Saturday, October 18, 2014

Everything's Weirder In Texas

Year: 1994
Director: Kim Henkel
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Matthew McCounaughey, Robert Jacks
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In the days since the turn of the century, classic horror franchises have been rebooted left and right. Because of the increasingly bizarre and gnarled nature of 80's horror sequels and their withered early 90's fruits, a fresh start tended to be the only option for those interested in continuing a series. Friday made it through 10 films before getting the remake treatment, each more incomprehensible than the last. Nightmare cartwheeled its manic way through 7 and Halloween solemnly marched through 8 before they were swept up in the craze.

And what of Texas Chainsaw? That beloved 1974 Tobe Hooper magnum opus? The illegitimate spawn of that franchise only lurched their way through a scant 4 before crashing and burning in despair. The film that put the final nail in that coffin is the inoperably perplexing Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, which would lay the series to rest until its ignominious resurrection in 2003.

After Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, I didn't think any single film could possibly be more incomprehensible and irritating than that entry's indiscretions in the face of continuity. I was dreadfully, horribly wrong. For, you see, The Next Generation begins in a terrible, putrid place and goes even further downhill with every minute that ticks by. But let's start at the beginning. That fetid, rotten, terrible terrible place...

High school prom!

Even worse, the classic "flash photos of a corpse" opening is recreated while a mom takes prom pictures. If there's a better way to smear feces all over the legacy of the original Texas Chain Saw, it's... well, it's the rest of the film.

After a prom sequence so brief it feels more like a Vine than exposition, four teens set off unnecessarily on a drive through the Texan wilderness. This slate of queasy Meat includes Heather (Lisa Marie Newmyer), a whiny, jealous girl with an obsession for the macabre; Barry (Tyler Cone), her boyfriend and an overwhelmingly colossal douche, the type of person who'll feel up his girlfriend's best friend right in front of her; Sean (John Harrison), a bland stoner; and Jenny (Renée Zellweger, the first of two inexplicable future celebrities in this turkey), a nerdy, virginal waif with the personality of a paper bag.

This is all established with dialogue as subtle as a meat hook, including - I wish I was kidding - "everyone knows he's a pothead and you guys are just friends!" After they get into a crash in the woods (echoing TCM III, though once the movie settles comfortably into a groove, it opts for a beat by beat riff on Part One), the kids wander their way through the First Act - a veritable avalanche of teenybopper horror tropes.

Including, but not limited to every single character being so venomously obnoxious you actively root for them all to die.

The woods are so foggy, it feels like a forest fire is raging just offscreen, the soundtrack could be sold as Now That's What I Call 90's Alt Rock Garbage - Volume 5, and the only even semi-effective scare involves a plastic garbage bag blowing in the wind. I'd say it's a metaphor for this film, but that's not being particularly fair to the garbage bag.

So the friends get picked off and - shock of shocks - Jenny is brought to dinner with Leatherface and his new family. At this point I am reluctantly resigned to accepting the fact that every time a Massacre is finished, a new cannibal family sprouts around the chainsaw-wielding killer like kudzu. At least his Family of the Week is fairly easy to keep track of.

There's Leatherface (Robert Jacks), of course; W. E. (Joe Stevens), who incessantly quotes famous authors because why not, even deranged cannibals can pick up a library card; and Darla (Tonie Perensky) a trashy realtor who flashes passersby for kicks and is dating into the family to fulfill her monumentally kinky S&M desires with Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey, who has since endeavored with all his might to make you forget this fact), a crazed tow truck worker with a remote-controlled robot leg. I assure you that wasn't a typo, although I pray it started off that way when the script was being written.

This is pretty much what McConaughey will do to you if you bring up this film in mixed company.

Once the teens reach the house, the film kicks back in, repeating the scares and kills from Part One with voracity. One might think that director-writer Kim Henkel, the co-writer of the original film, would manage to provide some unique insight or twist on the formula, but one would be wrong. One must learn sooner rather than later that it is not wise to grasp at straws when it comes to horror sequels. Or else One will wallow in an endless swamp of bitter disappointment.

The second act is saved only by the efforts of McConaughey, who fully commits himself to the role with the then-unpolished but ample talent that would later earn him his Academy Award. He shines among his drab family and at least he draws attention from the least powerful Leatherface performance in franchise canon - Jacks all too frequently falls back on shrieking in terror in lieu of a physical performance. 

And, yes, Zellweger too has since won herself some accolades, but here she is a wet mop, though admittedly she does bring an Every Teen quality to her unconfident performance. But you know who is a fan of Every Teen? Nobody, that's who. Not even other teens.

Not even Cher. But she's just mad that Jenny stole her dress.

The set design is, in a word, depressing. Gone are the rooms filled with animal bones and macabre skeletal furniture in favor of... a few overturned chairs? This is a horror film, not the Big Lots showroom. And the makeup is disheartening. The 90's were a treacherous, neutered time for horror films in general, but one would think the designer could have provided Leatherface with a mask that looked less like a slice of bologna. And don't even get me started on the Grandpa makeup!

Oh yes, he's back, and undeader than ever!

The only viable comparison I have come across is this kid at the Days of the Dead convention whose head was too small for the Michael Myers mask, puckering it into an absurd smirk.

Behold, the face of true evil.

Luckily the third act ramps up the garish absurdity to 11 and snaps off the dial. Between the leg remote fight, the abrupt appearance of an Illuminati leader with three nipples who licks Jenny's face, and the prim elderly couple drinking Bloody Marys in an RV, this film has to be seen to be believed. I was told going in that the film was unpredictable, but it delivers far more ludicrous plot development than any film could possibly contain within the known laws of physics.

It's loud, messy, over the top, and Leatherface is decked out in Rosie O'Donnell drag.

I told you. Unpredictable.

But the sheer insanity of the whole thing is the only element of the entire film with a whiff of originality to it. The film's watchability owes a great debt to its camp factor (aside from the two pre-celebrities, nothing else recommends The Next Generation) as it skyrockets, aiming to top each and every moment with yet another and another and don't forget the cherry on top.

It's the film that killed the series, but I can't say it didn't do so in style. I couldn't possibly ask anyone in good conscience to watch The Next Generation, but at least it earns its keep as a delightfully bad romp through one of the strangest horror franchises in the annals of cinema history.

PS: It delights me to no end to think that somewhere out there, it was someone's job to provide the sound for Vilmer's robot leg as he whirred around the room. Hollywood is a beautiful place.

TL;DR: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is shrilly bad, but delectably wacky.
Rating: 5/10
Body Count: 6; not counting the copious audience brain cells that withered and died while watching this.
  1. "I'm Not Hurt" Boy has his neck snapped.
  2. Sean is run over repeatedly by a tow truck.
  3. Barry is hit in the head with a mallet.
  4. W. E. is hit in the head with a sledgehammer.
  5. Heather is impaled on a meat hook, set on fire, and has her skull crushed with a robot leg.
  6. Vilmer has his head split open with a plane propeller. 
Word Count: 1448
Reviews In This Series
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)

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