Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Recent Watches: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

For nine years, Leatherface’s chainsaw was silent. The oddness of “The Next Generation” had successfully killed the franchise for nearly a decade. That is until explosion meister Michael Bay and his partner Brad Fuller had an idea. A horrible, sacrilegious idea. Their new company Platinum Dunes – as in a shiny, artificial version of something meant to be gritty and natural – would specialize in remaking classic horror films. And the first beloved title on the butcher’s block was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The final product was blasphemous to true horror fans. Despite that, the remake became the highest grossing entry in the series, birthing a new trend in horror that lasted for the rest of the naughties. Leatherface would only be the first horror icon to be re-imagined for insipid modern audiences.

2003’s “Chainsaw Massacre” loosely adapts the original. A group of teens are traveling across Texas, this time to a Skynyrd concert. They pick up a female hitchhiker, who then commits suicide. Attempts to contact local authorities put them in the path of Leatherface and his saw. Remnants of the original story remain: The number of teens, the van, the hitchhiker, a male lead getting a hammer to the head, the heroine escaping Leatherface only to wander into one of his family members. Otherwise, the story is very different. The remake even leaves some major elements, like the dinner scene, on the butcher house floor. The main aspect 2003 takes from 1974 is the fake “based on true events” element. The story takes place in 1973 while the opening claims original police evidence – from the “actual” crime scene – inspired the film. 

After this “Massacre” made money, a lot of famous horror films from the seventies and eighties would get remade. Many of these films would imitate “Texas Chainsaw’s” visual style. The color palette is mostly grey, with storm cloud-choked skies always overhead. That is when it isn’t black. The aesthetic can best be described as grungy. Every surface is seemingly caked with dirt or grease. The characters are sweaty, the grass is long, the homes are filthy. As sleazy as the film’s look is, it’s also simultaneously slick. The contrast between the whites and blacks is high. The slime and sweat are carefully placed. It’s the car commercial version of Southern fried insanity. There’s none of the natural clutter of the original. Every aspect is calculated and predetermined. This is studio mandated filth, factory made squalor.

The original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” famously kept most of its gore off-screen. The sequels, generally, did not. The remake follows that lead. Leatherface cracks heads and severs legs, resulting in weeping wounds. We even get a peak into his work shop, seeing him slit bodies and cut faces. Like the torture horror that would become popular soon afterwards, the remake’s violence is sleekly sadistic. A victim is hung on a meat hook, dangling, struggling and suffering. Later, Leatherface dispatches a male crotch first. When the big guy isn’t cutting people up, his family members are playing cruel head games with the teens. This produces a hopeless atmosphere. The original was hopeless too but in pursuit of a wider point. About small town businesses or meat or violence or family. The 2003 version, meanwhile, is the textbook definition of trendy nihilism. The remake is grim without reason, brutal for its own sake.

Another thing I hate about the horror remake fad is how beautiful the casts are. Listen, I like looking at beautiful people too. However, populating your cast with nothing but supermodels removes the material from reality. Further more, many of these actors are badly cast. Eric Balfour as Kemper, the heroine’s boyfriend, is a blank presence. Mike Vogel as Andy is totally indistinct. Jonathan Tucker as stoner/nerd Morgan brings a jangly nervousness but nothing else. Erica Leerhsen plays hippy chick Pepper, degrading into a bitch stereotype before too long. Jessica Biel was the break-out star of the film, mostly because of the tied-off tank top and vacuum-sealed jeans she wears. Biel’s Erin has the most personality of all the teens and even she is mostly defined by her search for her boyfriend. Despite the seventies setting, none of these kids look like they’re from that decade.

Continuations of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” have a bad habit of fucking up Leatherface. Apparently, the hulking man-child of the original – whose personality was dictated by which mask he wore, who saw humans as a butcher sees pigs – is too complex for hack filmmakers to understand. The remake does the greatest disservice to Bubba Sawyer, who is renamed Thomas Hewitt. Leatherface now wears a mask made of human flesh to hide a deforming skin disease, which has rotted away his nose. He has a tragic backstory, being teased as a child. The cannibalism is barely referenced and his fascination with the flesh is gone. All the personality is sucked out, the most fascinating of modern horror villains reduced to a generic maniac. Andrew Bryniarski brings no subtly or pathos to the part. He’s a shrieking, murdering monster, nothing more, nothing less.

The entries in the franchise not directed by Tobe Hooper also tend to miss the boat on Leatherface’s family. One of the biggest clichés Platinum Dunes rely on is standard anxieties about the American south. See, the teens that traveled from the city are beautiful. The redneck deviants who slaughter them are ugly. Old Monty is a double amputee, showing off his stumps and his colostomy bag. (He also feels up Jessica Biels, if you didn’t already get that he’s a creep.) Leatherface’s mom is morbidly obese. His sister has sunken, meth addict eyes. They’re all generic Southern fried sickos, without the specific eccentricities or personalities of Hooper’s original. Among the villains, only R. Lee Ermey’s Sheriff Hoyt is given anything to do. Even then, Ermey just once again trots out his sadistic drill sergeant act, that cruelty contributing to the film’s already overbearing malice.

1974’s “Chain Saw Massacre” unnerved the audience by simultaneously feeling like a newsreel and a dispatch from a world gone totally mad. Tobe Hooper wanted to make a scary movie and he succeeded. I don’t even know if the remake is trying to be scary. The only real shock tactic in its toolbox, besides the cruel violence and fake-gritty visual design, are lame jump scares. Figures dash through the foreground, accompanied by loud stings on the soundtrack. There’s even a fucking spring loaded opossum. There’s nothing charming about the movie’s desperation to get scares. Instead, it’s a crass and obvious maneuver. “It worked before,” the filmmakers figured, “It’ll work again.”

The producers were intent on making a commercially successful horror film. So they bought the rights to a recognizable name, ignorant of and disinterested in that name’s significance. They cast actors who were up-and-coming and ridiculously photogenic. They hired a director – music video and commercial veteran Marcus Nispel – who would deliver a visually slick film. They utilized the then-trendy elements in mainstream horror, such as grisly gore and a downbeat tone. When that didn’t work, they relied on the same shit talentless genre directors have been using for years, like cheap jump scares and creepy hillbillies. And this blatant, cold and logical calculation fucking worked. Stupid teenagers went in droves, threw their popcorn into the air and leaped into their boyfriend’s laps. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” made a lot of money and Brad Fuller would apply this same formula to future films. Everybody won except for people who expect something meaningful or creative from their movies. [3/10]

Friday, July 22, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (2002)

17. Shadow Realm

As previously established, Tobe Hooper’s latter day career has mostly been filled with television work. In 2001, Hooper directed two episodes of short-lived anthology series “Night Visions.” “Night Visions” was clearly modeled after “The Twilight Zone.” The stories often straddled the line between science fiction and horror, more properly belonging to the fantastique genre. Like the eighties revival of “The Twilight Zone,” each episode of “Night Visions” featured two stories. The most prominent similarities was that the show often ended its tales with ironic twists and moral lessons. The series suffered from executive meddling. Fox insisted on a host. The creators wanted Gary Oldman but the producers picked rock star/occasional actor/asshole Henry Rollins. The network aired the show as summer filler, where it was met with a tepid response. The series didn’t air in its entirety until the Sci-Fi Channel picked it up some time later.

What does any of this have to do with “Shadow Realm?” For some reason, after airing most of “Night Visions,” the Sci-Fi Channel decided to edit two of the unaired episodes – four stories – into a TV movie. The Henry Rollins host segments were clipped out. This was no great loss as all Rollins did was blankly introduce the story and then lazily reiterate the theme at the end, his scenes comprising only a few seconds. Tobe Hooper directed one of the “Night Visions” portions in “Shadow Realm,” which is why I’m talking about this. As far as I know, the “Shadow Realm” presentation has never been released on home video or leaked to the internet. However, the individual “Night Visions” episode are available. I hope it doesn’t shake anybody's sense of my professionalism to know I just watched those instead.

“Shadow Realm” begins with “Patterns.” Martin Hudson is admitted to see Dr. Daniel Critchley. Critchley immediately recognizes Hudson as suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. He constantly makes odd gestures and repetitive actions. Hudson believes that his obsessive rituals keep the world from falling into chaos. If he, for example, forgets to cross himself multiple times, airplanes will start falling out of the sky. Critchley believes Hudson to be mentally ill and wants to help him control his compulsions. After doing so, though, horrible things begins to happen.

The Sci-Fi Channel producers were smart to start “Shadow Realm” with “Patterns,” as it’s probably the best segment in the film. Two recognizable cult actors are cast in the main roles. Malcolm McDowell plays Hudson. McDowell is adapt at harnessing nervous energy to create eccentric characters. This makes him an ideal choice for an OCD crippled man. Miguel Ferrer plays the skeptical doctor. Ferrer’s gravelly voice brings with it a certain level of authority, making him a good choice for a disbelieving shrink. Watching the two play off each other is entertaining, as Ferrer pushes for his version of the truth and McDowell holds steady to his conceptions.

The two solid performers make up for the script’s heavy-handed aspects. The flashbacks to Hudson’s childhood, when he first discovered his ability, feature some awful child acting. Once McDowell is medicated, the world goes mad. This is shown in several fairly silly ways. Suddenly, the security guard is naked. A car lays in a parking spot upside down. Even the inevitable violence, such as casual murder and suicide, lack impact. It all leads up to an incredibly obvious ending. The conclusion is easy to guess, the set-up coming nearly from the beginning. The twist is too on-the-nose, pinned with overly obvious dialogue. It’s a problem every segment, and one assumes every episode of “Night Visions,” has.

The second story in “Shadow Realm,” “The Maze,” is directed by Tobe Hooper. Thora Birch stars as Susan, a college student primarily focused on her study and track training. One day, while walking across campus, she takes a short cut through a hedge maze. After emerging from the other side, she’s seemingly been teleported a year into the future. Society has crumbled in the wake of a scientific announcement: A planet devastating meteor is headed on a collision course with Earth. Susan now has to find a way back home, before her world ends.

As I said, every segment in “Shadow Realm” approaches its moral in an incredibly obtuse manner. “The Maze” begins with a fellow student asking Susan out on a date. She ignores him and, afterwards, a friend tells her she needs to make room for romance in her life. After her time jump reveals that the world will end in a year, Susan changes her mind about the guy. In other words: You should take chances and enjoy your life because you never know when it’ll end. Maybe this would be less annoying if the world going mad was portrayed better. Instead, we get Amanda Plummer as crazed music professor, stabbing her students to death. It’s weak sauce, not helped by Birch’s sleepy performance or Plummer’s broad overacting.

Tobe Hooper’s television work is unusually fairly indistinct. “The Maze” is mediocre overall but it does feature some decent camera work. As Birch explores the abandoned college campus, Hooper often employs expressive shots. Scenes of the girl walking up a stair case or wandering through an empty cafeteria are accompanied by dutch angles or wide lens. While exploring the hedge maze, off-center, askew perspectives are employed. It doesn’t amount to a whole lot but it does show one of the director’s trademarks still surviving, even into the doldrums of his career.

The third segment in “Shadow Realm” is easily its worst. “Harmony” concerns Timothy Olyphant’s Eli, a traveler whose car breaks down outside the titular town. Upon getting the car in the shop and finding a hotel, he discovers Harmony is an incredible pleasant town. Except everyone freaks out at the slightest sound of music. Eli soon discovers that the inhabitants of Harmony believe that music will summon the Beast, a murderous monster who lives in the woods. It’s a belief the townsfolk are willing to kill to gurantee.

“Harmony” has a lack of interior logic. A monster being summoned by music strikes me as a random writing choice. The people in the town haven’t seen the Beast for hundreds of years. Yet this belief is so built-in, that anything that even resembles music drives them into a violent rage. Whistling or tapping on glasses apparently counts as examples of “music.” The climax of the episode is a stiff, passion lacking conversation between Eli and the townsfolk. The dialogue here is incredibly stilted, the script making its points as broadly as possible. The last minute twist is entirely senseless. Turns out, the Beast is real, making Harmony’s paranoia and violence wholly justified. Henry Rollins’ assures us that the moral here is “respect other people’s beliefs,” apparently even when people are dying senselessly because of them.

“Voices,” the final portion of “Shadow Realm,” concerns Sandra, a deaf woman whose profession is court room illustrator. She’s undergoing experimental treatment to possibly restore her hearing. It doesn’t seem to be working. That is, until she hears a man’s thoughts in court one day. While a cop testifies that a man was killed in a gang shooting, his deranged thoughts reveal he committed the murder. Soon, the murderous cop discovers Sandra’s knowledge of his crime and begins to pursue her.

The most interesting thing about “Voices” is how it illustrates a deaf person’s observations of the world. The soundtrack will go silent, the murderer’s voice being the only noise. Mostly though, “Voices” is as overdone as the rest of “Shadow Realm.” Terrylene’s overly earnest performance as Sandra often borders on camp. The thoughts of John Finn’s killer cop, singular statements always barked in a gruff voice, quickly become ridiculous. The episode devotes a lengthy sequence to explaining the killer’s backstory. The traumatic childhood event that turned him violent is extensively detailed. Instead of Sandra and the mad man having a thrilling confrontation, she talks him back from the edge of insanity. It’s seriously underwhelming and deeply silly. Those words also accurately describe the entire segment.

“Shadow Realm” is easily the most obscure entry in Tobe Hooper’s long career. Considering the forgettable and barely released films he’s been associated with, that’s no small statement. “Night Visions” is a show with a very small cult following. Which makes a TV movie cobbled together from a few stray episodes even more minor. The handful of recognizable names both in front of and behind the camera – Keith Gordon directed “Patterns,” by the way – made me curious enough about the anthology to give it a look. Ultimately, it’s a film I’d probably forget about if it wasn’t for the odd behind the scene circumstances. [Grade: C]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (2000)

16. Crocodile

There was a time when I watched the Sci-Fi Channel, as it was then known, a lot. I loved “Mystery Science Theater 3000” while Sci-Fi often filled its schedule with old school genre television, classic horror and science fiction flicks. In the early two-thousands, the channel began to change its focus. Soon, the cable network began to show cheaply produced, direct-to-video monster movies over and over again. The special effects in these movies were often pathetic, relying on the shittiest of CGI. Nowadays, the channel’s biggest original movies are the “Sharknado” franchise, showing that this focus hasn’t shifted any. A common presence on the network at the time was “Crocodile.” For some reason, Tobe Hooper directed this movie. His long fall from the horror A-list had finally reached rock bottom.

Brady and Duncan are headed for a wild spring break in Florida. Once in the swamp, they meet up with Brady’s girlfriend Claire and a bunch of other kids. Their week of debauchery, drugs, and booze is interrupted when Claire discovers Brady has slept with Sunny, the loose girl in the group. Meanwhile, a pair of drunken hunters wreck a nest filled with mysterious eggs. Afterwards, they’re killed by a giant crocodile. A local legend, about a croc-worshipping hotel owner importing the reptile from Egypt, is connected with the beast. After the teens stumble upon the nest, the giant critter comes after them. Will any of them survive? Will the audience care?

During the Sci-Fi Channel’s rapid decline around the turn of the millennium, the network frequently showed movies produced by Nu Image. The company would eventually reach a certain level of main stream success by releasing “The Expendables” series. But they got their start producing low budget action schlock like “Cyborg Cop,” “Project Shadowchaser,” and “Operation Delta Force.” In time, the company would branch out into low budget horror schlock, such as “Shark Attack.” “Crocodile” was part of a loose trilogy of singularly entitled killer animal movies Nu Image released in 2000. “Crocodile,” “Spiders,” and “Octopus” were all shown on Sci-Fi Channel constantly. Their sequels – “Crocodile 2: Death Swamp,” “Spiders II: Breeding Ground,” and “Octopus 2: River of Fear” – were also frequently shown. “Crocodile” isn’t the worst of this particular suite of films. That’s “Octopus.” It’s also not the best, which is “Spiders.” (Maybe Nu Image agrees with that, as they bafflingly remade “Spiders” in 2013.) Not that quantifiers like “best” and “worst” mean anything when we’re discussing Z-grade garbage like this. “Crocodile” is still a monumentally shitty movie.

Let’s talk about the titular crocodile first. That’s what we’re all for here anyway, ostensibly. The creature is brought to life through four primary methods. The first of which is good old fashion monster-vision, when the camera assumes the point-of-view of the beastie. The second method is a large fiberglass prop. This one floats in the water but otherwise seems immobile. The third of which is a set of jaws, seemingly without eyes, capable of chomping actors. These are cheap but okay special effects. It’s obvious they aren’t real but, at the very least, they actually look like a big ass crocodile.

The fourth and final method the movie uses to create the title-lending monster is the most questionable. Back in the year 2000, mainstream Hollywood movies didn’t always have decent CGI. Studio produced creature features like “Anaconda” and “Lake Placid,” both of which were undoubtedly huge influences on “Crocodile,” featured digital effects that have aged extremely poorly. So what hope can we have for the computer generated images in a flick made with a quarter of those budgets? The CGI crocodile here doesn’t even appear to occupy the same plane of reality as the human characters. When walking, it floats an inch above the ground. When forced to interact with other objects, like a log or a gas station, the fakeness of the effects become even more obvious. The special effects are so crappy, they become insulting. How could anyone think this looked acceptable, much less good?

Okay, you’d at least expect a low budget horror movie to pile on the gore. Disappointingly, not so much. It’s clear that “Crocodile” was at least partially intended for a television audience. There’s no nudity and all the profanity can be easily dubbed out. As for the gore, it’s pretty meager stuff. We see someone get chomped by a croc, their body disappearing in a splash of blood. When a limb is bitten off, there’s a quick burst of minor blood. We don’t even see a weeping stump or get a gory close-up. The most explicit gag in the movie has a guy getting chomped in half by the croc, with the prosthetic being unconvincing. The lack of proper gore and nudity means “Crocodile” can’t even satisfy the most prurient of horror expectations.

There’s really nothing interesting about the film at all. Except for one, fairly minor detail. Before the crocodile really begins to go on its killing spree, the teens gather around a campfire. Kit, the most responsible of the group, tells a local legend. Apparently, an owner of a near-by hotel brought the crocodile, named Flat Dog for some reason, home with him from Egypt. Once there, he created a cult around the beast, worshiping it as an extension of Egyptian god Sobek. Apparently, the conservative Christian townsfolk were so scandalized by this, they chased him out of town and burned the hotel down. There’s a lot of foreshadowing concerning the dilapidated old building, with discussions about its checkered floors being stained with blood. That would’ve been cool to see, which means it was definitely outside Nu Image’s budgetary boundaries. This backstory suggest that something interesting could’ve been mined from “Crocodile.” Could’ve but wasn’t.

When he made “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” Tobe Hooper laid the groundwork for countless low budget horror movies about partying teens stumbling upon murderous terror. “Crocodile” also follows this familiar outline. While the teens in “Chain Saw” could occasionally be irritating, the teens in “Crocodile” are absolutely repugnant. Chris Solari’s Duncan has a stupid hair cut, hits crudely on all the girls, and spends most of the movie screaming profanity. Rhett Jordan’s Foster is similarly vulgar, obsessed with partying. Greg Wayne’s Hubs drinks until he pukes and plays cruel pranks. Sommer Knight’s Sunny, who also has a stupid haircut, is referred to as “that slut,” a character type she plays without subversion. Doug Reiser’s Kit shows a smidgen of self-awareness while Julie Mintz’ Annabelle is obsessed with her dog. They too get involved in the loud-mouth partying. Characters being poorly written is one thing. Making them outright unpleasant to be around is another.

You’d expect the main duo to be more likable. Mark McLauchlin’s Brady and Caitlin Martin’s Claire are at least more sensible then their friends. But only barely. Meanwhile, the movie quickly reveals that Brady cheated on Claire with Sunny. Why? Because he’s a scum bag frat boy, that’s why. When Claire discovers this, she acts coldly towards her boyfriend. Oh yeah, that’s what a shitty killer animal flick needs: Relationship drama. Since the script is utterly senseless, these disagreements soon dissolve into petty bickering and profanity-laced screaming. I hate it when B-movies do this shit. In-fighting, drama, and shrieking swears are not how you endear your obnoxious characters to the viewer.

Naturally, there are some authority figures floating around inside “Crocodile.” Harrison Young’s Sheriff Bowman appears early on, warning the kids not to drink too much. He floats back into the story from time to time, occasionally providing some hope to the teens’ hopeless situation. Along for the ride is a local gator farmer named Shurkin. He has a personal grudge against Flat Dog, who ate his daddy decades ago. Yep, he’s the Quint in this scenario, proving that movies will never stop ripping off “Jaws.” Except Terence Evans is no Robert Shaw. Yes, of course, he gets chewed apart as well. Neither of these character end up adding anything to “Crocodile” at all. Instead, they only make the movie longer.

All right, so the script, special effects, and acting in “Crocodile” are total shit. But Tobe Hooper is a professional who’s been in the business for thirty years. Surely the movie at least looks good? Sadly, not even this holds true. When the crocodile is chasing after the teenagers, the camera often spazs pathetically. This kind of lame shaky-cam effort doesn’t add any intensity or urgency to the movie. Instead, it just makes the movie look like garbage. If you’re hoping to find some of Hooper’s trademark production design, you’ll be disappointed. Most of “Crocodile” takes place outside. The sets we do get are generic backwoods interiors. Even the opening credits are written in a cheap font, further emphasizing how careless a production this was.

There’s nothing notable about “Crocodile.” Does the film have any value at all, even of the unintentional variety? Occasionally. The redneck fishermen who wreck Flat Dog’s nest are so vocally anti-vegetarian that it becomes amusing. The white toy poodle named Princess somehow survives the whole movie. The dog does this by being smarter then the humans and running away from danger. A real laugher of a sequence has the poodle leaping between the crocodile’s snapping jaws. (John Kennith Muir suggest this is an intentional reference to Hooper’s earlier “Eaten Alive.” This time, the director allows the dog to live.) The funniest scene in “Crocodile” occurs where a stupid victim is tossed into the air by the croc and swallowed whole. Soon afterwards, the reptile vomits up the teen. How did he do this? By spraying the animal’s throat with bug spray. It’s gross but so dumb, it makes you laugh. Sadly, most of “Crocodile” is too boring, too obnoxious to produce much unintentional humor.

This nonsense somehow stretches on for 93 minutes. At least the shitty creature features of the seventies and eighties had the good sense to wrap things up in less then a half and hour. I have no idea why Tobe Hooper took a job like this. Did he need the money that badly? There’s no sign of the talented, fascinating, quirky filmmaker Hooper once was in “Crocodile.” It’s the most dire of direct-to-video horror sludge. It’s boring, annoying, incredibly cheap, and totally lacking in charm or sense. The utter contempt the production company had for the audience is clear. They hated the viewer and, in turn, the viewer hates “Crocodile” too. [Grade: F]

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1999)

15. The Apartment Complex

With the commercial failure of “The Mangler,” Tobe Hooper had finally been permanently banished to the world of television and direct-to-video cinema. Following the 1995 release of that movie, Hooper directed two episodes of “Nowhere Man” and an episode each of “Dark Skies,” “Perversions of Science,” and “Prey.” Many of these shows were produced in the aftermath of “The X-Files” repopularizing spooky TV. So it’s no surprised that Hooper’s next feature length credit would also be made for television. “The Apartment Complex” was produced for Showtime, the same network that aired “Body Bags” five years prior. Though easy to overlook, the humble film may actually be the best thing Hooper has been involved with in years.

Stan Warden is a young man who recently moved to California for education. Pursuing a psychology degree, and wondering what he’ll write his thesis about, he finds money running low. So when he sees an ad in the paper for a position as the manger of an apartment complex, he immediately takes the job. As soon as he enters the complex, he finds the place off-putting. The residents are strange, including a homeless man living outside the building, a pair of models, a man who claims to be a CIA agent, a would-be psychic, and others. After pulling a bloated dead body out of the filthy pool, Stan suddenly finds himself being pursued by police as a murderer. He also begins to wonder if he’s going insane, all by himself or because the apartment is driving him crazy.

“The Apartment Complex” premiered on Showtime on Halloween night of 1999. This certainly suggest the film was intended to be spooky. All the advertisements sell the movie as a thriller. At the start, “The Apartment Complex” certainly seems to be going in this direction. Stan is introduced to the landlord, named Dr. Caligari. Turns out, the man he thought was the landlord was actually someone else entirely. The former tenant of Stan’s room was seemingly an obsessive compulsive man with psychotic tendencies. The residents of the apartment all seem to have ulterior motives, possibly having it out for Stan. There’s a missing room in the apartment, suggesting that there’s something sinister about the location itself. All of this is before the bloated corpse is pulled from the pool. “The Apartment Complex” actually does an alright tone of creating a slightly disorienting tone, drawing the audience in.

However, these elements are eventually revealed to be something of a misdirect. “The Apartment Complex” isn’t a horror movie at all and only marginally qualifies as a thriller. Instead, the movie is most focused on quirky comedy. The police pursue Stan with such dogged determination that it becomes funny, as they dig up his apartment and confiscate his stuff. The apparent psychic living in the building attempts to seduce Stan, stripping down to the nude in his bed. The romance Stan potentially forms with one of the tenants is sidelined by her boyfriend, a bizarre macho caricature. Despite the murdered body, there’s little grisly about “The Apartment Complex.” Instead, the movie develops a friendly, offbeat tone that is inviting to viewers. The titular location is weird but you kind of enjoy spending time there.

The most consistent directorial trademark throughout Tobe Hooper’s career has been his interest in expressive set design. Though it’s never really gone away, it’s usually harder to spot in his television credits. This isn’t the case with “The Apartment Complex.” The landlord being named Dr. Caligari is only the most obvious shout-out to Expressionistic cinema. The swimming pool, an important plot location, has an odd, triangular shape. The buildings jut out at off-center angles. The hallways even directly recreate “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s” angular set design. The individual rooms are often packed with small details, granting a lot of personality to the room.

While its script is comedic and its story is often morbid, “The Apartment Complex’s” tone often borders film noir. Stan frequently narrates the story, contemplating his situation, his slipping sanity, and whether or not he can ever figure out his thesis. This narration is, more often then not, very distracting. it often feels like it was added to the movie after the fact. However, it points towards the movie’s noir aspirations. The photography often drapes the characters in expressive shadows. Mark Adler’s score is filled with boozy saxophone and waltzing brass, which also recalls noir. While more a goof on the neo-noir movement then a proper entry in it, “The Apartment Complex” gleefully adds this to its tonal mix.

If there’s any element of “The Apartment Complex” that is overdone, it’s Stan’s psychology background. He often chit-chats with a bust of Sigmund Freud. While at school, he watches mice navigate a maze. His monologues directed at the mice often pair with the movie’s plot turns. That self-reflective attribute builds towards the final moment, where the title is revealed to be a pun. The apartment building is often compared to the mazes the mice are seen wandering. While the story happily puts Stan through absurdist hell, the apartment complex is ultimately too appealing a location. There’s no threat of the main character going insane.

As an thespian, Chad Lowe is not especially well regarded. He’s most well known for having a more famous and successful older brother. (Or maybe for being Hilary Swank’s ex-husband.) However, as Stan Warden, Lowe gives a solid performance. He’s funny, often responding to the story’s unexpected turns with bafflement. He mines decent laughs from the character’s confusion. He also sells the affection Stan develops for the apartment’s tenants in time. Lowe ultimately proves to be compelling, calmly guiding the viewer through the movie’s goofball world.

Lowe also has decent romantic chemistry with Fay Masterson as Alice, the tenant that eventually wins his heart. Despite the movie’s heightened world, Masterson is one of the more grounded characters. She’s game, leaping into another actor’s arm and spending a portion of the story in a skimpy nightgown. Patrick Warburton plays her boyfriend, Morgan. Warburton has a hugely affable comedic presence, often using his baritone voice to get big laughs from simple lines. In “The Apartment Complex,” Warburton plays a bully. He beats up any man who he thinks is interesting in his girlfriend. Late in the film, it’s implied that he beats her too. While an unpleasant character, Warburton’s talent goes a long ways towards making Morgan seem off-beat and quirky, instead of just outright unlikable.

There are other notable faces living in the apartment. Amanda Plummer plays Miss Chenelle, the psychic that lives there. Plummer’s naturally eccentric energy is well suited to this project. She delivers all of Chenelle’s dialogue with a spacey affectation, managing to make simple lines rather funny. She’s also oddly sexy in the part, which peaks during her extended nude scene, appearing on Lowe’s bed with the intention of seducing him. Another familiar performer is R. Lee Ermey as Frank Stanton. Stanton claims to be a former CIA agent and seems to enjoy spying on the other tenets. He’s ultimately proven to be harmless, even likable. Ermey gets some of the film’s funniest lines, such as a reoccurring line about a chase lounge. By the end, he even becomes likable, his gruffness hiding a friendly heart.

“The Apartment Complex” fills even the furthest corners of its ensemble cast with likable characters. Tyra Banks seemingly plays a version of herself, an up-and-coming model living in the low rent housing. Banks has some okay comedic chops. Her roommate is a female body double, who introduces herself to Stan by beating him up. The detectives who harass Stan are played by Ron Canada and Miguel Sandoval, both of whom get some laughs. Jon Polito appears as Dr. Caligari, happily playing up the character’s cheapskate personality. Obba Babatunde plays Chett, the homeless man, providing some likable unhinged elements to his few scenes.

There’s a free-floating absurdist streak throughout “The Apartment Complex” which manifests itself in unexpected ways. At one point, Stan receives a strange package. Inside is a boa constrictor. It escapes the box, slithers into the complex’s plumbing, and pops up during important times. After the dead body is fished out of the pool, somebody slips sunglasses onto his face and cigarettes into his lips. It seems likely to me that “The Apartment Complex” was meant to launch a series. Many of these elements are left unexplained, probably with the intention of building upon them in an on-going story line. Since that TV show never appeared, these dangling plot threads instead add to the movie’s earnestly quirky, goofy atmosphere.

I expected “The Apartment Complex” to be a horror film or, at the very least, a thriller. The murder mystery aspect of the story is resolved in a free-wheeling way, practically being unimportant to the rest of the plot. That’s because the dead body in the pool, and the question of who is responsible, isn’t the reason to watch “The Apartment Complex.” Instead, the TV movie works because of its likable off-beat tone and its cast of memorable characters. I have no idea if the movie would’ve worked as a series. However, the film is solid enough that I probably would’ve watched it. By no means a masterpiece, “The Apartment Complex” is still the best movie Tobe Hooper has made in quite some time. [Grade: B]

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1995)

14. The Mangler

People sometimes make fun of Stephen King. I’m not the world’s biggest fan but, for his many flaws, he’s usually good for coming up with a really punchy, one-line synopsis. “Alcoholic family man goes crazy in haunted hotel.” “A small town is taken over by vampires.” “Writer is held hostage by psychotic fan.” You get the idea. King’s tendency for easily understood premises has clearly contributed to his success. By the same accord, that habit sometimes produces stories so high concept, they read like parodies. “How about a vampire who’s also a pilot?” “What if cellphones turned people into literal zombies?” “What about a murderous industrial laundry press?” Which brings us to “The Mangler,” the last of Tobe Hooper’s films to get a proper theatrical release.

Something horrible has happened at Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry. Sherry Gartley, the niece of the business’ elderly owner, cut her hand on the industrial laundry’s machinery, splashing blood on the tread. Later that same day, a co-worker is dragged into the press, her body torn apart and horribly mangled. Grisly accidents continues to happen. Alcoholic cop John Hunton investigates, suspecting an ominous link between the Gartleys and the huge machine. His brother-in-law Mark, meanwhile, suspects that the laundry press is possessed by a demon. They’re both right. The Mangler’s murderous ways are connected to the occult dealings of the Gartley family.

While reviewing “I’m Dangerous Tonight,” I commented on the perils of making your horror movie about an inanimate object. In that movie, someone had to be wearing the cursed dress for its evil properties to take effect. “The Mangler” has a similar, but bigger, problem. The movie’s threat is a giant, immobile piece of machinery. What the Mangler does to its victims is incredibly grisly. But they have to get close enough to the machine for that to happen. They have to get a limb or bit of clothing caught in the gears. Therefore, the script forces characters to repeatedly get close to a machine that’s proven to be deadly. This doesn’t make the cast look very smart. The screenplay makes several awkward attempts to get around this issue but ultimately can’t defeat it. The simple truth is a stationary object can only be so threatening.

In “Poltergeist,” Tobe Hooper incorporated a message about big business not caring for the little people. In “The Mangler,” he revisits a similar theme. The film begins with the floor manager in the laundry screaming at his employees to pick up the pace. After Sherry cuts her hand, she’s told to get back to work. After Mrs. Frawley is torn to pieces, the factory closes down for a few hours before opening again. There’s another accident, several workers being burnt by hot steam, which doesn’t even illicit that much of a response. Every time one of these “accidents” happen, Mr. Gartley screams about productivity being interrupted. The money makers care so little about their employees that their deaths are only inconveniences. It’s not subtle but it does show that the story had some potential to say something deeper.

Truthfully, the film’s theme seems in service of a goofy pun. After the first death, the police insist a safety inspector, a judge, and a sheriff investigate the scene of the violence. After looking around for five minutes, they deduce that nothing illegal happened and that business can resume. Hunton correctly observes that Mr. Gartley owns the cops. Apparently, the entire town of Riker’s Valley is owned by Gartley. That he has some personal information on the town’s officials. In other words, the town’s “dirty laundry” runs directly through Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry.I guess an obvious narrative pun like this was unavoidable, given the subject.

Despite having these two separate subtexts surging under the main story, “The Mangler” also incorporates a more obtuse theme into the film. John Hunton is haunted by the death of his wife. It’s why he drinks and why he spends the entire film with a haggard expression on his face. As the story goes on, brother-in-law Mark makes continued references to the laundry press being possessed by a demon. Gee, I don’t suppose somebody could draw a parallel between these literal demons and the personal demons that haunt Hunton? In case you don’t get this, “The Mangler” directly points it out. I wish the movie had ran with the callous businessman subtext instead of these other elements.

“The Mangler” stars Ted Levine. This was only a few years after his role as Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs” made him an unforgettable part of pop culture. Levine would go on to play cops and military officers many times in the future, bringing a stately authority and dry sense of humor to these parts. Despite that, Levine’s performance in “The Mangler” is closer to Buffalo Bill. Levine sports a greasy, truly unflattering haircut in the part. He scowls during most of the movie. The character is hung over throughout most of the story, a state that Levine all too realistically recreates. Even after Hunton makes some peace with his wife’s death, Levine still plays the character as a man at the end of his rope. It’s such an odd, unappealing decision, making “The Mangler” an even harder movie to like.

Though Levine was no doubt known in 1995, he’s not the marquee name on “The Mangler.” That honor falls to Robert Englund. This is the third time Hooper has teamed with the man better known as Freddy Krueger, after “Eaten Alive” and “Night Terrors.” Somehow, it might actually be the craziest of the three performances. Englund wears heavy old age make-up, playing the elderly Bill Gartley. The character wears braces on both of his legs, wobbling around with two canes. Several time, Gartley falls down, forcing Englund to pantomime ridiculously as he attempts to regain his footing. Englund yells, shouts, and screams. He acts to the heavens. It’s maybe the most over-the-top performance of Englund’s long career, which is no easy task. His acting is drawing so much attention to itself that it frequently derails an already shaky movie.

“The Mangler” eventually comes to focus on Hunton and Mike’s friendship. As the two investigate the strangeness surrounding the laundry, the film develops into an unexpected buddy flick. Daniel Matmor plays Mike and the character is entirely ridiculous. He often rants about deadly nightshade and the rites of exorcism. It’s all very goofy stuff but Matmor is entertaining in the part. As the virginal Sherry, Vanessa Pike spends most of the movie in an extended traumatized state. Pike is decent in the part, even if she mostly just screams her way through the role.

In order to extend Stephen King’s short story to feature film length, Tobe Hooper and his screenwriters had to add a number of new subplots. A friend of Hunton is the crime scene photographer, who has the winking name of Pictureman. The photographer is dying of lung cancer and grows worst throughout the film. This storyline doesn’t add much to the film. For some reason, Jeremy Crutchley plays the part in extensive old age make-up and cameos without make-up as a coroner. Another unneeded addition to the story is Lisa Morris as Lin Sue, an employee at the factory that Gartley corrupts and seduces. This is another baffling subplot, with seemingly no purpose to the overall film.

“The Mangler” is ridiculous throughout. The film has many moments of unintentional comedy. The first time somebody is sucked into the laundry machine, it’s an okay horrific sequence. As it continues to happen, the audience can't help but chuckle. How often are people going to get hurt in this thing before they learn to stay away from it? That goofiness peaks when Levine’s coat gets stuck in the mangle, leading to him shouting and screaming at the device. Yet even that isn’t the funniest scene of the movie. That occurs when the Mangler’s evil spirit inhabits an ice box. A little kid gets stuck in the box, suffocating. Birds are caught inside, dying. Mike’s hand is clipped by the door. As potentially silly as the idea of a killer laundry press is, a killer freezer is much sillier.

“The Mangler” does feature some of Tobe Hooper’s trademark. The titular beast is an elaborate design itself and housed inside an ominous warehouse. A hospital set features some interesting production design, including arched doorways and checkered floor tiles. Yet the biggest Hooper-esque element is the film’s utterly bonkers last act. The Mangler claims Gartley before the demon is set free. The special effects are incredibly shoddy, the crawling Mangler being created with some laughable CGI. What’s happening is entirely ridiculous, of course, as the evil laundry press chases the heroes through the surprisingly spacious sewer beneath the factory. At this point, the kooky energy inside the film finally rises to the surface, reaching an enjoyable level of goofy genre fun. I have no idea if this was intentional. In fact, I suspect it isn’t. Yet it’s still the only time “The Mangler” really reaches a level of entertainment remotely close to Hooper’s insane eighties films.

So the film isn’t good. “The Mangler” is actually most amusing when it doesn’t mean to be, becoming a true example of “so bad, it’s good” cinema by the end. As a straight horror film, it fails. The plot is thin, the performances are broad, the characters are clichéd, the special effects are cheesy. Yet it’s never boring, which is more then I could say for “Night Terrors” or “I’m Dangerous Tonight.” Sometimes, it’s even giddily entertaining in its stupidity. The film flopped theatrically and naturally received extremely negative reviews. Somehow, “The Mangler” still spawned two direct-to-video sequels, whose connection to the original is apparently tenuous. It’s not a film I can defend from any aesthetic level but I get some enjoyment out of any way. [Grade: C+]

Monday, July 18, 2016

Recent Watches: Ghostbusters (2016)

No film of 2016 has attracted more controversy then “Ghostbusters.” Any time a beloved, nostalgia property is remade, there will be some inevitable fan backlash. Yet the reception that the female led reboot of “Ghostbusters” received, even before any trailers or posters were released, was unprecedented in its negativity. Some of this was expected but a distressingly large amount of the backlash was undeniably sexist. These assholes have set the nerd fandom back twenty years. Anyway, now that the movie is actually out, it can be judged on its own merits.

Dr. Erin Gilbert is trying to make it as a legitimate physics professor, putting her history as a paranormal researcher behind her. That is until childhood friend and former colleague Dr. Abby Yates starts selling the book they co-authored on Amazon. When Erin confronts Abby about this, the two ends up going on an adventure and discovering irrefutable proof of ghosts. Along with eccentric new partner Holtzmann, the three set out as a business, busting ghosts. It soon becomes apparent that something strange is happening in the neighborhood. A villain has built devices that amplify the ghostly activity in an area, prepping for a full-blown spirit invasion of the living world. Teaming with a street smart subway clerk, the Ghostbusters seek to protect the world.

While much of the backlash against the new “Ghostbusters” was simply gross, some of it was based in legitimate concerns. The original “Ghostbusters” is one of the most beloved comedies ever made, retaining a loyal and passionate fan base despite being more-or-less stagnant for twenty years. It’s a hefty comedic legacy to stand up to. I didn’t know if Paul Feig, Kristen Wigg, and Messlia McCarthy were the right fits for the job at first either. I wasn’t very familiar with Feig or Wigg and found many of McCarthy’s most recent characters to be obnoxious. However, the more I saw, the more I realized this could be more then a cheap cash-in. 2016’s “Ghostbusters” isn’t as funny as the original. But what films are? It is, however, a entertaining modern day blockbuster.

The film does take a while to find its comedic rhythm. Early scenes featuring overly pithy or sarcastic dialogue are clearly straining for laughs but do not reach them. The characters, at first, strike a viewer as somewhat obnoxious. Everyone is a little too mean to everyone else in the beginning. The awkwardness of the early scenes reaches its peak during a painfully unfunny sequence. Melissa McCarthy tries on the proton pack for the first time and ends up sliding around an alley way in a moment of uncomfortably bad slapstick. During these scenes, I kept thinking to myself “This is going to get better, right?” Luckily, it does. Once the story finds it groove and the cast becomes comfortable with the characters, “Ghostbusters” starts reliably producing decent laughs.

Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig feel like an established comedic team, even though this is only their second movie together. The emotional crux of “Ghostbusters” is built around their characters' friendship. At the story’s beginning, Abby and Erin are isolated from each other, even outright antagonistic at times. By the end, they’re reunited as dear friends, saving each others' lives. The film plays down McCarthy’s more colorful physical comedy. There’s only one or two scenes of overdone slapstick, such as an exaggerated leap into the air. Wiig’s style of humor is more neurotic, often focusing on awkward, confused, or nervous reaction to other characters. Moreover, the two are funny together, playing well off one another.

Wiig and McCarthy are fine but the supporting players are those that truly shine in “Ghostbusters.” Kate McKinnon has been getting the most attention as Holtzman. McKinnon undeniably has a comedic energy all her own. A sequence where she dances with a pair of blowtorches is a highlight. As funny and interesting as McKinnon is, the character is ultimately too bizarre to be lovable. Holtzman, at times, feels less like a real person and more like a collection of bizarre quirks. Leslie Jones, as Patty, strikes me as the break-out talent of the film. Jones’ comedic timing is perfect. She manages to produce big laughs out of small lines, simply by utilizing an incredible screen presence and sense of delivery. Some were concerned that the character was a reductive “street smart” cliché. Instead, she’s a clever, thoughtful, knowledgeable person well suited to Jones’ abilities.

In the original “Ghostbusters,” the all-male team was supported by a female secretary. The reboot switches this around as well, giving the all-female team a male secretary. However, Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin contributes more to the plot then Annie Potts’ Janine ever did. Hemsworth plays the character as an exceedingly eccentric simpleton. He wears glasses without lens. He doesn’t seem to understand how to operate a phone. He has named his dog “My Cat.” As a would-be actor, he shows off glossy of himself posing, shirtless, with a saxophone. It’s another example of the film creating characters perhaps too off-beat for their own good. Hemsworth, however, makes it work. He jumps into the part with full gusto, mining solid laughs from Kevin’s increasingly strange behavior. He also manages to find a heat, if not an intelligence, inside the character.

2016’s “Ghostbusters” seems to have anticipated the sexist nature of its backlash, to some degree. There’s a throw away line concerning YouTube comments. The main villain, meanwhile, is a socially inept male who spends a lot of time in a basement. Rowan, as played by Neil Casey, is an outcast who believes the world owes him recognition. He relates with the ghosts, similarly forgotten and shunned by the world. He looks to reek revenge against a society that rejects him. What I really like about Roman’s character is how much it reminds me of a comic book bad guy origin. Rowan starts out as brilliant but ordinary. His home-made ghost amplifiers are his main weapon. Before the end, he’s transformed into an honest-to-god supervillain. Casey nicely balances the character’s awkwardness with his budding sinister qualities. (Refreshingly, unlike certain other recent blockbusters, the villain has no personal connection to the heroes.)

Much of the criticism that has faced the reboot has been nonsensical. One that strikes me as especially false has been the criticism of the special effects. One of my favorite aspects of the new film is its ghosts. They look amazing. Skeletons glow inside translucent, colorful skin. Each of the film’s main spectres seems like variation on traditional ghost archetypes. One is an elegant woman in a fancy gown. Another is a convict who died in the electric chair. Each looks amazing, bringing a certain cartoon aesthetic to their designs without appearing improbably. The best utilized ghost is a large, dragon like entity. Equally skeletal and reptilian, it makes an impression. The new “Ghostbusters” doesn’t have any of the creepiness of the original. The best scare involves a mannequin, a moment equally comedic as spooky. But that’s fine, as scares isn’t really one of the new film’s objectives.

Despite being the purest definition of a reboot, telling a totally new story with a similar premise, the new film still felt the need to reference to the originals. Sometimes, this is more distracting then endearing. The way the Ghostbusters logo is created feels especially unneeded. Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song is heavily incorporated into the score, to the point of diversion. And, of course, there are cameos. These mostly work. Bill Murray’s appearance seems to play with his stated disinterest in the “Ghostbusters” franchise. Dan Aykroyd and Annie Potts’ scenes intentionally recall their roles in the original, to mild amusement. Sigourney Weaver’s cameo is a little too self aware. Ernie Hudson’s cameo is my favorite, as it pays off on a running gag set up throughout the film. Even Harold Ramis appears, in a sense, as a bust. However, the best cameos belong to Stay Puft Marshmallow – who is incorporated in a clever way – and Slimer. Slimer even gets a girlfriend, a delightfully silly addition.

The biggest problem facing 2016’s “Ghostbusters” has nothing to do with its talented cast or solid screenplay. Instead, Paul Feig’s direction seems ill suited to an effects driven film. He seems far more comfortable to uniform sequences devoted to characters standing around and talking. The action scenes are never incoherent but are often oddly framed. Like the film’s humor, even the visual direction seems lightly off at first. It’s not until the end, when a slow motion fight scene appears, that Feig appears confident in his action direction. The editing, meanwhile, is even more off. The film awkwardly cuts between big effects shots and unrelated reactions. It’s blunt, at best, and baffling, at worst.

When all things are considered, “Ghostbusters” is entertaining. This is most apparent during the lavish finale. The team is reunited. They converge in Times Squares, to battle a small army of different ghosts. Each of the main cast members get a moment to shine. All of the new weapons and gear introduced throughout the film are utilized. We see lots of cool new ghosts. The big finish has Rowan assuming the shape of the white spook in the Ghostbusters’ logo. What starts out as cute soon becomes giant and scarred. It’s not a visual gag equal to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s original appearance. However, it’s a respectful nod towards the series’ history and something we haven’t quite seen before.

I have my nitpicks concerning the newest “Ghostbusters.” I wish the ghost traps had a bigger role, for one. A sudden cameo from Ozzy Osbourne is terrible. As is a rock group featured in one scene. For the most part though, the movie works fairly well most of the time. Whether or not this new “Ghostbusters” launches a new franchise remains to be seen. (Sony created an entire new production company – Ghost Corps – just to exploit the Ghostbusters I.P. So, even if this film underperforms, I suspect we’ll see new entries somehow.) The cast works the best once they grow into their characters, meaning a sequel would likely lack some of the bumpy edges this film has. As a long time fan of the series, overall, the new film satisfies me. It’s as true now as it was in 1984: Bustin’ makes ya’ feel good. [7/10]

NO ENCORES: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

1. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
Director: Kim Henkel

Neither of the previous “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” sequels matched the original or even managed to make that much money at the box office. Yet when there’s a recognizable name, especially in a genre as sequel crazy as horror, financial backers can always be found. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” was written and directed by Kim Henkel, the co-writer of the original film. It’s the only film he’s directed. Henkel and his producer raised the funds independently, leading to a difficult post-production. The film was reedited for American audiences, re-titled from “Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and barely released into theaters. When horror fans did say it, most of them hated it with only a few defending the sequel’s quality.

Teenager Jenny has had a fairly unproductive prom night with her boyfriend Sean and friends Barry and Heather. Driving home after the party, they take a weird Texas back road. After finding a crashed car, the group encounters a tow truck driven by Vilmer, an eccentric man. Vilmer is part of a family of backwoods psychos. Among them is the chainsaw wielding Leatherface. While Jenny tries to survive the night, she discover that Vilmer and Leatherface’s insane family are part of a wider reaching, stranger conspiracy.

Kim Henkel has expressed his opinion that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” is the true sequel to the original film. He intended the film to recapture that first movie’s tone and treats the other two sequels in broad strokes. Henkel seemed to approach this goal quite literally. “The Next Generation” is practically a remake. The film recreates several notable moments from Hooper’s original. Leatherface wallops a boyfriend with a sledgehammer before hanging the girlfriend on a meat hook. While chasing the final girl, Leatherface destroys the house’s door. Later, the same girl leaps through a window, the chainsaw wielding maniac taking chase. She escapes to a local business, which turns out to be associated with the backwoods lunatics. Another scene has her running through the underbrush, Leatherface sawing through the branches. The film climaxes at a mad dinner around a ghoulish table and concludes with the main villain swinging his chainsaw in the morning sun.

While “The Next Generation” outright copies the original’s story, it strays from the first film’s tone. The movie has a bizarre comedic streak, often seemingly going for laughs as often as it goes for scares. This is most evident in how the film treats Leatherface. Gunner Hansen’s Leatherface was oddly child-like and sympathetic without loosing a truly unnerving edge. He also, in one scene, dressed up in women’s clothing. “The Next Generation” seems stuck on that last detail. This Leatherface is a limp wristed, wincing transvestite. He constantly shrieks in a high-pitch, obnoxious manner. In the final act, he wears a dress, fake breasts, a long-haired wig, and lipsticks. Why would the sequel transform a genuinely frightening villain into such a bizarre stereotype? Even his regular human flesh mask looks kind of crappy. By treating one of horror’s most iconic villains so poorly, the film seems to be outright insulting fans.

In truth, Leatherface isn’t even the primary villain of the film. That honor falls to Matthew McConaughey’s Vilmer. The patriarch of the family, Vilmer has a hydraulic brace on his leg. Sometimes, the brace spasmodically twitches, beyond Vilmer’s control. More often, Vilmer just screams like a lunatic. He self-mutilates with a knife, puts a shotgun into his mouth, sweats, throws people across the room and stomps on heads. Matthew McConaughey’s performance is entirely unhinged. While the script still treats the character quite terribly, it’s fair to say that McConaughey honors the original’s truly demented tone. He really does seem like a crazy person. (McConaughey doesn't have very clear memories of the film.)

While McConaughey’s Vilmer is a totally bizarre if compelling villain, the rest of Leatherface’s family is not that interesting. In the original, Leatherface would dress like a woman becomes there was no mother in the family. “The Next Generation,” meanwhile, features Tonie Perensky as Darla, Vilmer’s girlfriend. (This makes the decision to play up Leatherface’s cross-dressing even more odd.) Perensky plays the part like white trash, shouting and screaming slightly less then the other characters. Joe Stevens plays W. E., who combines elements of both the Cook and the Hitchhiker. He pokes Leatherface with a cattle prod and peppers all of his dialogue with literary quotes. Both characters are fairly annoying. But that’s not nearly as annoying as changing the family’s nature. They are no longer cannibals. They even order out pizza at one point.

Infamously, McConaughey is not the only future Academy Award winner to star in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.” Renne Zellweger appears as Jenny. While Zellweger shows a decent amount of talent, the script mistreats her. Sometimes the character is smart enough to simply ran away when given a chance. Other times, she willingly gets into the truck of someone who is clearly crazy. At least Zellweger’s Jenny is more memorable then her friends. Tyer Shea Cone is an obnoxious jock, who swears often and is always thinking about sex. Lisa Marie Newmyer’s Heather, meanwhile, says she defies bubble-headed blonde stereotypes. If she does, all those scenes got cut out.

There are many baffling scenes in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.” Jenny gets wrapped in a garbage bag and dumped in Darla’s truck. Within full view of several cops, she has a conversation with her captor. Grandpa has a bizarre cameo, appearing briefly before literally wandering off. During the climax, Jenny jumps into an old couple’s RV. Meanwhile, a random crop duster appears to take out Vilmer. Yet no aspect is stranger then the family apparently being funded by the Illuminati. An agent of the secret order, who has piercings and strange symbols carved into his skin, gives the lunatics a bad review. He then licks Renee Zellwager’s face. In the end, he picks her up in a limo. He explains that the Illuminati wants to expose people to true horror, in hopes of creating life alternating experience. What is any of this nutty shit doing in a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” sequel?

Despite co-creating that very first film, “The Next Generation” makes it clear that Kim Henkel had no idea what made that original movie work so well. His sequel is a bizarre, tonally inconsistent affair that seems to actively mock what people liked about the original. It feels very cheap at times, which is only emphasized by the incoherent script and the obnoxious characters. McConaughey and Zellwager, after becoming big stars, are rumored to have sued to repress the movie’s release. It worked, as the movie was only released in 20 theaters. Most fans hate “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” though a few appreciate McConaughey’s delirious performance. Either way, I can’t imagine this was a sequel that anybody was satisfied with. It’s not shocking Henkel never made another film. [4/10]