Collins’ Crypt: The TEXAS CHAINSAW Series Is As Mangled As Its Victims
Over the years, I've gotten less worked up about horror franchise continuity as I used to. A lot of it is due to having a kid - I need to channel my energy into potty training and making sure no Lego pieces are eaten, leaving precious little of it left to care about things like "How did Jason get back to Crystal Lake after morphing into a little boy and drowning in the New York sewer system?". But also, as these long-running series continued, it just got too hard to try to make it work like I used to; a younger, childless me would probably trying to figure out a way that this new Halloween film that's coming could still include the other sequels as canon, but current day me can't devote the time it would take to possibly sort it out even in a rudimentary fashion. We have Jigsaw coming this week, and I'm sure that will satisfy whatever lingering devotion I have to serialized storytelling in my horror franchises, but from now on the other ones can do whatever they like, as long as I'm reasonably entertained by the result.
This approach is really the only one you can take when it comes to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series of films, which all seemingly go out of their way to contradict one another, or even themselves in the case of Texas Chainsaw 3D, which could never decide on the years of its own self-contained timeline. I mean, this is a series that has two movies named Leatherface, and that's the least confusing thing about it. Nearly every sequel has presented itself as the "true" follow-up to Tobe Hooper's 1974 original, yet some of them also have a nod to the 1986 Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, i.e. casting that film's Bill Moseley to play the Jim Siedow role in Chainsaw 3D, showing some love to that entry while also completely overwriting its place in the canonical history. Watching this series in order is akin to reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book in sequential order rather than following the "turn to page ____" instructions, making it less a traditional franchise and more of an experiment in fan patience. How many times can you be told that the previous film(s) don't count before you stop wanting to bother?
I suspect a lot of its erratic nature is due to the fact that the series has never had a consistent studio behind it, let alone a gatekeeper to ensure everything gels. Unlike Freddy, who stuck around with New Line for his entire run, or Chucky, who has been with Universal for all of his sequels (MGM released the first), the Chainsaw films change hands almost as often as they recast Leatherface (only one actor has ever played him twice). The classic original was an independent production that had several distributors throughout the '70s and early '80s, including an early incarnation of New Line before they got into producing their own films. The first sequel was a Cannon production, but they went belly-up and the series found itself back with New Line (now a full "mini-major" studio) for 1989's Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. The next film had two releases* under different distributors (the exact ones are a question mark - BoxOfficeMojo attributes them both to Lionsgate, but I remember Columbia being involved with one?), then the brand went back to New Line AGAIN for the pair of Platinum Dunes films that began in 2003, and after Bay and co. parted ways the series returned to Lionsgate for its two most recent entries. If there is another film in this poor series, it could very well be from a studio that doesn't even exist yet.
That may account for some of the on-screen tomfoolery, as character and story rights get tangled up in all the transferring around and it's usually not worth the hassle to sort it out. I recall George Romero having to secure permission to reuse Tom Savini's biker character from Dawn of the Dead in 2005's Land of the Dead - and that's his own character! Ditto for Sam, Bruce, and Robert having to ignore the plot of Army of Darkness in the first season of the Ash vs. Evil Dead series due to Universal still owning that one (it was cleared up for the second season). When the same creative team can't access their own characters, you can see how something like the Chainsaw series - which has plenty of cast/crew turnover with each film, would have trouble keeping everything intact, if they even wanted to in the first place. Let's not forget that after the mammoth success of the first film in the 1970s, the first few follow-ups all tanked at the box office, so the idea of ignoring an unsuccessful film was hardly an issue for anyone involved. The other series have played fast and loose with continuity in the past (most notably with H20), so there's even precedent for it - the key difference is that those other series tended to find great success at the box office, whereas Chainsaw was kept alive thanks to home video numbers and the sheer enormity of the original film, giving the "Texas Chainsaw" name just as much weight as "Friday the 13th" or "Elm Street" even if the box office numbers suggested otherwise.
However, things finally turned around in 2003, when Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form launched their Platinum Dunes outfit with a remake of the original film. On a $9.5M budget (seemingly peanuts - but actually a risk as that was more than any Chainsaw sequel had actually grossed) the film debuted to a massive $28m ($41m in today's numbers) on its way to a whopping $80m. Fourteen years later it remains the highest grossing of all of Platinum Dunes' horror films, and it paved the way (and raised expectations) for them to give similar treatment to the likes of Amityville Horror, Friday the 13th (which was their best since Chainsaw) and Nightmare on Elm Street. But they didn't leave well enough alone, and in 2006 they made a prequel called Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which showed the origins of their incarnation of Leatherface (surnamed Hewitt in this series, as opposed to Sawyer) and his family. To be fair, I kind of liked the movie for the most part - it had a bit of the black humor that was missing from their first entry, and I appreciated the grim ending. Plus as a fan of the Hewitt family characters we met in 2003, it was fun to see them again (played by the same actors, a rarity in this series) and how they all turned into the monsters we knew, though I had to laugh how all of these things apparently happened in a single day.
But I was in the minority, it seems. The film was not warmly received, nor as financially successful, so Platinum Dunes cut ties with the brand shortly thereafter, and after a few years' hiatus, the series went to Millennium/Lionsgate for a new entry titled Texas Chainsaw 3D. As usual, this was designed as a "true sequel", but the difference is that this one had Marilyn Burns and Gunnar Hansen on board (albeit as different characters) and that it would be picking up IMMEDIATELY after the 1974 film, as opposed to x number of years later. So we see what happened after Sally Hardesty got back to town and told everyone about the house full of horrors and its inhabitants, which results in a siege between the giant Sawyer family and the police (hilariously, it's the first actual massacre in the entire series, in the first film of the series to drop the word from its title). The lone survivor is a baby, and then we cut to the present day, where the tyke has grown up to be the world's most attractive 40 year old (Alexandra Daddario), and from that point the film plays out like any generic slasher, with a solo Leatherface hacking up Daddario's friends one by one.
Watching the film back in 2013 when it was finally released after a year's worth of reshoots and re-editing, it dawned on me that despite the fact that Leatherface is the poster boy for the franchise, he really doesn't work unless there's a family around him. Even the woeful Next Generation (or Return of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, depending on which version you get - they're both awful though) seemed to understand that much, but the Dunes films heavily showcased the character (his family, including R. Lee Ermey as an evil sheriff, didn't interact with him all that much) and this one dropped the family element entirely, unless you count Daddario who discovers she is actually his cousin (prompting the film's most memorable moment - I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet). Take away the likes of Cook, Chop-Top, Tex... hell, even Vilmer - and you're left with yet another hulking brute wearing a mask killing college kids, with zero personality to make up for it. And even whatever personality he has is often retconned out of existence; I love the gag in TCM3 where he uses a Speak n' Spell kind of thing, repeatedly identifying a clown as "F-O-O-D" - but that movie's existence has been erased twice by now. The cannibalism element also got reduced (at times ignored completely) over the years, another thing that suggests the people that make these newer films failed to understand what made the original such a terrifying experience. A guy in a mask killing teens is something we can get anywhere - a family of cannibals trying to survive in a world that's leaving them behind? That's a little less cliche, and why I've always bristled at the idea that Hooper's film was a "slasher" movie.
But I digress. Chainsaw 3D may have been a wash creatively, but on a financial level (i.e. all producers really care about) it was technically a success, opening at #1 to $21m. However, it dropped faster from the top slot than any film I've ever seen, barely even in the top 20 on its 3rd weekend (even the much-hated The Devil Inside had a better hold), which could not have made anyone happy even if they were out of the red. I would assume that alarming drop is at least partially to blame for Leatherface (which like its predecessor was reshot and re-edited) getting a release that makes the 4th film's look lavish in comparison, as the film premiered on DirectTV (oof) and then this past weekend got a release on a handful of screens - with Lionsgate not even bothering to report its grosses. Even if Chainsaw 3D disappointed, it is insane to me that a series could go from #1 at the box office to glorified direct to video only four years later. Honestly, Leatherface isn't even all that bad of a movie in its own right, shying away from the usual slasher elements in favor of a mix between Badlands and The Devil's Rejects, but as a series entry it is a total misfire, and is the most guilty of everything that I've been talking about here: the franchise is too much of a mess for any "reveals" to matter.
When Platinum Dunes made their prequel it retained Ermey and all of the other Sawyer family cast members from the 2003 film, so it was easy to draw the connections they were establishing (not to mention referencing a much more popular and successful film). This time around, they're essentially prequelizing the 1974 original, but all of its little nods to "mythology" are related to Chainsaw 3D, such as the fact that Leatherface's real name is Jedediah. Baffling for a film called Leatherface, the new film doesn't actually have much of our human skin-wearing adult killer - instead we are introduced to a group of insane teens, with the understanding that one of them will grow up to be the big guy (yep, it's a sort of whodunit). As the kids are orphans and bounced around, they have new names, so it's not until later in the film that they reveal which one's real name is Jed - a moment that is delivered as a shocking reveal, but meant almost nothing to me or the other people I was with, as no one remembered that Chainsaw 3D came up with that name. Likewise, the cruel lawman played by Stephen Dorff is apparently the father of the villainous sheriff from Chainsaw 3D, but I can't imagine anyone putting that information together, let alone caring much about what it meant in the grand scheme of things (that they still can't decide when Chainsaw 3D's events took place is part of the problem). The whole point of a prequel is to fill in backstory and give new context for the films that follow, using characters we love - but apart from Leatherface, who barely appears and is once again played by a new actor, these are all new characters we have no affinity for, in a world that has never had the slightest bit of consistency.
Perhaps the producers realized this, albeit too late, and it informed the decision to more or less bury it, sadly continuing this poor series' history of being tossed around without anyone ever seeming to know what to do with it, trusting in the brand name without actually thinking about what made the series' best films actually work. As these last two films were heavily reworked I would be curious to see if their original cuts were better films and/or truer to the spirit of the film they were trying to connect themselves to, but as Chainsaw 3D's Blu-ray didn't include any excised material (just a few seconds of restored gore, plus an alternate opening) we have no way of knowing what once was, and I would bet that Leatherface's disc follows suit. Both films seem to have had ill-advised ideas as sequels from the start (the new one more than 3D, which at least had a kernel of a good idea in its prologue), so perhaps this or that cut might have made for a better movie in generic terms, but neither seemed like it truly "got" Hooper's film in any meaningful way. And ironically, by now we're used to the films being unrelated and rewriting the previous one(s), so why are they trying to establish a Saw-level mythology and timeline now? Furthermore, why go the prequel route when Chainsaw 3D actually set up something fairly interesting?
Ultimately, while I've enjoyed most of the films in the series (TCM4 is the only one I flat out dislike), the haphazard way that it's been approached has kept me from ever getting too invested in it as a franchise like I do with Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc. Prepping for this article is probably the first time I ever looked at the IMDb pages for the last few films, and I don't think I've ever bothered with the bonus features for any of them past TCM2. Most of them almost feel more like fan fiction than authorized follow-ups, and I can't say I've ever been truly excited for a new one the way I usually am for the other franchises - hell I'd be more interested in a new Freddy film at this point, and I only really like three of those nine movies (original, Dream Warriors, New Nightmare). Perhaps it's time they put Texas Chainsaw Massacre to rest for good; it gave us one undeniable masterpiece and a handful of entertaining sequels, but also a lot of head-scratching, and I doubt anyone looks forward to sitting down for another entry wondering which, if any, of the other films it will actually be referencing.
*One in 1995, then after its stars Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey - total unknowns when they made the film in 1993 - became marquee draws, it was released again with a slightly different title in 1997, where it performed slightly better as a result.