Most horror fans probably remember the first time they were truly let down by one of the big franchises. For slightly older ones than me it was probably Halloween III or Friday the 13th Part V, the entries that opted to keep their marquee villains on the sidelines (though at least New Beginning had a stand-in); younger horror fans probably have to count Paranormal Activity 4 or maybe Saw 3D as a heartbreaking experience that will continue to raise their blood pressure whenever it comes up. But the nice thing is, as you get older you can usually reevaluate such films and find something to like, or even do a 180 on it entirely. I never had much of a problem with F13 V that I can recall, but I was definitely one of the "Screw this Conal Cochran guy, where's Myers?" types until I rewatched Season of the Witch in college and realized it was actually a pretty fun/strange movie, and better than the last three sequels at that time (which was after H20; I STILL haven't liked any entry since as much, though the new one came close).
So who knows, maybe someday the likes of Rings or whatever passes for the worst Puppet Master entry to its fans will be seen as a misunderstood gem or something. Time can be kind to these things, especially if later entries turn out even worse. Changing my mind about a movie is part of the fun, and when I love a series like I do the Halloweens or Fridays, even the worst installments get thrown on from time to time just to see if my opinion had changed. The Elm Street movies in particular tend to rise and fall depending on when I watch them - if I were to rank them as a teen, it'd probably be something like 3/4, 1, 5, 6, 2, New Nightmare, whereas now 2 and New Nightmare are near the top, and Dream Master gets harder and harder to get through every time I see it. By spreading my viewings out, sometimes it seems like I'm watching a film for the first time, and it's always interesting to compare my present day opinion with the one that I built up in my head from watching as a less astute teen.
But sometimes, it turns out I was right all along. After twenty years of trying, I think I can officially call it: I will never, ever enjoy Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (aka Return of Texas Chainsaw Massacre), which has been given the Scream Factory stamp of approval and released on Blu-ray for the first time. I truly hoped that the new transfer (my previous copy was a DVD taken from a VHS source; my copy before that was a straight up bootleg*) would allow me to see something in it this time around, perhaps buoyed by the new bonus features that would presumably shed some light on what they were thinking, but alas, they mostly stay mum on its shortcomings. There's a commentary with writer/director Kim Henkel and actor Joe Stevens that's moderated by our old pal (and admitted superfan) Phil Nobile, but after listening it seems like Phil is the only one who even remembers the movie, so the track is peppered with silence and very little in the way of revelations.
And yet, more than once I've heard someone say, out loud, that it's their favorite sequel, which confounds me. I get being amused by this or that thing in the moment, but walking away from the whole movie and still feeling good about it - that's just something I can't understand. I dislike F13: The New Blood and Freddy's Dead, but I can at least comprehend why they worked for some people; when it comes to this thing, I'm at a total loss. It's got a certain gonzo attitude, sure, but that never translates into anything that's either scary or funny, and being weird for the sake of being weird has never really been my forte. Someone said it's like Leatherface and his crew wandered into Twin Peaks, and I admit if you watch it with that in mind it ALMOST works in a few scenes, but it's also quite dull (as I learned when I did a "Minute by Minute" a few years back, hefty chunks of the film are devoted to Renee Zellweger wandering around the woods by herself) and repetitive. Yes, Matthew McConaughey is memorable, but he can't do enough to save a film from a script that treads water for most of its second half waiting for some Illuminati asshole to show up and explain why the movie hasn't been exciting (yes, this is a real thing that happens).
I am much softer on Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2, which Scream Factory also released this past week and, like TCM4, is a polarizing film to say the least (and is another one I did a "Minute by Minute" for!). The film got a new lease on life thanks to the undying "Garbage Day!" meme, but before that it was widely hated, criticized by most fans for its overuse of footage from the first film, bad acting, and even the general lack of Christmas decor until the closing scenes. And as a kid the amount of flashback footage bugged me too, but I enjoyed the rest of it just fine. Freeman's performance alone makes it a must-watch (his eyebrows get all the love, but it's his deliveries that really put it into camp classic territory), there are a number of wacky kills (an umbrella!), and it's never boring - the next three films are largely snoozefests with a few highlights. Hell, I've even mostly come around on the recycled footage - as many have pointed out, it's basically all the best stuff from the first film, so if you haven't seen it yet or simply don't remember it, watching SNDN2 gives you a sort of two for one deal.
And unlike TCM4, the bonus features DO help explain why the film is the way it is. Director Lee Harry, who was working as an editor at the time, was hired by the producers who had obtained the rights to the first SNDN to shoot some new wraparounds and re-edit the old stuff as necessary, as a way to make a quick buck. However, the original film itself is kind of loaded with flashbacks - as Billy gets older (it takes place across three time periods) he is constantly having visions of his parents' murder and other childhood traumas. It's also kind of poorly edited/staged, and Harry fixed a few of those issues (such as Linnea Quigley's death - in the original it seems her boyfriend doesn't hear her being killed in the next room, but Harry's cut makes it seem like he does). Once they got through it all, there wasn't enough left of the original film to add a few minutes of bookends and still call it a feature, so they came up with more ideas. And so the film's revenge plot, the flashback murders of Ricky as a fifteen year old, and yes, the "Garbage Day!" sequence never would have existed if Harry didn't go the extra mile, which makes the criticism that it's "all old footage" ironic as well as erroneous.
Another key difference is, as much as I enjoy it, I'd never call the original Silent Night, Deadly Night a particularly great film. It's a blast to watch with a crowd, but it's also oddly structured, poorly acted, and even somewhat hard to buy into since the three actors that play Billy look nothing alike, even though they're only supposed to be a few years apart. So the sequel (which retains this bizarre approach to casting; at one point "young" Ricky is played by an actor that is clearly older than Eric Freeman as "current day" Ricky) didn't have very far to fall, whereas Texas Chainsaw 4 was a followup to one of the all-time great horror films, making its flaws far more difficult to accept - I grade on a curve when it comes to these things. Worse, the opening crawl for TCM4 takes a shot at parts 2 and 3, both of which are superior to this one, so they're kind of starting off on the wrong foot to boot.
However, I did start thinking that the insanity and polarizing nature of these two films - and the other franchise martyrs I've mentioned - are ultimately a good thing, regardless of how you or I may specifically feel about them. Next Generation borders on disaster, but I do have to give Kim Henkel some begrudging respect for not playing it safe and having an action figure-ready Leatherface gorily chainsawing the new group of teens (in fact, he doesn't use his chainsaw as a kill weapon at all in the film), opting instead for a cross dressing version that spends most of the film whimpering and crying. As we learned with Texas Chainsaw 3D, where he was a solo act and thus just a generic slasher, Leatherface is only as interesting as the people around him, so I can respect the idea of sidelining him in favor of his chattier relatives. Does it work, at least for me? No, but we have eight of these movies now - anything a filmmaker can do to put a distinct stamp on their entry is at least helpful, regardless of how it turns out.
Compare that to a series like the Underworld or Resident Evil movies, which are largely indistinguishable from one another to all but their most ardent fans. Underworld 3 is the one that doesn't have Kate Beckinsale, so it's got that going for it (the RE films never let Milla Jovovich sit one out), but I feel neither franchise will ever manage to have that same level of fervor that these others can inspire. They made more money at the box office, sure, but their samey nature keep them from being discussed or debated as often - few seem to have a strong opinion one way or another about them. Most of my Twitter feed is made up of people who like talking about genre movies, and I never go long without seeing someone getting riled up about a Scream or Hellraiser sequel, but even when a new entry in the Underworld series is playing theatrically, I don't see anything like "Awakening is the series nadir, come at me!" (No one will.)
So kudos to Henkel and Harry, and all of the other filmmakers over the years who directed franchise sequels that carved their own weirdo path instead of doing exactly what was expected. I wish I could at least enjoy TCM4 as much as I do SNDN2, or even pinpoint why one crude and mean spirited film makes me angry and the other crude and mean spirited film makes me cheer, but again, the former has its fans, and I am comforted to know I can argue about it with guys like Phil (who made sure I didn't know he was on the commentary until I popped the disc in - which delighted me to no end) until we're old geezers, as opposed to something everyone agreed was "fine" and never mentioned again. I'd rather come close to hating a movie than have trouble remembering anything about it by the time I got back to my car after a screening, and as talking about these things is one of my great joys in life, that means the likes of TCM4 will always have a chunk of my respect, even if my admiration escapes it.
*Both were of the longer cut; I've actually never seen the shorter version. If I'm still doing Crypt in 2028, I'll finally watch it and report back.