The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Tobe Hooper

REVIEWED: 11-02-98

The violence is outdated by today's standards, but the original Chainsaw still packs a punch with its rough look and disturbing overtones. It starts with a creepy narration (provided by a then-unknown John Larroquette) to give the impression that it's a true story, then shows five young Texans heading to a desecrated cemetery. Siblings Sally (Marilyn Burns) and invalid Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are most concerned because their grandfather is buried there. Leaving, they decide to visit their grandfather's old farmhouse off in the woods. Unbeknownst to them, the neighboring house is home to a family of demented cannibals, which includes the chainsaw--wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). From there, the massacre begins.

By the Seventies, moviegoers had seen their share of monsters and even a few Norman Bates-type characters. But nothing could prepare them for Tobe Hooper's twisted foray into the heart of the Lone Star State. Here, what was perceived as the most stable of institutions, the American family, is the beast. With that, it's no coincidence that the scariest scene in the film takes place at a dinner table. Hooper's vision is horrid yet engrossing. His subtle touches (background radio bulletins repeating gory crimes throughout the state) and grotesque characterizations make rural Texas seem like a hellish place where only the strong survive. But the worst part about this vision is that despite its sensational aspects, it never seems too far from what could be the truth.

Amusing in some areas and disappointing in others, the sequel follows Texas Ranger Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) in his crusade to destroy the chainsaw family. Returning from the original cast is Jim Siedow, who's now a renowned chili chef (using human ingredients) and acts as the head of the family that now includes Chop-Top (with an exposed steel head plate), a dead Grandpa, and the clan's pride and joy, Leatherface (Bill Johnson). Make-up wizard Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow) provides expert blood and guts, but as a whole, the plot drags and the suspense is minimal. The best thing is its unending silliness. Considering that the rest of the films are difficult to stomach more than once, this actually has several laughs with Hopper's overdramatics and his special chainsaw holster.

Leatherface encompasses much of the stark horror of the first Chainsaw, utilizing a scary environment (Texas backwoods), torture (person being nailed to a chair), and redneck cannibals (Mama eatin' eyeballs from a cereal bowl). It centers on two yuppies (Kate Hodge and William Butler) in a Mercedes Benz (an updated contrast to the original's "hippies in a van") who have a run-in with a loony, gun-toting gas station attendant. Fleeing, they enter the woods and encounter Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff) and his family (including Viggo Mortensen as the seedy Tex). The odds are evened up when weekend survivalist Benny (Ken Foree) enters the picture, armed to the teeth with militia gear. The action is quick with a speed metal soundtrack underscoring chases and Foree's Rambo-like heroics. Also effective is the clichéd yet spooky swamp setting, which makes escape all the more difficult for the protagonists. Superior to both Part II and the subsequent Next Generation, the film's frenetic energy and haunting visuals convey the story with punch and style. Although it initially went unnoticed, it's one of the better Bs of the decade, offering an equal share of chills and thrills.

You probably guessed that Next Generation (originally Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was shot before part-time Austinites Zellweger and McConaughey began acting opposite the likes of Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep. Here, they're seen preparing for stardom by starring with groundbreaking local actor Robert Jacks. After all, Jacks can be considered wickedly innovative since he was the first (and only) actor to portray Leatherface as a cross-dressing vivisectionist (which is actually in line with the series' real-life inspiration, Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein). Despite such dramatics, this is a bad remake rather than a sequel. It begins with teen nerd Jenny (Zellweger) and three friends leaving their prom only to total their car in the Texas backwoods. The systematic character elimination is predictable and rendered clumsily by director Kim Henkel (co-writer of the original). Rehashing old gory gimmickry (meat hook through the back), Henkel introduces an ambiguous plot twist that links the chainsaw family to an international society of sadomasochists. Zellweger suffers as the bedraggled heroine, being punched, kicked, and even licked on the face (yuck!) for much of the film while McConaughey is disgustingly convincing as Vilmer, a tortuous psycho with a remote-controlled leg brace. It's a meek echo of the original Chainsaw, but not without its own sick charm. Considering visual eccentricities like Leatherface in drag and the concept of a fraternity of horrormongers, the film has a few redeeming qualities, but not enough to make it truly memorable.

--Mike Emery

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Other Films by Tobe Hooper

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