In memory of Tobe Hooper, we’re revisiting this article about his twisted horror franchise.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Leatherface’s bloody, grizzly, and cannibalistic run of horror.
When The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released 40 years ago, few, if any, anticipated that it would revolutionize the horror genre. With a budget of little more than $300,000, the film went on to make more than $30 million domestically, making it one of the most profitable low-budget films of all time and inspiring horror fans everywhere to produce their own cheap indie flicks. For better or worse, we probably wouldn’t have a Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity without Tobe Hooper leading the way. But Chain Saw also impacted the content of its descendants, setting the stage for grislier death scenes and proving the effectiveness of the masked, silent killer as an enduring archetype.
After the success of the first Chain Saw, Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel were approached to do a handful of sequels. Three films followed, and then came three more after a recent reboot. Sadly, none of those six movies managed to capture the spirit of the original. Regardless, we’ve set out to break them all down, laying bare their commonalities and salient features. So, as the antagonists of these films might say after setting down a platter full of unidentified sausages, bon appétit.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
The Players: Renée Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Jacks, Joe Stevens, Tonie Perensky
Tale as Old as Time: A group of teens meets an eccentric Texas family on their way home from prom, with disastrous results.
The Muse: Kim Henkel wakes up to the clanging sound of empty Lone Star tallboys flying to the floor, having knocked them off his nightstand in yet another one of his sleep spasms. Hungover every morning in the 20 years since he’d busted out of the gate to critical acclaim — and embittered that nobody sought his dialogue for the other Chainsaw sequels — the defeated Kim faces himself in the mirror and growls, “I WILL TAKE BACK WHAT IS MINE!” In his first time behind the movie camera (or apparently any camera), the grizzled ol’ coot aborts the sequels-from-another-mother and makes the movie he’s always wanted to make. And you’ll wish he’d died in his sleep that day.
Whoa, How’d They Get That Guy? “Alright, alright, alright.” Oh, you bet McConaughey finds a way to squeeze that catchphrase into Vilmer, by far his most irritating role. But despite being saddled with a shouty, psychotic character who’s supposed to be cool and menacing — all while relying on remote controls to operate his cybernetic leg (a lurching gag that they milk past the tits) — young McConaughey cranks up his wily performance with a reckless abandon that says, “Fuck it! I’m immortal. It’s not like I’ll ever do an AIDS movie.” And in the role of Jenny, the Last Girl, Renée Zellweger has the movie’s least grating performance. That’s because she’s not screaming like everybody else, even though she’s in the victim’s chair. That’s not an experimental decision on her part; it’s just one of the movie’s many stupid attempts to be subversive.
Wait, Did You Hear That? We’ll never get the glorious noise of the first movie again, but at least the cheap synths are easily ignorable slasher stock. The rest is a who’s-who of Austin acts hanging out at Quackenbush’s coffee house. There’s a batch of boogie-woogie Texas blues, Roky Erickson’s “Two Headed Dog” gets used to fangless effect during a limp kill scene, and Daniel Johnston’s “Careless Soul” just makes you think how scary the movie would be if Daniel Johnston had a chainsaw.
Most Disturbing Moment Not Involving Cannibalism: Some would say it’s the hilarious (?) scene in which McConaughey and the Mousey One battle over the remote for his robotic leg. But for me, it’s the portrayal (and betrayal) of Leatherface. To me, he’ll always be a menacing maniac running on “retard” rage (Gunnar’s word). But to Henkel, getting all edgy in his old age, Leatherface is now a sweet transvestite. And he just looks like a bloated Grace Slick with a mullet. It’s horrifying seeing this horror hero all dolled up.
Best Kill: Number of people killed with a chainsaw? Zilch. A guy gets repeatedly run over by a truck, but you only see it distantly through the ever-present and entirely nonexistent Texas fog. There’s a rehash of the ol’ meat hook, but you can see the damned harness in the actress’s hair. Uh … a guy gets hit by a plane flown by an Illuminati hitman (don’t ask). Guess I have no other choice but to go with Kim Henkel’s directing career (he never tried again after this).
Crimes Against Humanity: Midway through production, the cast ran out of beer. Fortunately, Zellweger traded her spare cheese to a local for a jug of his moonshine. And then they continued to make this movie where a fey Leatherface and family work for the secret society that killed Kennedy. Lee Harvey Oswald deserved better.
Verdict: If McConaughey hadn’t gotten all hot-shit-famous, this clunker would have stayed in the can. And it’s the only horror film I can think of that’s as bad, if not worse, than Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Like that movie, it aims and fails for comedy, but gets somehow more annoying as it overreaches into a corn-pone David Lynch parody. Gutless in every way, but offering one big fake boob more than its nudity-free predecessors, it’s just an unbearable waste of time, burgeoning talent, and fog machines (so much fog). And after spitting in our eyes for 90 minutes, Henkel closes the movie with cameos from John Dugan, Marilyn Burns, and Paul A. Partain (Franklin can walk!), thinking he can tie the mess he intentionally made to the masterpiece he accidentally helped make so long ago.
— Roy Ivy
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The Players: Dennis Hopper as “Lefty,” a former Texas ranger and uncle to Franklin and Sally Hardesty; Caroline Williams as sassy DJ “Stretch”; Jim Siedow’s “Old Man,” now known as “The Cook”; Bill Mosley as “Hitchhiker” downgrade “Chop Top”; and Bill “I’m No Gunnar” Johnson as Leatherface
Whoa, How’d They Get That Guy? Years later, Dennis Hopper said it was the worst film he’d been involved in. And since Golan/Globus were probably too cheap to shell out for cocaine, nobody has any idea why Dennis got on board. It was his first film of 1986, which turned out to be a banner year. But in the mere months before he got critics all wet with River’s Edge and Blue Velvet, and won your grandma’s heart in Hoosiers, Dennis was wielding two chainsaws (which are actually never running, despite the sound effect), kicking walls that bust open in gallons of guts, and screeching “I AM THE LORD OF THE HARVEST” in this numbing and infuriating cinematic abortion disguised as satire. Of all the over-the-fucking-top gore, the dismemberment of Hopper’s dignity makes you wince the most.
The Muse(s): Obviously money, greed, and trucker speed, but according to Hooper, this movie existed to right the wrongs of its predecessor. Did you know the first movie was intended to be a comedy? Not just a half-assed metaphor for ‘Nam? Well, like a coked-up standup who follows you to your car screaming “WHY AREN”T YOU LAUGHING!” Hooper and new coconspirator L.M. Kit Carson go for social satire and Looney Tunes slapstick—under the guise of Grand Guignol—and fall hard on their asses. It’s like watching a crippled chihuahua try to hump a bear…but not as endearing.
Wait, Did You Hear That? Say farewell to the low-end oscillations and unnerving avant-garde noise of the first, and say hello to the IRS Records roster of 1986. Go ahead and piss yourself to the Danceteria drum machines of Lords of the New Church. You better duck when The Cramps show up with “Goo Goo Muck”. Cringe in horror as a man’s skull is hammered to pudding to the hippy harmonicas of Timbuk 3. Try to find the courage to get up from your seat during the closing credits, as Stewart Copeland phones in a Casio reggae song? And be amazed they didn’t take the golden opportunity to slap Ray Bans on Leatherface and have him dance to “The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)”. But the songs are a heavenly escape from Tobe Hooper and co-composer Jerry Lambert’s abrasive score of bratty dirt-cheap synthesizer fingerbangs, which feature insulting nods to Bernard Herrman.
Most Disturbing Moment Not Involving Cannibalism: Leatherface jizzes his pants after dry humping the heroine with his chainsaw. Yes, this bat-shit sexual awakening, as Leatherface discovers that all of those women he’s been killing have vaginas, (I always thought he used every part, like Native Americans do with buffalo), is actually a moment captured on film. It’s perhaps the only intentionally funny scene in the movie that gets the laugh it’s aping for, and it sure ain’t subtle with the chainsaw-as-phallus framing. Where this unwarranted moment comes from is beyond me, but I imagine it’s how 50 Shades of Grey spawned out of Twilight fan fiction. (Runner up for most disturbing moment not involving cannibalism: the fact that L.M. Kit Carson, co-writer of this festering turd, also wrote the screenplay for Paris, TX.)
Best Kill: This is the only part they got right in this execrable sequel. It’s the goriest gorefest in the whole franchise, and that gore is great thanks to firing-on-all-cylinders Tom Savini. Embracing the R rating (and releasing the film unrated when they couldn’t get it), Hooper and co. kick off the movie by following two preppy assholes as they shoot up signs and harass a radio host on their way to Texas-OU weekend. Thankfully, Leatherface and the family show up on the empty highway to engage in a backwards truck chase straight outta Hal Needham’s Hooper. Leatherface chainsaws through a Mercedes, and straight across the driver’s head, which dangles like a freshly sawed tree branch and spurts with virility.
Crimes Against Humanity: Since nobody was physically injured on this set, I’m gonna go with Dennis Hopper’s wounded pride, horror fans wounded expectations, and the gall to film a movie in Bastrop and Austin, but claim its set in North Texas. This ol’ Texas doesn’t cotton to such hooey.
Verdict: Imagine if William Friedkin had decided to direct The Exorcist 2, but got Bruce Villanch to write it and cast Carrot Top as Leatherface. That’s how ridiculous this goddamn sequel is. But I don’t want to make it sound tempting. It’s not campy fun. It’s no fun at all; it’s an obnoxious, sloppy, defective misfire that should be cruelly and unusually punished for its crimes against humanity. But most of all, it’s evidence that the once-promising Hooper may have been a one-trick pony.
— Roy Ivy
Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)
The Players: Alexandra Daddario, Trey Songz, Tania Raymonde, Keram Malicki-Sánchez, Dan Yeager
Tale as Old as Time: Finally, a new plot. A young woman learns she was adopted and willed a house from her biological grandmother. She takes a road trip with her pals to check out the new place, only to discover she has a chainsaw-loving cousin she never knew about living in the basement.
The Muse: Kim Henkel wants more of your hard-earned money. After Platinum Dunes passed on making a third installment in their reboot, Lionsgate picked up their scraps and reportedly signed a three-picture deal with the franchise’s rights holders, Robert Kuhn and, you guessed it, Henkel.
Whoa, How’d They Get That Guy? Gunnar Hansen makes his first cameo (as one of the Sawyer clan) since the original. My guess is that executive producer Henkel has some blackmail-worthy dirt on the guy.
Wait, Did You Hear That? The soundtrack is a dreadful hodgepodge of hip-hop, country, nü metal, and flashbulb sound effects.
Most Disturbing Moment Not Involving Cannibalism: Remember when Leatherface was something to be feared? This movie doesn’t. Instead, it attempts to turn the chainsaw-wielding mass murderer into a sympathetic martyr, one who only kills because of his childlike mind and overwhelming desire to protect his family. When members of an angry mob try to kill Leatherface in the film’s final act, Heather, our heroine, doesn’t pick up a pitchfork and help them. No, she picks up a pitchfork and jabs it into one of the their stomachs. Then she tosses Leatherface a chainsaw and yells, “Do your thing, cuz!” Yes, she found out that Leatherface is her long-lost cousin. And yes, Leatherface has a simple mind. But that’s not reason enough to turn one of cinema’s greatest villains into a misunderstood antihero.
Best Kill: The franchise itself, if two more sequels weren’t rumored to be in the works. So how about when Leatherface slices Kenny in half at the waist? That was kinda cool.
Crimes Against Humanity: At this point in the franchise, the crime is against us, the fans. This sequel, like all the others, has disappointed us and exploited our devotion to the original.
Verdict: It’s not the worst in the bunch, but it might just be the most unnecessary. We’ve had crappy sequels. We’ve had a crappy reboot. Do we really need a crappy second attempt at a reboot? You’ve beaten this story to death, Hollywood. It’s as lifeless and rancid as a roadkill armadillo.
— Adriane Neuenschwander
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
The Players: Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour, Jonathan Tucker, Andrew Bryniarski, R. Lee Ermey
Tale as Old as Time: Five teens meet an eccentric Texas family on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Disaster ensues.
The Muse: It’s a Platinum Dunes production, so clearly it was made for art’s sake. Just kidding, it was for the money.
Whoa, How’d They Get That Guy? Jessica Biel’s presence in this film is easy to explain: She was trying to makeover the squeaky-clean image she’d acquired after several seasons of 7th Heaven. But character actor R. Lee Ermey? That’s just depressing. I don’t know how they got him (ka-ching!), but at least he seems to be having a hell of a time in the role of a corrupt sheriff who’s also the doting uncle of Leatherface. He really gets to ham it up, cursing and drawling and spitting up gobs of tobacco juice. It may not be the highlight of his long career, but at least he gets a few laughs in this gruesome-as-hell remake.
Wait, Did You Hear That? With the exception of a long rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama”, which is only in the film as a half-assed reminder that the story takes place in the ‘70s, the music is mostly orchestral. It kind of sounds like someone tried to tweak Howard Shore’s score for The Silence of the Lambs just enough to avoid copyright infringement.
Most Disturbing Moment Not Involving Cannibalism: The remake is determined to gross the audience out in any way possible, so this one’s tough. Let’s see: There’s an amputee dumping the contents of his colostomy bag into the toilet. Then there’s a guy getting all of his fingernails ripped off while scratching a wall. Oh, and there’s a cameo from Harry Knowles, the founder of Ain’t It Cool News (shriek!). But I think the pièce de résistance is a scene where a young hitchhiker pulls a handgun out of her vagina. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, that maybe she had some sort of holster hidden in her underwear. But no, the movie makes sure you know it was lodged in her nethers. R. Lee Ermey’s pervy sheriff even finds the gun later and sniffs it. This movie’s the cinematic equivalent of a pack of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards.
Best Kill: The best bit of gore comes early on. After the hitchhiker pulls the gun from between her legs, she blows her head off in a blast of bloody mist and faux brain chunks. This isn’t particularly innovative, to be sure. But afterwards, director Marcus Nispel blows his entire auteurist wad, pulling off a tracking shot through the victim’s gaping bullet hole and out the back of the van’s shattered window. Somebody must’ve done his homework and watched a bunch of Sam Raimi movies beforehand.
Crimes Against Humanity: The biggest crime this movie perpetrates, besides creating an unnecessary remake of a horror classic, is portraying Texans as some sort of subhuman species. This version of Chainsaw expands the Sawyer clan (only now their last name is Hewitt for some reason) to include seven members. In addition to Leatherface and the sheriff, we get a snaggle-toothed kid in rags, a morbidly obese woman in a muumuu, an amputee covered in his own filth, a gaunt baby stealer, and an old hag. It’s like producer Michael Bay decided that violence is passé and the real threat to society is the poor rural population. Or maybe he just couldn’t decide whether he wanted to remake Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Deliverance, so he just bastardized them both.
Verdict: It’s unnecessary, it’s mean-spirited, and it sprang from the loins of Michael Bay. Despite all that, it’s still much better than the second and fourth installments of this franchise. The special effects, the cast, and the photography are decent (Daniel Pearl did the cinematography for this one, as well as the original), but it’s all so anticlimactic, lacking the shocks and brazen originality of the 1974 version.
— Adriane Neuenschwander
Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)
The Players: Kate Hodge, William Butler, Ken Foree, R.A. Mihailoff, Viggo Mortensen
Tale as Old as Time: Two siblings meet a gun-toting survivalist and an eccentric Texas family on a road trip, with disastrous results.
The Muse: The first Chainsaw clearly paved the way for this effort from horror director Jeff Burr (Stepfather II, Puppet Master 4). In fact, this film completely elides everything that happened in the God-awful second installment, including the presumed death of Leatherface.
Whoa, How’d They Get That Guy? Long before he had David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson on speed dial, Viggo Mortensen was trying his damndest to be menacing as Leatherface’s brother Tex in Chainsaw III. Even though he’s easily the most charming member the Sawyer clan has ever claimed, it’s probably a good thing that Young Guns II came out that same year and helped sweep this IMDb credit under the rug.
Wait, Did You Hear That? Sometimes, when a chainsaw just isn’t enough to get your point across, you need a wicked guitar riff. This seems to be the guiding wisdom of Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, which has a jarring hair-metal soundtrack featuring bands with plenty of umlauts in their names. The music is distracting and borderline comical, especially the title track, “Leatherface” by Lääz Rockit.
Most Disturbing Moment Not Involving Cannibalism: As if being a murderous cannibal wasn’t threatening enough, this film decides to also make one of the Sawyer boys, Alfredo, a pervert. The audience is introduced to his antics during a scene where he peeps through a hole to watch our heroine use the restroom. This movie is already sloppy without the inclusion of a low-rent Psycho homage.
Best Kill: Maybe chainsaws and mallets finally lost their luster, because the best kill in Leatherface is committed with a shotgun. It happens when Benny, a well-armed survivalist played by perpetual badass Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), showers the Sawyer clan with bullets. Up until this point, the film is almost 100% gore-free — the result of a hack-’em-up editing job required to avoid an X rating — and this scene finally gives horror fans the sprays of fake blood they’ve been waiting for with bated breath.
Crimes Against Humanity: Pay careful attention to the fistfight between Tex and Benny in the final act. Viggo Mortensen actually breaks a rib during it.
Verdict: At best, this is a serviceable sequel. It shows an adequate amount of reverence for the original and offers up a couple of entertaining twists, like introducing Leatherface’s daughter and pitting the Sawyers against an armed protagonist. But frankly, anything is a step up from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
— Adriane Neuenschwander
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
The Players: Jordana Brewster, Diora Baird, Taylor Handley, Andrew Bryniarski, R. Lee Ermey
Tale as Old as Time: Two brothers and their girlfriends meet an eccentric Texas family on their way to enlisting in the Vietnam war, with disastrous results.
The Muse: Tons of fans had so many questions itchin’ at their craw after that first one. But your brahs at Platinum Dunes wouldn’t leave you hanging, so they you made this answering sheet of a prequel. What was Leatherface like growing up? Gross, homicidal, and ineloquent — he’s your typical home-schooled kid, right down to the skin disease. Why’s he so ornery? Well, public school kids were mean to him because he was ugly, and that’s a blank check for a lifetime of killing teens. And why do they eat people? Because the meat plant closed down, dummy! Thanks, Platinum Dunes, for finishing what you started.
Whoa, How’d They Get That Guy? Somebody knew a guy who knew a guy who could recommend a lily white cast of future actors for the USA and CW networks, former soap opera stars, and CSI bit players. Platinum Dunes gets what Platinum Dunes wants. Otherwise, no surprises, no slumming.
Wait, Did You Hear That? With the subtlety of a Forrest Gump soundtrack coordinator, this movie announces that it’s 1969 with the routine crunch of Free’s overused “All Right Now”. After that, and a misuse of the Ides of March’s horn-humpin’ jam “Vehicle” (from ‘70, not ‘69 … why do I care?), it’s all the same score and composer as last time. Just with 10 times the bass-bombing cues.
Most Disturbing Moment Not Involving Cannibalism: The gang hits a cow with their van. It’s bitchin’, and somebody will make a .gif of it some day.
Best Kill: It’s the very first chainsaw kill for lil’ Leatherface — or “Tommy” if you wanna play along with the humanization game — and it’s really nasty. Here’s how it goes down. A biker (Lee Tergesen) is lying face down atop Leatherface’s inactive chainsaw. The ripcord rips, and the chainsaw zips him in half, from left nipple to right hip, all in a slow upstroke that goes up the gut and out the back. It’s a shot that you can imagine older generations of horror directors sketching in their diaries decades ago, before crumpling it up and throwing it away because the MPAA would never allow it.
Crimes Against Humanity: It’s a crime to all fans of the franchise when they try to milk sympathy for Leatherface because he was a bullied and “misunderstood” child. Zombie did that with his Halloween, and that sucked. Also: Texas Chainsaw 3D.
Verdict: A sick part of me digs this mean and gnarly attempt at an origin story. It’s slick. It’s grody to the max. The cast really tries to sell it. Some moments manage to pack in enough tension to keep you going. It doesn’t try to be funny, and it ends up becoming the grimmest sequel/prequel/whatever of the franchise. In fact, I think it’s the second best film in the franchise. But mostly because of that cow.
— Roy Ivy
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Players: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen
Tale as Old as Time: Five teens meet an eccentric Texas family during their road trip, with disastrous results.
The Muse: The movie was inspired by Ed Gein, a Wisconsin-bred serial killer whose mommy issues and fetish for eating and wearing human flesh also influenced Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.
Whoa, How’d They Get That Guy? It was pretty damn easy to get John Larroquette to record the voice-over narration, actually. It was the up-and-coming actor’s first credited role, and he says Tobe Hooper paid him a single joint for his efforts.
Wait, Did You Hear That? The soundtrack — a joint effort between Wayne Bell and Hooper — perfectly captures the anxiety and hysteria of what’s happening onscreen. It’s a gut-churning hodgepodge of sound effects, ranging from a single cymbal crash to a squawking chicken to a high-pitched flashbulb, and I can only describe the end result as what a collaboration between Philip Glass and Satan himself would sound like. But this abstract soundscape never overpowers the narrative. It just simmers beneath the surface and heightens the viewer’s unease.
Most Disturbing Moment Not Involving Cannibalism: Rarely does a film present viewers with a character as simpering and obnoxious as Franklin, Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother. Though he whines and pouts throughout the film, Franklin reaches the pinnacle of irritation during a scene where his friends abandon him to explore his grandfather’s abandoned farmhouse. He spits and sputters and hollers at an octave that I wish only dogs could hear. It’s truly one of the most horrifying temper tantrums ever put to film.
Best Kill: Despite the title, only one victim in this film is actually killed with a chainsaw: Franklin. The others meet gruesome fates involving sledgehammers and meat hooks, but there’s something about Franklin’s death that’s especially memorable. Besides its brutality, the kill is made all the more terrible because the victim is almost completely helpless (poor Franklin can’t run away like his sister). It’s also iconic because of the smart way Hooper stages and shoots the scene; Leatherface springs out of the darkness, chainsaw in hand, and attacks Franklin. There’s very little gore, besides some blood splattering Leatherface’s shirt, and darkness obscures most of the actual murder. Because Hooper intimates the violence rather than showing it, viewers fill in the gaps — probably in a way that’s far more graphic than anything Hooper could have come up with on his own.
Crimes Against Humanity: If you’ve ever wondered how Hooper got such realistic performances out of his cast, the answer is easy: He tortured them. He shot the film in chronological order, so by the time the final dinner rolled around, the cast’s nerves were already frayed. They filmed that scene during a heat wave, caked in fake blood, makeup, and, in Gunnar Hansen’s case, a sweaty mask. The smell of rotting meat and body odor filled the room, and many of the cast and crew started getting sick. Add to all this the fact that Hansen had to actually cut Marilyn Burns’ finger with a knife because the special effect Hooper devised for the scene wasn’t working. The screaming, the mania, and the wide, terrified eyes — it’s all as real as it gets.
Verdict: A masterpiece, plain and simple. This film’s gritty documentary style, unrelenting brutality, and masked killer inspired a generation of horror filmmakers.
— Adriane Neuenschwander