Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be covering the third film in the franchise, 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III! This is one of those rare movies where the trailer is more famous than the film itself, featuring an insane, Arthurian bestowing of the chainsaw to its titular villain. Any movie would have a hard time living up to a teaser that ridiculous, but could Leatherface beat sequel fatigue and the departure of Tobe Hooper? Read on to find out…
After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Cannon Group had the rights to the franchise. However, by 1989 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of cash. New Line Cinema bought the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from The Cannon Group and hoped to bring another major icon into their stable on par with Freddy Krueger. The film was written by David J. Schow, who had done uncredited writing for New Line on A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Schow decided to bring the franchise back in line with the original film, ditching the campy and comic elements that Hooper had brought to the fore in Chainsaw 2. The studio also sought to turn Leatherface into an icon in his own right, rather than focus too much on the Sawyer family, hence why the film puts the name “Leatherface” in the forefront for the first time.
After being turned down by Tom Savini and a young Peter Jackson, New Line approached Jeff Burr (who would later go on to direct several Puppetmaster sequels) to direct the film, as he had just come off of the relatively successful Stepfather II. Burr was very reverential of the original Chainsaw and as a result had some specific demands for the film if he was going to direct – he wanted to shoot in Texas on 16mm film like Tobe Hooper had and Gunnar Hansen had to come back as Leatherface. New Line Cinema thought that this was hilarious and immediately dropped Burr from the production, wanting someone who would kowtow to their own demands and hoped to secure a major actor to play Leatherface. Unfortunately for them, neither of these dreams came to pass and after their replacement director Jonathan Betuel dropped out, New Line convinced Burr to take over production again. However, by this time it would have been May or June of 1989 and New Line had set a firm release date of November 3, 1989, meaning that Burr was under an intensely fast five month deadline to complete the film. He also had to relinquish some of his demands, as sets had already been constructed in Southern California.
New Line didn’t get the big name actor they wanted for Leatherface and a deal could not be reached to get Gunnar Hansen to return. Instead, the role went to former wrestler R. A. Mihaloff. The film’s leading roles went to Kate Hodge (in her first film role) and William Butler (an actor now famous for getting killed in horror movies) as the hapless couple Michelle and Ryan. Horror legend Ken Foree, most famous for being the hero of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, was brought in to play the survivalist hero Benny. A young and virtually-unknown Viggo Mortensen was cast as the villainous Eddie “Tex” Sawyer, a casting decision which single-handedly made me interested in this film. Of the other villainous cast, Joe Unger was cast as Tink Sawyer and Tom Everett (in one of his first roles) as Alfredo Sawyer. Caroline Williams also appears very briefly in a cameo sequence, reprising her role as Stretch from the previous film.
Setbacks and creative clashes between Burr and New Line basically defined the production of Leatherface. Filming locations were destroyed by wildfires, crew members dropped out and sequences Burr had wanted to film, such as a scene where Leatherface would wield a chainsaw on horseback to play off of the Arthurian teaser trailer, were too expensive for the film’s minuscule budget. Test audiences also were not enthused about the film’s ending so New Line did reshoots and changed the ending without Jeff Burr’s knowledge, leading to a more definitively happier ending which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Then, when the film was submitted to the MPAA, the film was slapped with an X-rating (the last film which would receive this rating before the NC-17 rating was created), necessitating over five minutes of the film to be cut. All of these delays meant that the film was pushed out of its November 3rd released date and shunted to January of 1990, at the time considered the release window where movies went to die. All-told, the film ended up grossing less than $6 million and cooled any interest New Line had on turning Leatherface into a new icon for the company.
The film’s opening crawl positions Leatherface as an alternate continuity to Chainsaw 2, where law enforcement raided the Sawyer house and apprehended Drayton, believing him to be the “Leatherface” Sally had referenced before she went crazy and died in a private health care facility in 1977. Drayton was executed for the family’s crimes, but Leatherface escaped. After an opening scene that features Leatherface killing a woman, the film follows a couple, Michelle and Ryan, driving through Texas. They pass a police checkpoint where investigators have discovered a mass grave of over forty murder victims before stopping at a gas station. Here they meet a hitchhiking cowboy named Tex and the station’s perverted proprietor, Alfredo. Tex gives Ryan directions to a nearby town that doesn’t appear on their map and then discovers that Alfredo has been spying on Michelle through a peephole in the women’s washroom. Alfredo and Tex get into an altercation which leads to Alfredo shooting him, while Michelle and Ryan flee towards the town Tex mentioned. However, night falls and the town is still nowhere in sight when the pair are pursued by a truck and attacked. Their car is damaged and they have to change the tire, which is just barely completed before they are attacked by Leatherface and flee. However, while fleeing they collide with another driver named Benny who is passing through the area. Benny tends to the couple and is initially skeptical of their claims about being hunted by crazy people, until he comes across a man named Tink who has found the scene of the accident. Benny grabs a rifle from his truck before Tink rams it and then Leatherface attacks. Leatherface nearly kills Benny before the sister of the woman he killed in the opening scene arrives to distract him before doubling back to help Benny. This woman, Sara, tells Benny that Leatherface and his family have been setting traps and luring passersby into the area to be killed, including Sara’s family. Benny then goes to try to help Ryan and Michelle, and Leatherface finds and kills Sara shortly thereafter.
With Sara dead, Leatherface then begins hunting Michelle and Ryan. While fleeing him, Ryan steps in a bear trap and Michelle is forced to escape without him. She comes across a house where she finds a little girl, who then stabs Michelle with a knife before Tex arrives and reveals that Michelle has escaped into the Sawyers’ lair. Tex ties up Michelle and then freaking nails her hands to a chair to make sure she doesn’t try to escape. The rest of the family begin to gather for dinner, including Tink, Leatherface, the elderly Mama Sawyer and Grandpa’s withered corpse. Ryan’s body is brought in and suspended with meat hooks before revealing that he’s still barely alive. Tink presents Leatherface with a golden chainsaw as a gift and then tells him that he still needs to finish the job and kill Benny to prevent any loose ends.
Meanwhile Alfredo, the family butt-monkey, is headed to a bog to dump the family’s latest victims’ remains. Benny sneaks up on him and knocks him out after unsuccessfully trying to get information. The little girl, revealed to be Leatherface’s daughter, kills Ryan with a hammer and then Leatherface prepares to kill Michelle as well. However, before he can, Benny finds the house and opens fire with his rifle, killing Mama, blowing Tink’s fingers and ear off and double-tapping Grandpa for good measure. In the chaos, Michelle tears her hands out of the nails and escapes. Leatherface pursues her into the woods while Benny and Tex fight. Benny kills Tex by lighting him on fire and then hurries to help Michelle. They fight Leatherface in the bog, with Benny being seriously injured before Michelle bashes Leatherface with a rock.
The next morning, Michelle manages to reach the road and is surprised when Alfredo’s truck pulls in front of her. However, Benny is driving it and offers to help her, but then Alfredo shows up and knocks him out. Michelle grabs Alfredo’s shotgun and then shoots him in the chest. Michelle and Benny then finally escape, driving away as Leatherface watches and revs his chainsaw.
It should perhaps be unsurprising that Leatherface ditches the comedic elements of Chainsaw 2 and brings the franchise back to its horror roots. It might have even overcompensated in some ways because this film is just grim and nasty at times. The film opens with Leatherface making a new mask from a fresh kill and we actually get to see him slicing the removed face up and stitching it together. There’s also the scene of Michelle getting her hands nailed to a chair which is just brutal to watch. The film seems like it was intended to be even gorier before the MPAA forced cuts, because there are a lot of potentially gory scenes which the film cuts away from at the last second (such as Ryan’s head getting bludgeoned). However, that doesn’t take away from the other nasty elements of the film which are less explicit. Alfredo is a disgusting pervert with juvenile, rapey vibes and I wished he would just die whenever he was on screen. Oh and then there’s the scene where Mama Sawyer tells Michelle that she cut her own genitals out years ago, that she also castrated Grandpa Sawyer and that Leatherface loves to rape and mutilate genitals as well… this just comes out of nowhere and is way beyond the sort of nastiness that we’ve already come to expect with this character. Like, wasn’t Leatherface established as a butcher who loves killing indiscriminately? Hell, the whole cannibalism aspect doesn’t even get touched upon. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re trying to work in more elements of Ed Gein into the character, but the way that it just comes out of nowhere in the last half of the film and goes against the character as he has been established is questionable (although it gives new meaning to the idea of objectifying people as “meat” in this franchise).
Another element worth noting is that most of Leatherface‘s story just doesn’t make any sense when you apply scrutiny to it. This wasn’t really an issue with the other two films – the first was very simple and realistic, whereas the second’s comedic and campy tone paves over some of the stranger aspects one could point out. However, Leatherface is just fundamentally flawed. For example, we find out during this film that the Sawyers are luring passing motorists into ambushes, which is a pretty cool idea and makes this film feel akin to something from The Hills Have Eyes. However, rather than intimidate locals into sending people their way, they instead set up an elaborate and pointlessly convoluted scheme. Basically, Tex tries to hitchhike with people who attend the gas station and take them back to his house. If that doesn’t work, he tells them about a shortcut to town and then gets Alfredo to pretend to shoot him to cause the motorists to flee to town and run into the Sawyers’ trap. Hey… why not just shoot any motorists at the gas station? Is that not less convoluted and less likely to go wrong? Why did they even need to hunt people down? I don’t think it’s for the fun of it all either, because later they complain about how there are still loose ends out there, but they went and created those loose ends in the first place with their stupid plan. Also, what about the body dumping? I thought the Sawyers ate their victims, but we see Alfredo dumping dismembered corpses into the bog and the bodies found by the police are also intact. So… what are the Sawyers even doing in this film? Are they just draining blood to feed to Grandpa and making skin masks every once in a while now?
There are also parts of the film which straight-up needed to be cut because they don’t add anything, such as a pair of investigators we’re introduced to early in the film who are digging up bodies and then never show up again. What was the point of introducing them? Or what about the reporter in the same scene who inflates the body-count and then can’t pronounce the state of decomposition? It’s meant to be a dig at news media, but the film never bothers to do so again, so what was the purpose of this? What about the earring worn by an armadillo, a dead coyote and Tink? This doesn’t seem to have any other purpose than to reveal that they’re linked, but this link goes unexplained and makes no sense in the film. Oh and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sara as well. She acts as a deus ex machina to save Benny’s ass from Leatherface, acts as an exposition dump to explain what is going on and then is immediately killed by Leatherface despite the implication that she’s a tough survivor to have lasted a whole week on the run. She’s a totally unnecessary character and if the production hadn’t been so rushed she would have been either fleshed out significantly or cut entirely. You’re telling me that she’s been lost in the woods and can’t get away for over a week now, but Michelle manages to get back to the road in a single night? Suuuuure.
As for the actual script, I’ve got to say that I really did not like Michelle and Ryan. They spend the first half of the movie bickering with each other and Ryan especially comes across as a dick. Michelle does get more enjoyable in the second half of the film when she starts fighting back against the Sawyers, but neither character is particularly fleshed out. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue in this film is really clunky, and Michelle and Ryan get saddled with a number of stinkers. For example, when Michelle is driving in the dark and they can hear a vehicle somewhere, Ryan and Michelle argue about where it’s coming from… until the truck turns its lights on behind them, Michelle comments on this and then Ryan yells “It’s coming from behind us!” The line just makes you want to go “No shit, dude!” There’s also a line where Ryan claims that there are a bunch of guys after them with guns, but only a minute later they’re saying that there are two people after them. Sara also has a pretty dumb line where she tells Benny he had the wrong idea bringing a gun to a chainsaw fight… um what? He later uses that gun to disarm Leatherface and take out half of his family in one volley, I’m pretty sure he’s fine.
Benny’s arrival helps breathe new life into the film, thanks largely to Ken Foree’s capable performance. Benny is just way more interesting to watch since, as a survivalist, he actually knows what he’s doing and is prepared for this kind of scenario. He even gets into multiple fights with the villains throughout the film and is constantly rescuing the less-capable characters selflessly. Ken Foree is great in this film, but I have to say that the best performance goes to Viggo Mortensen as Tex, hands-down. He’s no Chop Top, but Viggo works a fair bit of depth into the character. By Sawyer standards, he’s mostly sane and has a very charming veneer. However, when that veneer drops he reveals that he’s on the edge of breaking, such as when Tink calls him by his real name “Eddie” and Tex almost cuts his hand off before asking him politely to call him “Tex”. Unfortunately, the other Sawyers aren’t nearly as compelling. I’ll get to Leatherface in a moment, but while all of the Sawyers in this film have their quirks, no one really gets all that much material to work with. Tink is the tech guy for the family and seems to be fairly sane. Mama is the matriarch and has had a tracheotomy. Leatherface’s daughter is a little psycho (and the child actor playing her is not great at delivering dialogue). Oh and Alfredo is a one-dimensional piece of shit who talks to himself, threatens to rape people and is implied to have engaged in necrophilia. Lovely.
As for Leatherface, he’s once again a very different character. One rather cool addition to the character is that he wears a metal leg brace after the injury he sustained at the end of the first movie. This actually allows Michelle and Ryan to hear him approaching when he first arrives, which could have been a cool, Jaws-like way to build suspense. Unfortunately, it only really shows up in this first scene, but it was a potentially smart way to make the character even scarier. Also, Leatherface no longer seems like he’s severely mentally deficient, or at least nowhere near the same level of dangerously stupid as he was previously. For example, in this film he now knows how to drive and is teaching himself how to spell, although he seems to only be able to view humans as “food” in a humorously unsubtle scene. His biggest issue seems to be that he’s incapable of speech, but he actually fights back against his family now. In one scene, Tink throws Leatherface’s Walkman in the oven as a lesson, but Leatherface fights back and forces Tink to reach into the flames to retrieve it, which is a far cry from when Drayton Sawyer was beating him for killing people back in the first film. This ties into Leatherface being just generally far more physically imposing in this film. At one point he tears the trunk of Michelle’s car off with his bare hands and the golden chainsaw he receives near the end of the film is ridiculously massive (apparently weighing around 80lbs). Between being made less cripplingly stupid and getting ‘roided up, Leatherface feels a lot more like Jason Voorhees in this film, which I can’t help but feel was New Line Cinema’s vision for the franchise. However, it also makes the character feel more generic. Also, once again I’m not a fan of his mask. It doesn’t look rubbery like it did in Chainsaw 2, but it instead looks like it’s made of mud and is just plain ugly (in a bad way).
Another thing that really grates me about this film is that has some really heavy-handed references to the first film, especially in the first act, to the point where it almost feels like a remake at times. Off the bat, we’ve got a couple driving through Texas and listening to grisly news reports about a mass grave and then camera flashes illuminating corpses when we see this mass grave. Then when they reach the gas station, Alfredo takes Michelle’s picture and asks her to pay him for it and Tex tells us that Alfredo lost his job when the old slaughterhouse shut down. And, of course, there’s yet another dinner scene, this time complete with a body hanging from meathooks. Look, the dinner scene was truly iconic and horrifying, but do we need to rip it off in every subsequent Chainsaw film?
Man, I’ve really been ragging on Leatherface throughout this retrospective, but it really isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound. Taking cues from The Hills Have Eyes and having the villains lure victims into their territory (complete with booby-traps) is actually ingenious and, while the justification isn’t really there in the script, it helps give this film its own identity in the franchise. Having the villains actively hunting people now is actually a pretty smart way to advance the franchise formula, if only a little. Also, Jeff Burr’s direction is quite good especially considering the film’s low budget and the fact that at least half of the film is shot at night. This could make things very hard to see, but Burr lights the scenes very well without it seeming unnatural. Also, while the film is nowhere near as tense or suspenseful as the original, it does have some pretty horrifying and nasty sequences, as I have mentioned, which make for a gruelling atmosphere at times. And, as dumb as the script is sometimes, there’s also some great payoffs, such as when Benny uses Sara’s lighter that he acquired from her earlier to light Tex on fire, or when Michelle flees into a bog and the audience realizes that it’s the bog Alfredo was dumping corpses into earlier. It would be unfortunate if I did not mention some of the cool sequences as well, most notably Leatherface and Benny’s fight, where Benny disarms him and then Leatherface pulls out this mini-saw Tink made him, which he uses to cut Benny’s leg and get the upper hand!
What can I say about Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III? It’s a competently-made film which is just brought down by some unfortunate elements, most importantly its frustratingly annoying leads and the shaky plot. Oh, and the studio interference certainly didn’t help, because I’m certain that that led to the movie feeling like a generic slasher sequel (most notably in its rather stupid reshot ending and that there isn’t really any sort of social commentary to the film). That said, compared to its contemporaries, this film is miles ahead of such films as Jason Takes Manhattan or The Revenge of Michael Meyers, not to mention New Line running A Nightmare on Elm Street into the ground with The Dream Child and Freddy’s Dead. I have to say that it’s nowhere near as messy as Chainsaw 2, but it also less distinctive and the characters are far less interesting. All-in-all it’s a slasher sequel – a fairly decent one, but a slasher sequel none the less.
Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation!