Devious Dialogues by Mike Thorn and A.M. Novak

Devious Dialogues: Mike Thorn and A.M. Novak on ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ Franchise

On the cusp of a new prequel release from French Extremity auteurs Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre franchise has undergone numerous updates and re-workings since the release of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece. A.M. (Anya) Novak and Mike Thorn revisited the series and discussed what they would like to see from the upcoming film.

Editor’s Note: Mike and Anya submitted this draft on August 25, 2017 — one day before Tobe Hooper passed away at age 74.

Mike: To start, it’s interesting to look at Tobe Hooper’s two radically different approaches to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre narrative. Although Hooper often describes the first 1974 film as blackly comic, I’ve always found it genuinely and uniquely horrific. I think it’s an amazing formal exercise — the individual images/compositions are carefully selected to emphasize the film’s atmosphere (heat, stink and physical destruction), but there’s also so much to be said for the editing! You can really clearly see Hooper’s background in avant-garde filmmaking here. The film is designed largely around the visceral impact of images, cutting and sound design. With time, I think it’s becoming less and less taboo to refer to this as one of the great American movies, all genre categories aside. I think it completely deserves that kind of status.

How interesting that Hooper follows it up with such a brazenly comic, carnival-esque sequel in 1986. I think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is also a masterpiece in its own right, but it has a surprisingly different M.O. from its predecessor.

What do you think of these two films? Do you think it’s possible to avoid comparisons? Maybe it’s even necessary to do so?

Anya: You’ve touched upon a great point. From its opening moments comprised of scattered flashbulb snapshots of decaying bodies,The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a series of heavy imagery. In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King defends the film:

“There are films which skate right up to the border where ‘art’ ceases to exist in any form and exploitation begins, and these films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of these; and in the hands of Tobe Hooper, the film satisfies the definition of art which I have offered, and I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country.”

King goes on to speak of a horror film’s artistic value as dependent upon its ability to form a connection between our real fears and our imagined ones. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre succeeded in evolving the slasher movie template beyond that of Psycho, and as such deserves to sit alongside Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Halloween as one of the great American horror films.

In regards to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there lies a bold departure from Hooper’ first film in a multitude of ways. The most noticeable difference is the tenfold depiction of gore, but the black comedy was much more stark and in-your-face in its satirical skewering of 80s excess. It’s difficult to compare these two films with such a vast tonal gap between them, despite being helmed by the same director. To compare the two would largely depend on the viewer’s affinity to tone and texture. The grittiness of the original may put off a moviegoer who appreciates Dennis Hopper’s kooky performance in the sequel. I feel that each film should be taken and evaluated on its own merit.

Mike: As far as I’m concerned, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) plays like a by-the-numbers slasher sequel. It sticks way too closely to the first film’s narrative framework, and doesn’t really allow itself any wiggle room. Ken Foree turns in a solid performance, as always, but I don’t think the film offers much of a glimpse into the franchise’s future possibilities. By contrast, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) offers a wild variation on the Sawyer family narrative, ultimately suggesting a connection between the Illuminati and this murderous backwoods unit. My verdict on this concept? It’s straight-up dumb. It doesn’t work at all, in terms of idea or execution. For me, neither of these films is particularly successful, but I find Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III slightly more coherent and engaging as a straight genre movie. Do you find either approach more compelling than the other? Do you think there’s something to be gleaned from either of these strange follow-ups?

Anya: From what I’ve read, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 didn’t do well at all, critically or commercially. Perhaps the filmmakers had that in mind when they went back to formula — and, like you point out, there is a formula that they stuck to. For me, the series is bold and brutal. While the third entry ticks off all the boxes in a slasher film, it’s played too safe for my tastes. I have read that the carnage was diluted in the editing room in order to satisfy the MPAA and get that R rating for the wider release, but the lack of over-the-top gore really doesn’t jive with the series as a whole, even this early in the franchise. I do agree that Ken Foree’s performance remains a highlight of the film, however.

It’s an unpopular opinion, but I found Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation to be a successful departure from the usual narrative, while keeping several key thematic elements intact. The self-satirization that was present in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is turned up to 11 here, and the over-the-top caricatured characters led to some memorable performances, especially Matthew McConaughey’s Vilmer. This allowed the black humor that I love so much in the entire series to really bleed through. The whole film is an exaggeration of its original predecessor, with a bonkers Illuminati plot added in. I can appreciate the ambition that writer/director Kim Henkel was shooting for; for me, The Next Generation is a low-budget diamond in the rough within the series.

Mike: Actually, I can see where you’re coming from with this. Maybe I was so put off by the idea of connecting the Sawyers to an external organization that I overlooked some of the film’s merits. It does have a distinctly wild energy — and at the very least, it aspires to do something unusual.

Marcus Nispel’s remake faced an impossible task: in some sense, living up to the standards set by Hooper’s masterpiece. Having said that, I think the 2003 version makes good of the original film’s sensibility while also working as its own entity. Like Hooper, Nispel focuses on the affective impact of film form: this is a heavily image-based movie, with very little narrative ornamentation. It pays homage to the original’s era and characteristics, while also tapping into the grimy, brutalist nu-metal aesthetic that started to take hold in early 2000s horror. I think this is the best franchise film that isn’t directed by Hooper, no contest. But I’m also a fan of Nispel’s approach to the genre at large. What do you think of the remake?

Anya: I have a confession to make: the 2003 remake was the first film I saw in the series. I fell in love immediately; Nispel managed to put a studio polish on the Sawyer family while maintaining the filthy texture that’s so essential overall. I also appreciate the inclusion of women conspirators in the town as a welcome addition to the warped family dynamics at play in Hooper’s original. Added to a stellar cast of actors with standouts like Jessica Biel and R. Lee Ermey, it all adds up to the best-case scenario for a horror remake.

Mike: That’s interesting! I wonder how the context of first seeing it with or without the original in mind affects the way the film connects with viewers. And I agree with you about Biel and Ermey — two really strong, committed performances.

When Texas Chainsaw 3D was released in 2013, I was very excited. After the franchise had been through such wear and tear, I was optimistic about the idea of a trashy 3D reimagining. After watching the film a second time, I find it less off-putting than I used to, but it’s so conceptually misguided (I think extending the Sawyers’ lineage so far outside of its origins is destructive to the original film’s idiosyncratic power). It’s also visually flat, much too clean and restrained for the subject matter and 3D format. I feel more indifferent to it than anything. What did you think of the decision to create new members for the Sawyer family?

Anya: Agreed. In my revisit of every film in this series for our crosstalk, Texas Chainsaw 3D was the one movie I thoroughly loathed. I’m not averse to 3D films, but the sterile approach and cardboard characters failed to serve the news stock-quality aesthetic; while the adherence to the Sawyer maxim that “the saw is family” is commendable, the attempt to reconfigure Leatherface as an anti-hero is a gross miscalculation that ultimately undercuts the enjoyment of the film for me.

Mike: Well, speaking of least favorites — I kind of intentionally skipped over The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which is definitely my pick for series nadir. Aside from the interesting idea of showing Leatherface as a slaughterhouse worker, I don’t think this film has anything to offer. I’d like to hear your thoughts on it, though, and what you might hope to see from Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s upcoming attempt to make their own origin film (Leatherface). Based on this duo’s first three films, I think it’s clear that they have a lot of affection for the genre, but I’m remaining guardedly optimistic about their newest. Thoughts? What do you hope to see from the next reboot?

Anya: I had seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning before, but couldn’t recall anything about it. That tells you everything you need to know about the film — not memorable in any way.

I’d like to see the newest series installment do what the first two films had done: respond to the values and climate of contemporary society (previously class confrontation and the patriarchal family unit gone wild), distilled through monstrosity and terror. Since Leatherface will be an origin story of sorts, and we know that the now-iconic chainsaw was given unto Leatherface by his father, there’s a solid opportunity there for exploration of the father-son relationship and masculinity, with all the phallic imagery a slasher fan could appreciate.

Mike: Oh, wow, great point. Let’s hope the film maximizes on that kind of subversive, genre-reflexive opportunity. Like you say: if it can respond in a vital or provocative way to the contemporary world (there’s no shortage of horror to draw upon), then I’ll be satisfied.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

A.M. Novak (@BookishPlinko) is a Video Nasties columnist at Daily Grindhouse. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she is a contributor to Birth.Movies.Death., F This Movie, Diabolique Magazine and wherever they’ll let her talk about horror movies. Read more of her work at anyawrites.com.

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