Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Recent Watches: Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

The eighties were the time when slasher movies became slasher series. This was the decade that gave us eight “Friday the Thirteenths,” five “A Nightmare on Elm Streets,” four “Halloween” sequels, and even three “Sleepaway Camps.” Yet despite its boundless influence on the subgenre of masked murderers, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” had only managed to produce one sequel by the eighties’ end. Realizing Leatherface’s already iconic status and franchise potential, New Line Cinema – the house that Freddy built – bought the rights to the series. “Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III” faced heavy scrutiny from the MPAA, last minute rewrites, did lousy box office, and received awful reviews. In time, some horror fans would take a liking to it. I, on the other hand, believe this is the point the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” jumped the rails.

Michelle and Ryan, a couple from California, are traveling through the weird-ass desert end of Texas. While stopping at a sleazy filling station, they incur the wrath of insane owner Alfredo. They take a detour suggested by traveler Tex and wind up in the path of Leatherface. The chainsaw wielding maniac has shacked up with a new group of backwoods cannibals. Michelle and Ryan attempt to escape and get some help from a militant survivalist named Benny. But Leatherface and his murderous clan are harder to shake then that.

It’s a beloved cult classic now but “Texas Chainsaw Massacre II” was very divisive among release, many horror fans bulking at its absurdist tone. “Leatherface” takes great pains to distance itself from Hooper’s proper sequel. Its opening crawl seemingly disregards part two altogether. Sally Hardesty died in 1977 and someone named W.E. Sawyer – presumably the Cook – was executed for Leatherface’s crime. This speaks to part three’s grungy mood. Splatterpunk author David J. Schow’s script doubles down on the grit and the sleaze. Michelle runs over an armadillo and has to put it out of its misery. Cop dig up a mass grave of putrefying corpses. Alfredo spies on Michelle while she pees and decorates his gas station with cut-up pornography. The movie’s in-your-face tone is emphasized by its (otherwise pretty good) thrash metal soundtrack. “Leatherface” is a film that dares you to like it, that wants you to know how gnarly and fucked up it is.

While its self-satisfied gritty attitude is a good reason to dislike “Texas Chainsaw Massacre III,” it’s not the reason I borderline hate this movie. Instead, I take umbrage with the many ways in which it misunderstands Leatherface. The sequel ditches much of the fascinating personality glimpsed in the first two films. He’s no longer a child-like, panicked brute who only sees people as food. Leatherface shows an uncharacteristic fiery rage, often yelling at his victims. He also clearly takes sadistic pleasure in hurting people. (Why would he do that? How many butchers like torturing pigs?) Instead of being bullied by his family, he’s now the bully, forcing a cohabitant's hand into a hot stove. Weirdly, the movie still occasionally tries to sell Leatherface as a big child, such as when he plays with a Speak-n-Spell. The worst offense is giving Leatherface a kid. That’s right, the big guy has apparently develop a taste for rape. Fuck that! Leatherface might be a cannibalistic murderer who turns people into mask but he’s not a rapist! My psycho serial slashers have standards, goddamn it.

Schlow’s script ignores part two but, for some reason, ditches Leatherface’s established supporting cast. (Aside from Grandpa, who has finally become a corpse.) Instead, Schlow cooks up a new brood of maniacs for Bubba to hang out with. Alfredo, the gas station guy, mumbles incoherent profanity to himself. Tom Everett plays him as an annoying, indistinct redneck stereotype. Viggo Mortensen plays Tex, the pretty boy of the clan. Mortensen inherits Leatherface’s cross-dressing, wearing nail polish and a frilly apron, but is otherwise given nothing interesting to do. Joe Unger’s Tinker is defined solely by his technical know-how. Grandma speaks through a voice box and apparently mutilated her genitals. Leatherface’s misbegotten daughter carries around a rotting corpse doll. All these people are traits, not characters. None of them are interesting, memorable, lovable, or well defined.

Truthfully, the film has trouble cooking up any interesting characters. Leatherface’s victims are, widely, just as bland as his family. Kate Hodge’s Michelle is mildly tough but sits around and shrieks while getting tortured. She’s no Marylin Burns. William Butler’s Ryan is an annoying asshole, coughing up statistics instead of contributing to the story. There’s no chemistry between Butler and Hodge. Weirdly, a random crazy girl appears mid-way through the film, seemingly existing just to up the body count. Only Ken Foree, as doomsday prepper Benny, shows any personality at all. He’s seems like a hero from a Schlow story so I don’t know why he wasn’t just the protagonist. Even then, the character’s memorability can mostly be attributed to Foree’s attitude and spunk. Foree was so well liked that test audiences demand he return for the last scene, despite clearly dying during the climax.

I should amend my opening statement by saying that “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” nearly got two sequels in the eighties. “Leatherface” was originally planned for a 1989 release. However, the MPAA slapped the film with an X rating – the last movie to earn that rating, before it was phased out in favor of the NC-17 – forcing numerous re-edits. The version of “Leatherface” that slipped in to theaters in 1990 was heavily cut. Something similar to director Jeff Burr’s original vision has seen been released on DVD. And it’s underwhelming. Truthfully, the film’s extreme gore mostly consists of fake blood spraying everywhere, the chainsaw buzzing off-screen. The violence is pedestrian, with none of the impact the original had. It doesn’t even reach the splatstick, comic book gore of the first sequel. Instead, it’s just gruel tossed at the screen, executed with all the finesse of a butcher shop. I demand a better class of serial murder.

At least three genuinely cool things emerged from “Leatherface’s” chainsaw drudgery. First off, that soundtrack still rocks. Laaz Rocket’s title track is awesome to blare from your radio while driving down a desolate country road at night. Secondly, the gold and silver chainsaw Leatherface gets midway though is the kind of memorable flourish part two would’ve approved of. Lastly, the trailer is awesome, suggesting a far funnier, more innovative film. Director Jeff Burr went on to specialize in horror sequels. He would make “Stepfather II,” “Puppet Master” 4 and 5, “Pumpkinhead II,” and “Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy.” His best film is creative supernatural slasher “Night of the Scarecrow.” I wish “Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III” had that kind of flare. [5/10]

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