Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Don't Mess With Texas

Year: 1990
Director: Jeff Burr
Cast: Kate Hodge, Ken Foree, R. A. Mihailoff
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

"They just get dumber and dumber, don't they?"

This line from Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is meant to be about the victims that wander in the way of the treacherous Sawyer family, but it's quite accurate in describing the franchise itself. It's a true marvel how ineffably, ludicrously dumb the filmmakers in charge of horror sequels tend to be, but the people behind Texas Chainsaw III just about take the cake, ripping continuity to shreds and replacing it with goreless, gibbering claptrap.

Although in retrospect, we all should have seen it coming when New Line Entertainment picked up the property in the late 80's. Sure, it's the company behind the beloved Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, but New Line in the 90's was like quicksand for horror franchises, sucking up everything good about them and spitting out dreadfully bizarre and bizarrely dreadful films like Freddy's Dead and Jason Goes to Hell.

Heck, even the teaser trailer tried to warn us it was a piece of crap.

Texas Chainsaw III "tells" the "story" of Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler of Friday the 13th Part VII), an annoying couple who are taking a road trip from LA to Florida by way of Texas. After a run-in at the Last Chance gas station and an unfortunate trunk-chainsawing, they get into an accident on a back road, flipping weekend survivalist Benny's (Ken Foree of From Beyond and Dawn of the Dead) Jeep and sending their own car careening into the forest.

After an interminable amount of Noises Off antics in the forest (up to three crazed hillbilly cannibals and up to four crazed victims appear and vanish between scenes at the whims of some unknown but certainly unmerciful god), Michelle arrives at a house in the woods (for the first and only time shot somewhere other than Texas - in this case Valencia, California though it looks more like the swamp planet Dagobah) just in time for the obligatory dinner party sequence.

As always, our Final Girl (insofar that she survives and is a female) gets to meet the family. And here's where things get hairy. If you recall from my previous entry in this franchise, Part 2 ended with the entire clan being blown up by a grenade and/or chainsawed and tossed into a turbine. I'll give the filmmakers a pass on bringing back Leatherface (R. A. Mihailoff) because a beloved franchise does need its main villain. But evidently the Sawyer family is like a Chia pet - just sprinkle some blood and new families will sprout around you, as many as you want!

You want three new brothers? Sure thing! Here's Tex (a pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen), Tinker (Joe Unger), and Alfredo (Tom Everett), each more unexciting and derivative than the last. You want Grandpa back? No problem! Here's his corpse to tide you over. You want a little girl (Jennifer Banko) in spite of the fact that there's no possible combination of sexually healthy humans in the film that could have borne her from their coition? You want a Mama (Miriam Byrd-Nethery) in a wheelchair with an electrolarynx? Screw you, you lunatic, but you got it!

The true modern family.

I haven't even mentioned that the family now lays traps in the woods like they're the frickin' Most Dangerous Game of the American Southwest and that Leatherface now has a leg brace as well as the ability to drive. Not to mention the film completely overestimates the importance of the chainsaw, elevating it to totemic power within the family.

For all this we're given no explanation. No delicate tiptoeing around continuity. Not even a gentle nod. The new world order for the Sawyers simply exists. And your ability to enjoy this movie is contingent on your ability accept this turn of events. But hey. I'm an easygoing horror fan.

I've laughed my way through Jason's dead child body teleporting from the New York sewers back to being a full-grown man at Crystal Lake. I've endured Freddy Krueger miraculously sprouting a wife and daughter and being given his dream powers by ancient worm demons. I've cheerily skipped through Michael Myers' induction into the Cult of Thorn. 

But Texas Chainsaw III just plain pisses me off. It's one thing to make a dumb horror sequel. It's another to create a film that dares to spit in the face of continuity itself, then devotes all its resources to a slavish imitation of the aesthetic of the original film, all the way down from the heat dripping off the frame to the insert shots of the sun to the armadillo in the road. And then attempts to dispel any potential claims of plagiarism by sticking earrings on that armadillo.

The cherry on top? That doll is named Sally.

This is infuriating to any hard-won fan of the franchise. But if one could manage the Herculean task of looking past that anger and being completely objective... The movie still is a piece of crap. But at the very least an amiably daffy piece of crap.

This is the first film where the acting slips below the slasher threshold, landing firmly in camp territory. Mihailoff's Leatherface is supremely unimpressive either way you slice it (be it chainsaw or what have you), but Mortensen's Tex is a delightful nutcase with an accent like slow-churned molasses. And Everett filters the Hitchhiker impression that provides the character of Alfredo through an accent that can only be described as "Elvis with a penny up his nose." And man oh man can Ken Foree be a bad actor when he wants to be, shouting his lines with little to no concern upon whom they fall.

There's just slightly enough gore to wet a neophyte's whistle, though even in the five-minutes-longer unrated cut, the grue is rather subdued. But the hamhanded dialogue more than makes up for it with its Screenwriting 101 tricks (use a random token from Act 1 to pay off a kill in Act 3, mirroring character situations before and after they make a change), which spill out from the screen like a magician's handkerchief.

Or, if you prefer, neckerchief.

And luckily for bad movie enthusiasts, the Final Girl is one of those "shout at the screen" types who always turns back after running seven feet and yells at her boyfriend to hurry up fixing the tire while continuously taking away the flashlight she's holding to aid his repairs. And did I mention that all of this is scored with a soundtrack that feels like a Trapt album run through a garbage disposal?

The finale especially is pure dumb fun, with one moment of humor (Leatherface plays a Leapfrog-style kids' game) that lands with intentionality. And at least two of the deaths are chainsaw related, which is far more uncommon than would seem possible in a franchise that has built its entire mythology around the implement.

So perhaps it's not quite as soul-poisoning as I first made it out to be. But the fact remains that this is the first film in the franchise that outright defaces the original masterpiece with its sheer ineptitude. There's certainly plenty more crap to come, but we must never forget this sad day in 1990 which finally felled the savage beast that is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

TL;DR: Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is dumb and terrible and spits on continuity but at least it doesn't take itself too seriously.
Rating: 4/10
Body Count: 6; not including an armadillo. Or Benny and Leatherface, who looked rather dead last time I saw them, but were revived without a scratch thanks to tampering from Lucifer the studio.
  1. Gina is hit in the head with a sledgehammer.
  2. Sara is chainsawed to death.
  3. Ryan is chainsawed and hit in the head with a hammer.
  4. Mama is shot three times with a shotgun.
  5. Tex is stabbed in the back and set on fire.
  6. Alfredo is shot in the chest with a shotgun. 
Word Count: 1351
Reviews In This Series
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)

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