Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation! Normally I would try to avoid talking about the quality of a film too much until I get to the actual analysis, but I feel like I need to be a little more upfront with The Next Generation than usual. As of the time of writing, this film is ranked #41 on the IMDb Bottom 100 alongside such prestigious contemporaries as Birdemic, Troll 2 and half of Uwe Boll’s early catalogue. Yikes. However, the film has received some reappraisal since its release and has its defenders, some even saying it’s one of the best Chainsaw sequels. Which side did I fall on? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out…
When Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III failed to scare up big business, New Line Cinema shelved any further sequels that they had planned. As a result, the rights for the film reverted back to Kim Henkel, the writer and co-creator of the original 1974 film. That said, in part due to the shady financing of the original film, the rights for this franchise are quite complicated and required years of litigation to sort out properly. At the time of The Next Generation, a trustee for the owners of the original film, Chuck Grigson, had a slice of the rights and had to be paid and promised a cut of the profits before Henkel could have a stab at the franchise.
For the production portion of this retrospective, I was able to find cast interviews and a documentary of the making of the film with first-hand footage which will inform most of my information and assumptions about the production, unless otherwise specified. Perhaps disappointed with the direction the sequels had gone, Henkel decided to go about making his own entry in the franchise, titling it The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the documentary, Kim Henkel implies that he never really understood why the original Chainsaw Massacre resonated with people so much; he says that it looks to him like a backyard film made by kids and that its appeal is that people like watching other people get brutalized. Special effects and stunts crew member J. M. Logan states that Kim Henkel said that The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre “was what he wanted the original Chainsaw to be. He’d been working on it ever since. This is the movie he wanted to make without Tobe’s influence. This was his pure vision.” The film was made on a low budget, on location in Texas with local cast and crew. It was produced by a wealthy lawyer friend of Henkel’s named Robert Kuhn, one of the investors for the original Chainsaw and one of the fellow rightsholders for the franchise. J. M. Logan estimates that the budget was in the neighbourhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars and everything was done as basically and cheaply as possible. Along with that came the creative freedom that Henkel had wanted and which Chainsaw sequels had thus far been denied. In many ways, filming tended to mirror the production of the original Chainsaw: shot on a gruelling schedule to avoid extra expenses and with the safety of the people involved being a questionable concern. The film was almost entirely shot at night in hot, humid weather with little in the way of amenities for cast and crew.
In retrospect, the cast was the most notable aspect of the film and which would dominate any discussion surrounding The Next Generation. Renée Zellweger was cast in the lead heroine role as Jenny, while Matthew McConaughey was cast as the main villain, Vilmer. Both were on the cusp of super-stardom and this was their first major leading role in a film. They, along with most of the other cast, were local Texan actors and for many of them, Chainsaw was one of their first films. Among the film’s heroes, Lisa Marie Newmayer was cast as Heather, Tyler Cone as Barry and John Harrison as Sean. Among the villains, Tonie Perenskie was cast as Darla, Joe Stevens as W.E. Slaughter and James Gale as Rothman. This film’s Leatherface (referred to only as “Leather” by the characters) was played by Robert Jacks.
After receiving positive reviews at a premiere screening at South By Southwest (which Matthew McConaughey reportedly attended), Columbia Pictures signed a distribution deal for the film. However, as Zellweger and McConaughey’s careers started to take off, Columbia pushed the film’s release back to try to take advantage of their newfound stardom (which is pretty common with small budget films like this, such as what House at the End of the Street did when Jennifer Lawrence‘s career began to take off). However, as they did so, an agent for Zellweger or McConaughey put pressure on Columbia Pictures to not release the film in order to prevent it from damaging their client’s career. Apparently this worked, because the film’s release was delayed further, which caused Henkel and Kuhn to sue Columbia for failing to follow through on their distribution deal. Then, to make matters worse, Chuck Grigson went and sued both sides for not delivering on the terms set in the deal he had signed with Henkel in order to get the rights. Tyler Cone and Robert Jacks have gone on record stating that they believed that Zellweger’s agent was behind this further delay, but considering that McConaughey is the only one named in the legal case Grigson made regarding the estoppel, it would seem to me that it was his agent who was responsible. In either case, neither Zellweger or McConaughey have disassociated themselves from the film or even really had bad words to say about it. After being reedited by the studio and being renamed Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the film was finally released on August 29, 1997 in only 23 theatres in the US, grossing $185,989 and being critically panned.
The film opens at a Texan prom. Heather finds her boyfriend, Barry, kissing another girl. She leaves in a huff and gets into Barry’s father’s car and speeds away as Barry get in with her and tries to console her. His efforts are thwarted by their friends, Jenny and Sean, who were apparently hiding in the back seats doing drugs this whole time. Heather’s manic driving gets the group into two accidents, the second of which wrecks the vehicle and leaves another motorist badly injured. Heather, Barry and Jenny go to find a service station while Sean stays with the injured motorist. The group finds a woman named Darla at a real estate office who calls for a man named Vilmer who has a tow truck. However, when Vilmer arrives, he breaks the injured motorist’s neck and then repeatedly runs over Sean with his truck.
Barry, Heather and Jenny try to get back to Sean, but somehow manage to get separated. Barry and Heather come across a house and try to find someone who can drive them out, but Barry gets held at gunpoint by W.E. Slaughter and Heather gets captured by Leather and stuffed in a meat freezer. When Barry goes inside the house to try to find Heather, Leather bludgeons him to death and then hangs Heather on a meat hook.
Meanwhile, the now-lost Jenny is picked up by Vilmer, but she quickly realizes that he’s insane, a fact which is confirmed when she sees Sean’s body in the back of the truck. She jumps from the truck and flees into the woods, but is pursued by Leather with a chainsaw. He chases her through the woods, to the house where Barry was killed and then back to the real estate office where Darla comforts her. This is short-lived though, because soon W.E. arrives and stuffs her in the trunk of Darla’s car. Darla goes to pick up some pizza for the family and then comes across a badly-injured Heather in the middle of the road, having somehow escaped the meat hook.
Vilmer begins taunting Jenny, but Jenny steals a shotgun and nearly escapes. Darla tells Jenny that Vilmer works for the Illuminati, but Jenny doesn’t believe her. Darla then takes Jenny to yet another dinner scene, where Vilmer continues to manically taunt Jenny and Heather. However, when he tells Jenny that Leather wants to wear her face for his new mask, a dark-suited man named Rothman shows up and intimidates Vilmer, telling him that he’s supposed to be showing Jenny the meaning of true horror. When Rothman leaves, a visibly-shaken Vilmer takes Heather and then crushes her head before telling Leather to kill Jenny with a chainsaw. Jenny manages to break free though and flees into the woods with Leather and Vilmer in pursuit.
Jenny manages to come across an RV being driven by an elderly couple and escape with them, but then Vilmer and Leather drive alongside them and the RV crashes. When Vilmer and Leather pursue Jenny on foot, a crop duster swoops down and strikes Vilmer in the back of the head, killing him. Leather is distraught by this and stops as a black car pulls up and rescues Jenny. Rothman is there and apologizes to Jenny for everything that happened, saying that it was supposed to be a spiritual experience before dropping Jenny off at the hospital.
You might be able to tell from that plot description, but Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is… hoo boy, it’s an experience to say the least. Let’s start with the things that I liked first though. First of all, the references to the original tend to be much more sly than the in-your-face references in Leatherface. By far the best reference was that the camera flashes in the opening scene mirror the flashes illuminating the corpses in the original film, even playing the same sound effect. It was very clever and actually has some purpose for the film as well as it signifies that these kids are going to be corpses before this is all over. Also, the film looks fairly professional, especially considering the low budget. It certainly doesn’t have interesting cinematography or atmospheric lighting (unlike Leatherface), but the film at least looks like it wasn’t shot by Tommy Wiseau (although there’s at least one shot I noticed where the camera is focused on wrong person, leaving the person the shot’s supposed to be focused on somewhat blurry). Oh, and I’ll admit that I grinned like a school kid when Matthew McConaughey walked out and went “ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT!” And… uhh… yeah, that’s seriously everything I liked. This movie was so bad that those are the best things that I can come up with to praise it for without reservation.
First of all, let’s talk about that script, because that’s where most of this film’s issues stem from. Seriously, at at least half of the notes that I took when watching this film were some variation of “WTF!?”, because there’s just so much baffling shit in this film. I mean, look no further than the introduction of our heroine, Jenny. She just shows up in the back of the car with Sean, having apparently been lying on the floor for the past several minutes silently as Barry and Heather argued and sped through the roads of Texas. I get that it’s supposed to be a funny moment, but there isn’t really any set-up so you can’t call it a joke, it just makes you go “wait, WTF just happened?” The Next Generation goes in a dark comedy direction like Chainsaw 2 did, but that doesn’t really explain all the insane stuff that happens, or make the comedy particularly good. For example, Darla is portrayed in her introduction as a cartoonish sexual deviant. When a group of kids break the window of her office, her response is to… flash them? Umm, it’s one thing to be an exhibitionist, but is she trying to encourage vandalism against her property as well? Then there’s the most obvious comedic scene in the film, where Darla goes to pick up pizza with Jenny tied up in her trunk. The scene just keeps going on and doesn’t really add anything to the plot, but tries so hard to be funny. The main issue is that this farcial scene just comes out of nowhere, suddenly making Jenny and Darla out to be a couple of oblivious idiots, as if this is a completely different movie. I mean, it’s kind of funny that Jenny just goes with Darla’s threats as long as she pokes some air holes in her bag, and it’s kind of funny that they’re surrounded by tons of people (including clueless cops) at the time. I get that this is probably meant to be a send-up of slasher films, where no one notices these crimes happening around them. However, the scene is so at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie that is just confusing and frustrating to watch. Plus, as I already said, the scene makes our heroine look like a complete idiot, which goes against the actual intent of the film in literally every other scene in the movie.
Then, when the film’s not trying to be funny, it screws up with writing so sloppy that you can scarcely believe that this film was written and directed by a professional screenwriter, let alone one who had considered this a passion project twenty years in the making. First of all there are all of the pointless characters, of which Sean is the most egregious. He’s is implied to be Jenny’s boyfriend and is introduced in a manner that makes you think he’s one of the main characters. Nope, he gets maybe three lines and then gets killed without us knowing a thing about him. How about the motorist who crashes into the group’s car? Nope, he gets left behind and then has his neck snapped the moment we see him again without having learned a thing about him (he’s literally credited as “I’m Not Hurt” after his one line in the film). I could just keep going on and on: there are the cops in the pizza scene, a friend of Heather’s who we meet at the prom, the old couple who pick up Jenny, crash and then are immediately forgotten, etc.
Then there are all the moments in the script that just don’t make any sense and which are just done for convenience’s sake usually. Like, how did Jenny manage to lose Heather and Barry? I get that a truck passed by and Barry and Heather chased it, but they’re on a road and Jenny has the flashlight, I sincerely doubt they could manage to lose each other. Or how about Heather inexplicably conjuring the upper body strength to pull herself off the meathook and then crawl out into the woods without anyone noticing? Or the scene where the film accidentally makes Jenny look like an idiot, because she doesn’t freak out when Darla calls Vilmer again. This comes after having already revealed that Vilmer is the guy who killed Sean, so shouldn’t she have realized that the tow truck driver is the guy who killed him?
Even beyond the script, there’s just so much wrong with this movie. We’ve got a car crash where you can clearly see the stunt driver in one shot and then in the next shot you see I’m Not Hurt with his head smashed against the windshield. You’ve got bad editing which makes it look like Barry, who’s within earshot of Heather, doesn’t even notice her screaming for minutes on end when Leather attacks her. You’ve got Rothman, who just finishes chewing out Vilmer for being a crazy, unhinged dickhead, turn around and then repeatedly lick Jenny’s face (WTF)!?! You’ve got “scares” which consist of people coming across something that isn’t actually scary and then playing loud, jump scare music. These aren’t even used as fake-outs for a real scare – they are the scares. Even when you have moments that are potentially thrilling, such as Leather chasing Jenny through the woods or Vilmer freaking out at the dinner table, these are just weak rip-offs of scenes which were effective in the original Chainsaw.
As for the characters, they are not great. Jenny’s a decent final girl and actually gets some chances to fight back and turn the tables on her tormentors, but Renée Zellweger’s performance is fairly flat and, as I’ve mentioned, sometimes the script just makes her into an idiot for no discernible reason. Then there’s Heather, but I really can’t tell you all that much about her. She seems like a fairly normal, stereotypical teenage girl, but Lisa Marie Newmyer’s performance is not great. Plus, as soon as she gets put onto the meathook her character doesn’t really have any more presence in the film… even though she somehow gets off the meathook, is present for the whole dinner scene, gets set on fire and gets her freaking head crushed. Seriously, she gets put through the wringer in the second half of the film, but she doesn’t really get to react to any of it. Then there’s Barry, who is both a total asshole and an idiot to boot. He’s the kind of character who cheats, lies and insults everyone to get his way, who is always talking up how great he is, and who just constantly does stupid shit (such as calling the guy with a gun on the other side of a flimsy door a “dumbass” after he locks them out of their own home).
As for the minor villains, we have W.E. Slaughter and Darla. W.E.’s played well enough by Joe Stevens, but the character isn’t particularly compelling – he likes to quote literary figures, but that’s about his only quirk of note. Darla, played charmingly by Tonie Perensky, is better and is probably the least-insane of the villains. However, she’s very cartoonishly sexualized and the fact that she spends half of her scenes with Vilmer getting violently abused by him is uncomfortable to say the least.
Moving onto the main villains, we’ve got “Leather” – that’s what this film calls him anyway and I refuse to consider this character the Leatherface we’re familiar with, because holy shit he’s an abomination. Gone is the Leatherface whose twisted motivations you could understand, now he’s just a cartoon who spends every moment of every scene he’s in wailing and screaming like an idiot. I’m not kidding – he screams the entire time he chases Heather, he screams when he bashes Barry, he screams during the entire 5-10 minute sequence where he chases Jenny through the woods… the only time he shuts up is during the dinner scene, but even then he does almost nothing during that entire sequence. It’s incredibly grating to listen to his ceaseless wailing. On a possibly-related note, Kim Henkel plays up Leatherface’s gender ambiguity much more than any other Chainsaw film does. Some people take issue with the idea of Leatherface in drag, but I’m okay with this, personally. Gender ambiguity and cross-dressing has always been a defining aspect of the character, a fact which is often forgotten (or straight-up ignored in the more commercial Chainsaw sequels). I’m not sure if I like the way that Henkel went about playing up this aspect of the character though. According to Henkel, Leather’s “confused sexuality” is “complex and horrifying at the same time”. He also claims that he made the gender ambiguity of the character more upfront compared to the original Chainsaw because “you can’t be comfortable because this is a minor and incidental perversion”… and when you add those two elements together, that sounds a lot like homophobia to me, or at the very least leveraging the homophobia of the audience against itself. That’s why I mention that Leather’s constant wailing might be intended to be playing into flamboyant gay stereotypes, not to mention the fact that the character’s name has been changed to “Leather”. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this. It wouldn’t surprise me if Henkel is intending to parody gay stereotypes by making the biggest gay stereotype he possibly could (complete with a giant, roaring, penetrating phallus-shaped weapon), but I don’t feel like that was the intent, especially considering how the character has absolutely no agency of his own in this film. Making things even more complicated is the fact that actor Robert Jacks was, himself, a homosexual, but I don’t know how much influence he had on Henkel’s decisions about the character.
Even if the portrayal of Leather wasn’t questionable, the mask alone would make this the absolute worst incarnation of the character out there. Good God, there is nothing else in this film which shows how shoestring this film’s budget was than the awful Leatherface masks. They are so rubbery, like a Chinese knock-off of a Michael Myers mask. It looks even worse when Leather dresses up like a woman and actually wears a woman’s skin to achieve the effect – this could have been incredibly horrifying imagery, but it just looks like a bad, rubber Halloween costume. This is all so unfortunate because near the end of this film’s dinner scene, Vilmer claims that Leather wants Jenny because her face will make a great new mask for him. I don’t think Henkel realized it, but that alone is an amazing idea for a whole Chainsaw film. Just imagine that villainous motivation – Leatherface sees someone he thinks is beautiful and he’s chasing them around just to get ahold of their face so he can wear it and be beautiful too. Holy shit that’s a disturbing idea, one which is just a passing reference in this film and which never gets capitalized on. Fuck this movie.
As for Vilmer, he’s a strange case. I think that Matthew McConaughey puts in a legitimately good performance, totally losing himself in the role. However, he actually goes so far with it that it makes the performance distracting in its insanity. I mean, he’s always watchable, but the character is so insane and random that you can’t even begin to fathom what his motivations might be or take him in any way seriously – this is the sort of character who will deepthroat a shotgun one second and then hold it over his head howling like a Tusken Raider the next. The film doesn’t even bother with any mystery or suspense with the character, despite him appearing fairly normal – he shows up, immediately kills I’m Not Hurt and then kills Sean. I question why anyone even follows him because he seems to have no direction. Vilmer abuses Darla to the point of almost killing her on multiple occasions and he bashes W.E. in the head with a hammer when he gets angry, which actually kills his brother as far as we are shown. Of course, then we find out that he works for the Illuminati, the “people who killed JFK”. I went into this film knowing that about the Illuminati twist, but holy shit it made no sense. The film explains that the Illuminati want to give people a transcendent experience via “true horror” and aren’t really happy with how Vilmer is going about it, but… well, at what point did they become so disappointed? Are they okay with Vilmer murdering at least three other people just so Jenny can have this experience? Why would the people who killed JFK have any sort of interest in transcendent experiences for random people? Why would this secret society care so much about the integrity of this experience that they would elaborately murder Vilmer by crop duster and then appear to personally apologize to Jenny for it, thereby blowing their cover!? Maybe, again, if the film had set anything up then this might have come across as something other than baffling, but as it is it just comes out of nowhere. Oh and just to make things even more confusing, Kim Henkel has hinted that maybe Rothman isn’t really part of the Illuminati, maybe he’s just a cult leader… because that just helps make this movie better I suppose? I’m pretty sure that this whole Illuminati subplot is intended to be a Cabin in the Woods-style commentary on the relationship between horror sequels and the audience, saying that horror sequels have failed to provide audiences with a true, transcendent experience of horror. Rothman even comes out and straight-up apologizes to the audience, saying: “It’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincerest apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am”. This might have been an interesting commentary if The Next Generation wasn’t a bad horror sequel in itself – being self-aware about being bad doesn’t excuse the fact that your film is still bad… if anything, it makes it more insulting that you didn’t just go and make a movie that wasn’t shit.
Hell, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is not just a bad horror sequel, it’s a truly abysmal one. To put it in The Howling terms, it’s no New Moon Rising (where it literally could not possibly be worse), but it’s in the ballpark of Your Sister is a Werewolf and The Marsupials, where the decisions about the making of the film were all wrong and you end up with something bafflingly bad. Or, to compare it to other slasher films, this movie is worse than Jason Goes to Hell (the Friday the 13th where Jason turns into a body snatcher and, among other things, crawls up a dead woman’s vagina in order to be reborn from her). This movie is just so dumb, senseless and dull, and has the audacity to think that it’s making some sort of grand statement in the process. Just thinking back on this movie makes me more annoyed with its existence. This is the sort of film which reminds you that creative freedom isn’t always a good thing and, while I appreciate that Henkel had his own vision for the franchise, the end result was not worth the effort at all.
Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fifth entry in the franchise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake!