release.

Leatherface attacks Barry and Heather in much the same way he killed the characters Kirk and Pam in the original film, although he does things in a different order. Pam was put on a meathook and later found in a freezer, here Leatherface sticks Heather in a freezer, then takes her out of it and hangs her on a meathook. This is far from the last of the Heather we'll see in the film - she lingers for quite a while so other characters can put her through more horrific things.

By the time Jenny encounters Vilmer out on the road, all of her companions have already been murdered, which gives the film almost an entire hour to focus just on our heroine's experiences with the clan of killers. Her ordeal is able to sustain so much running time partly because it kicks off with an extensive chase sequence - first it's Vilmer chasing her in his truck, then Leatherface shows up with his chainsaw and continues the chase.

Henkel was working with a budget of $600,000 on this movie, a number much less than the budgets of parts 2 and 3, but a big increase from the budget of part 1. He put some of that extra money into attempting to pull off some larger scale action/stunt moments. Leatherface chases Jenny through the forest, across a patch of water, to his home, into the house. Jenny jumps out a second story window, just like Sally did when she was trying to escape from Leatherface in the 1974 film. But rather than hit the ground below, Jenny lands on a section of the house's roof, so the chase continues up there, with Leatherface sawing into the chimney, Jenny climbing an antenna and then having to leap from it to a power line. Damage is done to a greenhouse during the chase. Jenny then makes her way back to Darla's. A mistake that gets her captured.

Once Jenny is the family's captive, Henkel fills the time by departing from what the previous films did, which was to simply have the heroine tied up at the dinner table and introduced to Grandpa. (Although that does happen to Jenny, and Grandpa is played by Grayson Victor Schirmacher.) He tried to do something more with this sequel, to deepen the Texas Chainsaw mythology. Of course, he doesn't start working on that until after he has Darla drive into town, with Jenny in her trunk, so she can pick up some pizzas to take home to the family. Darla isn't very subtle about having someone in her trunk; she even admits to the pizza boy that she has someone back there and invites him to take a look, but he doesn't. She opens the trunk and has a conversation with Jenny while other people mill around. They don't seem to notice the garbage-wrapped teenager. A police officer even stops to talk to Darla, but she charms her way out of the situation.

Many viewers have asked why a cannibal family would be ordering pizzas. I don't have an answer to that, but I guess they just like some variety. Pizza is one of my favorite foods, so I can't blame them.

Fans of slasher franchises know that filmmakers are just asking for trouble when they attempt to give deeper explanations for our horror icons. Rob Zombie caught a major backlash for giving Michael Myers a troubled childhood in his Halloween remake, and before that the idea presented in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, that Michael is working with a Druid cult, wasn't exactly embraced with overwhelming positivity. Many fans didn't like the new additions made to the Jason Voorhees' mythology in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Some have issues with the history of Freddy Krueger that was shown in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

There may be no attempt to create a reason for a slasher's actions more ridiculous or unnecessary than Henkel's attempt to tell us that Leatherface and his family are working for the all-powerful Illuminati organization. The idea of a backwoods family turning cannibal, killing and eating anyone who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, is perfectly simple, down-to-earth, and terrifying. Why bring a global conspiracy into the mix?

A lot of the Illuminati stuff can be brushed off as simply being nonsense spouted by insane characters. Vilmer says the house is under 24 hour surveillance by the FBI and there are audio transmitters in the walls. Darla says that she's being forced to comply because an explosive device has been implanted in her head. As Jenny says, "There's nothing in your head."

What they get across to Jenny is that they haven't killed her outright like the others because they need to keep her alive for some reason. It seems that one person always has to be kept alive and put through an additional mental and physical torture.

Jenny does get a character arc in the midst of all this, which would probably be much more effective if it weren't buried in so much nonsense. She starts off meek and quiet, a broken victim of domestic abuse, and during her time with this murderous family she starts to find a strength within herself. She fights back and takes every opportunity to try to escape or get the upper hand. She gets to a point where she can even face off with a character like Leatherface, yell at him and tell him to sit down, and he obeys. It's a good idea, it adds character depth, but the film doesn't handle it correctly.

As the film nears its end, another character arrives who seems validate the family's claims; a sophisticated representative of the Illuminati who arrives in a chauffeured limousine to take a look at what the family has going on. Named Rothman, he's played by James Gale, and beneath his suit he has some odd scarification and piercings on his stomach, I assume something that comes with being in the Illuminati. He is appalled by what he sees - the objective is to show people the meaning of horror, but apparently Vilmer, Leatherface, and company just aren't refined enough for him.

Henkel and Rothman can say what they want, but I refuse to believe that there is anything going on in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise beyond simple country people who like the taste of human flesh. The inclusion of the Illuminati is just another baffling decision on the part of Henkel, who seemed more determined to make things weird than to make them make sense. You can see that in what made it to the screen, and in more strangeness than didn't - I've read the screenplay, in which there was a band that used the family's house to practice in. When they were done practicing, they would leave the place, nonchalantly making their way past horrible and disgusting things and thanking the family for the practice space.

You don't put in something like that if you have any interest in making a serious horror film. The band didn't make it into the movie, but there is still some incongruous rock music in the film, as Henkel keeps dropping it in over chase sequences. Rock music is not the way to make something an effectively scary sequence, but it's there over the final moments of the first Leatherface/Jenny chase, and there's more rock playing during the climactic sequence.

The Next Generation is packed with callbacks to the original film, at one point W.E. shows Vilmer a door that Leatherface busted up and says "Look what your brother did to this door," almost a direct quote from the '74 film. Near the end, however, something reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 sneaks in - when an escaped Jenny catches a ride with an elderly couple in an RV, Vilmer pursues the RV in a pickup truck, with Leatherface riding in the back. This is similar to the bridge sequence at the beginning of TCM2, although not nearly as cool.

Maybe it's hypocritical that I love the TCM2 bridge sequence, which is accompanied by the song "No One Lives Forever" by Oingo Boingo, yet put down the choice of putting rock music into The Next Generation scenes. But "No One Lives Forever" fit that sequence, while the music used in TNG does not.

When the RV chase ends, the '74 callbacks return. This chase has occurred near a field where a plane was cropdusting, and the cropduster pilot chooses to get involved with the chase and help Jenny out a bit. This has caused some confusion among fans. Who is the cropduster pilot? I have never felt like it was supposed to be anyone of any significance; I think the cropduster getting involved is the same as the truck drivers at the end of the original movie. It's just someone who happened to be there.

The film ends with the biggest callbacks of all. Jenny is taken to a hospital, where she interacts with a police officer played by John Dugan (who was the Grandpa in the first TCM), and sees an orderly (TCM's Franklin, Paul A. Partain) pushing a gurney with TCM heroine Marilyn Burns on it. Zellweger and Burns make eye contact and seem to recognize each other as kindred spirits. Then Partain keeps pushing Burns down the hall, repaying the favor after she had to push him around his character's wheelchair during the filming of TCM '74.

Well all is said and done, I can't exactly tell anyone that Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is a good movie. As this write-up has shown, I have a lot of problems with it. Choices didn't make sense, there are technical issues, some atrocious characters and dialogue, the Illuminati stuff was absurd... I'm left wondering, "What the hell was Kim Henkel thinking?"

But I also can't say that I don't enjoy watching the movie when I put it on, despite thinking that it's pretty bad. And as I said, McConaughey is so awesome in it that you can almost just let all the badness around him slide.

Revisiting the movie after going some time without watching it, it's also almost shocking how often I quote lines from this movie, whether they be quotes that W.E. introduced me to or random lines from Vilmer. His line "You think? Or do you know?" is especially useful.

The Next Generation also had quite an impact on my youth, although a lot of that impact came before I even saw the movie. I first read about it when I was 10 years old. I finally got to see it when I was 14. When I was 13, I went on a cross-country journey to find its filming location (and failed.) Waiting for this movie was a huge deal to me during some formative years of my life. It didn't live up to my expectations, but I still appreciate its existence, and I can't deny that it played a part in shaping my life.


  1. I don't even understand the Illuminati's logic in this one?! What's scarier than being chased by a screaming transvestite with a gas-powered weapon of dismemberment?! "Don't know true horror" my moldy butt!

    But, I guess if you enjoyed it, the movie did what it is supposed to d: entertain (?) As for me, the only underrated TCM movie that I will cherish would be TCM:The Beginning, something of an improvement for a rather mediocre remake.

    1. The Illuminati stuff is completely unnecessary and nonsensical.

      I'm hoping to fit in a TCM: The Beginning article before the end of 2016, since this is its 10th anniversary.

      - Cody