In 2012, I saw two commercially released films in the theater. We’re less than a month into 2013 and I’m already halfway to meeting that record. Unfortunately, that movie was Texas Chainsaw 3D.
Jessica has already provided her thoughts on the movie and my reaction to it (along with an appropriately troubled looking photo of me immediately prior to the screening), so I’d like to provide an in-depth rebuttal.
First off, Jessica is correct: I am not a “horror movie fan”. I realize that’s a very broad statement to make, and to sound extra-snobby I should say I don’t care for “horror movies”, in the same way someone might say they don’t like “romance novels” even if they enjoy any number of novels that feature romantic storylines. Most media that fall into calcified genres tend to be formulaic and fan-servicey. I should know, I’ve read more superhero comic books than any living person should. I get why people become fans of very specific genres, and don’t presume to psychoanalyze anyone for their genre affinities.
I just don’t care about horror movies. I don’t get excited by sudden jolts. I never read Fangoria, and discovered Faces of Death and rotten.com early enough that the make-up and prosthetic wizardry of Tom Savini and his disciples don’t seem that exciting. And I don’t get anything but revulsion out of new-jack “torture porn” films full of snot and spittle flecked anguished faces lovingly brutalized for the camera. Those seem to be the unique qualities that bog-standard horror movies bring to the table. And that’s totally fine if you’re into that. I like overblown melodrama, balletic violence, audience-baiting and existential questions solved with fisticuffs, so I’m content to sometimes consume bog-standard pro wrestling and superhero comics. I still giggle at fart jokes and slapstick violence, so I’ll watch some aggressively mediocre comedies. People like what they like.
And sure, sometimes genre products rise above their station: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four, Dusty Rhodes’s manic white-soul-brother fury, the unbridled id given a million dollar budget and really nice camera that is the Jackass series. I’m incredibly ignorant of the Horror Movie sphere, but it seems like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another example of this. I only saw it in an empty Clockwork Orange inspired downtown bar over Happy Hour, but there’s no doubt it’s hugely influential, and seems to be pretty sui generis in the genre: of course there were earlier Halloween-costume-ready “monsters” like the Universal stable, but they were different: supernatural, otherworldly, and with tragic origins. TCM jettisoned all of that. Leatherface and his family were “normal” humans from a mundane real world location, and there was little to no time given over to the circumstances that led them to become cannibals who enjoy performing chainsaw massacres. They were just straight-up boogeymen, given a realistic sheen; the film was even touted as being “BASED ON A TRUE STORY”. Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, Godzilla, and the rest had literary origins, or at the very least origins. They just wanted to be left alone, or return home, or wreak terrible vengeance on those who wronged them. TCM didn’t waste time with any of that nonsense.
That’s all well and good for a one-off film, but senseless, unknowable evil doesn’t cut it for a franchise (except the Joker I guess, but he’s had dozens of iterations and is the antagonist) so the fact that Texas Chainsaw 3D was aiming to be a direct follow-up to the original, as opposed to a remake did not bode well. I know there have been plenty of other Texas Chainsaw stories told over the past thirty-eight years, but I know nothing about any of them except the 2003 remake (also seen over Happy Hour at Korova), which upped the torture-porn ante to a level I found deeply unpleasant. But even then, it didn’t bother trying to explain anything: there were just a bunch of cannabalistic murderers in the woods, and they’re going to lure in innocents and chainsaw the heck out of them!
For some reason — franchise longevity, probably — the makes of TC3D decided to give Leatherface the proverbial “face turn” in this movie. That would be a tall order in the most capable hands, but these guys blew it terribly. As Jessica points out, there are a few incredibly lazy signifiers to foreshadow this sudden sympathy. When the film opens in 1974, the Sawyer clan is inexplicably transformed from a quartet of blood-hungry dudes into a sprawling family that includes women and children. When the only black guy in the film — the noble town sherrif Hooper — arrives on the scene after Sally escapes, he tries talking man-to-man with the Sawyer patriarch. They’d gone “too far this time”, calling into question just how many cannibal murders the sherrif finds acceptable. But he’s a man of the law, so he promises if they turn Leatherface over to him, he will make sure he is provided with a good lawyer for his trial. All of this is interupted by a mob of angry townsfolk, who agree that this batch of murders has gone “too far”, but want to kill the entire family as punishment.
Just in case you think this is a reasonable response to a predatory gang of mass murderers, the filmmakers take pains to show frightened looking women and children in the Sawyer home. They even have one of the white townsfolk sass the Sherrif Hooper and toss a noose over a tree branch: why, this is nothing but a lynching! Persecuting the whole clan just because one of them happens to wear a mask made of human skin and delights in chainsaw massacres. Perhaps some of these folks weren’t even aware of what Cousin Jedidiah was getting up to!
Except TC3D opens with a montage of the original film, which shows the entire (visible) family actively participating in Chainsaw Massacres all over the home, the home covered in gore and furniture made of human flesh and bone. Another, non-Leatherface family member even ran out in public in an attempt to properly murder an escaping victim. And yes, the house in TC3D was also decorated in human remains. There weren’t any innocents in this house, and the fact that Noble Sherrif was willing to plea bargain and let the mentally retarded guy in a skinmask take the fall while leaving the more intelligent and actively predatory Sawyers free undermines any sort of sympathy you’re supposed to feel for anyone in this scene.
Later that evening, one of the angry mob discover a surviving Sawyer woman in the woods, clutching a baby to her chest. I guess we’re supposed to see the Mob Member as a bad guy because he kicks the lady in the face and takes her baby. While certainly unchivalrous, I have to repeat myself: this lady presumably lived in an active cannibal-murder site. There is an excellent chance that she conceived this baby on a bed made of human remains, ate human flesh during the pregnancy, and lovingly nursed her baby girl while sitting on a chair made of lashed together femurs. If she was some sort of Massacre Conscientious Objector, the film didn’t bother indicating this. Taking a baby out of that environment is a blessing, and if the Noble Sherrif had his shit together he would have sent Child Protective Services up there ages ago. Then again, maybe he did, and those case workers were part of the acceptable level of Chainsaw Massacres that he was willing to overlook.
Besides, as we soon learn, his wife’s insides were a rocky place, where his seed could find no purchase. And they quickly moved away from the town that puts up with some Chainsaw Massacres, up to some pleasant-enough looking suburbs where their adopted daughter Heather lives a carefree life: she works at a grocery store with her care-free best friend Cynthia from Malcolm in the Middle. In her spare time she makes artsy collages and has nudity-free sex with her boyfriend Trey Songz. Best of all, Cynthia just had a great first date with Trey Songz’z best friend, Young Guy Fieri. He doesn’t actually look that much like Guy, but a) he loves to cook, that is his sole character trait b) he’s kind of artsy-frat-douchey like Fieri c) we can continue to dump on Fieri for at least another month before I start to weirdly pity him.
This personality-free quartet are all set to go crazy on Halloween down in New Orleans, but tragedy strikes when Heather finds out that a) her grandmother has died and b) whoops, she’s adopted! This news, along with her dad being a royal jerk, quickly and permanently estrange her from her adopted parents. She’s set to uproot her entire life and just move to Texas, I guess, when her friends decide they can swing by Texas “on the way” (from where?) and they trundle on down, picking up a hunky hitchhiker on the way.
And then some other stuff happens, involving a lawyer who also was the Jump to Conclusions guy from Office Space, and before long Leatherface is freed and starts killing everyone. How exactly the Sawyer family had a wealthy matriach who owned a mansion, and why she chose to secretly take in Leatherface, only to lock him in a dungeon for three decades, is never addressed. Why the matriarch waited until her passing to welcome Heather into the fold as “Leatherface’s caretaker” is similarly unexplored. But needless to say, after she openly declares the entire town “MURDERERS”, the Mayor and his old posse turn into full cartoonish villains, planning to use Heather’s warm, barely clothed flesh as a honeypot to lure in Leatherface, who has some sort of bloodhound’s ability to track escaping victims down. Once all the surviving parties converge at the old meat-packing plant, the fearsome Leatherface notices that Heather has a tiny ‘birthmark” that ties her to his family, and he immediately decides not to kill her. But then the Mayor and his elderly henchman arrive, and blindside Leatherface with some sort of bludgeon.
This is another terrible, franchise-breaking moment for me. Leatherface, the relentless force of murderous nature, is lying on the ground, whimpering, getting whupped by two men in their sixties. It would be one thing for Leatherface to show emotional vulnerability — he’s supposed to have a child’s mind, he’s apparently incapable of speech, and he’s pretty socially awkward — but this is just a dude getting punked out by two senior citizens, who then place him in an ironic deathtrap as they crow about wiping out the Sawyer clan. Fortunately for Leatherface, his cousin is there to stab one of the men in the chest with a pitchfork, then toss him a chainsaw while quipping, “DO YOUR THING, CUZ.” The Noble Sherrif, who thirty years ago wanted to bring in Leatherface for countless murder charges, and who is aware that Leatherface has murdered at least three people that very night, looks on approvingly from the scaffolding as Leatherface eviscerates the Mayor and dumps him into a meat grinder. That’s just poetic justice! This man is a terrible officer of the law, and compounds that by walking away from the scene of two murders with a smile on his face. Heather returns to her blood-soaked mansion and after securing Leatherface in his skin dungeon, wistfully begins cleaning up, as her grandmother’s letter about BLOOD BEING THICKER THAN WATER floats above as a narration.
Jessica argues that I’m not looking at this from the “experienced horror movie” perspective. The townspeople were the villains! One of the sherrifs that Leatherface murders and flays calls him a “fruitcake”, so Leatherface is a symbol of LGBT outsiders! The black sherrif is sort of nice on a surface level, whereas the other [white] townsfolk are kind of mean! Leatherface is striking a blow against small-minded bigots everywhere when he indiscriminately kills people, cuts off their face, eats their flesh and wears their skin as a mask! Like I said, I agree that these half-hearted signposts exist, they’re just entirely unsupported by the rest of the narrative. You can’t edit in Freddy Krueger yelling “THAT’S RACIST” a couple times into Nightmare on Elm Street and turn it into a civil rights parable.
One last thing: I suspect some of you may be wondering why I called the Noble Sherrif the only black character in a film that prominently features Tremaine ‘Trey Songz’ Neverson, openly black musician and actor. Jessica points out that his romance with the very white Heather is never brought up, not even by the (presumably) small-minded townsfolk in Texas. She says this is a pleasant, progressive surprise. I suspect that it’s more because the role was written for a white guy, then Trey Songz got involved with the project at a later date. After all, in her reading (and admittedly, the reading going on in the minds if not the pens and cameras of the filmmakers), the non-Sawyer-Murder-Family members of this Texas town are supposed to be bigots. They fear and hate outsiders. So why wouldn’t they be racist? If Sherrif Hooper is supposed to be such a strong signifier as “the only black person in the entire movie”, why isn’t he the only black person in the entire movie? It seems far more likely that the motivation for Trey Songz’z involvment was to draw in a bunch of Trey Songz fans that might not otherwise go see a bad 3-D horror movie in January. If our theater in Manhattan was any indication, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Though it was interesting how the hooting and squealing for his anti-climactic death were nearly as loud as for his sweaty, abs-baring introduction.
I don’t know! So to summarize, Leatherface’s character arc is that he spent untold years murdering and eating people along with his family, until Sally escapes at the end of the original and the murderhouse is razed. Then he spends like thirty-eight years locked in a grandmother’s basement, though presumably he’s let out periodically to find new bodies to drag into his abbatoir/arts and crafts nook. Then some kids enter the house and accidentally unleash him, he immediately murders two of them and chases the rest out into the night. One dies while fleeing, while another is captured by Leatherface and locked in a freezer. He pursues the final victim into a carnival, where he doggedly attempts to murder her until a police officer intervenes.
Through all of this, he is still a brutal, reflexively murderous automaton. But then he gets beat up by some old people and bonds with his cousin, so he’s THE HERO.
Texas Chainsaw 3D was not a very good movie. It didn’t deserve this much tough. But Jessica told me repeatedly that I was “bad at horror movies” because I didn’t like it. I am not bad at horror movies! This movie is, however.