Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? (2014)

Welcome back to the Atlas Shrugged retrospective! Today we’ll be looking at the third and (mercifully) final entry in the franchise, Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? After the dumpster fires that were the first two films in this series, Aglialoro and company were back with another entirely new cast and a smaller budget than ever! Could they see this series out on a high note? Read on to find out…

Oh, and as with the last 2 entries, be sure to check out my friend Matt’s review at his blog, The M, as we both chose to suffer through this series together!


…I’m not sure if they could have gone with a more boring, non-descript and unrelated poster for this film. After several looks at the poster it appears to be a railroad, which is fair enough, but it would actually fit the first film better as there are barely any scenes on the tracks in this one. I also love how Hank gets to cameo in it in the little airplane in the corner, which unintentionally fits well into his purpose in this film.


PRODUCTION

After Aglialoro and his production team poured even more money and effort into marketing Part II, only to be met with resounding financial and critical failure, it looked questionable whether the final chapter of Atlas Shrugged would ever get off the ground. However, the filmmakers were true believers and were not going to be dissuaded. Aglialoro, along with fellow franchise producer Harmon Kaslow, set about seeing this project through and by late March 2013 it was announced that filming would begin in the fall. They were looking for a director, cast and crew at the time and Aglialoro said that “I don’t care if I’ve got to fire five directors — that’s fine. We’re going to get it right.” So, after a declaration like that, who did they ultimately hire? The answer is James Manera, who literally had one directing credit to his name on IMDb at the time, a single episode of Nash Bridges almost 20 years earlier (although he also had directed a couple small documentaries which don’t appear there). Truly Aglialoro and company had to sort through the cream of the crop to see this film series through! Duncan Scott (who had co-written the screenplay for Part II) and Brian O’Toole (who had also written the screenplays for both previous films) were tapped to return to write the screenplay for Part III. While it was announced that both would be returning to write Part III, neither are credited in the final film. Instead, writing credits go to producers John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow, along with director James Manera. I wasn’t able to find an answer regarding if Scott and O’Toole’s original screenplay was heavily rewritten by the producers, or if the producers just wrote their own from scratch for (presumably) budgetary reasons, but the fact that they’re the only ones who are credited in the finished product is rather interesting. Also, a fun tidbit – back before Part I was released, Aglialoro had toyed with the idea of having Part III suddenly be a musical, but this idea never got anywhere near the final product. It’s just funny to see that Aglialoro had ideas that could have made this franchise’s continuity even more baffling.

As for the obligatory recasting, the role of Dagny was filled by Laura Regan, probably best known for a short stint on Mad Men, some minor horror movie roles and a number of guest TV appearances. The esteemed role of John Galt went to Kristoffer Polaha, who was similarly best known for a short stint on Mad Men and a number of guest TV appearances (my first thoughts on seeing him in this film were that he looked like a Hallmark channel love interest and, lo and behold, he’s been in 6 Hallmark channel movies since this film came out). Hank Rearden was played in this film by Rob Morrow, who had earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for his roles in Northern Exposure and then had a successful run leading Numb3rs, making him probably the biggest name in the cast. The next biggest name in the cast was veteran character actor Joaquim de Almeida, known for big roles in Clear and Present Danger, Desperado and Fast Five among many, many others. De Almeida was cast to play Francisco D’Anconia. James Taggart was played by Greg Germann, who was probably best known for Ally McBeal, but seems to have been confined to minor roles ever since. Rounding out the notable recast characters was Peter Mackenzie as Head of State Thompson, who was a pretty decent character actor in his own right, but was never going to live up to Ray Wise’s portrayal from the last film. Finally, Part III also introduces us to Ragnar Danneskjöld, played by Eric Allan Kramer, who had some big roles in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and True Romance early in his career but had been confined to character roles and guest appearances ever since. Oh and it’s also worth noting that, like Part II, Part III also features conservative celebrity cameos from the likes of Presidential candidate Ron Paul, along with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, all providing the “voice of reason” in the film.



While filming was intended to start in the fall of 2013, it did not actually begin until mid-January 2014. This was likely because the producers’ fundraising came up shorter than they had expected (around $10 million split evenly between the filming and marketing budgets) and so they launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign on September 23, 2013! This Kickstarter makes for a very interesting relic to pour over for a retrospective. $446,907 was raised during the campaign by 3,554 backers… but if you look closer at how the numbers break down, at least $100,000 of this was raised by the 10 highest-donating backers! Another 12 contributed a further $65,000+ and then 65 more contributed another $65,000+, meaning that more than half of the funds were supplied by 87 people – a measly 2% of the total backers! Clearly there were lots of rich people who had nothing better to do with their money than to throw it at this film… and, funnily enough, we actually know who some of these people are because 16 people who donated a staggering $7,500 or more had their names very crudely carved into a piece of wood and appear prominently on screen (it’s jarring and funny to see in the finished film though because these rough carvings are flanking carvings which were clearly done with some professional tools beforehand, so their names just look like they were done by angsty teens).


Of course, this Kickstarter ended up generating a number of justifiably snarky comments about how the filmmakers sure were relying on altruism from their libertarian audience to bring about this film after it failed so spectacularly on the free market. Anticipating this response, the Kickstarter featured not one, but two FAQs about how it was not against Ayn Rand’s philosophy to ask people for money, even going so far as to dedicate a whole other article on this topic on The Atlas Society as well. Having learned more about Objectivism from this retrospectives series, I actually do understand their argument, which is summed up pretty well by the FAQ response:

“Kickstarter is not charity and we do not seek charity. We are offering a voluntary value-for-value exchange. If you see no value in any of the reward levels, you should not back the project. Regarding the idea of charity however, Ayn Rand had no problem with someone giving money to a cause they care about. If someone deems a cause worthy and wants to donate money, they should be free to do it. What Ayn Rand had a problem with is altruism for the sake of altruism as a moral duty, or being compelled, or forced, to ‘give.'”

While I do understand their argument, it comes across as a fairly arbitrary distinction to me – whenever they ask for a handout, they’re exonerated because they will say that it’s a value exchange (although charging $7,500 to get your name crudely carved onto a piece of wood sounds closer to a “scam” to me, especially when the film had already been financed and was going to happen regardless). However, whenever anyone else asks for a handout, they’ll characterize them as moochers and looters. Add in the fact that they ignore that even when they’re “forced” to give, there’s still value being created in having a society that functions properly, which would be even more valuable if they weren’t such crusty bastards who hate the idea of other people living at a reasonable standard. So, yeah, I can see how they can justify this Kickstarter within their own philosophy, but it just feels like another convenience to allow Objectivists to do what they want while looking down on people with less means for doing the same.

Interestingly, Rand devotees and fans of the movie franchise were invited to an event at the Atlas Summit in order to help determine the final edit of the film. I wasn’t able to determine how exactly this event went, how involved it was or how it might have affected the final film, but it’s a really interesting detail which shows how the filmmakers were attempting to get directly involved with the public on this particular film. The film was released on September 12, 2014 to a much smaller opening of 242 screens, grossing a measly $851,690 against its $10 million filming and marketing budget. This means that, if you add together the marketing and production budgets of all three films (including the ~$15 million which was spent on Part I before it went into full production), the Atlas Shrugged franchise lost almost $45 million dollars!!! HOLY SHIT!!! Even if you just factor in the costs which went directly into these three films, that’s still a huge, $30 million dollar loss that could have been prevented if the filmmakers weren’t so proud or dogmatic that they insisted on pushing on, ballooning their losses with each misstep.


Start the video at 16:06, it conveys how this news makes me feel more clearly than my own words could.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens by recounting the events which caused John Galt to quit the Twentieth Century Motor Company and declare that he would “stop the engine of the world”. It then picks up where the last movie left off, with Galt rescuing Dagny from her plane crash. He then shows her around his hidden valley, where the greatest minds in the country have gone for refuge from the outside world. They have established a secret utopia here, with their own currency and a radical libertarian social structure straight out of the philosophy of Rand. Galt and the locals try to convince Dagny to stay with them, but she refuses to abandon the rest of the world. Over the course of a month, a romance begins to spark between Galt and Dagny, but they are forced to part as he takes her back to the outside world.


When she returns, Dagny finds that James has mismanaged Taggart Transcontinental even worse than before, having negotiated deals which would nationalize the railroad and cut off food supplies to the east coast. The government has also gotten increasingly militaristic, building lethal sonic weapons to enforce martial law. Dagny manages to prevent a disaster on the railroad due to her ingenuity and, when she realizes that John Galt has been watching her do this, the pair’s passion finally boils over into a railroad closet bang-session. Shortly thereafter, the head of state arranges a televised speech, but it is interrupted when Galt intercepts the signal and relays his own speech instead, laying out his philosophy and urging the people to join him in his strike. This act of defiance finally causes the government to go looking for Galt to recruit or eliminate him, and he is found when Dagny inadvertently leads agents to his location. Dagny pretends to have done this intentionally and Galt is brought before Head of State Thompson. Thompson offers Galt the highest position he can, with the ability to set his economic ideals how he sees fit, but Galt refuses, saying that no man should have that kind of power. In response, the government decides to torture him for his defiance. Dagny, along with a few supporters from Galt’s refuge, break in and rescue him and the group fly away as the power grid across America shuts down, signalling the collapse of Thompson’s ineffective rule.


REVIEW

Watching Part III is an experience, to the point where I wasn’t more than 2 seconds in when I had to pause the movie to make my first note. The first frame of the film opens with a title sequence that says “The day after tomorrow…”, which just caused a cascade of thoughts. First of all, it shows that the filmmakers really do believe that everything that happens in this film could happen – the cartoonish characters and insane politics on display in these films aren’t just done for illustrative purposes, they really do think that this is what non-libertarians think, believe and behave like. Secondly, this title inadvertently causes confusion, because it immediately got me thinking about the equally-preposterous Roland Emmerich disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. Both films share similar flaws. Both are just fundamentally dumb – in The Day After Tomorrow‘s case, it’s like a particularly dumb environmentalist’s take on climate change, whereas Atlas Shrugged is like a particularly dumb conservative’s take on economics and politics. Again, we’re not even 10 seconds into this film and the first freaking thing we see is causing me to dunk on this film.

Honestly, actual act of watching Part III took me more than twice the film’s runtime to complete because I was pausing to take notes constantly. There were just so many unbelievably dumb things packed into this movie that I could not stop writing. Compared to the inept passion on display in Part II and even Part I, Part III is a clear step backwards because it is so embarrassingly shoddy. I feel like Aglialoro and Kaslow were devoted enough to Rand’s ideology that they felt like they had to complete the trilogy, but after losing tens of millions of dollars on the project already, it feels like this final film was half-assed it to get it over with because it definitely wasn’t going to earn them any more money back. I mean, sure, the other two films sucked, but they at least felt like the filmmakers believed in them and wanted them to transcend their limited budgets. Part III just feels like they gave up and wrapped up the ending of this trilogy as fast and as cheaply as they could. I mean, look at that plot synopsis – it’s so short! I’m not skipping over huge chunks of the plot either, because most of the shit that happens in this film doesn’t matter, it’s just about preaching to the audience and spinning the wheels until the film ends unceremoniously. I have so much to talk about with this film, so strap in, we’re going to tear this thing apart.


Here’s Francisco looking appropriately drained in response to watching this film.


First off, let’s start with how cheap this film looks. Cheapness pervades the sets throughout the film. Remember how I said that they loved showing off the bigger sets in Part II, as if they were proud of their improved production quality? Part III ignores scale and set dressing as much as possible, filling a scene with the bare minimum of props and, ideally, seems to just shoot on location as much as possible to save cash. This is immediately apparent from the very first scene. We get a flashback to the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, in which the heads of the company call a meeting about their new salary structure and John Galt’s strike begins. This scene clearly appears to have been filmed in a worn-out high school gym, rather than a factory, complete with sports line markings on the floor and paint peeling on the walls (this can’t even be for thematic reasons either, because up until this point the company has been run under a Randian ideal so it should look pristine). Even the company’s banner isn’t wide enough to fit between a pair of support columns, so it’s awkwardly pinned at a strange angle, like they didn’t take a proper measurement before they got this thing made up and couldn’t afford a replacement. And this is just the first scene! From there we get bland corporate spaces for Taggart Transcontinental and the government’s offices, and Galt’s valley, which is just a bunch of expensive cottages (note: I’m going to call it “the valley” from here on out – no one ever refers to it as “Galt’s Gulch” or anything like that, they just say it’s “the valley” so that’s the term I’m going to go with).


To top off the cheap sets, the lighting in this film is terrible. It’s usually fine during scenes in the valley – these scenes are brightly lit and colourful, but this feels like it’s only the case because they could get natural sunlight in these scenes to avoid having to pay for a full lighting setup. However, every scene outside of the valley is lit like the inside of my ass. Everything is just so poorly lit and desaturated, made duller by colour grading which turns everything to a cold shade of blue. While this may have arisen from a need to cut down on lighting costs, it has clearly been factored in as a stylistic choice to contrast the “real world” against the vibrancy of the valley. I feel like this might have been somewhat effective if they had been more judicious in its usage and/or reined the effect in somewhat, but when half of the movie ends up looking like a bland, muddied mess, it makes it a stylistic choice which was ill-advised.



Oh and speaking of ill-advised stylistic choices, here are a couple other fantastic moments of cheapness in this film. When Dagny arrives in the valley, she’s taken to a party to meet everyone and the road is lined with paper lanterns… which would be cool, but then you notice that they are literally made of paper sandwich bags with a (probably faux) candle inside! Not exactly the sort of product you’d expect from the “greatest minds in the world”, especially considering that they have an enormous holographic dome covering the entire valley, right? Even worse, they cut to close-ups on these sandwich bag lanterns… twice!!! Oh, and take a look at the screenshot above – they couldn’t even line up these lantern bags straight! It’s such a meaningless moment, but they screw pointless shit like this up at such an alarming rate that you can surely see why I was pausing the film so much to laugh and take notes. Another such moment comes late in the film when the much-hyped, nefarious, secret government torture device, Project F, is finally revealed to the audience and… it’s a car battery parrilla device, like what you’ve seen in pretty much any dark and gritty post-9/11 action movie. This is the sort of radical ingenuity which had to be plundered from the greatest minds in the world? The filmmakers clearly just didn’t give a shit and just went with the cheapest, most boring option they possibly could have, which is especially disappointing considering that Part II leaned more into the sci-fi aspect of the story.


The cheapness of this film goes hand-in-hand with its rushed plot and contrived, heavy-handed storytelling. Let’s say you want to open your film in such a way that the audience will view John Galt as not only a revolutionary figure, but also mysterious. So they start the film at a staff meeting for the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation and show Galt’s initial declaration to “stop the engine of the world”, which makes sense… but then, to hammer home their desire to make him “mysterious”, they have some guy ham-fistedly shout “who is that guy!?”, despite the fact that Galt has been working very successfully at this factory for years now, so everyone here should know him. That’s less than 2 minutes into the film, but it’s a bit of narrative convenience so obvious that I had to stop and laugh at it. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even mention it if this film wasn’t so ham-fisted throughout – for example, later in the film they need to have the government bad guys convey information to the audience: the government is working on something awful called Project F and they’re planning on having a national televised speech. Rather than doing so organically, they literally just have all of the bad guys have a secret meeting about Project F without going into any details and then someone says “we need to make sure the speech is on all the networks” and then the scene literally ends! No information on what Project F might be, no indication about what “the speech” even is about, just conveying the bare minimum of what they want us to know and that’s it. The film has also been setting up that the railroad has become so mismanaged that Taggart bridge will eventually collapse, a prediction that Dagny has said could never happen. Then, right before the film ends, Francisco just comes out of nowhere and then says “Did you hear? The Taggart bridge collapsed!” It’s just so uneventful and matter-of-fact and Dagny’s non-reaction just makes it a hilarious moment.



However, the strangest bit of narrative convenience definitely revolves around Cheryl Taggart. She had basically no purpose in Part II so I assumed that that meant she must do something important in Part III, but nope. We literally find out that she died when a character casually holds a newspaper up in front of the screen!!! I had to do a double-take, it was such a strange way to write a character out unceremoniously. The film then decides that they have to do a flashback to explain all of this, so with a dream filter over the screen they explain that Cheryl found out that her husband was a fraud, which causes her to apologize to Dagny at some undefined time and then… just died. They don’t say how, but the way that they don’t say how suggests that James had her offed. From what I understand of this character’s fate in the books, we’re supposed to realize that she commits suicide in shame, but that doesn’t come across in this film at all. The filmmakers clearly don’t care about her, they just check off this character’s “arc” as fast as possible and then rush to the next plot point.


Another bit of narrative convenience is that the film cuts to voice-over exposition throughout to let the audience know what is going on. These exposition dumps interrupt the film constantly and are so disconnected from the actual events going on on-screen. Even worse, they gloss over events which probably deserved to be given more importance, such as when it is announced that Hank Rearden has “disappeared” and then his factory workers who were left behind were killed by the government strike-breakers, holy shit!!! Were Hank’s workers a bunch of moochers? Why would he leave them behind to literally die!? And why was this told to the audience impassively? I kept thinking that these exposition dumps were going to tie into the ending, where it would reveal that someone would be recounting what happened in the past during these segments, but no, the whole thing gets dropped by the time the third act rolls around. Personally, I think that this awful ham-fisted writing is probably down to John Agalioro’s screenwriting “talents”. He co-wrote the screenplay for Part I, which had similarly bad writing at times, but it was tempered in by Brian Patrick O’Toole. Part II didn’t really suffer in this regard, presumably since Aglialoro didn’t write it (its writing issues were more a problem of wheel-spinning and bad philosophy). However, Part III gaves Aglialoro and Kaslow full writing credits and it’s clear from the final product that neither of them are qualified to write a screenplay. Like… there’s a part in this film where super-genius John Galt outsmarts the bad guys by getting arrested and then using his cell phone during a meeting with Head of State Thompson to call Dagny and let her in on their evil plans!!! Why the hell would they not confiscate his phone!?! That’s Tommy Wiseau-levels of screenwriting talent!



The bad screenwriting leads to all sorts of unintentional hilarity, such as how it makes Galt’s whole movement look like a dangerous cult. Like, a hidden commune in the mountains living by their own set of rules is already sounding pretty Jonestown, so you’d think that they’d do something to avoid coming across that way. Well, moments after crash landing, Dagny is informed by Galt that there are certain rules to living in the valley. He tells her that, most importantly, no one gets a free pass at someone else’s expense. The whole exchange is shot and staged in such a way that it feels like Galt is heavily implying “you’re gonna have to fuck me if you stay here”. Then there are the oaths that everyone in the valley are forced to make in order to stay, the way that this community has been isolated from differing opinions, and how all of Dagny’s old friends plead with her to throw away her life, ideals and very identity to join this lovely little movement. This is best shown in two different scenes. The first is when Dagny’s friends identify that she just wants some acknowledgement for the things she has accomplished and so they give her adulation for a job well done to try to goad her into staying. The second comes when we see that all of Dagny’s friends have carved personalized messages over her bed for her to read when she goes to sleep!!! Read this way, it ultimately turns Part III into a depressing story about how a cult tears away Dagny’s support system until she loses her will to help people and then joins the cult herself. It reminds me of The Endless, and if this film had even an ounce of self-awareness we could have gotten an awesome film about Dagny fighting back against this cult which has been leeching away the stability of the world’s economy.


Of course, Aglialoro and Kaslow can’t even hit the important parts of Atlas Shrugged well. Perhaps most tellingly, the romance between Dagny and Galt feels totally forced and unnatural. Sure, the film tries to tell us that they’re totally into each other from the first time that they lock eyes, but it never feels convincing. Considering that Ayn Rand herself said that Atlas Shrugged was ultimately nothing more than a love story, this is pretty damning criticism. Dagny’s insistence on aiding the world is totally at odds with Galt’s insistence on allowing things to get worse. Maybe if he grew and changed his opinion this could have worked, which seems to be implied when Dagny and Galt have an impromptu fuck-session after Dagny organizes a plan to prevent a rail disaster from occurring (which, by the way, is definitely the funniest scene in the film – they don’t even know if the plan worked or if there are people dying out there, they just need to get their rocks off pronto). However, it turns out that Galt’s values haven’t changed at all, and in fact it’s Dagny’s which are cast away by the end. Other than that, we’re given a bunch of boilerplate Hallmark movie moments where Dagny and Galt sight-see around the valley, which apparently is a shorthand for blossoming romance without having to do any real groundwork to convince us that they actually like each other.


Then there’s Galt’s big speech, which is ~60 pages long in the original text (or over 3 hours if spoken aloud!!!). Like d’Anconia’s “money speech” in Part II, this speech has been pared down considerably, running in at just under 5 minutes. Personally, I feel like it comes across better than d’Anconia’s speech did, but that’s for a couple of unintentional reasons. First of all, it’s significantly less nasty and confrontational than d’Anconia’s speech was. Secondly, the text has been cut down so much that you could interpret it as a call to stand up against exploitative businessmen, rather than just the government, which is probably way more communist than they were intending. It also doesn’t help that this exact same message has been hammered into the audience’s head all through the first half of the film, so by the time it comes it’s just 5 minutes of more-of-the-same rather than a revolutionary statement. The plot also just halts entirely during this 5 minute sequence, so the fact that it’s conveying information we already have been told repeatedly does it no favours. Maybe if they had cut out all the lectures when Dagny was in the valley this could have landed stronger, but coming long after them just feels like more wheel-spinning in a film filled with it.



The dialogue is also just baffling at times, to the point where I don’t know if they’re just lifting lines awkwardly from the text or if they’re using the first take from each shot, mis-remembered lines and all. Like, just look at that line above – I had to rewind the film several times to make sure I wasn’t mishearing or misunderstanding that line, because it sounds like it went through Google translate. What the hell is “It’s like I can’t believe you’re alive” even supposed to mean? I guess that Francisco was under the impression that Dagny was dead based on the news of her disappearance, but wouldn’t he say “I thought you were dead!” instead? “I can’t believe you’re alive” would even be better, if still a really awkward line. “It’s like I can’t believe you’re alive” just makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not the only line like that though. Later, John Galt takes Dagny to the power source for the valley and there is an oath emblazoned above it. He then says “Everyone has taken that oath who lives in this valley.” …what? Again, I don’t know if this is some important line from the book or Aglialoro and Kaslow’s writing, but it just sounds wrong. I had to look up active vs passive voice just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting some grammatical rule, but even that makes this seem totally wrong – the people in the valley should be the subject and the oath is the verb, so shouldn’t this be “Everyone who lives in this valley has taken that oath”? That’s way less awkward and gets the point across more succinctly, in my opinion… but what do I know, I’m not some rich super-genius now am I?


Of course, it’s not just the actual writing which is awful in this film, the editing is also terrible. This wouldn’t be an Atlas Shrugged film without an insane amount of narrative padding, and boy is there ever a lot of wasted time in this film. The first time we see this is when John Galt takes Dagny to his home after her plane crash. This sequence involves a long shot of Galt’s car driving down a road, the car driving to his house, Galt getting out of the car, walking around it to open the door and then pick up Dagny to take her into the house… hell, they even had to show him closing the car door, just so we wouldn’t be left wondering if he did. All told, this whole sequence takes 45 seconds to do something that could have been done in 10-15 by a professional editor. Sure, that’s just one 45 second sequence, but it’s emblematic of the film itself, as it is just loaded with sequences that don’t actually add anything to drive the plot or characters forward. This kind of editing is a trend throughout the film, as there are numerous pointless establishing shots of nature and people travelling to places, almost like something from the Left Behind books. It got to the point where I was laughing at every new nature montage, but by the time I was learning to expect them, they escalate into a sequence which is truly special. When Dagny chooses to leave the valley, John Galt takes her to his plane and starts it up, resulting in a flying nature montage as they leave… then, moments after they land and say their goodbyes, we get another shot of the plane starting up and then leaving, and then we get a train nature montage as Dagny returns to civilization (gotta waste another 2 minutes of this film somehow)! Now, to be fair, these nature shots are probably the best shots in the film due to the inherent beauty of mountains and wilderness, but they’re also completely pointless to the plot, so what does that tell you about the film itself… oh, and there’s also a good chance that most of them are stock footage, so double yikes! It’s like they don’t think we’ll understand how characters get from place-to-place without showing several seconds of unnecessary travel and unimportant nature footage. (EDIT: Actually, I think that the filmmakers might just think that we’re all stupid. I was going back through the film to freshen up on some of the details and noticed a scene transition which is literally a extended shot centered on a wine bottle’s label – this would be notable even if it was just bad product placement, but this was for a fictional vineyard for one of the characters. Then I realized that this shot was from some other footage from this scene, zoomed in significantly to show off the blurry bottle so we know where this scene is supposed to be taking place, and then put into slow motion as well for no discernible reason!!! They didn’t think that this wine bottle, which is present during the entire scene, wouldn’t be enough of a context clue within the scene? Holy shit this film is just a treasure trove that never stops giving back to me!)


While the constant time wasting is probably the most obvious example of bad editing in this film, there are other instances peppered throughout. The next most obvious example would have to be when a railworker calls Eddie to warn him that the rails are so mismanaged that there is going to be an imminent disaster. It’s a classic set-up for a potentially tense scene, reminding me of the train crash from Part II. Will Dagny be able to stop the disaster in time? Hah, just kidding, nothing happens after this phone call. I was really confused at first – weren’t they playing this thing up like people were literally about to die? What happened to the urgency? But then it turns out that the disaster was actually going to happen a few days later (several minutes later in the film), but it makes the urgency of this initial warning so strange. Why did they not just have this worker warn them of the disaster right before it was going to happen instead of doing nothing about it, moving the story forward, and then coming back to it later? It would have made for a much more tense sequence, but instead it just deflates the tension. There’s another editing choice near the end of the film which just left me baffled. I’m not even sure where else to put this because it’s so strange – the bad guys get mad because Project F breaks and then when they’re leaving the room there’s this completely random and pointless slow motion sequence where one of the bad guys yells “We’ll be back, you son of a bitch!” I cannot understand this editing choice at all… Like, it’s random enough that I really hope it was something that was suggested at that Atlas Society meeting I mentioned earlier though, where “the fans” got to provide input on the final cut of the film. I hope that there was just some dude there who yelled “Needs more slow motion!” and they decided that this was the only moment tense enough to work. I need an explanation because this is possibly the most baffling moment in the whole movie!



Then we come to the fact that the filmmakers once again recast all of the characters in this film. Even moreso than Part II, Part III demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to recast after every film. There are so many moments in the early parts of the film which rely on Dagny reuniting with familiar faces that had disappeared, but every time they would introduce them I would go “am I supposed to know you?” Hell, I was even getting characters mixed up because of this; early in the film I kept thinking that Akston was Quentin Daniels from Part II, because characters constantly flit in and out of this series and I didn’t have any visual reference for the character any more (it’s bad enough that I didn’t even remember who Akston was supposed to be until I went back to edit my review of Part I). It’s also a particular issue with the bad guys, because the film then has to pause and waste another 15 seconds telling us who everyone is with freeze frames and pop-up text. It also doesn’t help that characters who were important in the previous two films are shunted aside in this film. Hank Rearden is the most obvious and perplexing example of this. In the previous two films, he was the co-lead and second point-of-view character along with Dagny. He had also had some pretty big character moments in Part II, between his victory in court and being coerced into signing away his patents to Rearden Metal. Clearly they were setting him up to have some sort of big role in the third film, right? Nope, he gets about 10 seconds of screen time, leaves a voicemail and then is unceremoniously dumped from the story! What the hell!?! I can’t help but feel that he had a bigger role in the original story but they didn’t have time or budget for him and so wrote him out. All that said, he’s so absent in this film that I’ve read that he’s involved in the rescue mission to save John Galt at the end of the movie and had no idea – he’s not highlighted, nor have we seen enough of him in this film to even realize that it was him anyway. While not quite as important, Wesley Mouch is another prime example of this shunting issue. In the previous two films, he was arguably the primary antagonist, but in this one he barely shows up and his purpose is replaced almost entirely by Head of State Thompson. It doesn’t help that the actor who was cast to play him is very indistinct and looks very similar to Head of State Thompson, to the point where I cannot remember even seeing him beyond his introductory scene (and even then, only because they literally put text on the screen to say that he was Mouch).


As for the comparisons of the cast, Part III has by far the worst cast of the series. The only actor who might have put in the best performance of his character would be Greg Germann as James Taggart, but that’s just because the character is such a cartoon that I can’t really say that there was a “definitive” take on him. Greg Germann tries to take him in a somewhat more serious route, but there’s only so much you can do with James Taggart. The rest of the cast are just the bottom of the barrel. I don’t know if Laura Regan is a good actress or not, but she is just terrible as Dagny. Her line deliveries are flat and unconvincing throughout and her facial expressions don’t match the tone she’s trying to convey. It’s such a shame, especially after Samantha Mathis made me actually care somewhat about this character in Part II. Oh and speaking of which, Laura Regan is 8 years younger than Mathis, but looks even younger, providing a bit more whiplash about the recasting (especially when her former lover, Francisco, shows up looking like he’s 69 years old now). John Galt wasn’t really much of a presence in the previous films, but he always had some sort of mystery to him. Fully unmasked, Kristoffer Polaha’s Galt is just a Hallmark channel boy hunk, not the genius architect of the revolution that’s crippling society. I never found him particularly convincing, although compared to Laura Regan he was certainly the better of the two leads. In some ways, it’s probably best that Hank Rearden got written out, because the one line Rob Morrow delivers for him is so bad. I miss Grant Bowler’s more charming take on the character. And, as I alluded earlier, Joaquim de Almeida looks waaaay too old to be Francisco d’Anconia – he’s 20 years older than Laura Regan, and considering that she looks younger than she actually is, it suddenly begs the question of when exactly Dagny and Francisco were supposed to be a couple. De Almeida is a good enough actor that he’s fine in general in the role, but he’s clearly not stretching his acting muscles any. As douchey and sinister as he was, Esai Morales’ take on d’Anconia was probably the best, because at least he brought some energy to the role. Lastly, considering that Head of State Thompson only had a cameo appearance in Part II, you’d think that Peter Mackenzie would have an easier time becoming the definitive performance for the role… however, considering that that cameo appearance was portrayed by freaking Ray Wise, Mackenzie was screwed from the start. He’s fine as a scenery-chewing villain, but when you’re competing in that role against Ray Wise, you’re never going to win. The cast is bad across the board, with only a couple performances reaching the level of “fine”.


 

Whew, all of that said, we haven’t even gotten to the philosophy and politics in this film! Aglialoro and The Atlas Society had complained about people saying that John Galt’s strike was just a big temper tantrum, but the fact that they open this film by essentially confirming it feels like a big blunder to me. Seriously, the film opens with the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation announcing that they’ve adopted a wage scale, which causes Galt to freak out. Instead of just quitting, he declares that he is going to destroy the entire world economy, all because his job got restructured in a way that didn’t benefit him directly! I’m sorry, based on how you have portrayed this character, how is that not equivalent to a child throwing a temper tantrum and taking away his toys?

For a story that’s supposed to be extolling the virtue of selfishness, Part III does the worst job of trying to justify this. During what might be the most offensive moment in the entire trilogy, Hugh Akston tries to change Dagny’s view of conventional morality. He claims that believing that you have to help people is wrong because it causes unworthy people to get into positions of power. He claims that, in conventional morality, you are considered virtuous for what you do for others rather than what you achieve. This is a patently false assertion. Just look at people like Oprah, Steve Jobs, Michael Phelps, Daniel Day Lewis, or Stephen Hawking – people who are known and praised for their personal successes. Bill Gates might be the most obvious denial of this whole idea, since he’s a self-made uber-billionare in the Randian mould, except that he’s famous for his personal successes and praised for his altruism. Still, that’s not even the worst part of this scene. Akston claims that, because of this view on conventional morality, the unworthy will forcibly take from “those who have earned their money” in order to help the less fortunate if they will not comply. He then delivers this line:

“You’ve heard them say that people have a right to a living just because they’re human. And that’s not the right to earn a living, that’s the right to a living, which you are required to give to them.”

Woooooow. The filmmakers tried to explain Randian philosophy in the most reasonable-sounding way possible, but it still comes across as fucking evil. Akston straight-up admits that he doesn’t believe that people have a right to a living just because they exist. As far as he’s concerned, if you’re not doing something to “provide value” then you might as well die because you’re doing nothing to deserve your life. The serious ethical concerns of this should be obvious and numerous:

  • What about those who are injured while working? Sure, they were providing value for a time, but might as well let them and all of their dependants starve to death now! Or what about if, due to the negligence or unethical practices of a company, people are injured? Should there not be a legal right to a living for these people, considering that they were robbed of it by the actions of someone trying to enrich themselves?
  • What about the elderly who can’t work anymore, especially if they never had enough means to have any savings for retirement? Better just to set them loose in the woods during the winter.
  • What about freaking kids? When does this philosophy even come into effect anyway? Kids are not only going to be providing no “value” for several years, but they are going to be actively draining their parents’ resources as well, meaning that only those who are very well established will be able to actually afford to have children within this economic framework!
  • What about those who actually are working but still aren’t able to get by? Live in a hovel, you moochers!

Rand was very intentionally going against conventional morality here, because she viewed it as a framework which enabled the “oppression” of the great minds in society. Central to this was that religious principles were nothing more than another tool of the people in power. In order to show this, the filmmakers considered including a scene where Dagny meets a priest. I can already imagine this scene playing out in my head, but the fact that it was cut from the final film is pretty telling. Many of the libertarians who parrot Rand’s talking points are Christian, including the right-wing celebrities who cameo in this film such as Sean Hannity and Ron Paul (and Glenn Beck, who is Mormon). There’s already some significant cognitive dissonance required to call yourself a follower of Christ while also claiming that people who can’t provide value don’t deserve to live, but imagine if the filmmakers had included a scene where they explicitly stated that religion goes against their worldview. Half of this film’s meagre audience would be outraged at their audacity. This whole attempt to redefine morality just pisses me off though, and is by far the worst segment in the entire trilogy. When Akston dismissively states that “their philosophy is based how much you sacrifice to other people, not on what you achieve”, I could not help but think of Jesus’ words about how the rich donate large amounts to show off how generous they are, but the poor widow who donates gave everything she had and was therefore viewed as more generous. Contrast that to Galt and his followers, who are throwing a hissy fit because the government is forcing them to skim some of their wealth in order to help other people? Fuck you all.


Galt’s explanation to this criticism is that “We honour charity and benevolence, but it must be provided on the giver’s terms, voluntarily and not by force.” While I can see some value in the argument that they’re making here, it ignores a couple of things. First of all, Galt and his followers will staunchly refuse to give to any cause, no matter how worthwhile, if there is any force involved or implied. They could merely volunteer to give to a cause that they think is worthy, but we never see anyone actually do this (in Part I, Hank makes a donation to a cause he doesn’t agree with, but this is done out of a feeling of obligation).


Secondly, the actions of the characters contradict any notion that they might care about charity or benevolence. Seconds after Galt makes that statement, Dagny asks “What about what you left behind?”, referring to the rest of the world and all of the people who are suffering under the economic collapse Galt engineered. Galt simply says “We left nothing behind, Dagny. We took with us the only real thing of value. Dagny, this is a strike of our minds.” So clearly they don’t see anything of value in the outside world – everyone there is a moocher and it doesn’t matter to Galt if they suffer or die without them. This is barely even subtext either – it’s not like the people in the valley don’t realize what is happening in the outside world, they just don’t care. Part of the oath that everyone in the valley must take is that they will not “live for someone else”. Galt himself tells Dagny that, because there is no one competent to run the railroads, Taggart bridge will collapse imminently, showing that he doesn’t really care that innocent people are literally dying because of his strike.


Thirdly, there are several moments in the film where characters reveal that they have technology that could revolutionize the world, but have chosen not to for no discernible reason. For example, Dr. Hendricks inspects Dagny’s injuries using a handheld diagnostic device, similar to a handheld x-ray, and says “every doctor should have one”. Well, gee doc, if that’s what you think, what’s stopping you from giving one to every doctor? It’s not like he’s even going and selling them either! He has life-changing technology at his disposal and he’s choosing not to give it to anyone else. Or there’s the fact that Galt has a car in this film. It took me a little bit to realize “wait, no one drives cars in this universe, what the hell?” Considering that gasoline is extremely expensive in Atlas Shrugged and can’t really be being refined in the valley, it’s likely that they have come up with some sort of alternative fuel source… which, one again, they’re just hording here and not providing to all of the people being forced to deal with the increasingly-deadly rail lines. Perhaps the biggest “fuck you” in the whole film though comes when Galt reveals his working motor which has been hyped up in the previous two films. He reveals that it costs virtually nothing to maintain it and it’s so powerful that just one motor held in a space the size of a shed could power the entire West Coast!!! Again, this is so cheap that he could literally give it away – can you imagine unlimited, free, clean power for everyone and the sorts of changes that that would make in society? Hell, he could even sell it at an unrealistic mark-up and still change the world for the better. But, again, John Galt chooses to horde this because all he wants is appreciation and the ability to refuse people who don’t kowtow to his way of thinking. Tell me again about how you value benevolence Galt, because you sure as shit don’t demonstrate it in your actions.



Galt makes the claim that he is not imposing his values on the rest of the world, merely leaving the moochers to go about their own business, but this is also demonstrably false. Crippling the world’s economy in protest and hijacking the airwaves in order to convey your manifesto are hardly unimposing gestures, but what really contradicts this is that Galt is in league with Ragnar Danneskjöld, a literal pirate. Ragnar has been raiding shipping lines, stealing raw goods which (in his view) have been forcibly taken by governments so he’s just stealing them back. It’s one thing to, say, have Ellis Wyatt burn his oil fields and then disappear for good, but it would be another thing entirely if he kept coming back to burn down any reconstruction attempts, which is basically what Ragnar is doing here. Hell, at one point in the film, Dagny laments that there isn’t enough copper wire left to keep the trains running, which prompted me to say “hey, maybe tell your friend Ragnar to lay off then, he’s the one causing this shortage”, especially since it’s literally leading to the starvation of chunks of the population. At what point do these brainwashed Galt cultists think that goods have been acquired fairly? They are clearly trying to hasten the economic collapse, no matter how innocuous and innocent the film wants to portray them to be.


And how about these “greatest minds” that Galt has been taking to his valley? One of the first we’re introduced to is Midas Mulligan, owner of America’s largest bank. This struck me as a particularly odd choice, since isn’t banking largely the manipulation of money which d’Anconia was raging about in the previous film? Apparently it doesn’t count when private citizens do it, because Mulligan gets a whole monologue about how he’s been “wronged”. According to Mulligan, he made his fortune by lending money to people to buy homes and build businesses, saying that “I only loaned to those people I was confident could repay me” (eg, the people who were already rich and well off). However, then the government forced him to make slightly less of a profit by lending to people who couldn’t repay him, so he immediately threw a hissy fit and left for the valley. So… he couldn’t collect years of additional interest payments on the people who couldn’t pay him back? I wonder how many fans of this film also would cite It’s a Wonderful Life as their favourite Christmas movie, because Mulligan sounds exactly like that film’s villain, Mr. Potter. In that film, George Bailey bends over backwards to try to help the poor and disenfranchised in order to give them a chance at a life they otherwise may not have, and most people would indeed say he is virtuous for doing so. Can you imagine someone trying to claim that Mr. Potter was the one who was actually virtuous and that we need to be more like him? That’s basically the message Part III tries to hammer into you during its entire runtime.


One of the other notable “great minds” we get introduced to is Dr. Hendricks, who claims that he got sick of the government telling him how to treat his patients, so he ran off to the valley to treat them using “his own professional judgement”. This immediately got me thinking of Dr. Suchong from Bioshock, along with basically every other mad doctor trope. The film even unintentionally endorses this theory since Hendricks claims that his handheld diagnostic device was only made possible because there was “no red tape” to stop him… which begs the question of just how many people were killed, irradiated and/or sterilized to make this thing possible. Most doctors will tell you that regulations exist for a damn good reason and there’s also a reason why travelling to places with loose regulations is both a punchline and incredibly dangerous. But, just like in Part I, Hendricks is “worthy” so there shouldn’t be any restrictions on him, because he’s always right about everything (besides, if he did kill someone then that would mean that he wasn’t worthy after all).



This film also brushes up against so many issues which could have challenged the cartoonish take on reality that they’ve constructed, but which are just ignored. One such example is that Dagny meets a mother in the valley who is homeschooling her children. This scene feels like it was just thrown in to pander to conservatives who have a boner for homeschooling their kids, but in practice it raises so many more questions: if she’s homeschooling them, then how is she managing to pay her own way in the valley? Or how are the kids creating any value for that matter? Is wanting to homeschool your kids all that it takes to have John Galt invite you to his valley? Who knows! The film just introduces the concept in order to let all those conservative mommies know that they’re doing a Good Thing™ and then moves on without addressing any complications.


Or what about the fact that Dagny is expected to pay for her own medical treatment after the plane crash, revealing that there is (obviously) no healthcare in the valley? How many people have become ill and died in the valley because of this? Why don’t we see any of the people who have become destitute because they can’t pay their medical bills anymore? Oh, right, those don’t exist because Part III exists in a fantasy reality.


Or what about the fact that the valley seems to have a number of menial workers providing everyone with food and labour? We see restaurant workers, a farmer’s market, and a coal mine (amongst other things) while in the valley, but who is actually manning these? Did John Galt convince the greatest minds in the country to come to the valley and then make them start doing coal mining to stay alive? Or was he so comprehensive that he found the best coal miners in the world and then promised them a better life where they can mine even more coal? And if that’s the case, why didn’t they bring Hank Rearden’s factory workers with him when he left (because presumably Hank would have only retained workers who were up to his standards) instead of leaving them to be killed by strikebreakers? That’s the thing that’s being overlooked here – in order to work, the valley can’t just be a collection of the greatest minds in the world, there still has to be a much larger class of menial workers whose labour is being exploited to prop up those “great minds”. Such a reality is completely overlooked by this film though and instead Dagny spends all of her time interacting with the “important people”, much like she would have been doing back in the real world anyway. It makes you wonder why these “greatest minds” never get into positions of power in the “real world” of Rand’s fiction, and instead it’s always the unworthy. That seems to be something that people overlook.



It’s also worth noting the demographics of the people in the valley. I went in figuring that it was probably going to be mostly white men, but I was surprised to see that, in the crowded scenes in the valley, there was almost a 50-50 split between men and women. It only occurred to me during the writing of this retrospective that that might be because these women are mostly the wives of the great minds, but I’ll stick with my charitable first impression and assume that they at least gave women some consideration for their achievements. However, I can’t say that I saw anyone who wasn’t white and am not surprised about that little revelation at all. Can you imagine the filmmakers even thinking to diversify their extras to avoid troubling implications? Funnily enough though, at the very end of the film, the franchise’s only notable minority character, Eddie, is apparently rescued by Galt’s followers. His makes him not only the token black guy of the franchise, but the token black guy of Galt’s movement too, how fortunate! Even funnier is the fact that I found out that Eddie was changed into a black character for Part I and that this change was maintained in each subsequent film. Considering that characters change drastically in the franchise (including other race-swapped characters reverting to their whiteness from the book) and that Eddie’s rescue at the end changes him into someone who is deemed “worthy” to come to the valley, this suggests that Eddie was literally changed in order to make him their token black guy to avoid claims of racism. After all, they couldn’t possibly be racist for implying that only whites are the greatest minds in world and the only people worthy of success, and that therefore all other races have no right to a living unless they earn it! But who knows, maybe I just missed out on deleted scenes where there were a ton of black people in the valley who were off in Akston’s farm picking cotton or something…


 

And so finally we come to the most insane scene in the entire movie. You know how I said that Akston claiming that it’s not moral to say that people have a fundamental right to a living only might be the most offensive moment in the whole series? That’s only a might because this scene may actually be even worse, somehow. It comes when Dagny breaks into the government’s torture facility in order to free John Galt. She comes across a lone guard and corners him with a gun. The guard seems confused about the whole situation so Dagny gives him to the count of three to choose: get out of the way, or die. Instead of just running away like a normal human being, this complete fucking idiot starts going on a panicked rant about how he’s not supposed to make decisions and just stands there!!! Seriously, as Dagny is counting down, he literally says “I’m just an average guy, I’m not supposed to make decisions about my life! I haven’t said I will, I haven’t said I won’t!” And then she fucking shoots him to death!!!!!! HOLY SHIT, MOVIE!!!!!!!!! We’re clearly not meant to sympathize with this cartoonish buffoon of a character, hell we’re meant to give him our outright scorn. The line about being an “average guy” is pretty telling too – this is what the filmmakers believe that most people are like and this is the level of sympathy that “great people” should give to anyone who gets in their way. This is just offensive on so many levels, not least of all that this “character” doesn’t resemble an actual human being in the slightest and that it marks the moment where we’re supposed to congratulate Dagny for finally shedding her notion of conventional morality. Fuck. This. Movie.

Having learned more about Objectivism from watching these movies and researching Rand’s philosophy for these reviews, I must say that it’s a strange ideology to cling to. This story always lifts up the inherently superior “great minds” that apparently push our society forward, but they have little basis in reality. These great minds are always portrayed as being the heads of companies, but that’s rarely the case now is it? Modern companies are governed by complex structures which might steer the direction of the company, but they rarely are the source of innovation, not to mention that it’s questionable whether they deserve to make dozens, if not hundreds, of times more annual salary than the people who actually work on the frontlines of their business. We’ve seen just how alien the world of these three films is and how cartoonishly black and white it has to make the world if it wants Objectivism to make any sort of sense. If anything, in a modern context Galt’s strike sounds like a call for workers to rise up against the bourgeois, a notion which Rand would have considered repugnant. The only real aspect of Objectivism which seems to have any real basis is the desire to not be forced into doing anything, but that’s hardly a strong enough idea to cling a whole ideology off of. If anything, the deregulation that they have wanted so badly just seems to turn their closest analogues of “great minds” into something closer to the manipulators and moochers that they despise so much.


Part III is easily one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The politics and philosophy are bad, with some of the most sincerely offensive messages I have ever witnessed in a film (and this is coming from someone who only slept through half of Triumph of the Will). However, for the most part, these elements aren’t significantly worse than they were in the previous two films, just more repetitive and long-winded if anything. What really makes Part III into a trainwreck is the bafflingly shoddy craftsmanship on display from start to finish. It just permeates throughout every element of the movie, turning otherwise-banal moments into comedic bits. It’s almost as if The Room was trying to be a political thriller, that’s the level of ineptitude that this film rises to. As a result, while it is a truly horrendous film, it reaches a level of badness so far beyond the previous two entries in the franchise that it becomes an experience unto itself. Like, I’ve already recommended this film to a few friends who like bad movies, just because it does manage to hit that special level of crap. So, while it fails in pretty much every intended regard, at least Aglialoro finally managed to make a film that someone might actually get some enjoyment out of.

But seriously, fuck this franchise and the people who made it.


1/10


And now that we’re through the Atlas Shrugged retrospective, it’s time to rank the films from best to worst!


1. Atlas Shrugged – Part II – 3/10 (I had a reeeeally hard time picking between this and Part I, but I ultimately gave Part II the edge because at least Dagny comes across as a good character, even if it wasn’t in the way they actually intended.)

2. Atlas Shrugged – Part I – 3/10 (Again, it’s basically a toss-up – do you like your films boring or offensive?)
3. Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? – 1/10 (While it is by far the worst film in the series, it is also the only one I would actually recommend, because it’s so bad that it’s an experience.)

Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged – Part II (2012)

Welcome back to part two of the Atlas Shrugged retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at the second entry in this “series”, Atlas Shrugged: Part II. After a dull, cheap and morally-objectionable first chapter, could the producers finally get the quality adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel that they so desperately wanted? Read on to find out…

Oh, and like the last entry, if you’re looking to read a review of the film from someone who has read the book, check out Matt’s review at The M as well!

Certainly a more interesting poster than the first film, conveys a more epic and grandiose scale than the cute little clip art graphic the first one had.

PRODUCTION
After Atlas Shrugged: Part I‘s release, the producers went about planning Part II. However, the free market rejected the first Atlas Shrugged film and it failed to turn a profit, the producers were forced to find other avenues in order to finance a sequel. Funding took until the start of February of 2012, when a private debt sale was conducted which raised $16 million dollars for the film (presumably this was debt owned by John Aglialoro himself and perhaps other members of the production team). With financing complete, pre-production could wrap up and the film would begin shooting in April of 2012.

While the producers handwaved much of the criticism of the first film as being ideologically-motivated, they did acknowledge that the first film was not as good as they would have liked and proceeded to do a clean sweep of the cast and crew. Given the rushed production schedule of the first film, none of the cast had been negotiated to return for Part II anyway… which was probably the biggest break for Taylor Schilling ever, as she instead landed major roles in The Lucky One and freaking Argo, before going on to take the lead role in Orange is the New Black! Suffice to say, she dodged a bullet by not shackling herself to Atlas Shrugged sequels.

For the principal cast, veteran actress Samantha Mathis was cast as Dagny, former Scientologist Jason Beghe was cast as Hank Rearden, Timothy Olyphant look-alike Esai Morales was cast as Francisco d’Antonia and Patrick Fabian was cast as James Taggart (not a DOA vertan? Boooo!!!). Also worth noting is that Retrospectives veteran Ray Wise makes a cameo appearance as the freaking President of the United States! Once again, he’s probably the best actor in the whole damn film, but considering that he’s in this and God’s Not Dead 2, it makes me seriously wonder what the man’s political affiliations are. Unfortunately, The Atlas Society founder David Kelley admitted up-front that the producers were planning on once again recasting everyone in the film for Part III. This was an absolutely bone-headed idea in my opinion, since they had more time and money to negotiate with the actors this time around to prevent this from happening again. Kelley tried to play it off, saying that “in the end, the central character of the films is the world Rand created. In notes she made while writing the novel, she made the arresting assertion that the focus was to be about the world, not about the characters as individuals”, which is just baffling when put in the context of the importance of individualism in Objectivist philosophy. The producers decided to gamble on the idea that the story of Atlas Shrugged would hold up even if the cast changed every time, and that the change of actors each time might even put more focus on the world.

The film was shot over the course of 31 days, slightly more than Part I. A number of activists in libertarian and right-wing bubbles made cameos in the film, including Sean Hannity. The production started taking on a evangelistic atmosphere, with the entire cast and crew being incentivized through a reward points system to read Rand’s works, as if to turn them into disciples of Objectivism rather than just employees. The producers aimed to release the film in October of 2012, giving them up to five months of post-production and marketing. Their hope was that the film’s release would have an effect on the 2012 presidential election between Obama and Mitt Romney, which was already being coloured by discussions of wealth disparity due to Occupy Wall Street and with the Great Recession still fresh in everyone’s minds. These events felt very relevant to Aglialoro, who stated that “We’ve got generations of people on welfare. That’s not because there weren’t job opportunities, or education, or anything like that. We’ve got a problem of greed on the level of the entitlement class. Not the producers and the entrepreneurs that are creating the tax revenue. They’re the 53 percent. If we get to the tipping point, 57, 58 percent, then you’re going to see people saying: How do I go on strike?” …yeah, Aglialoro believed that 47% of Americans were just unwilling to work. It shouldn’t be too surprising considering that the man had spent almost 20 years trying to get this book onto screen, but Aglialoro clearly considers himself a Randian hero and shares their awful philosophies – he’s the CEO of Cybex (a fitness equipment company), mayor of a tiny golf-course community in Tavistock, New Jersey, and now a wannabe screenwriter and movie producer who clearly isn’t hurting as he was able to scrounge up a good deal of the $16 million which financed this movie himself. Poor John Aglialoro, he must be practically destitute from all the leechers who have robbed him of his fortunes…

Anyway, in hopes of not repeating the first film’s box office failure, the marketing budget for Part II was significantly increased to $10 million. Approximately $1 million of this was raised by The Atlas Society as part of “The Atlas Campaign”, which would promote the film trilogy and Objectivism in general through movie premieres and student outreach programs (blehhhhh), among other things. This was quite laughable as Rand famously hated altruism. Considering that the first film had failed to support itself, by the very philosophy they were promoting, they should have realized that they were being self-defeating by having to rely on donations to promote the film. Not that this has stopped the two major Objectivist organizations, The Atlas Society or The Ayn Rand Institute, both of which rely on donations in order to operate. The absolute best part is that The Atlas Campaign incentivized bigger donations with arbitrary “donation levels”, so you could feel secure in your $5000 donation knowing that you were now officially “John Galt”, hero of donations.

No, we’re laughing with you. Also, there will be no refunds.

Part II was not screened for critics, as John Aglialoro questioned “the integrity of the critics” presumably because they didn’t give it a fair shake and must have conspired to bring down Part I and bring about its failure. Part II was instead screened for conservative and libertarian groups before its wide release. The film opened on more than 1,000 screens, more than twice as many as the first film did. However, despite having a much wider release and more money put into marketing, the film only made $1.7 million on its opening weekend, barely surpassing Part I and earning it the distinction of having one of the worst wide-openings in recent memory. Its numbers then dropped precipitously, bringing in less than $3.5 million by the end of its theatrical run, even less than the first film did and on a larger budget too.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens in media res with Dagny in a high-speed jet pursuit. When the jet she’s following seems to vanish into Wakanda in front of her eyes she desperately asks “Who is John Galt?” before the screen fades to black. The plot then flashes back nine months earlier as Dagny secretly works with scientists to try to figure out how to get the engine she discovered at the Twentieth Century Motor Company working. She finds a scientist called Quentin Daniels who agrees to try to work with it, since it would provide unlimited power and revolutionize the world if it could be made functional. However, he acknowledges that they might need to get the person who built it in the first place because Daniels doubts his own abilities.

Meanwhile, James Taggart meets a store clerk named Cherryl Brooks one day and decides to take her on a date after she compliments him. They apparently hit it off, because next thing we know, they’re getting married. Francisco d’Anconia crashes the wedding when he goes on a rant about the value of money and then secretly informs Hank Rearden that there are going to be explosions at his copper mines the next day. Hank then continues his affair with Dagny, but is confronted by his wife Lillian who refuses to accept a divorce from him because she doesn’t want to lose the life she has built with Hank.

Later, Hank acts in defiance of the Fair Share law by selling additional Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger’s coal mining company, since they need each other’s support in order to stay operational. He also refuses to sell any Rearden metal to the government. These actions cause both men to be charged under the Fair Share law, but Danagger disappears like many of the other “men of talent” have been for years after Dagny confronts him. Hank then manages to get the public on his side by extolling the virtues of pursuing profit, which causes the court to only fine him rather than making him a martyr. With Taggart Transcontinental’s profits shrinking, the railroad is forced to dismantle the John Galt Line, as Ellis Wyatt’s disappearance has made it irrelevant.

The government then enacts Directive 10-289, which basically attempts to freeze the economy in place by not allowing anyone to leave their jobs and forcing them to spend the same amount of money every year, among other insane demands. The directive also forces everyone to hand over all patents to the government. Hank once again refuses to hand over Rearden metal, but relents when he is blackmailed with photos of his affair with Dagny, choosing not to have her reputation besmirched. When Dagny finds out that he has handed over his patents, she quits Taggart Transcontinental. However, her absence leads to a major disaster after two trains collide and collapse a mountain tunnel, and she comes back to clean up the mess. Along the way, she meets a former engineer from the Twentieth Century Motor Company who reveals that John Galt was a former co-worker of his who vowed to “stop the motor of the world” after the company enacted a communist-like pay structure. Dagny then calls Daniels to check in on his progress with the motor, but realizes that he has been confronted by John Galt and is going to disappear. She buys an airplane to try to intercept him, finding him escaping on a plane as she comes in to land.

The film then picks up where it opened as Dagny’s plane crashes in a hidden valley. Dagny escapes the wreckage and is greeted by John Galt.

I’ll get to it in detail later, but man, look at how awkward that arch is! It almost distracts you away from the obvious matte painting!

REVIEW
In nearly every way, Atlas Shrugged: Part II feels completely different from Part I, to the point where you could be forgiven for not realizing that this is a direct follow-up to Part I. Literally the only visual reference point which is shared by both films is that a shot of Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt is shown to reference the character’s disappearance. However, this just draws even more attention to the fact that the rest of the cast has been replaced and it’s not like Beckel actually appears on-screen either. The completely overhauled cast is probably the most obvious sign of the changes between Part I and Part II, but nearly every aspect of the film feels completely different. Whereas Part I opens with stock news footage and a high school film student-level train crash, Part II opens with melodramatic music and a high speed jet pursuit, complete with PS2-quality CGI. While Paul Johansson’s direction in Part I feels static and workmanlike (perhaps to try to draw attention away from the cheap sets), John Putch’s direction in Part II moves the camera all over the place and tries to show off the larger spaces and bigger sets they’re working with. These larger sets also look completely unlike their previously-established locations in the first film, necessitating that every location we’ve already visited in Part I be completely reintroduced to the audience (not to mention that even key props, such as the prototype motor, look nothing like they did before). Part I was also very dull throughout, whereas Part II makes a conscious effort to throw in action sequences to break up all the discussions of politics and economics.

As I’ve already alluded to, John Putch’s direction is much different than Paul Johansson’s was. Some of this comes down to a difference in vision, ambition and talent. Sure, John Putch is best known for the fourth direct-to-DVD American Pie spin-off, The Book of Love, but it’s still a step up from Johansson’s 14 episodes of One Tree Hill (truly, these are the levels of talent worthy of handling a production like Atlas Shrugged). It’s also worth noting that with the additional pre-production time and increased budget, the production values have increased substantially. It’s really a night-and-day difference – compare the pathetic office hallway green screen I made fun of in Part I that is supposed to be the Rearden Steel building to the larger, more majestic factory floor we see in Part II and there’s really no comparison. If anything, this film makes Part I feel even worse in retrospect. Putch also plays up the sci-fi elements of the source material which had been neglected in the first film (again, because that movie was cheap as hell). Within the first few minutes, we have hi-tech jets, holograms, fancy gadgets and neon lighting suggesting a more futuristic tone to the film which was practically absent before.

However, while the directing and production have improved, that’s not to say that they’re necessarily “good”. In some ways, the ambition to make Part II bigger and better backfires, because I laughed at this film waaaay more than I did with Part I. On the directing side, there are still some baffling choices, such as when a panel of Taggart Transcontinental board members we’ve never met before and won’t see again are introduced by way of electronic music, slow-mo Reservoir Dogs-style walking and then a text overlay after like 10 seconds that says “Emergency Board Meeting”… why the hell does this even exist? Why did they not just cut into the board meeting and let context clues and dialogue do the rest? There’s also a moment where the direction turns what is supposed to be an intense action scene into accidental comedy. When there’s an explosion in the Rearden Steel factory and someone gets hurt, Hank rushes down to help and drag him away… while a guy who’s literally on fire runs by into the background. I assume that the filmmakers wanted to make the scene more exciting and dramatic, so they threw that guy in because they have seen it in other movies and thought it was cool, but man, it unintentionally makes Hank look like an asshole (…well, okay, more of an asshole) for not caring about this flaming employee. It’s almost like something out of The Naked Gun, but meant to be entirely serious.

This screenshot makes it look like Hank is concerned about this flaming employee, but no, he’s actually just yelling at everyone else in the factory and telling them what to do about the ore leak. I don’t need to make shit up to have a laugh at this movie’s expense.

Greater ambition and attempts to make the story more exciting also meant that Part II needed more special effects work. However, it’s possibly the worst CGI I have ever seen in a film, especially when you consider that it was made for over $10 million!!! On the one hand, we have the two biggest action sequences of the film, the train crash and the jet pursuit, which look like they’re rendered with PS2-quality graphics. Seriously, the jet chase looks like an Ace Combat replay, or (if you’re being generous) the most boring episode of Dogfights. However, these are intercut with really unconvincing shots of Dagny in the cockpit which are both horribly acted and inconsistent with the speed and movement of the planes during the CGI shots. Worst of all though are the awful clip-art quality explosions when Francisco blows up his mines, including obviously freezing the stock footage of the mine so that it looks like the trucks driving there are reacting to the explosions (instead of slowing them down, they just suddenly stop, making this incredibly obvious). This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Birdemic. Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check out this short clip and laugh along (but be warned if you’re on mobile, it’s a pretty big .gif file). Hell, even the matte painting of the bridge from the first film looks worse here (seen above the review heading if you’re curious). It looks very unnatural and even changes slightly between shots. It’s really too bad because, for the most part, Part II is a much better looking film than its predecessor but it’s filled with so many bad special effects that it’s incredibly distracting.

The film also really struggles to fill out its two hour runtime, especially when it’s the middle portion of a book that has been split into three parts. There’s just so much wheel-spinning in this film to fill out the runtime. There’s so much fat that should have been excised: scenes get repeated (such as all the times that the government tries to take Hank’s patents and he rants at them), or exist only to preach to the audience (James Taggart’s wedding is a prime example of this, it doesn’t move the plot forward at all, it just provides an excuse to ham-fistedly shove in some Objectivist ideology). After Part I I thought that they might have been able to pull off Atlas Shrugged as a two-part story rather than a trilogy, but after seeing this film I’m confident that you could easily make it into one film. Just condense these first two films into a very lean and dense 30-40 minutes and then have Part III fill out the rest. If you have to spend entire scenes doing nothing but preaching your points to the audience, then you’re not doing a very good job of conveying your message. It’s kind of like how the Twilight and 50 Shades movies were such slogs because they were too faithful to the source material, not wanting to change or take out any of the boring bullshit to make for a more entertaining film.

Then there’s the big cast overhaul, which is great low-hanging fruit to make fun of this film’s production, but makes for some interesting analysis in a retrospective. In Part I, Taylor Schilling’s Dagny was youthful, driven and confident with a take-no-shit attitude whenever people tried to boss her around. Samantha Mathis’ Dagny is completely different in Part II. For one thing, Mathis is older than Schilling by 15 years (seriously, there are no attempts at consistency between these films)! Mathis plays Dagny as someone who is desperate and weary, someone who is trying to keep improving the world while everything is going to hell around her. For this, I actually kind of prefer Mathis’ portrayal of the character, but her line deliveries are really bad sometimes. Her acting in the jet pursuit is particularly embarrassing. However, she’s more of an active, driving character in this film – she’s trying to solve the reason behind the disappearances and comes across as trying to improve the world instead of just being profit-driven. She’s more of an “actions, not words” character in this film and these traits make her far easier to like, even if the acting isn’t always up to snuff.

In Part I, Grant Bowler’s Hank Rearden was professional, warm and even somewhat classy, someone who would do what was necessary even if he didn’t exactly like it. I found him fairly likeable whenever he wasn’t spouting off anti-altruistism bullshit. However, holy shit I hated Jason Beghe’s Hank so much in Part II. Beghe’s Rearden is a smug, know-it-all piece of shit, like everyone’s annoying uncle who won’t shut the hell up at family gatherings when he starts talking about politics. He’s like the worst version of the American “hero” archetype – individualistic, unyielding, disdainful of authority, sure of himself, etc. It feels like every single scene with this character has to reiterate that he’s this totally awesome badass that we all should wish that we were like, except that the filmmakers don’t realize that they’ve accidentally made him into an unlikeable arsewipe. We get three separate scenes of Rearden intimidating government representatives who come into his office, calling them “looters” and lording his rhetorical superiority over them. These scenes don’t really reiterate anything new, and it’s not like we didn’t already get scenes just like this in Part I. The only real difference is that, in the last scene like this, Hank finally relents when the government threatens to blackmail him over his affair with Dagny in order to ruin her reputation. There’s also a scene where his wife, Lillian, she confronts him about his affair with Dagny. In this scene, Lillian decides to let him continue having the affair, but only because Hank wields so much power over her that she can’t really do anything about it without losing her home and the life that she has built with him. The fact that we’re supposed to see this as a flaw in Lillian rather than Hank being a monster is unbelievable.

The absolute worst example though is in the film’s centrepiece scene, when Hank goes on trial for violating the Fair Share law. His opening defence is “I do not recognize this court’s right to try me, nor do I recognize any of my actions as a crime”… goddammit Hank, you absolute idiot, you basically just acknowledged guilt in front of the court. He comes across like one of those insufferable sovereign citizens and, if there was any true justice in this film, the court would have prosecuted him then and there. Then, in order to remind us how much of a badass Hank is, he tells the court that they’re going to have to send armed men to get him because he won’t be arrested voluntarily. When he then says that the court is stealing his liberty, the entire gallery applauds him!!! Apparently that was enough to get them onto his side, because according to this film, the common man secretly agrees with the ideals of Objectivism. Anyway, Rearden then reiterates that all he cares about is making money: “I do not recognize the good of others as a justification for my existence. If their fair share demands that I get nothing for my labours, that it requires me to be a victim, then I say public good be damned. I’ll have no part in it.” …get nothing for your labours? Hank, you’re an insanely rich man living lavishly in the middle of a major recession. You’re not getting nothing for your labours! Again, this guy is being portrayed as the hero, and this is enough to earn the man an enthusiastic standing ovation which forces the court to let him off lightly to avoid turning him into an ideological martyr. Holy shit I hate Hank so much in this film, he single-handedly makes the recasting in this film into a blunder.

Of the other recast characters, the two most important are James Taggart and Francisco d’Anconia. Matthew Marsden’s James in Part I was a smarmy, greasy character (which seems to be Marsden’s modus operandi if DOA is any indication). Patrick Fabian’s James in Part II is just cartoonishly stupid. He constantly seeks public approval, to the point where he marries a Wal-Mart knock-off employee just so he can say that he’s bridging wealth gaps (again, we’re supposed to view this as really bad, both doing it for show and for marrying “beneath” himself). He also ridiculously unqualified for his job – when Dagny temporarily quits Taggart Transcontinental, he promotes a random employee to fill her position because he has no idea how to do it himself… this, of course, leads to an avoidable disaster. Meanwhile, Jsu Garcia’s Francisco in Part I was… there. I dunno, he left absolutely no impression on me. He basically just popped up a couple times as a playboy character who enjoyed messing with people. In Part II, Esai Morales plays Francisco with a very sinister air about him. He almost feels like a villain, although I don’t think that this was intentional since he’s the mouthpiece of a number of Objectivist talking-points (particularly during the wedding scene, which is completely pointless except to provide a platform for Francisco to rant about how greed is actually a good thing). Seriously, in any other movie, this character would be revealed to be the bad guy all along in a third act twist. The other recast characters don’t matter quite as much. Some are less cartoonish than their counterparts in Part I (eg, Lillian, who has been turned into a real MILF), whereas others don’t look anything like their previous incarnation and just get confusing as a result (eg, Eddie was a skinny, somewhat nerdy guy in Part I, but in Part II he’s now played by a Michael Clarke Duncan-looking mofo).

If weird recasting, bad CGI and improved production were all that differentiated Part II from Part I, then this film might have been a little better than the first film. However, there is one very fundamental difference which I haven’t really gone into yet. The biggest difference between the first two parts of Atlas Shrugged is that Part II is way more upfront about its philosophical framework and politics. In Part I, the film demonstrates Randian philosophy primarily through the events of the plot, which made the rare occasions where Hank and Dagny start talking about how they just want to make money and hate altruism kind of jarring. That’s not to say that Part I did a great job of making Objectivism look reasonable, but it trusted that you would draw the conclusions that they wanted you to. Even then, you could potentially look past the Objectivist ideology and look at it on the surface level, as a boring movie about building a railway. The politics weren’t particularly subtle, but they very rarely came out and said the things that they were inferring, such as that the recession was caused by over-regulation (when it was actually primarily caused by deregulation, the exact thing these films advocate for). However, Part II does away with any pretence of subtly. The characters frequently launch into Objectivist rants which aren’t really important to the actual plot and are instead directed at the audience, in a manner similar to how Pure Flix movies bluntly preach to their viewers to reaffirm their beliefs. It feels very similar to the evolution that occurred between God’s Not Dead andGod’s Not Dead 2, including the fact that both that film and Part II had their political didacticism ratcheted up in an attempt to influence a presidential election. It’s also worth noting that, like God’s Not Dead 2, Part II features a number of right-wing celebrity cameos (most notably Sean Hannity) who show up to reaffirm the ideology of the main characters. This is an obvious tactic to reach for figures that the audience may be familiar with and trust, then have them verbally agree with the characters in an attempt to have the audience then have a positive view of Objectivism.

One of the main messages of the film is that the government is straight-up evil. They exist only to screw with the main characters’ abilities to produce goods and services, which is always portrayed as something which is ultimately ineffectual and just makes things worse. The “good” principles of government programs are also shown to be shams throughout the film. After Hank violates the Fair Share law, which is supposed to be a measure to help keep businesses from growing too powerful and overwhelming the industry, the film even has a government figure outright state to Hank that: “That’s what laws are for Mr. Rearden. If the right people don’t break them, they’re of no use whatsoever.” The implication here of course is that laws are all made to benefit the government in some way, so therefore maximum deregulation is the best policy. According to The Atlas Society, one of the themes of Atlas Shrugged is that fascism comes dressed in finery through these laws which state that they’re for the “public good”. The film also states that science is basically just a tool that the government uses to manipulate the public. According to Quentin, a government employee who works outside the system to help Dagny get the prototype motor running, the State Science Institute doesn’t perform any real science at all, it’s just propaganda. This is particularly rich considering that the biggest businesses are notorious for publishing fake studies to obfuscate the real science about their industries in order to maximize their profits for as long as possible.

While the film tries to show that regulation is bad, the actual laws which show up in the film are really questionable and don’t reflect reality. I get that Ayn Rand grew up in Soviet Russia and was strongly opposed to communism as a result of this upbringing. Her anti-communist stance really shows in the film (and presumably the novel as well). In addition to the communist laws in the film, it is revealed that the whole beginning of “The Strike” began when John Galt’s former employer, the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, adopted an explicitly-communist pay structure. This is clearly meant to be a microcosm for America at large and the fact that it provided the seed from which Galt’s strike began is worth noting. However, here’s the thing – America is not communist. In fact, it’s so afraid of the word “socialism” that its citizens lack several social programs that people in developed countries take for granted and can be financially ruined because of this irrational phobia. So, when libertarians and big businesses recoil at the idea of any sort of regulation or social program which would literally be done for the good of the public, it gets shot down for being a path into “tyrannical government overreach”. The fact that Atlas Shrugged has to invent a whole national emergency and several strange laws in order to even justify its plot should be pretty telling that this film should not be applied to real life.

The Fair Share law, which was introduced in the previous film, is just strange. It goes beyond a reasonable monopoly-prevention law and into something which is just transparently stupid. According to this law, producers must supply goods equally to all customers… why??? I think that this is one of those communism parallels Rand was drawing, but it makes absolutely no sense as an economic policy outside of a staunchly ideological system. This whole idea is just inefficient and ignores the idea of supply and demand, not to mention that it might be less sensible to supply customers if they’re further away. Sure, it’ll stop big businesses from leveraging their economic strength and hoover up all the resources, but they could just set a regulation for that. Why go that next step and make it so that everyone has to have the same amount of resources? That’s just idiotic. Again, this isn’t the sort of law which would come about unless lawmakers were staunchly ideological and isn’t even the sort of thing that comes about in socialist countries, let alone America.

Things go truly off the rails when the government introduces Directive 10-289, which is probably the most batshit insane law that people actually believe will happen. The basic idea is that the economy is in such a tailspin that the government institutes regulations to freeze it in place and prevent any further downturn… but holy shit, the way that they go about it is so obviously stupid that it could never, ever happen. Like, it is so stupid that I have to go through it point-by-point to show how paper-thin this idea is:
  • No one is allowed to quit or change their jobs. Geez, I sure hope no one dies, that would be really inconvenient for the workforce and would inevitably drain the economy by itself. Are you even allowed to hire new employees to replace them? It also sure would suck if a job became redundant… Oh and what about contract employees? This is literally the first point of this law and already it’s too stupid to be truly comprehended.
  • No business can cease operations and no owner is allowed to quit, retire or sell their business. I assume this was done in response to the strike and the mass disappearances, but it isn’t exactly going to matter because they just disappear anyway. It’s not like they had to ask for permission before vanishing. And for that matter, what do all the employees do when their bosses disappear and they’re expected to continue to comply with Directive 10-289? Again, what happens when a business was failing or becomes redundant?
  • Businesses must hand over all patents, copyrights and inventions to the government. This just seems like one of those “the government is evil and is just trying to consolidate power” ideas. I mean, what are they really going to do with these unless they’re planning on nationalizing all industry? In this film at least, that isn’t specified.
  • No new inventions or products can be added to the market, starting now. WHAT!?!!! Okay, the preceding ideas were all stupid, but this one really puts this over the top into unthinkably idiotic. I get that you’re trying to keep the economy from collapsing, but is preventing any sort of social advancement really the best answer??? You don’t think that maybe having industry attempt to solve problems in society is a good idea? Holy shit, this movie. Again, people think that this is something that could actually happen!!!
  • Businesses must produce the same amount of goods as they did the previous year. Again, this completely ignores the notion of supply and demand. What about seasonal businesses like farms where they can’t reliably make the same amount of products year-on-year? What about the businesses whose owners disappeared as a result of John Galt’s strike and now can’t produce any more? What about mines which run out of resources? My brain can’t take any more of this lunacy, but it just keeps going!!!
  • Everyone must spend the exact same amount of money as they did in the previous year. FUCKING WHAT!??!!! I think that this law just broke through the floor of what I thought was the bottom threshold for stupidity. This makes no sense, whatsoever. So, what, if you had to take out loans because you were paying for school, suddenly you have to continue taking out loans and drive yourself deeper into debt (thereby eventually wiping out the economy regardless when everyone defaults)? Or what about people who’ve been saving money for a house, now all of a sudden they can’t spend that money to prop up the housing industry and just have to continue putting money in the bank, out of circulation? Hell, for that matter, what happens if you did buy a house last year and now are expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year!?!
  • All wages are frozen at their current levels and cannot be changed (although taxes on these wages can be increased). Bloody hell. The taxes thing straight-up contradicts the idea of an economic freeze and “must spend the same amount as last year” from above, but that’s just obvious. Instituting that no one is allowed to earn any more or less is just the cherry on top of this shit sundae. Let me re-iterate this again: Objectivists think that this is the logical end result of wanting governments to regulate businesses!!!!!!
As the specifics of Directive 10-289 show, this film’s plot starts becoming insulting to the intelligence of its audience, having to contrive impossible scenarios to make its ideology seem even somewhat logical. I mean, Part I had a hard enough time justifying Objectivism, but Part II makes it impossible for these so-called “rational minds” to claim this could ever happen. This might just be at its most cringe-inducing during Francisco d’Anconia’s big “money speech” during James Taggart’s wedding, an event which has no real importance on the story other than to allow d’Anconia to go on his rant and preach to the audience. In the novel, this speech goes on for literally 20 minutes worth of pages, but the film manages to boil it down into just a couple minutes. Here’s the first part:

(After someone says that d’Anconia is proof that money is the root of all evil after being a dick at Jame’s wedding.) D’Anconia: “Oh so you think money’s the root of all evil? Have you ever asked yourself ‘What’s the root of money?’ Money is a tool that allows us to trade with one another. Your goods for mine. Your efforts for mine. The keystone of civilization. Having money is not the measure of a man. What matters is how he got it. If he produced it by creating value, then his money is a token of honour. But if he’s taken it from those who produce, then there is no honour. Then you’re simply a looter.”

Let’s break this down a little bit. D’Anconia immediately annoys me with his “umm, actually” moment where he apparently needs to explain the basics of money to a room full of wealthy people. Either the filmmakers believe that everyone else is so stupid that they haven’t even thought of this, or (worse) they think that their audience is. However, then he states that money does not make you evil, what does is how it is acquired. That’s right, it doesn’t matter if you use that money immorally, if you earned it the “right” way then it’s your prerogative to use it however you please! According to d’Anconia, the only honourable way to make money is to “create value”, otherwise you’re a dishonourable “looter”. These distinctions are, obviously, fairly arbitrary when applied to the real world. For example, I don’t think that anyone would argue that farmers don’t create value, but their businesses are often propped up by government subsidies, meaning that they are doing both. Or what about basically every major corporation – they create some sort of value with their products, but also build up their profit margins by engaging in lobbying, shady deals, offshore accounts, subsidies, strong-arming municipal governments to give them unfair tax breaks, financial bailouts, etc. Even if Objectivists tried to argue that these companies are exercising “pull”, that’s not because of regulation – it’s because of massive deregulation, the sort of shit that Rand would soak her panties to get more of. Objectivists might also argue that the government is making a value-for-value exchange, since securing the output of the farms is so important… but then that just begs the question of what is the point of this ideology if it can’t be applied to the real world? Reality isn’t a cartoonishly black-and-white Randian fairy tale like it is in this film.

This idea that looters are just evil is also heartless, as there are those in society who rely on “taking from those who produce” in order to survive (eg, the old and infirm, mentally ill, freaking children, etc) and those who need to in order to help keep this society intact at all (eg, stay at home parents). Either way, d’Anconia isn’t refuting the point about money being the root of all evil, he’s just redefining evil in a way he sees fit and which paints him as the good guy and we’re meant to see him as Very Smart for doing this. Naturally, no one really picks away at his logic, we just get one woman piping up who says that “money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak”. To this, d’Anconia replies:

“What kind of strength are you talking about? The power to create value? Or the ability to manipulate, to extort money in back room deals, to exercise pull? When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips, chains or dollars. Take your choice. There is no other. And your time is running out.”

Uhh, Frankie-boy, you didn’t address her question at all there. Is he implying that “value creators” don’t exploit other people? Or that their power to create value is totally justified and that everyone who says that they’re exploiting people is just jealous and wants a piece of it? In fact, it seems like he’s practically admitting this and justifying it by the logic that the free market keeps it under control, because he then says that when “pull” gets involved then men will be literally enslaving one another. That’s right, d’Anconia believes that government regulations are akin to fucking slavery!!! Holy shit!!! He then pompously states that people have to pick between the free market or slavery… and no one even argues with him about any of this! Again, this is a film about arguing at the audience, it doesn’t want any real rebuttals that it’s leaving itself wide open to. So what was the sum of this apparently-monumental “money speech”? Not much, if we’re being honest. D’Anconia steps up to the plate to prove that greed is good, then completely redirects the issue so that it fits into his own flimsy definitions of good and evil. Maybe it’s just a byproduct of cutting down a lengthy speech to its fundamentals, but that just leads to another issue. A 20 minute speech in this film would be absolutely insane, but when you condense it all down to a handful of lines it reveals just how superfluous the whole scene is, that this is a philosophical rant rather than an actual character or narrative moment. So, by the necessity of needing to give d’Anconia’s speech brevity, they’ve also basically rendered one of the biggest moments in the novel pointless within the narrative. It would be like if The Lost World: Jurassic Park decided to keep all of Ian Malcolm’s rants about evolution from the books in the film for the sake of faithfulness to the novel, despite it having basically no importance on the adaptation.

This all brings us to the last point I want to get to in this film. D’Anconia defends “value creators”, saying that they deserve their money and playing down the idea that they may exploit their workers. This film is just full of moments where this is just shown to be bullshit though, either through the characters inadvertently being complete dicks or through the narrative implying that most of humanity is worthless. The film opens with references to the Occupy movement, with protesters outside of Taggart Transcontinental asking for a fair share of the riches that these people still have. This is a reminder that this film is taking place in the middle of a crippling recession where the prices of goods are astronomically inflated and gas is so expensive that only the super rich can drive. The film wants us to believe that these protesters are in the wrong, but it’s hard to sympathize with the heroes when we get a whole scene where Dagny is seen driving a car, spending $865 on a tank of gas, then running off to buy a private plane! “Oh boo hoo, everyone’s out to get me, it’s not fair!” And then we get Ken Danagger, the owner of a coal mine, who claims that he fought for every piece of coal he pulled out of the ground… but he didn’t really, did he? He just owns the mine, he pays other people to do it for him, presumably with money that he received from investors to get this entire enterprise up off of the ground. Could we not say that he is the looter by a certain definition? The only thing that gives him the power here is that he happened to be the one who lucked into the ownership of this mine – all the investors and deals worked in his favour and he happened to acquire ownership of land. Literally anyone could have done this if circumstances had gone their way, but Danagger believes that he’s an innately superior and smarter person when he says that the only thing that he has left worth fighting for is his mind. The whole title of the novel comes from a conversation d’Anconia has with Hank, where he asks what he would tell Atlas to do if he saw him struggling to hold up the world. D’Anconia says that he would tell Atlas to shrug, meaning that the people like Danagger, Hank, d’Anconia and Dagny who are “holding the world up” don’t owe the world anything and shouldn’t care about what happens to everyone else – again, these people are just dicks who don’t have any faith in other people. This bleak view of humanity is seen throughout the film in snippets. One example is that Quentin doesn’t believe that anyone could figure out how to complete the prototype engine because it’s so revolutionary, but when he does figure it out that’s when John Galt whisks him away (this ignores that, most of the time, technological advances and “value” are created through incremental updates rather than unprecedented changes). Hell, there’s also a rather ridiculous moment where it’s revealed that Wyatt Ellis’ oil fields are still burning nine months later because there is no one left who is smart enough to put out the fire… man, John Galt was really thorough going through all the skills, trades, arts and firefighters to get the most competent minds, wasn’t he? Presumably he plundered all the sexiest bachelorette firefighters while he was at it.

Here’s the thing though – if all the rich people ran off with their toys to show us who’s in charge, their roles would be replaced. There’s a big world out there full of people educating themselves and/or waiting for their shot to make a difference, not to mention that there are 194 other countries with their own experts and resources that John Galt can’t just snatch up. Now, if the rich took their wealth with them then there would be issues, but that’s less because we’ve lost all of our shining talents and more because of financial bullying. I mean, try taking away ~90% of the total wealth suddenly and see what happens. That’s more or less what Galt’s “strike” has been – a petulant cry from the rich that they matter more than anyone else and that they’re going to throw their weight around to prove it, even if it means economic and ecological disaster. The filmmakers have tried to defend this by comparing Galt’s actions to those of scientists and businesses who refused to support the burgeoning Third Reich, but that also completely of ignores that Galt helped bring about Fair Share and Directive 10-289 in the first place. After all, when he started his “strike”, it was in response to one group of executives deciding to pay all of their workers by scale, which cased Galt to go on a hissy fit before any sort of recession or government crackdown had begun. It’s implied that the awful state that the US is in came about because of Galt’s actions of taking all of the money-makers out of the economy and having them destroy their resources in the process to prevent them from being utilized. That’s not even taking into account his willingness to subject 99.9% of the population to worse and worse conditions which directly led to several deaths (the numerous derailments that we see in these two films), or that the film’s totalitarian government isn’t representative of real life at all. So no, filmmakers, Galt’s actions make him come across like a whiny kid who refuses to participate if he can’t get his way, unlike Dagny who at least wants to continue working in the system to make things better for everyone.

Atlas Shrugged: Part II is certainly not a good film. In some ways, it’s better than Part I, but the increased emphasis on politics and an immoral ideology squander any attempts to try to improve the series. There’s also the fact that most of this film is just wheel-spinning – for a two hour film, barely anything of importance to the plot actually happens. We only really get one sympathetic character to root for in Dagny, because everyone else are complete assholes. As of the time that I’m writing this, I don’t actually know what happens in Part III, but based on the trajectory this narrative is on, I can’t help but think that that film is going to finally beat down her notion that humanity should be saved and then claim it’s a great outcome, which is just the bleakest conclusion this story could have.

3/10
Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt?!

Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged – Part I (2011)

Hey it’s the 4th of July people, so what better way to celebrate than with a retrospectives series! Last time we went through a fantastic slasher film and it’s chaotic web of sequels, but I try to shake things up a bit every time. I could easily make every retrospective about laughably bad horror franchises or slasher flicks, but there has been another franchise that I’ve been wanting to dive into for years. That “franchise” would be the Atlas Shrugged trilogy, the production of which was notoriously troubled throughout. Will that make for entertaining viewing, writing and reading? Having not seen any of them at the time of writing this part, I sure as hell hope so!

Also, I’ll be up-front going into this series: I haven’t read any Ayn Rand works. Going into this series, most of my knowledge about her philosophy comes through light research, Bioshock, cultural osmosis and unpleasant encounters with libertarians. While I can’t call myself an expert on Rand or Atlas Shrugged as a text, I can certainly still analyze this film trilogy based on its own merits (in fact, not knowing the book can reveal whether the film requires prior knowledge of it to maintain narrative coherency). That said, as I go on with each subsequent entry in this retrospective, I learn more about her philosophy through watching the films and subsequent research, so keep that in perspective. If you don’t know anything about Objectivism, don’t worry, I’ll try to explain it succinctly as we go along. “Well if you don’t know anything about Rand then how can you review Atlas Shrugged properly!” you may say – luckily for you, I convinced my good friend Matt at The M, who is more familiar with Rand’s philosophy and has read the book, to watch these films with me and come to his own conclusions. Be sure to check out his reviews as well for some contrasting perspectives!

I don’t really know what to say about this poster. It’s fine, but it looks like something you’d see promoting some keynote speaker at a dinner conference rather than a theatrical movie release.

PRODUCTION
After years of modest success as a novelist and screenwriter, Russian-American authour Ayn Rand wrote and published her 1943 novel The Fountainhead to great success. To put it very simply, The Fountainhead dealt with themes of collective societal oppression and stagnation, which stifle creative minds and prevent progress from occurring. The Fountainhead‘s success helped spur philosophical debate about the novel’s themes, providing an early core for Rand’s ideas going forward. Rand herself began taking a greater interest in political activism, campaigning in favour of the free market and against communism. This growing philosophical interest and political activism coalesced in her next novel, 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, a massive, nearly 1,200 page epic which was equal parts narrative and philosophical treatise. The novel explicitly lays out the foundations of Rand’s philosophy which would become known as “Objectivism”.

Before we go any further, it’s important that we get an idea of what Objectivism means. According to the Atlas Society:

“Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals.”

Rand would further develop the philosophy of Objectivism for the rest of her writing career. Perhaps because of this philosophical focus, the novel was not received very well. This is possibly due to the notion that Objectivism can be boiled down to “excuses to continue to be an asshole“. However, the novel found a receptive audience of those who agreed with Rand’s philosophy and found it extremely compelling. The influence of Objectivism upon libertarian and American conservative movements can be felt to this day (even if they don’t necessarily understand her). Naturally, the political and ideological importance that this novel has garnered after its publication would lead libertarians and Objectivist adherents to want to see a film adaptation.

There had been several attempts to adapt Atlas Shrugged into a film or television series, but none came to fruition for one reason or another (including an attempt by Ayn Rand herself, which ended when she died with only a third of the screenplay completed). The roots of the film which would eventually come about began when John Aglialoro bought the film rights for Atlas Shrugged from the Rand estate in 1992. He then started optioning the film to various studios. After a proposed four-hour miniseries with TNT fell through, the project was taken to Lions Gate to be turned into a two-part film series (which was eventually shaved down into one screenplay). Vadim Perelman was going to direct the film and various high-profile actresses were in negotiation for the film, including Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts and Anne Hathaway (according to the Atlas Society, Jolie was likely going to be playing the female lead, Dagny Taggart). As interest in the film fizzled, Lions Gate then started work on a miniseries, but could not come up with an adequate script. After spending nearly $20 million on various Atlas Shrugged projects, Lions Gate scrapped the whole thing in March of 2010 and nothing came to fruition.

All of these false starts left John Aglialoro in a bind. After 18 years of nothing, his rights to the film were set to expire in June of 2010 if he was not filming an adaptation by then. So, in early April with barely two and a half months of pre-production time, Aglialoro and producer Harmon Kaslow threw a production company together, hastily wrote a script, hired the production team and crew, cast the film and got all of their locations sorted out. Many of the crew were fans of Rand’s work and took pay cuts in order to be a part of the film. The cast were largely unknowns or D-list talent, including Taylor Schilling (who would get her big break right after this film by starring in Orange is the New Black) as Dagny Taggart, Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden and Matthew Marsden (from the DOA: Dead or Alive movie!!!) as James Taggart. Stephen Polk was initially hired to direct, but was fired and Paul Johansson was signed on as director just nine days before filming began. Filming began on June 13, just two days before the rights would have reverted to Rand’s estate, and lasted for five weeks on a budget somewhere between $10-20 million dollars (although this number is debated; it might be including all of the costs of the false starts at Lions Gate, because I’ve seen estimates as low as $5 million). However, due to the rushed production, John Agliarloro and Harmon Kaslow weren’t able to afford to negotiate and secure any of their actors to appear in the next two entries in the series, meaning that they would be forced to start fresh and recast when it came time to begin Part II. This rushed schedule may also have been why the film takes place in a near-future setting, despite maintaining the novel’s 1950s trappings, in order to save on production costs.

The film’s release date was set, symbolically, on “tax day“, April 15, 2011 – only a year after production began. The film’s marketing budget was low and promotion was largely done in an evangelizing manner, similar to Christian films. The film was promoted not only by Randian organizations, such as The Atlas Society, but also through political organizations, such as Fox News and the Tea Party movement and its affiliates, explicitly playing up the film’s political status in order to draw interest. One of these affiliates, FreedomWorks, went so far as to try to get the film into more theatres and to promote it at the Conservative Political Action Conference. However, apparently none of this mattered because, despite playing in 465 theatres across the country, the film was a total bomb. It’s opening weekend haul of $1,676,917 was good for the 14th highest gross of the weekend, and it ended up earning less than $5 million by the end of its theatrical run. For whatever reason, the film’s political marketing campaign didn’t translate to a ticket bump as it often does for Christian films.


PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens in 2016, with America in a serious economic depression due to intense oil shortages after the Middle East stops supplying the superpower with the oil it needs (this is the last time this bit of context will ever be mentioned, for the record). Further exacerbating matters is catastrophic oil spills and skyrocketing gasoline prices, which cause the rail lines to become the most important transportation method for people and goods. However, the rail lines are in poor repair and there are several derailments on the Taggart Transcontinental railroad after CEO James Taggart tries to get the lines replaced with cheap, shoddy material.

His sister, Dagny Taggart, forcibly takes control of the situation, saying that she’s negotiated a deal with Rearden Steel to replace the tracks with a new metal that has been invented by Hank Rearden, which is supposed to be considerably stronger and lighter than any other metal on the market. Rearden gives a bracelet made of the first batch of Rearden metal to his wife as an anniversary gift, but she and the rest of their family openly mock him for it, while another insults Hank while asking for a $100,000 donation. Meanwhile, James Taggart negotiates a deal with lobbyists to secure Taggart Transcontinental a rail monopoly in Colorado. This angers an oil baron named Ellis Wyatt who is now forced to do business with Taggart, but Dagny assures him that they will provide him with the service that he needs.

While Dagny and Hank are working to get the railroads replaced on time, talented individuals in their companies keep disappearing with their only explanation being a cryptic question: “Who is John Galt?” A former lover of Dagny’s, Francisco d’Anconia, creates further difficulty for Taggart when his copper mines are revealed to be worthless, costing Taggart and various other investors billions of dollars (it is heavily implied that he did this just to screw them over). To make things worse, the State Science Institute reports that they believe that Rearden metal is not safe for public use, a claim which Hank scoffs at. In response to this, Dagny forms her own company in order to finish the rail line and keep the pressure off of Taggart Transcontinental, calling it the “John Galt Line”.

As Dagny and Hank continue working desperately to complete the rail line, even more pressure is put upon them when a new law forces Hank to sell off all but one of his businesses, leaving him only with Rearden Steel to finish the John Galt Line. Despite all this opposition, the John Galt Line is completed ahead of schedule and the first test is wildly successful, setting a new speed record for a locomotive. Wyatt is overjoyed and invites Dagny and Hank to celebrate at his home. Dagny and Hank end up having an affair that night as John Galt confronts Wyatt in secret and convinces him to disappear along with the other men of talent.

The next morning, Dagny and Hank follow-up on a lead that Hank had found about a revolutionary new motor that was developed at the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation but never released, as the company went under before it could be produced. They find the incomplete motor in the abandoned factory and try to track down its inventor. Dagny traces it back to Dr. Hugh Akston, but he is unwilling to reveal the identity of the inventor, saying that the inventor might track her down.

However, a new law is then passed which limits the speed of trains on the John Galt Line and puts a special tax on Colorado. Dagny then discovers that Wyatt’s oil fields are on fire and rushes to the scene. When she arrives, she is distraught by the scene, where she finds a sign left by Wyatt which reads “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”


REVIEW
Atlas Shrugged: Part I pulled a number of emotions out of me during its runtime, but unquestionably the most prominent one was soul-crushing boredom. Most of the film boils down to discussions about railway construction and the politics surrounding it. Mind you, that doesn’t have to be boring! The story of the founding of Facebook sounds soul-crushingly dull, but The Social Network made it a gripping drama. And who cares about the story of the franchising of McDonalds? Me, apparently, because The Founder ended up being one of my favourite films of the past decade. Unfortunately, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does very little to make any of this business and politicking engaging for the audience. This is in part because most of the scenes boil down to:

  1. Characters talking about something they’re going to do off-screen (eg, Dagny talking about forming her own company to finish the rail line, Washington lobbyists talking about all the bills they’re going to pass to screw over Rearden Steel, etc).
  2. Characters reacting to something that happened off-screen (every time one of these laws gets passed, the reveal that d’Anconia’s copper mines are worthless, etc).
  3. Exposition dumps (Hank’s speech about the fall of the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, scenes where someone says “Who is John Galt?”, etc).

As a result of these building blocks, the vast majority of this film feels stuffy and boring. There’s very rarely any sort of payoff, which actually makes the big, triumphant test run of the John Galt Line probably the best scene in the whole film since it’s a rare moment of excitement. Hell, even when Dagny and Hank have sex, they can’t even get down to business until they have first talked about wanting to have sex with each other, holy shit. God forbid we not realize that they’re into each other unless someone explicitly states it first.

Another failed source of tension in the film is the constant setbacks that Dagny and Hank’s efforts encounter, from the laws put in place to oppose them, to the employees being whisked away by John Galt. In a competent film, like The Martian, each setback provides the audience with mounting tension as they wonder how the characters can possibly overcome the obstacles in front of them. In Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the characters… just do it. Like, seriously, there is very rarely any sort of explanation for how or why Dagny and Hank manage to not only overcome all of the impossibly difficult roadblocks that get put in front of them, but also complete the project ahead of schedule. You’re telling me that, despite losing their most talented employees to John Galt, having Rearden Steel’s suppliers get sold off mid-project and having Dagny break off and form her own company from scratch to manage the project (again, in the middle of the process) wouldn’t affect their schedule any? Again, there isn’t really any explanation for it, it’s just handwaved away like “well they’re super talented, so they pulled it off”.

Right before they pulled each other off.

The film also has a central mystery surrounding the phrase “Who is John Galt?” which could also have provided some intrigue for the audience. However, this also falls flat on its face because, somehow, the characters aren’t even interested in the mystery! Imagine this: your best, most talented employees are resigning one-by-one, can’t be persuaded stay and they all give the same, cryptic explanation – “Who is John Galt?” You’d think that someone would try to figure out what this conspiracy is all about, but Dagny and Hank don’t even bother to look into it. WHY!? This might have been explained in the novel, but here it’s left untouched for no discernible reason, time after time. This even ruins scenes which were actually building up their own tension, such as when Owen Kellogg resigns from Taggart Transcontinental. The scene has Dagny asking Owen every question except why he’s leaving, so when she finally does, the camera zooms in on his face for a close-up, there’s a pregnant pause and then he answers with… “Who is John Galt?” Cue ominous music, black and white freeze-frame and then a pop-up that says that he’s gone missing. End scene. What the actual fuck was that? That’s like the cinematic equivalent of prematurely ejaculating into your girlfriend’s hair right when things were getting interesting. And, again, Dagny doesn’t even look into what happened! She just whines to Hank later about “why are so many great men disappearing?” I guess we’ll never know with that attitude! Oh, and to make matters worse, it’s not like we’re given an answer to any of this, not in this film anyway. The film certainly hints that there’s some sort of cult surrounding John Galt, who is doing something to whisk away the talented people in society, but there is no payoff to the subplot in this film.

That actually brings us to another issue with Atlas Shrugged: Part I – it is very much an extended first act, rather than a stand-alone film. Sure, you’re probably supposed to experience all three parts back-to-back, but that doesn’t change that this was released stand-alone and that, at one point, you would not have been able to view the complete package (not to mention that you may not have the time to do so anyway). It’s not really rocket science though, they had two options available. One: knowing that they needed each part to be satisfying in its own right, they could have made this film’s railroad drama more interesting and provided some more payoff to all the plot threads they introduced. Or, two: a number of scenes could easily have been trimmed down to move the plot further ahead and not leave so many unanswered threads just dangling in the wind. I could easily see Atlas Shrugged as a two-part film, but instead they chose to stretch it out over three films to the detriment of this film’s enjoyment (hey, where have I heard that before?). I mean, the film ends with Dagny not finding the inventor of the new motor she and Hank rediscovered and having Wyatt’s oil fields burn to the ground. That’s about as much of a non-ending as you could possibly have.

Another notable aspect of Atlas Shrugged: Part I is just how cheap it feels, despite the fact that this film’s budget was somewhere between $10-20 million dollars. Sure, that’s a low amount, but it’s certainly a workable number of a film which is largely about people talking about railroads. Like, DOA: Dead or Alive‘s budget was $21 million, and that film had to incorporate bigger sets, fight choreography, more special effects and more expensive actors, all while looking much better than Atlas Shrugged: Part I. All of The Purge films have had similar budgets as well and are considerably better looking and feature plenty of exciting action sequences. Hell, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is one of the greatest horror films of the twenty-first century and it was filmed on a budget under $10 million. It all comes down to the producers, director and crew and unfortunately there are moments when Atlas Shrugged: Part I literally looks like a micro-budget fan film. This cheapness stands in stark contrast to the supposed opulence of the characters inhabiting the film. Like, there’s a part of the film where Hank’s upper-class meal involves him eating a baked potato and some slices of bread. The sets suffer somewhat from this as well. Sometimes we’ll get an expansive exterior shot of a big mansion or a rail line, and then in others we’ll a character’s office which could have easily been left over from some legal drama. Perhaps my absolute favourite moment though comes during Hank Rearden’s introduction. Check this image out:

As you can probably see, they couldn’t film the scene in a proper factory, so they went into some office building, green screened the windows and then keyed in stock footage of a rail factory and hoped no one would notice. This was so bad that I had to pause the film and rewind it several times to make sure I was seeing this right, because it made me laugh for several minutes. I’ll admit, it’s a clever workaround for their problem, but the office that they chose to film it in makes it glaringly obvious. I mean, look at the placement of the doors, which don’t make any spacial sense compared to the factory (especially the exit which is apparently right next to the factory floor). The lack of lighting in this dark office also doesn’t help make this any more convincing. There is also some horrible, 90s-quality CGI during the train sequences – the train itself looks unconvincing, but the railroad tracks are the worst part, having been painted this bright, contrast-less chrome colour in order to convey how “special” Rearden metal is. The opening shots of the film are also really bad – they need to show a train derailment, but they can’t afford the CGI to do it, so they just take some (obviously-darkened) stock footage of trains, cut between shots of broken rails and then have some guy screaming to imply that the train crashes. It’s the sort of work-around that feels even less like a fan film and more like high school students running around in the backyard with a camera. I can’t help but think that the cheapness of this is partially due to the film’s rushed production schedule, which squeezed out any time to secure proper on-location shooting or dress sets properly, squandering a budget that many other films could put to much better use. Like, with a proper pre-production schedule, they could have secured filming rights at a factory, but when they had to slap a whole film together in two and a half months, that wasn’t a luxury they could afford.

On a somewhat-related note, man, the writing in this film is not good. Having not read the novel, I’m not sure if this is a Rand issue or if it’s because of the breakneck production speed, but at the very least screenwriters John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole have to bear some fault for co-writing the film that we got. In addition to the unengaging plot that I’ve already mentioned, the characters are poorly conceived and come across more like propagandistic mouthpieces than actual people. Our “heroes”, Dagny and Hank, are both infallible business people who look down on the people around them and take control of everything because they know best. And, hey, the film agrees with them, despite never really showing how or why we are supposed to believe that they should have this confidence. They just succeed at everything regardless, so we’re meant to believe that this makes them hyper-competent and deserving of having opportunities just fall into their laps (such as the experimental engine Hank just stumbles across). Despite all this, there isn’t much to actually make you like Hank or Dagny unless you’re already an Objectivist, because holy shit they are dicks. Hank states, outright, that his only goal is to make money and that he hates giving to the “less privileged”, while Dagny whines about altruism and cancels a rail project in an undeveloped part of Mexico because she doesn’t see how it benefits her in any way. Meanwhile, all of the other characters are portrayed as scummy, conniving, incompetent and underhanded, particularly James Taggart who relies on political favours to advance his company (which this film views as illegitimate business compared to Dagny’s “actual work”) and Wesley Mouch (Mouch? …Mooch? Real subtle there, Rand…), who lobbies Washington to try to break up Rearden’s monopoly on the steel market. Probably worst of all is Hank’s wife, Lillian, who is possibly the biggest shrew of a female character that I have ever seen. In Rand’s eyes, there’s no emotional value to anything, no love between these characters – she sees a bracelet made of Rearden metal given to her as a sign of ego rather than a sentimental gift and complains about it constantly, while also being portrayed as leeching off of Hank’s success unworthily. When Dagny offers to trade it for a diamond necklace, Lillian jumps at the opportunity since it’s worth more in terms of real value. Holy crap, is that the kind of worldview that Rand believes exists, which justifies her own brand of assholes?

That, of course, brings us to one of the film’s biggest issues – it’s ultimately all about trying to extol the necessity of Objectivism. Normally I try to avoid getting too much into objectionable ideology within a work, for fear of having the whole review turn into a rant and so that people who agree with that ideology can’t just write off my arguments wholesale. Trust me, as I have already stated above, there are plenty of reasons why Atlas Shrugged: Part I fails just on a film-making level. However, considering that this film’s story is inextricably intended to be a case-study for the necessity of Objectivism, ignoring this fact in a review would be like tip-toeing around the existence of sports in Air Bud. With that said, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does a piss-poor job of convincing anyone that Objectivism is a good idea. Part of the issue is that the aforementioned characters don’t act like real human beings. Characters like James Taggart, Wesley Mouch and Lillian Rearden are transparent strawmen whose whose entire purpose is to antagonize our perfect “heroes” and single-mindedly leech off of the success of others rather than do work themselves. It’s pretty hard to make a case for your ideology in a film when the world that it’s presented in looks and feels completely unlike our own. Even then it’s hard to identify with our “heroes”, because when Dagny and Hank suddenly start complaining about how much they hate having to give money to people they deem unworthy, it flies in the face of conventional morality. Like, in basically any other movie, having a character say that they don’t like helping the underprivileged would be a line given to the villains, but in this one case we’re meant to think “yeah, that’s right! Fuck the poor!” As far as the film is concerned, only the “best people” in society drive us forward and everyone else just leeches off of their success undeservedly.

The merits of Dagny and Hank’s “worthiness” is also rather questionable to me. The entire plot is put into motion because Taggart Transcontinental’s trains start derailing after James Taggart makes a deal with another steel company to expand their rail lines. When that fails, Dagny announces that her solution to this massive PR issue is… to bank everything on an untested, experimental metal that she intends to use to re-rail their entire line in 9 months!? When your company is still reeling from disaster after disaster you’d think that, I dunno, they’d perform rigorous safety checks first, right? Apparently that doesn’t matter though, because Dagny is worthy and therefore always right. After all, if she wasn’t always right, then she wouldn’t be worthy, would she! Then, in our introduction to Hank, he’s just as much of a smug dick – he’s introduced crumpling up and laughing at requests to meet with experts and metalworking guilds about his new metal, denoting that he doesn’t need to prove that his metal is the good because he already knows it is. Guys, he’s worthy, he doesn’t need to explain or justify himself! But, like… is he really? Dagny and Hank talk up about how great Rearden metal is throughout the film, but we’re never really told or (more importantly) shown why it’s such a big deal or how Hank developed this seemingly-magical product. Even when the science institute says that Rearden metal is unsafe, Dagny and Hank insist that they’re wrong. It comes across that government and science are just conspiring to screw over big businesses, which only want to progress human achievement. Of course, their claims about how good Rearden metal is are to “proven” when they finally get the chance to test it… once. This all just comes across to me as the film insisting that Dagny and Hank are so great and smart, and that their arrogance is totally merited because they’re just that good. Nevermind all the people like Billy McFarland who exude all the confidence in the world and who everyone around him claims is a visionary building great things, who ends up being a massive con artist when it all crumbles – the only difference is that Dagny and Hank manage to actually accomplish what they say they’ll do, inexplicably.

There’s also a big exposition dump near the end of the film, when Dagny and Hank are headed to the abandoned Twentieth Century Motor Corporation to find the experimental engine they were developing. Hank explains that the company went out of business because of “bad ideas”: they paid everyone according to a wage scale, paying everyone according to their needs rather than their contributions. Dagny is vehemently opposed to this and says: “Why all these stupid altruistic urges? It’s not being charitable or fair. What is it with people today?” Hank then says that, because of this, “no surprise, the smart managers and the better workers left the company. But hundreds of remaining staff couldn’t handle it alone. Service dropped, quality in their once-great products was gone, and that was that.” This is, of course, what Objectivists thinks happens when companies don’t reward their workers according to their contributions, but it seems way too simplified to me. For one thing, who is it that’s determining the proper pay for contributions? The workers on the ground are the ones keeping the company going, but the managers are the ones who are going to set the pay – you know that they’re the higher-ups are going to be taking the credit and making the most, regardless of the success or failure of the company. It sure is convincing when we’ve got a pair of super-rich people complaining about how they’re not able to make even more money when that system has already gotten us into a state of radical wealth inequality. Furthermore, are you telling me that these “smart managers” didn’t get replaced by similarly-capable workers or that the company wasn’t grooming new employees to move into their positions? Probably strangest of all, all of the company’s innovations were then lost and left behind!?

This Randian philosophy at the heart of the narrative ultimately results in a film that doesn’t fit into any conventional sense of morality. It advocates for a dog-eat-dog world where the rich don’t have to have any sort of obligation to society. At best, it suggests that they will use this freedom to help drive society forward (as we see with Dagny and Hank’s efforts to revolutionize the railroads and motors), but this is a laughably simplistic notion to apply to real life. In the years since the publication of Atlas Shrugged, its libertarian message has taken root in the United States and has led to insane wealth inequality where people can’t succeed no matter how “worthy” they are. Of course, the people at the top will maintain that they deserve to be, despite making more than the vast majority of the employees under their purview, combined.

So, yeah – Atlas Shrugged: Part I sucks. It advocates for an immoral ideology at its core and then has to resort to strawmen and plot contrivances to make it even seem reasonable within its own fiction. Even then, the film itself is poorly made and uncompelling to watch. Similarly to the Christian films I mentioned earlier, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is the sort of film which is only going to appeal to the people who already agree with its worldview and feel validated by its existence. For basically everyone else, it’s a total slog with an unsatisfying non-conclusion.

3/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged: Part II!

Movie Review: Pokemon – Detective Pikachu

Hey guys, I saw Pokemon: Detective Pikachu a day before its wide release and did up a video review of it. I normally will be relegating Pokemon content to my Youtube channel rather than here, but there is a bit of cross-over here since I often do movie reviews on my blog so I figured I would post it here. Check it out (note: there are some very minor spoilers in the video, just so you know)!


A few additional notes that I have thought since I recorded this:

  • The opening scene feels like it was either added in reshoots or was all that remained of a longer opening act – it feels at odds with the rest of the film, introduces a character that we’re never going to see again, and only really matters in that it introduces Cubone.
  • Having thought about it a bit more, the villain’s plan is even stupider than I realized. In addition to the fact that he probably could have initiated it earlier than he does, it’s also just extremely contrived writing.
  • The writing in general is easily the weakest aspect of the film. There’s a big action set-piece near the end of the second act which doesn’t really have any bearing on anything, it just happens and goes on longer than nearly any other action scene in the film. It’s fun, but when you give it some critical thought it isn’t particularly satisfying.
  • I geeked out at the soundtrack, there are some classic Pokemon music call-backs in here.
  • Where the hell are Jolteon and Chikorita? I saw an ad with Jolteon in it, but we don’t see one in the flesh? 1/10, would not recommend.

Retrospective BONUS: Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988)

Surprise! You didn’t think that I was totally chainsawed out, did you? While working through the Texas Chainsaw retrospective, I was reminded that Gunnar Hansen appeared in another chainsaw-based film – 1988’s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. I’ve been aware of this film for a long time, having frequented BadMovies.org as a high schooler. Naturally, the bonkers title and some hilarious plot points (including an ancient Egyptian chainsaw cult!) have always kept this film on my radar, so I figured what better time to watch it than now, especially considering that this is my 250th blog post? After all, this is probably a Texas Chainsaw parody, so might as well append it onto this retrospective series, right? Read on to find out…

Objectively, this is a pretty bad poster, with shots from the film badly cut and pasted in, lots of wasted space and the main characters are probably the smallest part of the whole image. But, for this kind of movie, it works well enough. Also, that is a really great tagline!

PRODUCTION
(Pretty much all of the info I have on the production of this film comes from this featurette on the making of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, I definitely recommend checking it out if you have the time!)

Fred Olen Ray had been working as director on low-budget films for a number of years in Hollywood, kind of like a cheaper, sleazier, less-successful Roger Corman. By 1985 he had begun working on several films per year, shooting as quickly and cheaply as possible. By the late 80s, Fred had struck a production deal with an adult video company called LA Video and their subsidiary, mainstream distribution company, Camp Motion Pictures. LA Video expressed interest in distributing a new film for Fred and it was here that he pitched his idea for Chainsaw Hookers. LA Video added “Hollywood” to the title to make it sound more like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Fred managed to rope Gunnar Hansen into the project. This was, of course, at the time when both Cannon Films and New Line Cinema weren’t interesting in working with Gunnar Hansen since they didn’t think he was a big enough star, so it just goes to show how much wiser Fred Olen Ray was than either company. With Hansen on board and $25,000 in hand from LA Video in exchange for the home video rights, Fred went about making his film, rewriting a script by T.L. Lankford.

In addition to snagging Gunnar Hansen to play the main villain, The Master, Fred Olen Ray managed to get Linnea Quigley to play the female lead. Qugiley is best known for being naked in a number of famous horror roles throughout the 80s, and by this point had already been in Silent Night, Deadly Night and Return of the Living Dead, so Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was more-or-less the perfect role for her. John Henry Richardson was also cast as the male lead, Detective Jack Chandler.

Naturally, this being a Fred Olen Ray film, he made it while working on other projects. While doing pick-ups on a low-budget movie called Moon in Scorpio, Fred agreed to take a lower pay cut in exchange for the use of Trans World Entertainment’s studio space and film equipment during downtime, which he would use to film Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. As per the agreement, he had the equipment from Friday to Sunday, filmed the pick-ups for Moon in Scorpio Monday to Thursday and then finished Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers the next Friday to Sunday. All in all, he took about 5 1/2 days to shoot the film on a measly budget in the neighbourhood of $55,000. Naturally, the filming conditions were extremely sketchy – it was shot with no permits, on leftover sets from other films, with real chainsaws and even with real hookers on occasion! Even the film stock was as cheap as possible, using short ends which were left over from other films. The audio was all shot on set as well, so considering that there are chainsaws revving loudly on a number of occasions, you can’t tell what the characters are saying at all sometimes because there was no budget for redubbing dialogue. The conditions were also potentially dangerous for the cast, particularly since they were using real chainsaws – in one notable instance, Linnea Quigley (who had already spent seven hours in makeup) was locked inside of a coffin with two running chainsaws so that she could preform the film’s iconic virgin dance of the double chainsaws. Naturally, this meant that the coffin was quickly filled with chainsaw fumes and Quigley can be visibly seen stumbling out of the coffin because she could barely breathe.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers ended up being one of Fred Olen Ray’s more successful films. That said, I want to just look at his career a little bit. He’s been making mockbusters, sexploitation films and, most recently, freaking Hallmark Christmas movies in order to get by (I’m pretty sure I’ve even seen at lest one of those Christmas movies too, holy shit). He’s like The Asylum before that studio cornered the mockbuster market. Most obviously, in 1994 we’ve got Dinosaur Island (riffing on Jurassic Park), in 1998, Mom Can I Keep Her? (Mighty Joe Young) and in 2011, Bikini Time Machine (Hot Tub Time Machine). Oh, and he’s been releasing sleazy, borderline-softcore porno films throughout his whole career, although they seem to have picked up and become more pornographic since the 2000s. Just trolling through his directing credits, we’ve got such fantastic titles as Bikini Airways, Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, Thirteen Erotic Ghosts (which must have the best IMDb description ever), Genie in a String Bikini, Super Ninja Bikini Babes (which sounds like an alternate title for Dead or Alive) and Tarzeena: Jiggle in the Jungle. Lately, he’s been slumming it with shitty Christmas movies, having released 10 since 2007 (and 9 of those have been since 2012, bloody hell), and with cheap crime films, which should probably give you an idea of the cultural zeitgeist when these are the only profitable genres left.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens with Detective Jack Chandler recounting one of his strangest cases, via voiceover in true hardboiled noir style. We follow a hooker named Mercedes as she picks up a man and then kills him with a chainsaw later in her apartment. Apparently there have been a number of chainsaw hooker murders going down in Los Angeles lately, and Jack Chandler heads to the police station to check in on a chainsaw murder suspect who might be related to a missing girl case he’s taken on. The suspect is not the missing girl, Samantha, but Jack steals a piece of evidence with a phone number on it in order to get closer to the source of the chainsaw murders. The phone number leads Jack back to Mercedes and he arranges to meet her at a local club. When he gets there, he finds Samantha dancing as a stripper at the club, but is drugged by Mercedes before he can notify the authorities.

When Jack awakens, he is tied to a bed and surrounded by killer hookers, including Mercedes and Samantha. The Master comes into the room and informs Jack that he is the leader of an ancient Egyptian chainsaw cult and that he is going to sacrifice Jack to their god. The hookers then try to kill Jack, but their chainsaw has run out of gas. They order Samantha to guard Jack while they go to get gas from the corner store, but Samantha frees him. She reveals that she’s infiltrating the chainsaw cult because they killed her friend and she wants to get revenge on them. The pair escape back to Jack’s apartment, where Samantha suddenly falls in love him and the pair have sex.

That night, they try to sneak into the cult’s temple in order to stop their plans, but it’s a trap and they are captured. Samantha’s given a mind-control drug in order to be used in the ceremony, while Jack is tied up and prepared for sacrifice. After performing a ritual dance, Jack is brought to Samantha by The Master in order to be killed, but Samantha instead kills The Master and then gets into a chainsaw duel with Mercedes. Mercedes is killed by Samantha and the police arrive and round up the rest of the cult. Jack and Samantha kiss and Samantha is hired as Jack’s new secretary.

REVIEW
Okay, so other than featuring Gunnar Hansen in a chainsaw killer movie, there’s basically nothing that connects Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s not even a slasher parody like I had originally expected. Instead, it’s a parody of pulp, noir detective films, very similar to The Naked Gun (which, coincidentally, came out the same year as this film). Naturally, this movie isn’t anywhere near as funny as The Naked Gun, but it is much funnier than I was expecting it would be… usually intentionally! John Henry Richardson’s Jack Chandler doesn’t have the same sort of comical ineptitude or deadpan delivery as Leslie Neilson’s Frank Drebin, instead Jack Chandler is played with more of a sarcastic, over-confident tone that often gets him into trouble. He makes for a great stereotypical detective lead, which just makes it funnier when he spouts some of the absolute best, cheesiest lines in the whole film. The delivery of lines like “If my head wasn’t hurtin’ so much, I’d have sworn I was in heaven – heaven for guys who liked big tits” was enough to have me laughing out loud throughout the film. John Henry Richardson’s acting is by far the best in the film and I definitely need to give special mention to the monologue that he turns into Jack’s best line in the whole film:

“I’d stumbled into the middle of an evil, insidious cult of chainsaw worshipping maniacs. I had to wonder if we’d let our religious freedom go too far in this country, or maybe our immigration laws were just too lax. I’ve never been much for politics, but I kept thinking about that pretty girl’s warm head on my lap, and then I wondered how many other pretty girls would never be able to put their heads on my lap because they’d been cut off by that refugee from the BTL club and his slice-happy sluts, I started to get mad.”

Holy shit, that is the funniest anti-immigration screed I’ve ever heard, I love it. Honestly, I was cringing when that monologue started, but by the middle I was in stitches I was laughing so hard.

There really are a lot of good jokes in this film and I just want to highlight a few of my favourites here. When Jack gets captured he keeps guessing The Master’s plan by throwing out the most ridiculous ideas he can think of (“What is this, some ancient chainsaw-wielding cult?” “Actually, that’s just what this is”) to the point where he just starts saying tropes and The Master ends up asking how Jack knows all of this. The idea of there being an ancient Egyptian cult with chainsaws is also lampshaded in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion which I appreciated. I also found it hilarious how the official police explanation for one of the chainsaw murders is that it was an accident and the victim “was just cleaning his chainsaw when it went off”. There’s also a chainsaw murder at the start of the film where a hooker kills some police officers during an interview and later it is explained that the policemen forgot to take the gas out of the chainsaw, paving over a pretty obvious plot hole in the funniest way possible. There are also some pretty good sight gags in the film, such as when Jack’s voice over during a scene is obviously at odds with what actually happens, just so that he can make himself look better. My favourite WTF sight gag though is when Jack enters a strip club and the camera focuses on the tough customers at the bar staring at him, which inexplicably ends with this pissed-off, twelve year old ginger kid (who, apparently, was Fred Olen Ray’s son). The film doesn’t even acknowledge it, which makes it even funnier.

Like I said, most of the jokes in this film land, although there are plenty of laughs to be had from the cheap film-making and bad acting. Most of the dialogue is on the level of a bad porno, especially during the chainsaw murder scenes. The early scene where Mercedes murders Bo Hansen has some of the funniest bad acting that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Hearing Bo, after realizing his sexy times are coming to an abrupt, gasoline-fueled end, whelps “Oh no! Oh no! GAHHHH!!!” in the funniest way possible. The murders themselves tend to be really funny too, as there’s obviously someone off-screen spraying the hookers with fake blood while someone else tosses a bucket of blood at them and someone else throws fake fingers (to top it off, someone tries to grab Mercedes’ boob with a fake severed hand, fantastic). It’s so obviously fake and amateur that it makes these scenes really funny to watch. The terrible, Value Village-quality Egyptian costumes at the end also could only work in a cheap parody movie like this.

That said, not all of the jokes land and there are some stinkers in here. Probably the most offensive joke is when Jack calls the homicide squad the “homo squad”, which came across to me like it was meant to be “funny because gay”, but just made me cringe a little. Thankfully, I didn’t notice any other homo- or transphobic jokes in the film, which is actually somewhat impressive for a film this old. The film also seems to think that it’s hilarious that a slang term for detective is “dick”. Sure, it was actually quite funny the first time the police chief complained about having “another private dick in my face”, but by the fourth or fifth “dick = detective = penis” joke, it was a bit much. Then there are a few jokes which are just stupid, like when Jack tries to get the bartender’s attention by… making shadow bunnies on the wall? Umm, okay, that feels like they were trying a little too hard for a laugh.

Of course, in addition to being a comedy, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers is a straight-up exploitation film with tons of gratuitous nudity to satisfy its thirsty audience. The film has tons of nudity and porno-level dialogue, but I wouldn’t say it reaches the level of a softcore porn film, if only because there are no sex scenes. That said, the chainsaw killings are treated in the way that a sex scene normally would, where the killing is the… er… “big climax” that the narrative builds towards, and of course they are all shot with topless women getting coated in buckets of blood. Naturally, there is plenty of gratuitous nudity even outside of the chainsaw killings, to the point where I’d estimate that maybe half of the movie has some nudity in it… and hey, considering the type of movie this is, at least it’s delivering the goods. Funnily enough, Fred Olen Ray has stated that the film was intended to be a message about safe sex – after all, any person you pick up could turn out to be a chainsaw-wielding maniac if you’re not careful.

Unfortunately, the film loses steam towards the end after The Master appears and Jack meets Samantha. Part of the problem is that around the forty-minute mark, Jack starts turning into a misogynistic douche bag. For one thing, Samantha is introduced as a surprisingly strong woman, who infiltrated this cult in order to get revenge for her friend’s death. However, she is quickly knocked down a peg when Jack headbutts her to knock her out, and then when she wakes up she immediately forgives him and then… tries to have sex with him because she’s so impressed!?! What the hell? This is followed-up by Jack’s girlfriend walking in on them, but Jack doesn’t care when she breaks up with him because he’s found himself a younger, hotter woman now. At this point, all of Jack’s one-liners start becoming about objectifying Samantha. Oh, and if that all wasn’t bad enough, it’s definitely implied that Samantha is lying about her age and is possibly a minor. I get that this is parodying noir tropes, but it doesn’t have any sort of consequence for Jack, which really bothers me and just makes it come across like they’re just playing it straight. It certainly doesn’t sink the film, but it makes it harder for me to give a shit about the film’s hero.

However, the last fifteen minutes of the film are by far the worst. The film is barely over the hour mark and I feel like the last fifteen minutes suffer because they were padding for time to get the film a proper runtime. There’s a good eight minutes that bring the film’s pacing to a grinding halt. Picture this – we’re in the cult’s temple and watching a ceremony, wondering what is going to happen. Then, we’ve got several minutes watching a priest pour a can of oil out… and then pour another can of oil. Umm, okay, where is this going? Then a topless hooker comes out and starts fire breathing, again, for several minutes without leading to anything. Then we get the film’s virgin dance of the double chainsaws, which manages to be iconic, badly done and pointless at the same time. On the one hand, it’s Linnea Quigley dancing topless with a pair of chainsaws, so there’s an inherent level of sexiness and coolness to the scene which helps to carry it. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to ignore that the dance is not particularly sexy in itself – as I’ve mentioned, Linnea was high on gas fumes, exhausted from seven hours of makeup and wielding two real, heavy chainsaws and trying to do something to arouse the audience. Again, it works because of her inherent sexiness, but it’s extremely obvious that she’s not able to give 100%. Add in that the editing during this entire temple ritual sequence has tons of pointless cut-aways to random hookers (I swear that several of these shots are recycled during the scene as well), and it becomes obvious why the final fifteen minutes of this film are so tedious to sit through.

As for the performances in this film, they’re pretty bad on the whole. Like I said earlier, John Henry Richardson’s acting is by far the best, but nearly everyone else is pretty bad. Unfortunately, even Gunnar Hansen puts in a very bland performance as The Master, saying all of his lines in a very monotone voice. That’s just too bad, I was hoping we’d get some scenery-chewing from him. I’m also sad to say that Linnea Quigley’s acting is really poor in this film. Her line deliveries are all unconvincing and the choreography during her epic chainsaw duel with Mercedes is just pathetically awkward – like, imagine a grade-school film project sword fight and you’ll have an idea of how badly-choreographed this fight is. Thankfully, as Jack Chandler says, “The kid talked like a frosted flake, but she had the nicest set of knockers that I’d seen in a long time”.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was shot for about $55,000 in five and a half days. That’s an insanely low budget and shooting time for any film. You can definitely tell that this film was done under both of those constraints, but dayum it looks really good in spite of that. I can’t exactly call this a good movie in terms of quality, but in terms of pure fun it’s a hoot, even if the last act brings it down somewhat.

4/10

Retrospective: Leatherface (2017)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! We’re coming to the conclusion of this retrospective today with 2017’s Leatherface… not to be confused with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III of course (and with that in mind, any time I’ve referred to “Leatherface” in previous posts, I was referring to Chainsaw III). After the relative success of Texas Chainsaw 3D, the filmmakers once again decided that a prequel was the way to go to continue the series – that’s right, not only does this film have the same title as a sequel which it ignores, it also isn’t even the only prequel in this franchise. Bloody hell, the Texas Chainsaw franchise continuity is just a mess at this point. Is Leatherface at least be more coherent than the continuity of its franchise? Read on to find out…

Considering that this film’s trying to do its own thing, it’s unfortunate that it’s using basically the same poster design as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Suffice to say, it’s a very “meh” poster.

PRODUCTION
After the relative success of Texas Chainsaw 3D, the various studios involved in its production began conceptualizing a follow-up. As early as January 2013, Texas Chainsaw 3D executive producers Christa Campbell and Lati Grobman came to Millenium Films chairman Avi Lerner with an idea for a project which was going to be called Texas Chainsaw 4 (for some inexplicable reason). However, this project was announced prematurely by Millenium, which irritated the rights-holders at Main Line Pictures. I’d recommend checking out this article from Bloody Disgusting which breaks down the minutia of who owned the rights to the film at this time and shows how the studios involved were squabbling amongst each other.

Screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood pitched the idea of a prequel, as he didn’t like how inconsistent the franchise’s continuity had become and wanted to do something completely different with the franchise. He decided that he wanted to give Leatherface a tragic backstory, where his identity and mental faculties are taken away from him by the time the original Chainsaw rolls around. The film would also tie into Texas Chainsaw 3D, forming a trilogy along with the original film. The studio liked the idea and moved forward with Sherwood’s pitch. On October 31, 2014, French directing duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo were hired to direct the film. The pair had already received acclaim for their debut horror film Inside and were a very exciting choice for Leatherface. Maury and Bustillo then rewrote the film to better fit their vision for the project, including altering every death scene and changing the ending, which was original supposed to feature Leatherface going on a mass murder spree with a chainsaw (with over thirty victims, holy shit, he hasn’t even killed that many people in this whole franchise!!!).

In spring of 2015, casting for the film began. The lead roles went to Sam Strike as Jackson, James Bloor as Isaac, Jessica Madsen as Clarice, Sam Coleman as Bud and Vanessa Grasse as Lizzy. As is typical for Chainsaw films, most of them were young actors with only a few credits to their name and no major roles to speak of. Stephen Dorff, best known for being a mofo always trying to ice-skate uphill, was cast as the film’s main antagonist, Sheriff Hal Hartman. Angela Bettis was originally cast as Verna Carson-Sawyer, but had to drop out and was replaced by Lili Taylor, the mother from The Conjuring. Also worth mentioning was that Finn Jones (who was already well-known for playing Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones and who would later play Danny Rand in Iron Fist) was cast in a relatively minor role as Deputy Sorells.

Filming began in late spring 2015 in Bulgaria. Apparently Millenium Films had a studio in Bulgaria and so it was the most economical location to shoot the film, marking one of the few times the franchise had been shot outside of Texas, and the only time it had been shot outside of the US. While many of the locations for the film do look quite close to a Texan setting, there are definitely moments that look like Bulgaria. Perhaps the most obvious example is during the film’s final chase scene in a tangled forest which looks like something from a werewolf movie or a dark fantasy setting. Filming took twenty seven days to complete. Christa Campbell and Lati Grobman stated that they wanted the violence in Leatherface to be a more graphic, as apparently fans had complained that Texas Chainsaw 3D lacked in that department. I’m not sure what they were talking about, as that film had some of the most explicit gore in the entire franchise, although perhaps they thought that it didn’t come frequently enough? In any case, the brutality was ratcheted back up in Leatherface.

The film went into post-production in early 2016 and it seemed like it would be released sometime that year. However, Lionsgate inexplicably sat on the finished film and once again we had a Chainsaw being buried by its own distributor. However, unlike The Next Generation‘s cut-and-dry reasons for delay, I haven’t been able to find a clear motive for Lionsgate to do this. I’ve seen speculation that they thought that the film was no good and didn’t want to release it. Scott Sherwood believed that Lionsgate were afraid of the film underperforming if they invested in a wide release. I personally wonder if the squabbling between Millenium, Main Line and Lionsgate that I mentioned at the start of the production section might have had some influence on this film’s delay. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these reasons, but whatever the case, there was no news about the film until spring of 2017, when it was announced that the film would finally be released in October in a limited theatrical release and through VOD services. However, in December 2017, Christa Campbell announced that due to the time it had taken to release Leatherface, the rights had reverted back to Kim Henkel and Bob Kuhn, scuppering Millenium and Lionsgate’s plans for their own Texas Chainsaw franchise.
PLOT SYNOPSIS
Leatherface opens with… sigh… a dinner scene. The Sawyers have gathered for young Jedidiah’s birthday and it turns out that they have a guest – a man who they accuse of trying to steal pigs from them! Verna and Drayton encourage Jed to kill the man with a chainsaw, but he is unable to follow-through with it. Luckily, Grandpa’s saves the day with an ol’ one-hitter to the thief’s head. Sometime later, Jed lures a young woman to a barn where the floorboards give way and she is seriously injured. Drayton tries to convince Jed to finish her off, but Jed is still unable to kill her. Nubbins then finishes the job, dropping a large motor on her which crushes her to death. After being notified of an “accidental” death by Drayton, the police arrive and it turns out that the victim is the daughter of the local sheriff, Hal Hartman. Hartman blames the Sawyers for her death and tries to get revenge by arranging to have Jed taken away to Gorman House Youth Reformery.

Ten years later, Verna attends Gorman House with her lawyer, Farnsworth (oh hell yes, my favourite character returns!), to try to have her son released back into her custody. However, the facility’s overseer, Dr. Lang, refuses and says that Jed has been given a new name to hide him from his family. We then follow a new nurse at Gorman House named Lizzy as she meets various patients, any of whom could be the grown-up Jed: a large, severely handicapped boy named Bud who is prone to outbursts of extreme violence, a socially awkward, but nice boy named Jackson who is best friends with Bud, and an unhinged psychopath named Isaac. Isaac threatens Lizzy, which leads to a fight between Bud and Isaac and causes security to take them both away. Lizzy also comes across a violent female patient named Clarice who tries to force-feed a mouse to another patient. Jackson then warns Lizzy that Dr. Lang performs cruel experiments on the patients, because he thinks that she has a conscience and can help the patients.

After her request to get Jed back is denied, Verna stays at the facility until late. She then sneaks past security and breaks into the patients’ quarters. This causes a number of the patients to break free and begin attacking the nurses and guards. Verna escapes just as a full-on riot breaks out. Meanwhile, Bud kills his guards and then frees Isaac before heading to Dr. Lang’s office and crushing his head. Lizzy is nearly killed by a patient, but Jackson saves her and then the pair try to escape the facility. They are intercepted by Isaac and Clarice, who take the pair hostage in the trunk of Dr. Lang’s car in case they need leverage in their escape. They also come across Bud casually strolling away from Gorman House, and Isaac picks him up as thanks for helping him escape earlier. A very tense group is thus formed, with Isaac and Clarice threatening to kill Jackson, Lizzy and Bud if any of them try to escape. Isaac aims to get the group to Dallas where he has family that can help him, at which point they’ll let Jackson, Lizzy and Bud go.

The next day, the group comes upon a diner where they hope to stock up on supplies and get a new vehicle. After the group makes their way into the diner in two pairs (plus Bud), Isaac and Clarice manage to get ahold of a revolver from one of the patrons and Clarice finds a shotgun under the counter, which they use to stick up the joint. Most of the patrons and staff are shot by the couple, but one survivor opens fire on them, hitting Bud with a non-lethal hit as they flee to a getaway car. The survivor tells Sheriff Hartman about the shooting and, knowing who has escaped Gorman House, Hartman concludes that Jed is with the group and is responsible. The police then start hunting for the group, which hole up inside of an abandoned trailer in the woods after their getaway vehicle runs out of gas. They find the owner of the trailer dead in the shower and then tensely hole up for the night. While Bud is on watch, Lizzy tries to sneak away during the night, but is caught by Isaac in the attempt. When Isaac tries to rape her, Jackson stops him and the pair fight until Clarice breaks it up and forces Jackson and Lizzy back to the trailer. Isaac insults Bud’s watchman skills which causes Bud to snap, knocking Isaac out and then killing him by curb-stomping his head against a rock.

The next morning, Clarice realizes that Isaac is missing along with Bud and goes looking for him frantically. Jackson and Lizzy take the opportunity to escape and find Bud with Isaac’s corpse. Clarice is then found by an officer named Sorells, who tries to interrogate her on the whereabouts of the other escapees until Hartman shows up and begins beating her for the information. Clarice taunts Hartman about his dead daughter, which causes Hartman to shoot her. Jackson, Lizzy and Bud witness this and then escape by hiding inside of a dead cow until the police pass them. Horrified by everything happening around her, Lizzy tries to wash herself clean and notices a deputy nearby. She shouts for him to help, which causes the officer to radio for backup. Bud attacks to try to stop the deputy, but is shot in the head and killed. Jackson goes apeshit, slamming the deputy’s head in the door until he dies. Lizzy is terrified by this sudden change in Jackson and tries to flee in the police car, but Jackson gets inside and, distraught and furious, asks why she call for the officer because she got Bud killed. Before they can dwell on it, a police chase with Hartman ensues, which ends with Jackson being shot in the face, nearly tearing his lower jaw off and causing their car to crash.

Later, Lizzy awakens in the barn where Hartman’s daughter was killed. She sees Jackson tied up and Hartman taunts them, telling her that Jackson is Jedidiah Sawyer. Hartman radios Sorells to say that he has found the pair and that they’re holed up in the barn. Sorells then takes this information to Verna, expecting a monetary reward for helping her. Verna “rewards” him with a knife to the gut and then feeds him alive to their pigs. The Sawyers then rush the barn and apprehend Hartman before he can kill Jed. Lizzy is also captured by them and everyone is brought back to the Sawyer house. Verna sews up Jed’s face, holding it in place with a makeshift bridle. Lizzy and Hartman then try to escape, but are stopped. Verna then gives Jed a chainsaw and orders him to kill Hartman. This time, Jed complies, cutting Hartman’s hands off and then plunging the chainsaw into his gut to kill him. Lizzy freaks out and then flees into the woods with Jed, Drayton and Nubbins in pursuit. When Jed finally catches her, Lizzy begs for him to let her go because she knows that he’s a good person. Jed responds by cutting her head off in one quick swing.

In the aftermath of all this, Hartman and Lizzy’s bodies are turned into mincemeat and fed to the pigs to hide any evidence of the crimes. Jed also takes Lizzy’s severed head and uses it to make his first face mask, but when he sees his face in the mirror he smashes it in a rage.

REVIEW
The first thing that really strikes you about Leatherface is just how different it is than any other Chainsaw film. Whereas other Chainsaw films’ narratives follow a typical slasher template (a group of clueless people get picked off one-by-one by a masked psycho), Leatherface is more like a twisted roadtrip film crossed with a mystery regarding which character is going to become the titular villain. Even compared to the other prequel in this franchise, The BeginningLeatherface is wildly different. The Beginning filled in a few blanks in its predecessor’s backstory that no one really cared about while trying to hew as closely to the franchise’s template as possible, which just made it feel like an excuse to extend the franchise a little further. In contrast, Leatherface‘s primary goal is to explore who Leatherface is and how he became the way he is in the original Chainsaw. Doing this through a twisted roadtrip movie rather than a slasher was an inspired decision as it is just incredibly tense to watch. Isaac and Clarice run the show as they’re the ones with guns and a car, but the audience knows that they’re both incredibly dangerous and could snap with little provocation. Jackson and Lizzy are both trying to escape and don’t want any part in any of the violent acts that Isaac and Clarice are willing to commit to stay free. Add in the police hounding the group, an undercurrent of jealousy from Clarice directed at Lizzy and that Bud is a violent wildcard, and this entire roadtrip could end in a flurry of murder at any second. The tension just keeps building until Bud finally snaps and the fragile alliance shatters. This roadtrip portion of the film is by far its strongest and most compelling part, it’s too bad it didn’t last just a little bit longer.

Another way that Leatherface sets itself apart from other films in this franchise is that, instead of centering the story on a group of victims, Leatherface himself is the focus of this film’s story. Instead of just making this a by-the-numbers prequel where we follow Leatherface through all the expected, foundational moments that got him to where we know him (where he got his chainsaw, where he gets his face mask, his time at the slaughterhouse, etc), instead we get a mystery where the identity of Jedidiah Sawyer is unknown to the audience for most of the film and therefore we have to figure out which of the characters is actually him. The way that the film keeps Jed’s identity secret throughout the film is a really interesting aspect of Leatherface and is such a clever way to keep a prequel like this fresh. The first time you see it, any one of the main characters could potentially grow up to be Leatherface and they’re all given fairly equal treatment by the script so you can’t be entirely sure who it will be. Bud’s the obvious pick, as he’s heavy-set, mentally challenged and violent, fitting the usual Leatherface template. He’s also mute, meaning that we can’t get too much information out of him, keeping the mystery alive. Isaac is also a potential choice for Leatherface as he is a violent psychopath and is the only one who actually talks about having a family that he wants to get back to. Even Clarice is a dark horse possibility to become Leatherface, considering that gender ambiguity has always been a big part of the character’s identity, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could be a trans-person.

It comes as a mixed bag then that Jackson, the nice-guy hero character who has a crush on Lizzy, is actually Jed Sawyer. On the one hand, he’s totally unlike the Leatherface we already know so it’s quite surprising and they did a good job of keeping it from being obvious. However, it’s also kind of lame because he’s just so bland and such a stereotypical, white male lead. It’s like someone said “Hey, we know Leatherface is an overweight, gender ambiguous, mentally disabled man who loves to kill people. We’ve even considered making him into a woman in this prequel! But, just hear me out on this – what if we made him into a nice, handsome, mentally-sound white boy?” Going in such a “safe”, Hollywood direction for their lead saps away much of the boldness of the choice to toy with our expectations of who Leatherface is supposed to be. Making it so that he’s not actually mentally deficient is also a strange choice, considering how obvious it is in the original Chainsaw. Instead, Leatherface makes it far more complicated – he’s mute because his jaw was shot out and he’s so mentally challenged because his mother broke his mind and stripped away his identity. That doesn’t really explain why he suddenly goes from being in love with Lizzy to being willing to chop her head off with a chainsaw though. I personally don’t agree that this was the “right” direction to go with Leatherface’s origin, but I do appreciate the filmmakers’ attempt to do something different and unexpected with their slasher franchise, especially when it manages to work this well (again, see Jason Goes to Hell or Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers for examples of franchise shake-ups which did not work at all).

In addition to making some questionable creative decisions about Leatherface’s origins, Leatherface also manages to feel inconsistent with the original Chainsaw and Texas Chainsaw 3D, despite Scott Sherwood’s attempts to fix the franchise’s inconsistencies… whoops! This is most obvious with the way that existing characters are portrayed. One of the most glaring examples is Drayton. In this film, he’s portrayed as the most violent and psychotic member of the Sawyer family, but in the original Chainsaw he straight-up says that he can’t stand killing. I get that characters change over time, but you’re telling me that he loses his appetite for killing in between these two films? Even if that is the case, are you telling me that you’re going to make a character in a prequel that much different than they were before with no explanation for what changed them? Verna Carson’s role in this is also really weird and makes her inclusion in Texas Chainsaw 3D feel all the more out of sync with the original film. This film reveals that she is the head of the Sawyer family and is the one who raises her children to be killers. This makes her absence in the original Chainsaw and at the start of Texas Chainsaw 3D all the more glaring in hindsight, not to mention that Burt Hartman apparently ignores her for forty years after the Sawyer massacre. In addition, the fact that this sociopathic woman somehow manages to marry an incredibly rich local man is just breezed over without explanation. These just make Verna in this film feel out of step with how she was implied in Texas Chainsaw 3D, where she seemed like she was just a regular person who happened to love her family even though they were crazy. Oh, and lest we forget, Texas Chainsaw 3D tried to downplay the fact that the Sawyer family are a bunch of psychopathic murderers, so the fact that this film once again portrays the entire clan as gleeful sadists is jarring. Once again, I have to wonder if the plan for a Texas Chainsaw 3D follow-up was to have Heather realize that maybe her family actually were a bunch of murderers who deserved to get wiped out.

Despite making it very clear that the Sawyers are evil people, Leatherface still feels the need to make us sympathize with them because the “bad guys” in this film are also evil! For example, at Gorman House Dr. Lang performs unexplained electroshock experiments on patients for little reason other than because he’s an evil bastard. Jackson even confides in this to Lizzy because she’s apparently the only nurse in the facility who doesn’t love torturing the criminally insane. Then there’s Sheriff Hal Hartman (the father of Burt Hartman, the cartoonish villain from Texas Chainsaw 3D), who hates the Sawyers because they killed his daughter and got away with it. Obviously, that’s a pretty understandable reason to want this family locked away, but he’s treated like he’s just as bad as the Sawyers are. He takes away Jed from his family and arranges for him to not be returned to them, assaults and tortures Clarice for information before straight-up gunning her down in cold blood, tries to kill Jed to get revenge on the Sawyers and implies that he wants to kill Lizzy too to get rid of the witness. Jackson also tells Lizzy that “he’s a corrupt son of a bitch” who “filled Gormon House almost single-handedly”. Hartman’s certainly a really bad person, but is he as bad as the Sawyers? Certainly not, but this film wants you to think otherwise. And, once again, having the Sawyers kill Hal Hartman and his daughter just further justifies Burt Hartman’s lynch mob killing of the Sawyers in Texas Chainsaw 3D and makes it more inexplicable that Sheriff Hooper would think that the just action would be to let Leatherface kill Burt at the end.

I also want to comment on the violence in Leatherface, since the producers had mentioned that Texas Chainsaw 3D wasn’t graphic enough. Leatherface falls somewhere in-between the Chainsaw remake and The Beginning in terms of its violence – it can be pretty nasty and gory, but most of it happens off-screen and it doesn’t come across in a sadistic tone that punishes the audience for watching. That said, the film is not scary at all, instead relying on the violence and disturbing imagery to try to unsettle its audience. This didn’t work for me, but there are some gross moments that bear mentioning, in particular a scene where Bud, Jackson and Lizzy are forced to hide inside of a dead cow’s corpse to escape police dogs. There’s also a three-way sex scene where Isaac and Clarice bring a decaying corpse along for the, er, ride. It doesn’t add anything to the plot, it’s just there to shock you, which seems to be all that this film can muster instead of scares. That’s unfortunate because, as I mentioned earlier, the tension really ratchets up during the road trip section of the film simply because the characters are all so unhinged and ready to kill each other, you’d think that they could squeeze a few scares out of that set-up.

The acting in Leatherface is some of the best in the Chainsaw franchise, in my opinion. While Sam Strike’s Jackson and Vanessa Grasse’s Lizzy make for a pair of bland leads, nearly everyone else is really entertaining and fun to watch. James Bloor’s Isaac in particular was a highlight, he could easily just be a one-dimensional psychopath, but Bloor’s performance gives the character unexpected gravitas. It feels like the way that he lashes out at the world comes from the way that it has treated him all of his life and that deep down he might not be an inherently awful person. Stephen Dorff also puts in a great, scenery-chewing performance as Hal Hartman, being far more entertaining than Paul Rae’s Burt Hartman was. He’s unhinged and always entertaining to watch as he hunts down the Sawyers relentlessly. Scott Sherwood compared him to Lefty Enright and while I wouldn’t say he’s anywhere near that level of crazy, he makes for a solid antagonist. Lili Taylor is also quite strong as Verna Carson, feeling like the real force of evil behind the Sawyer clan’s crimes. Again, this doesn’t really fit with the picture of the character we were given in Texas Chainsaw 3D, but Taylor takes the material she’s given and runs with it, embodying a character who ends up coming across as the real villain of the piece.

The theme of family which had been running through Texas Chainsaw 3D is also picked up here once again. It’s obvious from the opening scene, where Verna tries to get Jed to commit his first murder. Verna tells Jed that a thief was trying to steal their pigs and that “bad people like him are trying to break our family apart”, emphasizing that family is the motive behind this family’s crimes. This also shows up at the end when Jed kills Lizzy. She tries to appeal to his good side, but when she says that the only reason that he’s trying to kill her is because of his “crazy mother”, Jed immediately snaps and chainsaws Lizzy’s head off in a violent rage. Verna also says that “your family always has your back”, which is demonstrated on a number of occasions in this film as grandpa kills the thief for Jed, or when the Sawyers rescue Jed from being murdered by Hartman. Family also plays an interesting role in the philosophy of Dr. Lang at Gorman House. Dr. Lang states that the youths in Gorman House are given new names to hide them from their degenerate, criminal families. This is a period-appropriate reference to American eugenics, which posited that criminal elements in society were passed on by degenerate parents and that such people should be prevented from passing on their genes. Thank God that this movie seems to refute these notions, as Jed becomes Leatherface not because it was in his genes, but because of the psychological conditioning that his family subjected him to. However, this once again clashes with Texas Chainsaw 3D‘s idea of “biological lineage decides who you will become”, but considering that that was already really questionable at the time, I’m happy to see it pushed back against here.

All-in-all, Leatherface is a pretty good film and a solid prequel. I certainly don’t agree with all of the creative decisions that were made, but I’d much rather get a film like this that’s willing to take risks than a safe, predictable sequel. Add on that it’s well-directed and the acting’s mostly good, and you have what is arguably the most consistently-strong Chainsaw film since the original.

6/10

AFTERTHOUGHTS
So, with that all said, where does the Chainsaw franchise go from here? As I said in the production section, Millenium and Lionsgate have lost the rights to the franchise, thereby scuppering any sort of follow-up to Texas Chainsaw 3D that they had been planning. It’s also kind of too bad that Texas Chainsaw 4D is off the books now, with its lighter tone and feuding family narrative, we could have gotten a gleefully bonkers sequel where the Sawyers and Hartmans all get into a climactic chainsaw battle. The rights have now been bought by Legendary Pictures, who are planning on making multiple films and TV shows. I’m not entirely sure how they’re going to justify a Texas Chainsaw TV series, but where can Legendary even go with the franchise without just repeating what has already been done? With the success of 2018’s Halloween, odds are that we’re going to get a throwback continuation in a similar vein, but with Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen and Tobe Hooper all having died, I’m not sure how that will turn out.

In my opinion, rights issues have been one of the biggest hurdles plaguing the Chainsaw franchise. It kills any sort of momentum when every new film is part of a new studio’s own continuity. I’d argue that it’s the reason why Leatherface never achieved the same iconic success as Jason, Freddy or Michael Myers. So, to solve that, I feel like the best thing that can be done for the franchise is for a studio to just buy the rights from Kim Henkel outright and then go about making their own franchise with annual or biennial releases. I really liked the idea of Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, where they combined the elements of the Chainsaw films with The Hills Have Eyes, a sequel which goes in that direction again would be really cool.

This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
1) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – 8.5/10
2) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) – 4.5/10 (Yeah, this movie is technically more uneven and worse than Leatherface, but it’s really entertaining so it gets a bump from that.)
3) Leatherface (2017) – 6/10
4) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) – 5.5/10
5) Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) – 4/10
6) Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) – 3/10 (This one gets the slight bump just because I had more fun with it.)
7) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) – 3/10
8) Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) – 2/10

Thanks for tuning in once again and I hope you enjoyed this retrospective!

Retrospective: Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the seventh entry in the franchise, 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D! Despite the success of the Platinum Dunes remake and its less-successful prequel, new rightsholders Lionsgate aimed to create a follow-up on the original film, ignoring all of the other films in the franchise in the process. Would this back-to-basics approach finally allow the franchise to find its footing? Read on to find out…

Not particularly enthused by this poster, but the tagline “Evil wears many faces” is great, love it.

PRODUCTION
After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning‘s profitable, but disappointing box office numbers, Platinum Dunes and New Line had no interest in producing another film in their remake franchise. As a result, the rights reverted to Bob Kuhn and Kim Henkel, who entertained offers to produce new films in the franchise. In late 2009, Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate purchased the rights to the franchise, and signed a deal to produce several new films (the number of films planned ranged from five to seven). More details emerged in early 2011 when Lionsgate partnered with Nu Image films to help produce the film, which was going to be shot in 3D. 3D was, of course, the big trend at the time. Following the box office success of Avatar, films such as Clash of the Titans began converting to 3D in post-production and experienced a box office bump as a result (although such shoddy 3D conversions would ultimately lead to major audience fatigue with 3D due to the poor quality). After seeing that 3D meant big business, many films began being shot and released in the format, such as the horror comedy Piranha 3D.

John Luessenhop was hired to direct, having just come off of the relative success of the Matt Dillon-starring armoured truck heist film Takers (not to be confused with the other Matt Dillion-starring armoured truck heist film that had come out the year before, Nimród Antal’s Armored). It was announced that the new film would be a direct sequel to the original film and would ignore the events of the sequels and remake. Debra Sullivan and freaking Adam Marcus (most famous for being the writer and director of the flat-out worst Friday the 13th film, Jason Goes to Hell) were brought on board to write the script for the film. According to Adam Marcus, the original intent was to explore Leatherface’s relationship to his family and to fill out some mythology for him, much like what he did with Jason Voorhees (and failed spectacularly at, which I can’t stress enough). He also intended to set the film in the ’90s (in a cheeky bit of meta-text, it was intended to be set around the release date of Jason Goes to Hell). The film was also designed as more of a monster movie, rather than a slasher film, which would give Texas Chainsaw 3D a different sort of feel within its franchise. However, after Kirsten Elms and Lussenhop took the script for rewrites, someone high up in the production decided to change the film’s setting to the modern day at the last minute, even though the film had already been cast with characters aged for a ’90s setting. As a result, the actors are all inexplicably 20 years too young, a major plot whole which basically every review of the film will point out. Presumably, the person in charge of that decision just assumed that audiences wouldn’t notice or care, but it’s really obvious and dumb when you watch the film.

Speaking of the cast, Texas Chainsaw 3D brought back a number of classic Chainsaw cast members for cameo roles. Most notably, Marilyn Burns and Gunnar Hansen both returned to play Verna Sawyer-Carson and Boss Sawyer, respectively. This was Hansen’s last film appearance before his death in 2015, and one of Burns’ last roles before her death in 2014. Bill Moseley also returned to play Drayton Sawyer in the film’s opening scene, playing tribute to the late Jim Siedow who had died in 2003. John Dugan was the only returning actor to reprise his role from the original film, having played Grandpa Sawyer way back in 1974. As for the new cast, the gorgeous Alexandria Daddario was cast in the lead role of Heather Miller, while the role of Leatherface went to Dan Yeager in his first major role. Notably, Scott Eastwood was also cast as a local policeman named Carl. As for the other leads, rapper Trey Songz was cast as Ryan, Tania Raymond as Nikki, Keram Malicki-Sánchez as Kenny and Shaun Sipos as the hitchhiker Darryl. Other notable cast included Paul Rae as the villainous Mayor Burt Hartman and Thom Barry as the not-so-subtly named Sheriff Hooper.

Filming began on July 18, 2011 in Shreveport, Louisiana during a traditional Chainsaw heatwave and would continue for six weeks. A big deal was made about the crew recreating the Sawyer house, using the original film to try to match all of the details as closely as possible. It was supposedly so accurate that Gunnar Hansen’s only note was to move a chicken cage over a few feet when he arrived on set. Luessenhop shot the film using state-of-the-art Red Epic cameras. The film was also shot on a very low budget (around $11 million), which made production particularly difficult at times and forced the cast and crew to work on a 24-hour schedule towards the end to get everything completed in time. The film was originally scheduled to release in October but was pushed back to January 4, 2013 by the studio for, according to Luessenhop, “stictly business decisions”. This delay may have been, in part, because when the film was submitted to the MPAA, it received an NC-17 rating for extreme violence and had to be re-cut.
PLOT SYNOPSIS
Texas Chainsaw 3D opens with a quick rundown of scenes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, before cutting into the police arriving at the Sawyer house. A group of Sawyers arrive just before them and hurry to defend the house, but Sheriff Hooper demands only Leatherface to be released to them. The Sawyers agree to Hooper’s terms, but then a lynch mob led by Burt Hartman arrives and begin to shoot at the Sawyers and set the house on fire. The family is massacred and the only survivor found is Loretta Sawyer and her newborn baby, Edith Rose Sawyer. However, one of the lynch mob members named Gavin Miller kills Loretta and then takes Edith as his own daughter, renaming her Heather Miller.

Jumping ahead to the present day, a somehow-not-40-years-old Heather Miller receives a letter in the mail saying that she has an inheritance from a long-lost grandmother. This causes her to realize that she was adopted and that her birth name is Sawyer, facts which her parents had been keeping from her. Her roommate, Ryan, along with their friends Nikki and Kenny all decide to accompany Heather to Texas to pick up the inheritance. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker named Darryl.

When they get to Texas, they meet a lawyer named Farnsworth who reveals that Heather’s grandmother, Verna Sawyer-Carson has left an entire mansion to her. He also leaves a letter from Verna, telling Heather that she needs to read it. The group then heads into the mansion to explore and take in all the opulence. Darryl volunteers to cook dinner for the group while the rest go into town to get supplies, but as soon as they leave Darryl starts to rob the house of all the valuables he can find. In his rummaging, he finds a hidden passage into the basement and comes across a large, locked door. Assuming he came across the jackpot, he tries to break inside, but all he finds is Leatherface, who beats his skull in. Meanwhile, the group get some supplies in town and Heather meets a local cop she takes a fancy to named Carl. She also meets the town’s mayor, Burt Hartman, who she tells that she has inherited the Carson Mansion because she is a Sawyer. Hartman is clearly troubled by this revelation and tries to get Heather to leave town unsuccessfully.

When the group returns to the mansion, they realize that Darryl had robbed the house and think that he has already escaped. Rather than letting that get them down, the group tries to make the most of the situation and begin partying. Everyone begins going their separate ways, with Heather checking out the graves of her family, Kenny begins cooking and Nikki manages to seduce Ryan in the barn. While everyone is busy, Kenny finds the secret passage and begins exploring, but is captured by Leatherface. When Heather returns to the house, she finds the exhumed corpse of Verna in an upstairs bedroom and begins freaking out. When she runs back downstairs she finds Leatherface in the kitchen cutting fingers off of Darryl’s dismembered hand. This causes Heather to freak out even more and Leatherface captures her and takes her to the basement. He then puts Kenny on a meathook and chainsaws him in half. After witnessing her friend’s death, Heather flees the basement and Leatherface pursues her out of the house. Heather tries to hide in Verna’s empty casket, but Leatherface finds her. He is about to kill her when Ryan and Nikki distract him. Heather gets into the group’s van and rescues them from the barn, but Leatherface chases them, damaging the van and causing it to crash. The crash kills Ryan when a giant piece of glass gets embedded in his neck and then Leatherface attacks and badly injures Nikki. Before he can kill her, Heather taunts Leatherface and makes him chase her to a nearby carnival. Leatherface chases Heather through the carnival until Carl confronts him, but Leatherface throws his chainsaw at the officer and flees back towards the mansion.

Heather is taken to the police station for a statement with Sheriff Hooper, but Mayor Hartman comes bursting in, realizing that Leatherface is still alive after all these years. Heather gets left alone in a room full of evidence from the chainsaw killings, which causes her to realize that the lynch mob led by Hartman (and including her adopted parents) massacred her whole family, including her mother. Meanwhile, Hartman and Hooper watch a cell phone video feed from police officer Marvin (who was also present at the lynching), who has entered the Carson Mansion alone. He follows a trail of blood into the basement, where he finds the mutilated bodies of Kenny, Ryan and Darryl and hears a rumbling from a nearby meat freezer. He opens it up and Nikki pops out, which startles Marvin and causes him to accidentally shoot her in the head. Hartman orders Marvin to exit the house and then tells Hooper to help him arrest Heather, since she’s a Sawyer and must be in on this. The pair find that Heather has left the station, writing “MURDERERS” on a photo of the lynch mob. Leatherface then attacks and kills Marvin with a hatchet before skinning his face for a new mask.

Meanwhile, Heather contacts Farnsworth and the pair meet at a bar. Farnsworth explains that Leatherface is her cousin and that she was supposed to let him know that she’s his family as Verna before she died had told him to expect Heather. Hartman then bursts into the bar and assaults Farnsworth while Heather escapes, where she is found by Carl. She tries to get Carl to take her back to the mansion, but Carl reveals that he is Hartman’s son and that he is going to take her to the old slaughterhouse to be eliminated. Leatherface hears this on Marvin’s police radio and heads out to get revenge on them.

At the slaughterhouse, Heather is tied up until Hartman can arrive, but when Carl leaves to see his father, Leatherface shows up and prepares to kill Heather. However, Heather’s shirt had been torn open while struggling away from Carl and Leatherface sees a burn on her breast in the shape of the Sawyer family “S” medallion. Realizing that she is his cousin, Leatherface cuts her free as Hartman and another member of the lynch mob, Ollie, arrive and disarm him. Heather flees, but stops when she realizes that Leatherface is the only family she has left and decides to rescue him. Hartman has chained up Leatherface and is preparing to drop him into a meat grinder, but Heather stabs Ollie and then throws Leatherface his chainsaw. Leatherface frees himself and then gets into a brief crowbar-vs-chainsaw battle with Hartman, which predictably ends when he chainsaws Hartman’s legs off and then backs up him up towards the meat grinder. Hooper arrives on the scene and Hartman begs him to shoot Leatherface, but Hooper has a crisis of conscience and decides that Hartman was wrong to kill the Sawyers in the first place. Hartman is then forced into the meat grinder and killed. Heather and Leatherface return to the mansion, Heather finally having found her family. And in a post-credits stinger, Heather’s adopted parents arrive at the mansion and then are presumably killed by Leatherface.

REVIEW
In many ways, Texas Chainsaw 3D is the biggest and boldest reinvention this franchise has seen since Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Every other film in the franchise has followed a pretty similar mould: a group of people heads down to Texas, something unfortunate happens which strands them, they get chased by a family of chainsaw killers, there’s a dinner scene, then the final girl gets away. Texas Chainsaw 3D shakes things up immediately by featuring footage from the original film in the opening credits and then seamlessly cutting to new footage which picks up where that film left off. You can, of course, notice the difference since the new footage is shot on much higher quality film stock (which is particularly embarrassing when they replace footage of Jim Siedow with Bill Moseley), but I really must say that the crew did a great job of recreating the Sawyer house. All of the little details have been captured very well, even just seeing the police car passing by the abandoned transport truck made me giddy. They even did a pretty good job of recreating Leatherface’s pretty lady mask, which is extra impressive when you consider just how difficult this series has found it to come up with decent looking masks. This whole sequence lasts about ten minutes and is by far the most distinctive aspect of the film. From there, the film turns into more of a gothic tale as Heather tries to understand her long-lost family before Leatherface emerges and begins hunting everyone.

That said, while I can appreciate that Texas Chainsaw 3D was trying to do something different, holy shit is this movie ever stupid. I’ll get the obvious issue out of the way first – not setting this film in the ’90s was perhaps the dumbest decision made in the production of this film. All of the characters are far too young for a modern day setting, and while Heather is the most egregious, the film also suffers because Sheriff Hooper, Burt Hartman and the other members of the lynch mob are all played by the same actors in both timelines. As a result, they really don’t look like they’re the right age in either timeline and it really strains the suspension of disbelief to think that some of them have held down the same jobs in the same town for 40 years now. It’s just insulting that the filmmakers didn’t think anyone would notice or care about this issue, but it instantly breaks any internal logic for the film.

Still, even if the timeline didn’t make any sense, there are a whole load of other fundamentally stupid problems with this film. For a film which is so superficially reverential to the original Chainsaw, it sure does ignore obvious elements of that film in order to make their movie work. By far the dumbest aspect of the story is that the film wants us to sympathize with the Sawyer family… by completely ignoring that they’re a bunch of psychopaths. I’m not kidding, the film tries to pretend like it was only Leatherface who was involved in the unprovoked killing of Sally’s friends, not to mention all the people Nubbins has helped kill and that Drayton has turned into freaking BBQ. It’s not even like Heather wouldn’t have known this, she finds the box of evidence about the Sawyer family’s crimes and their mass killing by the lynch mob. You’d think that maybe she’d think “well that sucks, but I guess they kind of had it coming…” As the film goes on further they act like the lynching was the real crime that happened here, not the Sawyers’ grave robbing, cannibalism, torture and murder which led to the mob attacking them in the first place. Sheriff Hooper even refuses to stop Leatherface from murdering Mayor Hartman because he feels like the Sawyers were treated so unjustly, holy shit! Like… I have no words for how stupid this is. Were they planning on making it a twist in one of the six sequels this film was supposed to get that Heather finds out that her family were all psychos, not just the psycho she lives with now? Somehow I seriously doubt it, because again the filmmakers just assume that we won’t notice or care. That’s not even the only stupid aspect, we’ve also got the whole notion of Verna Sawyer-Carson, which goes against what was established in the original Chainsaw. Wasn’t the whole point of the first Chainsaw that the Sawyers are on hard times because their livelihood has dried up, hence why they’re killing in the first place? You’re telling me that they had a really tight-knit family clan with a super rich relative living nearby who could have helped them out? Even more stupidly, she’s apparently Leatherface’s mother, so if they were on times so hard that they begin murdering people, you’d think she’d help them out. Bloody hell Adam Marcus, you suck at expanding a series’ mythology in a manner which is consistent with that series’ basic, established canon.

Then there’s all sorts of little dumb moments peppered throughout the script, often for plot convenience. Like, in addition to ignoring the whole “Sawyer family are all psychos” bit, Heather just forgives and forgets that Leatherface killed her friends when she finds out that he’s part of her family. Apparently it’s totally okay to be a murderer as long as you’re out to murder people other than me, right? They even contrive elaborate scenarios for Darryl, Ryan and Nikki’s deaths to shunt some of the blame away from Leatherface (although Kenny still gets chainsawed in half, so…). Then there’s the fact that Burt Hartman is apparently as much of a psycho as the Sawyers, hating anyone named “Sawyer” so much that he’ll fly into a murderous rage and assault a freaking lawyer in a public place. Again, this man is the freaking mayor of a small town, what the hell is he so fussed about? Why did they even leave the evidence lying around where Heather could find it and piece together her family’s history with the Hartmans? Hell, why did the locals even lynch the Sawyers, it’s not like Sally was one of their family members anyway? There isn’t really any motivation for them to hate the family so obsessively, you’d think that there’d be something to trigger this feud in the first place. On the smaller end of things, there’s also apparently a carnival right next door to the Carson estate, which seems pretty unlikely to me. I mean, who builds their expensive mansion right next to a loud fairgrounds? Oh right, it’s so we can have a carnival set piece, silly me for asking. It’s also really silly to me how Heather’s grandmother inexplicably keeps track of her, despite being secretly kidnapped all those years ago. When Heather asks Farnsworth how he found her, he says “Honey, you were never lost” to handwave in the laziest fashion this really obvious question. Oh, thanks Farnsworth, that totally clears things up… Or how about Marvin livestreaming himself sweeping through the Carson place when he knows that there’s a chainsaw killer on the loose? I mean, holy shit, I know the film wants Hartman and Hooper to know what’s happening at the mansion, but what kind of a cop would do that when his life is on the line!? Could they not have just had some sort of excuse to use a bodycam instead? Oh and then there’s the big finale at the slaughterhouse, which features a gigantic meat grinder in the middle of the floor that anyone could easily fall into – sounds like a safe, practical design and not just something for the climax of a horror movie!

Speaking of the meat grinder, it makes for a kill which is simultaneously the best and worst in the entire franchise. The best because, c’mon, it’s a freaking meat grinder and we get to see Burt Hartman get chewed up in extremely graphic detail in it. The worst because it relies on extremely shoddy CGI. I mean, check it out:

That’s an awesome kill, but the execution (pardon the pun) is just so lame. Thankfully the film doesn’t rely on CGI too much though, because what little CGI there is here is just so bad, like Red: Werewolf Hunter levels of bad. Check out Leatherface throwing a weightless chainsaw at Scott Eastwood (IN 3D!!!):

The violence in this film is also pretty interesting to me after having just come off of The Beginning. The violence is actually more graphic than in The Beginning: we’ve got Kenny getting sawed in half and having his lower torso and entrails spill out, Ryan gets basically decapitated by a giant shard of glass, we’ve got Marvin getting his face peeled off on camera (a first for the series, this is usually so nasty that they have always cut away from it), and then there’s Hartman getting literally torn up bit by bit in a meat grinder. All of this is shown in explicit detail, but it doesn’t have the same sort of impact as the violence in The Beginning, because the tone is different. The violence here is meant to be more spectacular and fun, whereas in The Beginning it’s just grim and nasty. Preferences may vary on which approach is “better”, but for my part I know that I enjoyed myself more here.

Another element of this film which bothered me was just how ridiculously, distractingly sleazy it is. There isn’t even any actual nudity, but this film is just gratuitously throwing sex at the audience throughout the entire runtime. There are two scenes with very voyeuristic shots of Heather and Nikki getting dressed which serve no actual purpose to the plot and which are obviously just there for the audience to ogle. In addition, basically every outfit worn by Heather shows off her midriff and leaves her boobs bouncing as if this were a Dead or Alive spin-off. The second Nikki shows up on screen we get some major cleavage from her (despite the fact that she’s in uniform at work at a freaking grocery store), plus a whole subplot that revolves around her getting into her underwear to seduce Ryan. To be fair, the men also get a fair bit of objectification as well, as Ryan and Darryl are both eye-banged by the camera while topless and soaking wet, which is sure to soak more than a few panties in the audience. The sheer amount of fanservice is just ridiculous though, it’s constant and to the point of being distracting. It’s also worth noting that this is the only film in this series where the slasher movie convention of “sex = death”, as Ryan and Nikki are killed shortly after having sex, so bombarding the audience with it almost seems counter-intuitive. The most gratuitous scene in the whole film though comes near the end when Heather is tied up by Carl and, while struggling to escape, Heather’s shirt is accidentally ripped open, revealing as much dual side boob as possible without showing any nipple. Worst of all? The film tries to play it off like it’s totally justified, because when Leatherface shows up he sees Heather’s “S” for Sawyer scar on her boob, which causes him to realize that she’s his cousin. So it wasn’t just to show off Alexandra Daddario’s tits to the thirsty audience after all? Good God, I am now ashamed of my words and deeds.

Texas Chainsaw 3D introduces a number of new characters to the franchise, but I can’t say that any of them are particularly good. Alexandra Daddario’s Heather Miller makes for a decent enough heroine, she gets a bit more material to work with than most final girls and she certainly has the looks to stand out, but I can’t say that I was particularly invested in the character, especially considering how dumb the plot we’re supposed to be caring about is. Nikki is a very one-dimensional character who is obsessed with trying to get Ryan to cheat on Heather with her. On the one hand, it’s sort of refreshing that the role of sexual aggressor is being played by a woman, but there really isn’t anything to the character other than that. Of course, since Ryan’s a horny man, he ends up being seduced the moment he sees Nikki in her underwear, despite rebuffing her earlier in the film. Ryan is played charmingly enough by Trey Songz, but there really isn’t all that much to the character. Kenny probably gets the rawest deal of the bunch though, as he gets only a handful of lines and doesn’t get any sort of development. He’s also somewhat effeminate, which makes me wonder if the filmmakers were intending for him to be a gay stereotype, although the film leaves this to speculation (also, I’m surprised at the filmmakers’ restraint for not having someone say “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!”). The hitchhiker, Darryl, also deserves some mention for legitimately surprising me in this film. He didn’t really do much after his introduction, but when it is revealed that he plans on robbing the Carson mansion, I was actually surprised at what should have been a pretty obvious twist. So kudos to Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan for that, the character is pretty flat, but he makes for a pretty smart twist and first kill.

As for the other new characters, Mayor Hartman is just a generic evil, small-town politician character. He’s not even hamming it up which is unfortunate, some moustache-twirling could have made for a really memorable antagonist, but as it is he’s just functional. His son, Carl, also doesn’t leave much of an impression. Scott Eastwood certainly plays the role as charmingly as possible, but the character basically just functions as a third act plot twist to move the action to the slaughterhouse and then disappears from the film. I wonder if the filmmakers had intended to save him for a sequel, because his absence during the film’s climax is really noticeable. Sheriff Hooper also makes for a very bland character, he’s constantly stuck in inaction which could have made for some compelling conflict for the character, but just makes him seem passive in the plot. The only character I actually quite liked was Farnsworth, the awesome southern lawyer. He doesn’t really get to do anything other than deliver exposition to move the plot forward, but he’s well-performed and very characterful, making me wish that he got to show up more often.

Before I get to Leatherface, I want to mention the cameos in this film. Bill Moseley plays Drayton Sawyer quite well, although the character himself feels quite different to how he was in the original Chainsaw. The other new members of the Sawyer clan are all quite boring though, looking like a bunch of Duck Dynasty cast-offs (even Gunnar Hansen’s Boss Sawyer). Their sudden presence in the Sawyer house is also quite jarring, making me wonder why the hell they all just showed up. I feel like the relative normalcy of these characters was done in part to make the audience forget that the Sawyers were all psychos in the original film, despite the fact that these normal-looking rednecks are still hanging out in a house adorned in human skeletons and dismembered bodies.

As for Leatherface, he’s fairly bland in this film. The character has evolved from a mad dog to a man without direction, seeking revenge against the people who killed his family. According to Dan Yeager:

“I would describe the original Leatherface as a lethal instrument of the will of others. He was not autonomous in any way. He took orders and he fulfilled them, and those orders were basically to kill and butcher. As time progresses to where we pick up our story, all of that has changed. His abusers were no longer there, and there was no longer anyone to tell him what to do. He had to grow from an instrument of violence to seeking vengeance in the people who slaughtered his family. That was the last thing anyone told him to do, so he’s spent decades contemplating and carrying out that mission.”

As I’ve already mentioned a number of times, the biggest change to Leatherface in this film is that we’re supposed to see him as an anti-hero, despite the fact that he still just butchers people without hesitation. But it’s okay, he didn’t realize that he wasn’t supposed to kill those particular people, so all is forgiven! I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the end result makes Leatherface into a kind of superhero-like figure, which is just baffling to me (a notion which is just reinforced by a post-credits scene). As for the mask, his new mask makes him look like Freddy Krueger. It’s probably a middle-of-the-road mask for this franchise, I don’t particularly care about it one way or another. It is kind of interesting though that in this film Leatherface actually sews his masks onto his own head through his cheeks, which was just painful to watch.

Unlike many of the sequels in this franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D actually has a running theme which it brings back from the original, the theme of family. The downside is that, like pretty much everything else in this film, it’s handled about the stupidest way possible. The original Chainsaw twisted the traditional conventions of family, changing it into something that was frightening and disturbing. Texas Chainsaw 3D, on the other hand, plays it straight as if this was a saccharine kids movie. This is one of those movies that tells you that family is the most important thing there is. In this film, it’s just assumed that your family will inherently love you. When Heather asks why Verna Carson kept Leatherface in her home, Farnsworth replies that “Nobody loves you like your family”, a message that Heather takes to heart when she decides to live with him at the mansion. The film even tries to justify it by having Heather’s adopted parents be literal murderers who don’t even care about her, which begs the question of why they adopted her in the first place. This, of course, is all over-simplified bullshit that hack writers love to use to make a “feel-good” story, but it’s especially egregious here because, and I haven’t stressed this enough, it’s about a family of serial killers. There’s also this notion that you are defined by your blood (a rather troubling message considering how racist sentiment is on the rise), as we see Heather working as a butcher and making her own bone-art even before she finds out she’s a Sawyer, implying that who you are is based on your bloodline. Burt Hartman seems to take this to heart as he instantly hates Heather as soon as he finds out she’s a Sawyer, but it’s not like the film contradicts him at all.

For all of my ragging on Texas Chainsaw 3D, I do have to say that I had a fair bit of fun with it. The first act sets up the scenario pretty well and the second act is actually quite enjoyable as the group tries to escape Leatherface (there are even a couple fantastic visual gags, such as the van trying to ram through the gates and failing, and then later how the camera focuses on Leatherface’s reaction when the van flips over). It’s really the third act where this film just crumbles into a heap of stupidity too large to ignore, with too many dumb plot points and extremely lazy contrivances driving everything forward.

3/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we take a look at the most recent film in this franchise, Leatherface!

Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – The Beginning (2006)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the sixth entry in the franchise, the 2006 prequel-to-the-remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. After the considerable financial success of the remake, a follow-up seemed inevitable. However, was a prequel the right way to go to fill in some of the blanks left by its predecessor? Read on to find out…

Pretty meh horror poster if I do say so myself.

PRODUCTION
After the considerable success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Platinum Dunes started looking towards other horror franchises to remake for low cost and high turn-around. Their next project was The Amityville Horror, but when that failed to scare up higher numbers despite having more than double the budget, they turned their eyes back to the Chainsaw franchise. However, Dimension Films were looking to steal the franchise from underneath New Line after putting in an offer with the rightsholders. To prevent this, New Line ended up having to pay an additional $3.1 million just to retain the rights, increasing the film’s budget considerably. Jonathan Liebesman (who would later go on to direct such stinkers as Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) was hired to direct, having just come off of success with Darkness Falls and Rings (a short prelude to The Ring Two). Liebesman had been considered to direct the previous film, but had made Darkness Falls instead.

Interestingly enough, the landscape of horror had shifted in the three years between Chainsaw films. The torture porn genre had begun kicking off with such films as SawHostel and Wolf Creek taking over the market and emphasizing brutal violence and gore. In the making-of featurette for the film, the producers name-drop Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes, claiming that Chainsaw was the granddaddy of extreme horror and therefore they had to push the envelope as far as possible to beat the other films of the time. Scott Kosar was supposed to return to write the script, but was unavailable at the time. David J. Schow, who had written the screenplay for Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, returned to co-write the story along with screenwriter Sheldon Turner.

Possibly the best part about making the next film in the franchise into a prequel was that R. Lee Ermey could return as Sheriff Hoyt, despite having been killed off in the last movie. Andrew Bryniarski was also able to return as Leatherface. The new cast included more pretty, young up-and-comers, most notably Jordana Brewster (Mia from The Fast & The Furious) as Chrissie and Diora Baird (known for Wedding Crashers and risque modelling for Guess? and Playboy) as Bailey. The leading roles were rounded out by Matt Bomer (Ken from the Magic Mike series) as Eric and Taylor Handley as Dean.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens with a woman at the old slaughterhouse being forced to work by her supervisor even when her water breaks. The birth presumably kills her and the deformed baby is thrown into the dumpster out behind the slaughterhouse as if this were an Amazon warehouse. However, the baby is found by Luda Mae Hewitt and brought home to be adopted as a son named Thomas. The boy grows up being made fun of for his skin disease and he ends up making a mask from a dead coyote to hide his face, eventually going on to work at the slaughterhouse under the very supervisor who had unknowingly thrown him away years ago. However, the slaughterhouse is eventually shut down for health violations, which devastates the town. When the supervisor tries to tell Thomas to stop working, he turns on him and kills him, stealing a chainsaw in the process. The local sheriff discovers this and goes to Charlie Hewitt to try to apprehend Thomas, but when they find him, Charlie kills the sheriff and assumes his identity, becoming Sheriff Hoyt. He takes the sheriff’s body home and cooks him, declaring that they’re not going to leave this town and let it be overrun by pillagers.

Meanwhile, brothers Eric and Dean, along with their girlfriends Chrissie and Bailey, respectively, are heading through Texas after being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Eric has already been on one tour of duty and is gung-ho to fight alongside his brother, but Dean is planning on draft dodging into Mexico during the trip. When they stop at a local shop, Chrissie and Bailey are accosted by a group of bikers and decide to continue on their way. However, one of the bikers chases their car and tries to rob the group. This distracts Eric and causes him to get into an accident with a stray cow, flipping the vehicle and ejecting Chrissie from it in the process. The female biker sticks up the injured youths still in the vehicle, but then Hoyt arrives and blows her away with his shotgun. Hoyt finds burnt draft papers and realizes that one of the men was planning on draft dodging, but Eric lies and says that it was him in order to protect his brother. Hoyt forces Eric, Dean and Bailey into his police car and then takes them back to his house. Chrissie comes to and watches as he takes them away. Moments later, a tow truck arrives to take away their vehicle and Chrissie hides inside the wreck, which also gets taken to the Hewitt residence. She then sneaks away to try to find help.

Once they have arrived, Bailey is tied up under the table inside the house and Dean and Eric are tied up in the shed, where Hoyt tortures them until Dean admits that he was the one who was planning on skipping the draft. Hoyt tells Dean that he’ll let him go free if he can do ten push-ups, which Dean succeeds at despite being beaten mercilessly by Hoyt. Eric then manages to break free and rescues Bailey, then tries to sacrifice himself as a distraction while Dean and Bailey flee. However, Thomas captures Bailey with a meathook and drags her back and Dean steps in a bear trap before Hoyt knocks Eric out. Meanwhile, Chrissie comes across the boyfriend of the biker who was killed, who takes her back to the house in order to rescue his girlfriend.

That night, Thomas takes Eric to the basement and begins skinning him alive, while Bailey is taken upstairs and raped by Hoyt. The biker heads off on his own while Chrissie sneaks into the house and finds Eric horribly mutilated. The biker shoots Uncle Monty in the leg and then forces Hoyt to take him to his girlfriend. Hoyt mistakenly thinks that his girlfriend is Bailey, but before the biker can kill Hoyt, Thomas appears and then chainsaws the biker in half. He then heads back downstairs and kills Eric with the chainsaw, before cutting Eric’s face off and making his first mask out of it. Chrissie witnesses all of this in horror and tries to flee before she has a crisis of conscience and returns for Bailey. However, she is discovered and captured.

When Chrissie comes to, she is restrained at the dinner table along with Dean and Bailey. Hoyt says grace and then Leatherface kills Bailey for being disrespectful. While trying to take away Chrissie, she breaks free and flees the house. Leatherface pursues her into the old slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, Dean wakes up and, enraged upon seeing Bailey’s corpse, attacks Hoyt and beats him senseless before chasing after Chrissie. He manages to rescue Chrissie from Leatherface, but is killed in the process while Chrissie flees to a nearby vehicle. She drives away from the scene until she spots a Texas state policeman. However, Leatherface then reveals that he has been hiding in the back seat this whole time and runs his chainsaw through her back, causing the car to veer into the policeman. Leatherface then walks away from the scene.

REVIEW
The Beginning is a rather interesting case when I reflect on it. You can really see the influence of David J. Schow on the story and his background in splatter films. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was already a nasty film at times, even with the MPAA restrictions. However, The Beginning takes nastiness to a whole other level, as this film just feels like punishment to watch. It definitely took a page from the splatter film/torture porn trend which was becoming popular at the time, because even comparing it to its predecessor is a night-and-day difference. As I noted in the previous entry in this series, the Chainsaw remake is surprisingly restrained in its depiction of violence and tends to be more effective as a result. In contrast, The Beginning revels in its depictions of drawn-out violence and gore. I had to reflect back on all of the other Chainsaw films again to compare the nature of their violence – usually, characters die quite quickly (either by bludgeoning or chainsaw) because the villains aren’t reveling in the kill, they just want them to be dead. Usually when a character doesn’t get killed, it’s because the villains are saving them for later (Pam and Andy), not because they want them to suffer. The only times the violence gets drawn out is when L.G. was skinned alive in Chainsaw 2, but this was done accidentally by the villains and is meant to be incredibly shocking because of that. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was the only exception to this, with Michelle getting nailed to a chair and Ryan being hung on the meathooks with the explicit intent of taunting him, because of Schow’s splatter background. However, Leatherface still wasn’t as nasty or protracted as The Beginning is.

Even the way that the main characters are treated is different in this film – usually Chainsaw films (and slashers in general) feature the main characters getting unknowingly picked off one-by-one, but The Beginning drags its the characters into the wringer at the same time in order to maximize the suffering that each of them sustains, closer to the format of a Saw sequel. Maximized suffering is probably the best way to describe this film’s goal – as soon as the group gets into their car accident, they’re subject to all manner of escalating awfulness. Special mention first goes to Eric’s death. When it finally comes, the poor guy has been tortured and then beaten by Hoyt after he tries to sacrifice himself so his friends can escape (before realizing that they were unsuccessful). He then gets taken to the basement where Leatherface ties him down and then begins skinning his freaking arms while alive, HOLY SHIT!!! Then when Chrissie finds him in a half-delirious state, they call-back to how many kids they were going to have together, just in time for Leatherface to come back and then, while Chrissie watches, chainsaw him to death. Oh but it’s not over yet, because then Leatherface cuts off Eric’s face and then makes his first mask out of it, thereby spending the rest of the film psychologically torturing Chrissie even more with that imagery. Suffice to say, it’s brutal.

Dean, in comparison, is totally wasted in this film. Early on, much of the conflict of the story revolves around him not wanting to fight in Vietnam and whether he is a coward because of this. As far as the film seems concerned, yeah he kind of is, because he lets Eric take the fall for him when Hoyt realizes that one of the brothers is draft-dodging. Then, when he finally fesses up and performs ten push-ups for his freedom, he is too beaten to actually do anything. Then when he tries to escape, he gets caught in a bear trap, where he spends most of the rest of the film unable to get away. Then when Chrissie is finally captured, he gets dragged unconscious to the dinner table where he doesn’t even awaken until he can become a handy deus ex machina to knock out Hoyt’s front teeth (callback!), save Chrissie and then immediately get chainsawed to death for it. Not really a satisfying story arc, eh? Dean is just one of the clear aspects of this film which reveal that the story doesn’t actually matter, it’s all about maximizing suffering.

Bailey gets the absolute worst deal of the bunch though, infuriatingly so. For one thing, she is immediately sexed-up by the film (how surprising, considering that they hired a Playboy model for the role) and gets barely any lines to actually establish herself as a character with any sort of agency. From there, the way that her suffering stands out is notable. First of all, they tie her up under the table while Luda Mae Hewitt has tea with a friend, explicitly dehumanizing and objectifying her. Sure, it’s not torture and beatings, but the way that she’s excluded says more about the way women are seen as different. Then, if you thought she was getting things easy, she gets meathooked by Leatherface while trying to escape and then gets chained to a bed and FREAKING RAPED BY HOYT, FUUUUCK!!! Then she gets her teeth all knocked out (presumably so she can’t bite Hoyt’s dick off, or perhaps to prevent her from killing herself by biting off her tongue) before getting her throat slashed open when he isn’t being “proper”… bloody hell. So, what sort of things do we know about this character? She’s pretty, sexually active and… uh… yeah, that’s about it. Even when discussing the character, all that the cast can say is that she’s a “free spirit” which just sounds like “loose” to me… Maybe you can see why I hate what happens to this character so much – since she’s a pretty woman, she gets oogled by the camera first and then later the villains turn that sexualization into violence before killing her when she isn’t being a “good woman”. I see enough of this bullshit in manosphere screeds about Madonnas and whores, and it does not feel like this film is playing such a message as anything other than straight (if they even realize that that’s the sort of message that they’re conveying at all).

Compared to everyone else, Chrissie gets off pretty easily in The Beginning. She gets inexplicably thrown from Eric’s vehicle after the accident and is somehow unscathed. She then spends the majority of the film using her Boots of Sneaking to pass impossible DC30 stealth checks, and even when she gets captured she doesn’t suffer too much (physically anyway, seeing your boyfriend’s face worn by Leatherface would scar anyone for life). However, she is killed in the absolute cheapest way when somehow Leatherface manages to outrun Chrissie to her vehicle, then hides in the back seat for like fifteen minutes before popping up and chainsaws her through the back… because this is a prequel, so therefore all the characters have to die! It’s not like we’re supposed to give a shit about anyone anyway, right?

It’s not just the main characters who suffer either. In the film’s opening moments we’ve got Leatherface breaking both of the legs of the slaughterhouse supervisor with a sledgehammer before he goes for the kill, a level of malicious intent unseen in the character until now. Uncle Monty also gets some of the most random suffering, to the point where it’s darkly funny. First he gets shot in the kneecap by the biker and then Hoyt decides that the best thing to do is amputate the leg, so he gets Leatherface to chainsaw it the hell off. However, Leatherface screws up and cuts into the other leg, so they just saw off the other leg off as well, all while Monty and Luda Mae are (understandably) freaking out.

So yeah, in case I hadn’t made it incredibly obvious already, this movie is brutally violent, to the point where it all just feels senseless. Perhaps worst of all though is that it relies on the shock value of its violence to be scary, something which falls flat in my opinion. It’s not like the violence is even particularly intense, unlike some moments from the remake. It’s just brutal and protracted to the point where it feels like I’m being punished by the film for watching it. To some degree I can understand why they would take the film in this direction – as the filmmakers state in the making-of featurette, it’s a nasty story so it deserves a nasty treatment. That’s fair enough as an artistic decision, and perhaps some people would really appreciate that stance, but I just really was turned off by it. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate gory films such as Evil DeadPiranha 3D, even some of the Saw films, but I need to feel like there’s at least some purpose beyond violence for the sake of violence and The Beginning doesn’t give me that.

Even if the violence in the film wasn’t turning me off, there’s still plenty to dislike. First of all, the script sucks on a number of different levels. For one thing, it really struggles to even justify why the Chainsaw remake needed a prequel. The entire origin story for Leatherface and Hoyt is breezed over in the first twenty minutes of the film. From there the film basically becomes a more violent rehash of the remake with some really inconsequential details from the last film explained. Why does Uncle Monty have no legs? A biker shot him and then Leatherface cut them off! Why does Hoyt have no front teeth? Dean knocked them out! Wow, who cares! Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that (we get Leatherface’s first skin mask and chainsaw kills, for example), but even some of the big moments are not very satisfying. A particular example is “where did Leatherface get his chainsaw?” Apparently it was literally just lying around in the supervisor’s office in the slaughterhouse so he just… picked it up? That’s, uh… that’s it? No special affection for it, he just found it and decided that that’s his thing now? It’s also worth noting that, after all my complaints about the lack of motivation for the Hewitts in the remake, The Beginning restores the Hewitt family’s cannibalism. We also get a bit of interesting background for Hoyt regarding this – he was a POW during the Korean War and once a week they were forced to pick a fellow POW to kill and eat in order to survive. Obviously this contributed to the character’s screwed up philosophy on life and it’s too bad that it’s just relegated to an expository line. Like, imagine a proper Chainsaw prequel which hadn’t just rushed through all the details of the family’s evil upbringing in order to get to a half-baked rehash… y’know, something like All-American Massacre was promising us. The laziness of this film is so bad that the climax is, once again, in the same slaughterhouse and the film ends with a really tacked on voice over to remind us that this is supposed to be a true story, both of which were handled far better in the previous film.

If you’re familiar with my retrospectives series then you’re probably aware that I get really annoyed by an overuse of lazy plot conveniences and The Beginning is just loaded with them. Leatherface just finding his chainsaw randomly might be the most egregiously insulting storywriting decision of the bunch, but there are much worse examples. For example, there is apparently only one cop in this entire town and he was conveniently shipping out to Michigan, which allows Hoyt to kill him, assume his identity and then go on crime sprees uncontested… because blue lives really don’t matter it seems. It’s even worse because Chrissie comes across a Texas state trooper at the end of the film and he actually gets run over by her car, so it’s not like this place really is a lawless wasteland anyway. Plus, wouldn’t a dead cop make the state police investigate when they find a chainsaw-impaled woman at the scene? Oh and then there’s the gang of bikers who taunt Chrissie and Bailey, but then later the group is pursued by a single biker who has gone out to rob them. They have a whole gang, why not send out at least a couple people in case something goes wrong? It’s even worse because later her boyfriend is once again riding alone when Chrissie conveniently comes across him and no one bothers to call in the rest of their gang to attack the Hewitt house. Then when she gets away Dean conveniently finds her in the slaughterhouse just in time to save her and to get himself killed, since the film is wrapping up and we can’t have any loose ends dammit!

Hell, if convenience could coalesce into a living person, she would look just like Chrissie. It starts off with a god-tier act where she gets thrown hundreds of feet from a freaking car accident and walks away completely unscathed, conveniently waking up just in time to see Hoyt taking her friends away. Then she manages to sneak into the wreck of the vehicle just in time to hide from a tow truck driver who somehow doesn’t notice her while inspecting the wreck. Then the tow truck driver just so happens to be working for Hoyt and drags the wreck back to the Hewitt residence. Then Chrissie randomly comes across the boyfriend of the biker who Hoyt killed. Then she manages to sneak around the Hewitt residence for like twenty minutes completely unnoticed despite having no idea where she’s going and a number of close calls. AND THEN she finally gets noticed because “they already know you’re here!”, AKA it was finally convenient for the writers for her to get captured. Bloody hell. Oh and then Chrissie somehow manages to miss the fact that a 300lb man outran her to her vehicle, hid in the back seat with his chainsaw and then lay there silently for like fifteen minutes or more before popping up to get a final scare and to make sure there are no survivors that can tell people about the Hewitts’ crimes. How convenient! Imagining Leatherface lying there just waiting for the perfect moment to scare the shit out of her is just hilarious to think about though.

The characters are also one dimensional at best. Of the leads, Matt Bomer puts in a pretty good performance as Eric, but he’s given basically nothing to work with. The only reason I care about the character at all is because of Bomer’s acting. I’ve already mentioned how Diora Baird’s Bailey gets totally shafted in the film as well, Baird is basically just set dressing. I mean, her boobs put in a standout performance at the start of the film, which was probably all that the filmmakers wanted anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Diora Baird could have put in some good work on this film, but she isn’t even given the opportunity with this script. However, Taylor Handley’s Dean is the worst performance of the whole group, giving overly-acted line deliveries and just coming across as whiny when he should be sympathetic. It’s weird, the director and casting director really rave about Handley’s performance and talk like he’s going to be a superstar, but he’s definitely not showing any of that potential in this film. The fact that Matt Bomer was only cast in response to Taylor Handley’s casting was a very happy accident on the filmmakers’ part. Again, it’s not like the script helps him anyway as he gets totally wasted in the second half of the film, and the Vietnam War draft dodging subplot is half-baked with no real payoff. Jordana Brewster’s Chrissie is also just a strangely wasted character. She spends half of the film not even involved in the nastiness going down in the Hewitt house so by the time it comes for her to be the final girl, she hasn’t really left much of an impression other than “man that girl is really good at sneaking around unnoticed”. Again, it’s too bad, I expect Jordana could put in a good performance but she doesn’t have much to actually work with. Even R. Lee Ermey is kind of wasted by this film. He still definitely puts in the best performance and has the most material to work with, but compared to the previous film he’s much less enjoyable to watch. In the remake, he loves to taunt his victims and assert his control over them that way, whereas here he’s basically just an evil dick. The only time he really taunts someone is when he beats Dean during his pushups for freedom. He also doesn’t get nearly as many memorable or funny lines (although his first line after he shoots the sheriff is fantastic: “Shit I just killed the whole fuckin’ sheriff’s department”).

Andrew Bryniarski’s Leatherface is also not as interesting in this film. He certainly comes across as less experienced in this film, but we mostly get the same information the remake conveyed to us – people were mean to Leatherface and it caused him to lash out. This is demonstrated quite bluntly in the early parts of the film, where the slaughterhouse workers call him a dumb animal and the sheriff says that he’s retarded, both of which cause the obviously-intimidating Leatherface to become a raging, mad dog type character. It’s also kind of interesting to me that in this prequel the slaughterhouse is shut down because of health concerns. No longer is it a story about society and technology leaving rural people like Leatherface behind, it’s now about how they’re bad, disgusting people whose impoverishment is basically their own fault (doubly so when you consider that the owner of the slaughterhouse was also established as a bad person for not letting Leatherface’s mother give birth safely and for throwing the resulting baby in the dumpster). There isn’t really any sort of social commentary here anymore, it’s just about enigmatic evil people out there who mean to do us harm, and Leatherface’s toxic masculine rebirth in the remake duology is demonstrative of the dumbed-down, commercial direction this franchise took. Oh, I will add that Leatherface’s mask made from Eric’s face is pretty creepy, I like it a little bit less than the mask from the remake, but it’s certainly one of the better masks in the franchise.

Hell, I’m nearing the end of this review and I haven’t even mentioned that they rip off the dinner scene again in this one. It’s one of the better dinner scenes in the franchise, if only because we actually get some character development for the Hewitt family out of it. During the scene, Hoyt says grace and the family twists Bible verses in order to justify their actions. It is fairly interesting, but considering the merciless brutality we have seen out of this family, it really makes me wonder why the Hewitts would even invite their victims to dinner in the first place? There really isn’t a good reason other than to just reference the original film.

Suffice to say, I did not like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. I found its handling of brutal violence very distasteful. Look, I don’t mind a gory, brutal film, but I prefer when it’s not just suffering for the sake of suffering. Add in that this is a crappy rehash of the previous film with a crap script and I feel quite justified that I’m not just pillorying this film for simply not suiting my tastes. Literally, the only moment in this film that was truly a bright spot was when Eric uses a screaming, morbidly obese house guest as a barricade, but that is nowhere near worth sitting through the rest of the film to get to.

3/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we take a look at the seventh film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D!

Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today entry we’re going to be covering the Platinum Dunes remake, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! This is the film which kicked off the horror remake craze in the 2000s, for better or worse. It was also my first exposure to the franchise – I remember as a kid hearing about this movie from other kids on the bus talking about people getting their limbs chainsawed off and getting hung on a hook. Suffice to say, as a little evangelical kid it sounded like evil debauchery to me, but the imagery in my mind stuck with me and made me curious throughout the years until I finally saw the film. How does the remake hold up? Read on to find out…

I love this poster, it works because it gives us just enough creepy imagery but forces us to fill in the blanks with our imagination. Very similar to the poster for Hannibal.

PRODUCTION
After Columbia Tristar tried to bury Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the rightsholders spent years in court before the whole fiasco was settled. During this time, William Hooper (son of Tobe Hooper) was planning on making a new Chainsaw short starring Bill Moseley. This film was going to be called “All American Massacre and would have featured Chop Top recounting stories of his family’s misdeeds. This short ended up getting expanded into a 60 minute feature with a score by Buckethead. However, it was eventually shelved when Hooper ran out of money to complete it, leaving the project in limbo where it currently resides, with only a short trailer proving it ever existed.

Late in 2001 Michael Bay’s new production company, Platinum Dunes, decided that they wanted their first project to be a remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and went ahead securing the rights. Platinum Dunes aimed t0 produce low-budget films with high profit margins and a Chainsaw remake seemed like the best way to test that. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were brought on a co-producers on the film. Marcus Nispel, a director of many high-profile music videos, was hired to direct the film. Interestingly, Nispel’s regular cinematographer and long-time friend, Daniel Pearl, was actually the cinematographer for the original Chainsaw. Pearl was also hired as director of photography for the remake. Scott Kosar, writer of such films as The Machinist, The Crazies and the remake of The Amityville Horror, made his scriptwriting debut on this film. He decided early on that the film shouldn’t be a direct remake of the original, but rather take the same scenario and use it as inspiration. He also went back to the story of Ed Gein for further influence.

Jessica Biel was cast to play the film’s heroine, Erin. Biel was just coming off of her role in 7th Heaven and (whether true or not) there was a perception that she was looking to shed her goody-goody image that the show had fostered. In earlier drafts of the script, Erin was actually supposed to be nine months pregnant which would have added an interesting dimension to the plot, but Michael Bay shot the idea down. Nispel claims that Erin is pregnant during the events of the film, but there is nothing in the film itself which suggests that this is the case. The principal cast were filled out with a number of young, up-and-coming actors: Eric Balfour was cast as Erin’s boyfriend, Kemper, Erica Leerhsen as Pepper, Mike Vogel as Andy, and Jonathan Tucker as Morgan. On the villainous side of the cast, freaking R. Lee Ermey was cast as Sheriff Hoyt. As for Leatherface, Andrew Bryniarski (most notable for playing Zangief in the Street Fighter movie) was a friend of Michael Bay’s and asked him at a Christmas party if he could play the role. However, Bay had to turn him down because Leatherface had already been cast. However, according to Wikipedia (so take this info as you will, I only found an interview that verifies this story) the actor who was cast as Leatherface was injured on the very first day of shooting after lying about his physical qualifications and was subsequently fired. In dire need of a replacement actor to play the villain, Byrniarski was called up and cast.

The film’s budget was set at less than $10 million and filming took place in Texas once again. Like all of the other Chainsaw films in Texas, this created the usual problems for the cast and crew, with hot and humid weather making life difficult. This was hardest on Bryniarski, as he had to perform in a fat suit and wore a mask during the entire shoot, making it difficult to breathe and forcing him to stay hydrated to avoid passing out. The film was released on October 17, 2003 and made its budget back within the first day. Suffice to say, it was a box office hit although the reviews at the time were mixed. Roger Ebert famously hated it, giving the film a rare 0/4 stars.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens with police footage of the “real life” crime scene of the Hewitt family (the name of the family has been changed from “Sawyer” in this timeline). It then flashes back to the events of that day and we are introduced to a group of young people travelling through Texas. The group has just returned from a vacation in Mexico, where they picked up a woman named Pepper who Andy has had a tryst with, and are headed to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Erin discovers that the group is secretly smuggling drugs that they acquired during the trip south of the border and, after distracting her boyfriend, Kemper, about it, he nearly hits a woman walking beside the road. The group picks the woman up and tries to take her to the hospital, but she begins going crazy and shoots herself in the head. The group is, understandably, shocked and tries to find the local sheriff to report the incident. The locals direct them to an old mill to wait for the sheriff, but when he does not arrive, a local boy directs Kemper and Erin to a nearby house where he is supposed to live. When they arrive, the owner of the house says that the sheriff does not live here, but offers Erin use of his phone. Kemper then wanders into the house and is ambushed by Leatherface and killed. Erin leaves after phoning the sheriff, not realizing that Kemper had gone into the house and assuming that he went back to the others.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Hoyt arrives at the mill and begins taunting and questioning Andy, Morgan and Pepper about what happened. He forces Andy to help him wrap up the body and then gets Morgan to join in and help put the body in the back of his vehicle before leaving. Erin gets back after he has left and is surprised that the sheriff has already come and gone. She also is surprised that Kemper is not with the others and so she and Andy decide to return to the house to figure out what happened to Kemper. Erin distracts the homeowner while Andy sneaks into the house, but when they are discovered, Leatherface chases after the pair with a chainsaw. During the escape, Andy’s leg is sawed off by Leatherface and he is dragged into the basement to be hung on a meathook. Erin makes it back to the others and then tries to get the van started so that they can find help, but they are stopped by Sheriff Hoyt. Hoyt doesn’t listen to Erin’s stories about a chainsaw-wielding maniac killing her friends and instead arrests them after finding marijuana in the vehicle. He taunts Morgan, forcing him to re-enact the hitchhiker’s suicide until Morgan turns the gun on Hoyt. However, the gun is not loaded and Hoyt beats Morgan before taking him away in his squad car.

Now on their own, Erin and Pepper try to escape in the van, but are attacked by Leatherface. Pepper is killed while trying to escape, while Erin flees to a nearby home. The owners of the house try to placate her, until Erin realizes that they are complicit with the Hewitts – the child in this home was from a family killed by the Hewitts. The locals drug Erin and when she awakes she has been brought to the Hewitt house by Hoyt. She gets dumped into the basement by Leatherface where she finds Andy hanging from the meathook. After trying to free him, Andy begs Erin to kill him, which she does so using a large knife. She then finds Morgan, badly beaten, and tries to escape with him. Leatherface realizes that they are trying to escape and pursues them into another abandoned house. After a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, Leatherface finds the pair and kills Morgan. Erin flees into the local slaughterhouse where she finally gets the upper-hand on Leatherface, severing his arm with a meat cleaver. She then flags a passing truck driver to escape, but when the driver tries to find locals to help her, she realizes that he’s going to inadvertently deliver her back to Hoyt. She escapes the truck and finds that they’re at the house with the kidnapped child. Erin takes the child back and then, when Hoyt comes to investigate the truck, she runs him over with his own police cruiser and escapes, but not before Leatherface shows up for one last swipe at the fleeing vehicle. In the epilogue, it is revealed that the police seen in the opening footage were killed by Leatherface and that he is still out there somewhere.

REVIEW
I don’t want to spend the bulk of this review comparing the remake with the original film, but suffice to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre strikes a good balance between original ideas and reverence to the original. One aspect of the remake which stands out is that it’s far more glitzy than any of the other Chainsaw films. This is likely due to the influence of Platinum Dunes, as Michael Bay is known for his flashy, flawless, Hollywood film-making aesthetic. Daniel Pearl was quite up-front about not wanting to recreate the grainy, documentary-style aesthetic of the original Chainsaw, but the differences go further than that. Whereas the original film and (to a lesser extent) its sequels had aimed for fairly normal-looking actors, the remake casts very pretty, Hollywood talent. The film also just feels different, no longer lingering on disturbing imagery and forcing the audience to piece a picture together from what they’ve seen. Instead, scares are far more conventional, edited in a disorienting fashion and set to “scary music”. Thankfully, the film doesn’t really rely on irritating jump scares, but regardless the horror is nowhere near as effective as it was in the original.

I was also surprised by how little gore there was in this film – I’ve seen this movie at least two or three times now and I remember it being far bloodier and nastier than it actually was. However, while the film is definitely far more explicit than the original film, it follows a similar philosophy of keeping the worst of the violence to your imagination. For example, Andy gets his leg chopped off very quickly and with only a little blood, Pepper gets hacked up with a chainsaw off-screen, Morgan gets cut nearly in half from the crotch upward off-screen, and Kemper’s face gets cut off and made into a mask entirely off-screen. In fact, the only truly R-rated scenes of violence are the hitchhiker shooting herself in the head (complete with a camera pan backwards through the freaking bullet hole) and Leatherface losing his arm, but the film is nowhere near as brutal as I remembered. This works in the film’s favour though, it makes you use your imagination to fill in the blanks, hence why I remembered the film being nastier than it actually was. Apparently the film was originally intended to be far more graphic though, with much more brutal on-screen kills for Morgan, Pepper and Kemper planned, and Leatherface was also supposed to murder his own nephew Jedidiah for helping Erin and Morgan escape (which presumably was cut due to it being too brutal for a kid to be killed).

As for the film’s script, it follows the outline of the original film in very broad strokes without straight-up ripping off any of the scenes (unlike all of the other sequels in this franchise, each of which have effectively remade the dinner scene). Like, instead of travelling to Texas to check in on their family’s grave, the group is heading to a concert. Instead of picking up a hitchhiker who attacks the group, the hitchhiker commits suicide in their car. Instead of stumbling across the Sawyer house while looking for gas, they find the Hewitt residence while searching for the sheriff. As you can see, the remake follows the same outline as the original, while also providing its own twists on the formula, which is a good direction to take a remake in my opinion. In fact, I’d argue that some of the additions are actually improvements (blasphemy, I know). In particular, the characters’ deaths feel like there is much more purpose to them in this film. In the original, the characters just kept wandering onto the Sawyers’ property and getting murdered because of that. In the remake, characters usually die for more interesting reasons. The characters come across the Hewitt house because they were told that that was where they could find the sheriff, which leads to Kemper getting ambushed by Leatherface. Andy gets his leg cut off because he broke into the Hewitt house trying to find Kemper and then gets mercy-killed by Erin. Pepper dies trying to escape Leatherface. Morgan dies saving Erin. I get that the purposelessness of the original film’s deaths is part of the point of that film, but I have to say that the remake’s deaths feel more satisfying from a narrative standpoint. There are also some interesting little additions to the film which I enjoyed, such as the peepholes that the Hewitts have installed around their house which allow them to spy on uninvited guests, having Erin’s rescue mirror the hitchhiker’s suicide from the start of the film and that the whole community seems to be complicit with the Hewitts’ crimes now.

However, the script has some definite issues and is also noticeably messy and disappointing in its third act. The film is really solid up until Erin is kidnapped and brought to the Hewitt house, at which point it starts to nosedive. For one thing, there are just too many dumb conveniences here. Like, when Leatherface tossed Erin into the basement unrestrained, what was he expecting to happen? Of course she was going to free Morgan and try to escape. In addition, Jedidiah’s character is just super convenient. For no explicable reason he suddenly decides to grow a conscience and help Erin and Morgan escape. It also doesn’t help that the third act doesn’t bother to give us any motivation for the villains. There’s nothing to suggest that the Hewitts are cannibals, they just kill people… because, I guess? Funnily enough, as much as I rag on Chainsaw films ripping off the dinner scene every time, this film actually needed a dinner scene, or an emotional equivalent, in its third act. Instead, we just get an extended chase sequence for the entire last half hour of the film. Imagine if the original Chainsaw had ended with Sally running away from the gas station for another 10 minutes after finding out Drayton is a villain and then the film just ends – obviously it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact, but that’s basically what this film does. While I’m glad that they didn’t just rip off the dinner scene again, this film definitely needed some sort of scene with Hoyt taunting Erin and a giving us better understanding of what the Hewitts are up to. I’m also not a huge fan of the ending – between Erin rescuing the kidnapped kid that no one really cared about in the first place and her confrontation with Hoyt, it isn’t that great. Her reaction to killing Hoyt felt weird to me because the two characters barely interacted throughout the film – all of his emotional abuses were directed towards the other characters, whereas Erin was usually absent, so it doesn’t really resonate as well as it should. Also, the rescued kid felt totally tacked on, possibly all the way back to the draft where Erin was nine-months pregnant. Having her somehow sneak in and rescue this kid was just pointless, like the producers wanted to force some sort of ray of sunshine into the ending.

Something else odd that I noticed about the remake is that it follows traditional slasher morality codes more than any other entry in the franchise up to this point. For example, Erin is our final girl because she’s the only member of the group who follows traditional morality – she objects to the group’s post smoking and excessive drinking and she always insists on doing the “moral” action (rescuing the hitchhiker, waiting for the sheriff to arrive to take the body, etc). During the opening scene, she is contrasted against the pot-smoking Morgan, the furiously horny Andy and Pepper and the moral conflict of Kemper. However, this is also a cruel irony because she is also the reason why everyone else dies – as Hoyt himself says, if she hadn’t picked up the hitchhiker, then they wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place. It’s kind of interesting to consider that in the remake compassion is what gets everyone killed, not simply that the villains are evil.

The film has far less going on in it than the original, but it does notably carry on the theme of society vs barbarism from the first film. Notably, the Texas locals in this film all have some sort of deformity to them, from missing limbs, to gout, to just being sheer lunatics. These deformities are contrasted even more obviously than in the original due to the remake’s much more glamorous and pretty cast. Funnily enough, when I saw the kidnapped kid I was actually going to make a note that this was the first local we had seen which was actually “normal” looking, until it was revealed that this child was actually kidnapped from “civilized” society, a fact which pretty much signifies that this distinction was totally intentional. With this in mind, rescuing the kid at the end is thematically significant to the message of the film, as tacked-on as that part of the ending may seem. I wonder whether the post-9/11 climate helped to inform the tone of the film, where not only is compassion being taken advantage of by evil people, but society and its deviant fringes are colliding violently.

As for the characters, it seems to me that they are all quite flat in the script and only really gain any weight from the people playing them. Luckily for the film, I actually quite liked most of the performances, but when I think back on the characters themselves I realize that there isn’t really much to any of them. Jessica Biel’s Erin makes for a pretty great and capable final girl, probably the second best in the franchise after Stretch. However, she isn’t exactly a compelling character and the revelation that this very moral character spent time in juvie for hot-wiring vehicles comes across as pretty convenient. After her, Kemper is probably the next most compelling, in part due to Eric Balfour’s performance. He really sells the character’s conflict without having to rely on the material to get that across – he’s trying to get money to pay for a wedding ring he purchased for Erin, but in order to do so he is planning on selling pot at the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert they’re attending, a fact which Erin does not approve of. After the hitchhiker kills herself in their vehicle, his plans start to come apart at the seams and it’s interesting seeing him have to make his decisions and juggle the various factors weighing on him. It’s just really sad to see him die, and then later for Erin to see Leatherface wearing her boyfriend’s face is just traumatic. Andy also gets enjoyable in the second half of the film. The first half wastes him as a generic pretty boy, but by the time he joins Erin to try to rescue Kemper, he gets much more interesting. He even gets a short fight with Leatherface before getting his leg chopped off, at which point I just feel really sorry for him. I really like Mike Vogel and I think that his performance is what makes me like Andy so much, it’s just too bad he doesn’t get much to work with. As for Pepper and Morgan? Meh. Morgan is just a total douche, whereas Pepper really doesn’t get much of a character at all.

The villains are where things really shine though. While Sheriff Hoyt is also a rather flat character, R. Lee Ermey turns him into an absolute joy to watch, nearly on par with Chop Top. He isn’t just a rip-off of Full Metal Jacket’s Sargeant Hartman either. Instead of being just abrasive, Hoyt gets a hoot out of being sadistic dick. He loves to taunt his victims and lord himself over them, such as when he makes inappropriately sexual jokes about the hitchhiker’s corpse just to make Andy uncomfortable. He’s also a total bastard when taunting people, most notably when Hoyt tricks Morgan into trying to shoot him, only to reveal that he had unloaded the gun first. He can also be darkly hilarious – during one scene he’s chatting up Morgan and when Morgan tells him that they were heading to a Skynyrd concert, Hoyt tells him that they have something in common. Then he bashes Morgan with a bottle, knocking out a tooth, which causes him to show that he’s missing his front teeth and say that now they have something else in common. It’s nasty, but the way that Ermey sells it is fantastic. Unsurprisingly, he straight-up steals every scene he’s in and the fact that he died in the last year leaves us all poorer as a result.

As for Leatherface, Andrew Bryniarski’s performance is the best since Gunnar Hansen and his mask is also by far the best-looking since the original film, in my opinion . He has a great physical presence and is genuinely frightening to see pursuing the heroes. The character has also been changed a fair bit in this incarnation. He does seem to be mute, but he does not seem to be mentally handicapped anymore; he’s far more cunning and purposeful in his actions than he ever has been. Leatherface also has some sort of skin disease which has eaten away his nose. It actually looks quite nasty and marks the first time we see the character’s face in this series. Also, instead of killing to eat or to defend his home, Leatherface just seems to be evil and going on a rampage in this film. According to director Marcus Nispel, Leatherface is so sadistic and evil because… he was bullied? No seriously, here’s the quote:

“If my son would go mad and wear other people’s faces, I wouldn’t be supportive of him *unless* something happened to him – a deformity or whatever – that is being ridiculed. I think about that a great deal when I think about Columbine. I wonder, ‘Where are the real monsters?’ Who made these kids be that way? […] Now, here’s someone who has no identity, so he has to wear other people’s faces for a mask. People that heckled him. People that are much more beautiful than he is, and a family that knows what drove him to this; namely, that heckling. And that’s why they support him. […] But what really makes it scary is that he’s a real guy – the neighbor’s son on a wild rampage.”

Umm, okay… I get that this was very much inspired by all of the conversations in the aftermath of Columbine, but I really don’t see this as a reasonable motivation for the character to be killing people, let alone why Hoyt would be joining in on it or why the locals would be complicit in his actions. Seriously, this film needed some sort of actual justification for the Hewitt family’s crimes, it just feels like they’re only killing people because they’re evil now. Cannibalism was a commentary on the climate of its time, so perhaps the lack of motivation reflects on the post-9/11 confusion about the causes of evil in the world?

All-in-all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a decent horror remake. It definitely has its issues and the material could have been much stronger, but it’s a pretty enjoyable watch and is quite well-made, especially compared to the horror remakes which tried to ape its success. If more remakes that followed in its wake had actually followed its strengths, then perhaps the trend would not have been as reviled as it came to be.

5.5/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the sixth entry in the franchise, the prequel to the remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning!

Retrospective: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

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…

Y’know what? I really like this poster, it’s super intriguing. Long before I watched the film, this poster had always made me wondering about what it had to do with the movie? Like, was Renee Zellweger going to become a female Leatherface? Was that what “The Next Generation” was referring to? Plus that skin mask is legitimately creepy here.

PRODUCTION
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 Generationa 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.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
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.

REVIEW
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.

2/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fifth entry in the franchise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake!

Retrospective: Leatherface – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

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…

This poster is just… eww. The tagline sucks, the chainsaw looks ridiculous and I’m not a fan of Leatherface’s look at all (something which I will get into later). By far my least favourite main poster in the entire franchise.


PRODUCTION

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.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
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.

REVIEW
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.

4/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation!

Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the first sequel in the franchise, the aptly-titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2! Like I mentioned in the previous entry, the my first introduction to this franchise was in a classic movie theatre showing the original film and its first sequel back-to-back. This film has amassed a very dedicated cult following, but does it hold a candle to the original film? Read on to find out…

This is kind of a strange poster considering that it’s a parody of The Breakfast Club, but considering the parodic intent of the film and the franchise’s themes of twisting traditional family structures, this is a pretty appropriate poster for the film.

PRODUCTION
Due to the very shady financing of the original Chainsaw, Tobe Hooper, the cast and the crew ended up seeing very little in return despite the film’s financial success. However, it went on to inspire other films and only four years after the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, John Carpenter’s Halloween was released and kicked off the slasher craze of the 1980s. At this time, horror was becoming defined by gory exploitation films with high body counts, most readily exemplified by the Friday the 13th franchise, as well as the Halloween films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night, Deadly Night, sequels to Psycho and countless one-off slashers hoping to become the next big thing. Perhaps inextricably linked to this increase in the popularity of slashers was the simultaneous rise in conservatism throughout the 80s, defined by the Reagan era. This was an age of moral panics and slasher films often became targets due to this (and as a result, many slasher films actually had their violence toned down significantly due to censorship, making them appear much tamer than films even 10 years later).

In the mid-80s and fresh off of the success of Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper signed a three-picture contract with Cannon films, a production company famous for creating a number of iconic, low-budget genre films during the 80s, such as Death Wish, Delta Force, Missing in ActionMasters of the Universe and, when they were on the verge of implosion, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. As part of the three picture deal, Hooper had agreed to make a sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in exchange for high budgets and creative freedom on his projects for Cannon. However, his first two pictures, Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars, were financially unsuccessful and so the pressure was on for Hooper to deliver with Chainsaw 2. So desperate was Cannon for a hit that before the film had even been written they went ahead and set a release date and booked screens, leaving Hooper barely eight months to complete the film. Hooper approached celebrated screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (fresh off of such films as Breathless and Paris, Texas). Despite the time crunch and the stigma associated with writing a slasher sequel which would “[wipe] your name right off the Serious Screenwriters’ Map”, Carson agreed to write the script as he had found Hooper’s original film enthralling and felt that the director was capable of tapping into madness unlike any other filmmaker.

According to Carson, “The first thing I told Tobe was, ‘You’re going to have to find the right victims […] One of the things the first movie had going for it was that people were really sick of hippies and enjoyed seeing a Volkswagen full of ’em squashed. So, I went home to Dallas and went to the Galleria, which is a yuppie feeding ground. I saw all these yuppies buying piles of things, seven sweaters at a time. I called Tobe up and said, ‘I’ve found the victims.'” Despite various sneering references in the screenplay to yuppies, the film only ended up featuring one scene with them being killed. However, there are deleted scenes which reveal that there were supposed to be several other scenes of Leatherface and Chop Top harvesting yuppies which were ultimately cut from the film, which leaves the whole idea of poking fun at yuppies largely absent from the film after the first ten minutes are over. According to Caroline Williams, this was due to differences between Cannon and Hooper – Hooper wanted to make a satirical black comedy, but Cannon wanted a more straightforward slasher film and took Hooper’s vision away from him before release.

The only returning cast member from the original Chainsaw was Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer. Gunnar Hansen was apparently approached to reprise his role as Leatherface, but turned it down (likely due to pay concerns) and the role went to Bill Johnson instead in his first (and arguably only) major role. The film’s publicist didn’t think that there was any sense in securing the original actors anyway, since none of them had achieved major stardom. Of the new cast, the female lead went to Caroline Williams as radio host Vanita “Stretch” Brock in her first leading role. The film also features Dennis freaking Hopper as Lefty Enright. He was already a big star by the time Chainsaw 2 came out and would only become even more notable as Blue Velvet would be released that exact same year! Also worth noting is Bill Moseley as Chop Top in his first major film role. Moseley, who would later go on to become a horror icon, received the role for having created a parody film called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure which Tobe Hooper loved. The other notable cast member was Lou Perryman as L.G., who had been a film crew member for the original Chainsaw and who would tragically be killed by a real-life axe murderer in his home in 2009. Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that the legendary Tom Savini (of Dawn and Day of the Dead and Friday the 13th fame) was brought on to do the special makeup effects in this film!

Much like the original, Chainsaw 2 released to significant controversy, earning an X rating from the MPAA for its violence and was instead released unrated. At the time of release, it was banned in Germany, Singapore, the UK and Australia and would remain so for 20-30 years in these countries! However, its controversial impact was certainly not as widespread as the original’s was.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Like its predecessor, Chainsaw 2 starts with an opening voice-over which tells the audience that Sally escaped and told authorities about the Sawyer family, but no evidence of the crimes could be found and authorities denied that there ever was a Texas chainsaw massacre (thereby contradicting the whole conceit of the previous film being based on true crimes). The film then follows a pair of dumb teenagers who have come to town to party and cause ruckus as they drive erratically, fire a freaking magnum at street signs and phone into the local all-request station to harass the radio host, Stretch. During their joyride they run a truck off of the road. Later in the evening, the pair call Stretch to harass her again when the truck they encountered earlier pursues them and a chainsaw-wielding maniac hacks them and their car to pieces. Stretch and her co-worker L.G. hear everything on the phone and Stretch decides to keep the tape because she believes that some sort of crime had just occurred.

The next morning, the scene of the car crash is investigated by Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright before the police can arrive. Lefty is Sally and Franklin’s uncle and has been investigating chainsaw-killer deaths around the state, trying to find the perpetrators. He convinces the police to put out a bulletin in the newspaper for any evidence of what happened to cause this accident. Stretch sees this bulletin and takes her recording of the incident to Lefty, offering to play it on the radio to flush the perpetrators out. Lefty is inexplicably skeptical and sends her away, but after purchasing some chainsaws he tracks her down and agrees to help.

That night, Stretch plays the recording of the incident, which upsets several locals. At closing time, Stretch encounters an eccentric, sinister-looking man who asks for a tour of the radio station and says that he liked the tape she played that night. Leatherface suddenly bursts out and attacks, causing Stretch to run and lock herself safely away while the other man, Leatherface’s brother Chop Top, looks for the recording of the killings. L.G. returns to the radio station and is brutally bludgeoned by Chop Top as Leatherface breaks into Stretch’s hiding place. However, instead of killing her, Leatherface finds himself aroused by her and decides to spare her. He lies to Chop Top about killing Stretch and then the pair escape with L.G.’s body. Stretch pursues the pair to an abandoned amusement park until Lefty arrives on the scene. However, Stretch falls down a shaft and ends up in the Sawyers’ meat locker. Meanwhile, Lefty enters the amusement park and starts becoming extremely erratic as he chainsaws the support beams down, hoping to collapse the entire building on top of the Sawyers.

Leatherface finds Stretch while he is skinning L.G.’s body. Not wanting her to be discovered and killed by the rest of his family, he tries to hide her under a mask made from L.G.’s face and then ties her up. However, L.G. is somehow still alive and he cuts Stretch free before finally succumbing to his wounds. She sneaks out and tries to get past the Sawyer family, but is spotted and chased. When they finally catch up to her, Drayton tells Leatherface to kill her, but he refuses and Drayton tells him that he’s going to have to decide between sex and family. When Leatherface still refuses, he gets angry and Chop Top knocks her out.

Stretch awakens in another dinner scene and is brought before Grandpa, who once again tries to bash her head in. However, before he can finish her off, Lefty arrives and chainsaws Drayton in the ass and then gets into a FREAKING CHAINSAW DUEL with Leatherface! Stretch flees and is pursued by Chop Top. Meanwhile, Lefty impales Leatherface with a chainsaw, but the pair continue to fight before a dying Drayton blows everyone up with a grenade. Only Stretch and Chop Top escape, fleeing to the top of the amusement part where Stretch finds grandma’s body with a chainsaw. She steals the chainsaw and then slashes Chop Top open with it, sending him tumbling to the ground before she screams and dances in victory.

REVIEW
If you can’t tell from that plot summary, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a wildly different film than its predecessor. Whereas the original Chainsaw is gruelling and realistic, Chainsaw 2 is campy and over-the-top, aiming to be more of a horror comedy. You can probably imagine the whiplash I experienced going into these two films for the first time, back-to-back and completely unaware of what they were like! Perhaps Tobe Hooper was aiming for some of that true madness that L.M. Kit Carson was alluding to, but this film has some moments of utter batshit lunacy, frighteningly akin to the sort of stuff you might come across in Howling II (which was released only one year earlier… the 80s were a weird time for cinema). Some of this comes from the film striking a campy tone. This gets expressed in various ways throughout the film, but one method is through the portrayal of the amusement park setting, which makes me think of the goofiness of Mr. Freeze’s lair in Batman & Robin. The characters also feel more like “characters” than real people this time around as well. Even returning faces such as Drayton Sawyer have taken a mustache-twirling direction with his oversized van and gleeful cheering about his famous chilli recipe.

Scenery-chewing absolutely abounds in this film and while Jim Siedow tries his best, the most amazingly campy performances in this film go to Bill Moseley and Dennis Hopper without question. Bill Moseley’s Chop Top is a revelation, especially considering that this was his first major role. From his first moment on screen he is enthralling to watch, gleefully eccentric and dangerously unhinged. Even his character ticks of scratching his exposed metal plate with a hot wire and eating bits of his necrotic skin is fascinating, and he actually manages to get across the character’s Vietnam veteran background without having to hammer the audience with exposition. Chop Top is by far the best aspect of this film and effectively demonstrates that having a family of serial killers is a fantastic asset for the Chainsaw franchise to capitalize on.

Meanwhile, Dennis Hopper’s Lefty Enright is just baffling to witness. On his introduction, he comes across like the hero of the film, a Dirty Harry-style hero who’s going to come into town and stop the chainsaw killers. However, it soon becomes apparent that he’s about as deranged as the people he’s hunting and he even uses Stretch and L.G. as bait to lure the Sawyers out of hiding. We don’t really get a sense of just how much of a nut he is though until he gets to the amusement park and then starts screaming like a crazy person, quoting made-up scripture (“I am the Lord of the Harvest…”) and repeatedly yelling “BRING IT ALL DOWN!!! MAY THE LORD HAVE MERCY ON OUR SOULS!!!” like a madman. It’s hilarious and I’m sure that Dennis Hopper is the one who is making it all so gloriously over-the-top, because it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film for this character to be so bonkers. He even gets into a dual-wielding chainsaw duel with Leatherface and wins, which might be the most badass concept ever put to film (until 10 years later when Kurt Russel would surf a tidal wave through downtown Los Angeles onto the back of Steve Buscemi’s car to punch him in the face). That’s right, this is a character who believes that the only way to beat chainsaw-wielding maniacs is by being even more of a maniac with even more chainsaws.

With all the scenery chewing going on, it’s easy to lose Caroline Williams’ lead performance was Stretch in the shuffle, but I have to give her credit for being a great in this film. She gets put through the freaking wringer throughout Chainsaw 2, getting harassed by the yuppies, getting used as bait by Lefty, getting chased around by murderous maniacs and having to deal with deeply uncomfortable rape vibes from Leatherface throughout the whole ordeal. Unlike Sally in the previous film, she actually gets a chance to fight back on occasion and uses her own cunning to pacify Leatherface enough to stay alive (despite the aforementioned rapey vibes). In my opinion, she’s definitely the best final girl in the whole franchise.

As for Leatherface, his performance is… different. He doesn’t come across quite as dangerously stupid as he was in the first film and his mental deficiencies feel more like a gimmick than central to the character. I also don’t really like how the whole “sexual awakening” subplot was handled because it turns the character into something of a joke and is just deeply uncomfortable to witness. When Leatherface breaks into Stretch’s hiding place, he gets aroused while waving his chainsaw around and soaking Stretch in beer. Stretch seems to understand what’s going on and keeps egging him on, saying “You’re really good, aren’t you?” He then sticks his chainsaw between her legs and makes what can only be described as an o-face before he revs his chainsaw orgasmically and destroys the room in ecstasy… I mean, holy shit, it’s the sort of scene that I can barely believe exists, but there it is. It also makes Leatherface’s chainsaw gimmick retroactively icky, since it explicitly makes the chainsaw a penis metaphor, an association which I would argue isn’t particularly appropriate for this character since he has never really been about masculine aggression or sexualized violence (in fact, gender ambiguity was very much an element of the character that the previous film established). Having to spend the bulk of his scenes getting outshone by Chop Top is bad enough, but I just don’t find Leatherface nearly as compelling in this film. The only character moment he got that I really liked was when he finds Stretch in the meat locker and tries to hide her under a mask made from L.G.’s face skin, showing a bit more of the character’s twisted but identifiable logic, as he believes that this mask will keep her safe like it does for himself. Oh and speaking of skin masks, I am not a huge fan of his mask in this film, it looks much more rubbery than the previous film and more like a scary mask prop.

I’d also be remiss if I neglected to mention Tom Savini’s contributions to this film. While I feel like it’s some of his lesser work (in part perhaps because his best makeup effects were apparently left on the cutting room floor), there are some pretty gnarly scenes in this film, such as a yuppie getting his head chainsawed in half and Leatherface getting impaled by a chainsaw during his duel with Lefty. By far the most impressive effect in the film though is L.G.’s partially-skinned and face-less corpse standing up and helping Stretch while she’s wearing his face. It’s incredibly gruesome seeing the exposed muscle and bones and the makeup effects make far and away the most horrifying moment in the film.

How about this film’s themes? The original film had some surprisingly interesting themes beneath its simple exterior; could its sequel channel a similar spirit to comment on society in the 80s? Well… that is hard to say definitively. Defenders of the film, such as Joey Click at Fansided, like to point out that it “is a response to ’80s consumerism and the rise of yuppie culture. A perfect companion to John Carpenter’s They LiveThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a film steep in ideas of the almighty dollar becoming king […] From the opening, where the Sawyers literally kill two spoiled yuppies, the film is full of examples of pushing back against a culture emerging from Reaganomics. The Sawyers are feeding victims to people, so it’s almost literal.” Tobe Hooper and L.M. Kit Carson’s discussions about what the film reveal that it was conceived to support these ideas. However, I feel like there was something lost in translation. I didn’t grow up in the 80s so maybe I’m missing some of the context, but the film we got doesn’t feel like the biting satire that its defenders claim it is. As it is, we’ve got two yuppies getting gleefully murdered and then an hour and twenty minutes of a radio host getting terrorized by maniacs. Drayton makes a couple barbs once again about how small businessmen are getting screwed by Reagan’s politics, but again, when the film is about a regular, small town radio host getting terrorized it’s hard to say that this serves much thematic point. I don’t think you can justifiably call a film a satire of 80s consumer culture when only the opening scene makes any real substantial reference to it. If the deleted scenes of Leatherface and Chop Top killing yuppies had made their way into the film then it might have achieved that vision, but the film that was released does not. For what it’s worth though, Joey Click also claims that the original Chainsaw had no themes or commentary though, so take their opinion as you will.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a bit of a mess of a film. It’s all over the place and it definitely feels like the seven month production schedule seriously compromised the final product, not to mention the indications that Cannon screwed with Hooper’s vision for the sequel. However, I can appreciate its attempts to do something different and it is certainly never boring. There are also some fantastic individual elements, especially Bill Moseley’s standout, iconic performance. Hell, there are also some very memorable lines in this film, from the iconic “the saw is family”, to Dennis Hopper screaming “I am the Lord of the Harvest…”, “May God have mercy on us all!!!” and “BRING IT ALL DOWN!!!” It’s not the sort of sequel that I would have liked to see from the original creators, but I have warmed to it slightly more after understanding what it is that they were going for. It really is a bonkers film though, so I can only give it so much credit.

4.5/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we take a look at the third entry in the franchise, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III!

Retrospective: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Happy 2019 and what better way to start a new year than with a new retrospectives series? Consider it my gift to you! This time we’re dipping back into the horror well with one of the most iconic and storied slasher franchises, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Of course, that means that we’re going to start at the beginning today, with 1974’s landmark original, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (it’s worth noting that the original is the only film in the franchise which makes “chain saw” two separate words). I first saw this film during a late-night double feature at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa – they were showing the first two Chainsaw films back-to-back and it was possibly the coolest way to experience these films in their intended setting. Does the original still hold up 45 years later? Read on to find out…

A truly classic tagline right there, one of the best in cinema. For an old-school poster, it’s quite evocative too, showing one of the most iconic scenes in the film without truly spoiling it.

PRODUCTION
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of the first films by horror director Tobe Hooper, who would also go on to direct Poltergeist and the Salem’s Lot miniseries. Tobe Hooper came up with the concept for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre early in the 1970s. He was already working on a horror concept and was inspired by contemporary events at the time, such as Watergate and Vietnam, and by increasingly sensationalized and violent news coverage. He was also inspired by the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. According to Hooper, the titular chainsaw was inspired by a trip to the store where he wished that he could hack his way through the busy crowds.

The script was co-written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, who would form the backbone for the series going forward. Most of the actors involved were unknowns or knew Hooper personally. Most notable were Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty, Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer and Paul Partain as Franklin Hardesty – for all of them, Chain Saw was one of, if not their first, film roles.

The film’s budget was incredibly tight which caused numerous issues for the production. For one thing, most of the cast and crew were promised shares of the potential profits for the film. However, the value of these profits was really only a fraction of what was promised, since it was based on the profits of the production company, rather than the film itself. Furthermore, due to the desire to cut down on equipment rental costs, the filming schedule was extremely punishing on the cast and crew, filming every day for a month, up to 16 hours per day in hot and humid weather up to 43°C! Even worse, costumes couldn’t be washed due to continuity reasons (stains couldn’t disappear) and because they straight-up could not afford to replace lost costumes. This all contributed to some very dangerous conditions for the actors, all of whom acquired some level of injury during filming. Most notably, the extreme conditions caused Gunnar Hansen to have a mental breakdown and believe that he actually had to murder Marilyn Burns, leading to a scene in the film where he actually cuts her finger with a knife, drawing real blood. The scene were Kirk’s body is carved up with a chainsaw was also incredibly dangerous as it involved a real chainsaw being operated within inches of William Vail’s face, meaning that if he moved he would have actually been killed. All-in-all, the extremely limited budget made for a difficult shoot for the cast and crew, but it also led to some very notable elements of the film, such as its unconventional soundtrack and grainy, grimy aesthetic. It also led to Tobe Hooper aiming for a more commercially-viable PG rating, keeping most of the explicit gore off-screen. Naturally, the film was far too horrifying for this to ever happen, but the lack of explicit gore actually enhances the horror as it is largely left up to the viewers’ imagination to fill in the blanks.

The film was released with the intentionally misleading claim that it was based on a true story, a factor which was believed to have contributed to the film’s commercial success. The film also proved incredibly controversial for years, a fact which may also have contributed to its success. In addition to audiences walking out of cinemas in disgust, in Ottawa police advised theaters that they would face morality charges if they screened the film, the British film censors banned the film for years (in part because the word “chainsaw” was banned from movie titles), Australian censors banned the film for a decade, and was also banned in Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and West Germany. Despite this, the film grossed over $30 million on a budget of around $130,000, making it one of the most profitable independent films at the time. It also helped to kick off the slasher genre, being one of the most successful slashers since Psycho and ushering in the success of Halloween a few years later.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre follows a group of young adults who travel to rural Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin Hardesty’s grandfather. There have been reports of grave robbing at his cemetery so they want to make sure his grave has not been disturbed. Joining them is Sally’s boyfriend Jerry and their friends Pam and Kirk. On the way back they go to visit the Hardesty’s old home and pick up a hitchhiker along the way. The hitchhiker acts very strangely, cutting himself with a knife and then slashing Franklin’s arm with a straight razor when he refuses to pay for a picture the hitchhiker had taken. Naturally, they kick him out of the van and then continue on their way to the house, searching for gas for the van on the way (the only gas station they encounter has no gas available).

Kirk and Pam try to go swimming but stumble across another house nearby and decide to see if there’s any gas available there. When they enter the house, they are both picked off by a masked maniac named Leatherface, who bludgeons Kirk to death and then hangs Pam on a meat hook before carving Kirk’s body up with a chainsaw. When Kirk and Pam are late getting back, Jerry decides to check on them and also stumbles across the house, where he finds Pam locked in the freezer before Leatherface also bludgeons him to death. With night setting on, Sally and Franklin are both becoming very worried about their friends and set off to find them, but are found by Leatherface, who kills Franklin and chases Sally around the countryside until she makes her way back to the gas station. However, the seemingly-nice proprietor kidnaps her and then takes her back to Leatherface’s house, revealing that he, the hitchhiker and Leatherface are all brothers in a serial killing family. They psychologically torture Sally over dinner and then try to kill her for their next meal, but Sally manages to escape and flags a passing transport truck. The truck accidentally runs over the hitchhiker and the driver injures Leatherface before Sally gets into another passing truck and flees.

REVIEW
As you can probably tell from the plot summary, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a pretty simple, straightforward film from a narrative standpoint. Rather than making this film feel generic or mediocre, this simplicity actually helps to sell the film’s assertion that this is a “true story”. It’s not like this is a mid-80s slasher film where the villain is hunting his long-lost family and killing in over-the-top ways, it’s just about a bunch of regular people who stumble across a horrifying family when they venture to the fringes of society. So many elements of the film help sell this aspect, from the grainy, grimey aesthetic (which would be emulated in future films such as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), to the documentary-like filming style, to the unknown actors and their naturalistic performances. Even the film’s violence helps to sell the realism of the film. This certainly isn’t like a modern slasher which aims for creative and spectacular kills to help it stand out. Most of the kills here are sudden and brutal – Kirk and Jerry are both bludgeoned to death in a very quick and efficient manner, Kirk’s body and Franklin are chopped up by Leatherface off-screen and the Hitchhiker’s death by transport truck is also very sudden and not particularly gory. The disturbing imagery (mutilated corpses, stolen parts from robbed graves, etc) are also ripped straight from serial killer cases, most prominently Ed Gein. The film’s realistic feel is a major contributor to its success and why it is so disturbing. In fact, the ending doesn’t really make a lot of sense without this aspect – what purpose does the image of Leatherface flailing with his chainsaw in the sunset convey to the audience other than “the villain is still out there”? It’s so much more effective than the cheap jump scares that other horror movies think that they have to work in at the very end.

In addition to drawing on realism for horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has plenty of other ways to scare or unsettle its audience. The primal horror of getting chased by a masked maniac in the dark is obvious, but some of the most disturbing parts of this film are much more unconventional and interesting. My favourite technique is how Tobe Hooper will use extreme close-ups to disorient the audience and reveal bits and pieces of disturbing imagery, while cutting in between increasingly more terrified reaction shots of the characters. This is done on a couple different occasions. In the first, Pam falls in the Sawyer family living room and tries to take in the room, giving the audience snippets of bones and drawing the scene out as the audience pieces the scene together just like Pam, before revealing that the couch is adorned with human remains. The infamous dinner scene at the end of the film is also made all the more unsettling by the extreme close-ups of Marilyn Burns’ eyes, which project a look of abject terror which sells the scene and ratchets the intensity to stratospheric levels. A similar technique is also used in the opening scene where unearthed corpses are revealed in only momentary flashes from a camera. The audience’s imagination helps to fill in a lot of the blanks in all of these cases, a technique which The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leverages masterfully. Perhaps my favourite instance of this is in the opening credits, which play over a distorted, blood-red and black screen which is almost like a Rorschach test. This is made all the more unsettling by a voice over of news stories about death and violence, making these credits almost an image of madness, most of which is merely implied by the film and which is filled out in the audience’s minds.

I also want to give some attention to the acting in this film, because the performers are all universally great. Among the main cast, Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul Danziger (Jerry), William Vail (Kirk) and Teri McMinn (Pam) all put in very convincing and naturalistic performances, but I want to give a special shout-out to Paul Partain’s wheelchair-bound Franklin. His performance is also quite natural, but he gets much more to work with and really makes for a more interesting character than the rest of the principle cast. I really disliked this character the first time I watched the film – he’s always pushing the other characters’ buttons, getting himself into trouble and whining about his woes. However, on further viewings I have really gotten a soft spot for Franklin, because he really is getting screwed over constantly. For one thing, the other characters mostly see him as a burden who got brought on this trip with them, evidenced by how as soon as they reach the family house they abandon him to have fun by themselves. This is also evidenced by how Franklin asks Sally if she didn’t want him to come with them and she deflects, saying that she’s just tired, denoting that she obviously did not want him to come. In addition, he just constantly gets shit upon by the world – the very first time we see him, he has to go to the bathroom beside the road and gets knocked into a ditch by a passing truck. Then he gets his arm slashed open by a random hitchhiker’s straight razor. Then he gets left out while all of his friends have fun. Then he loses his pocket knife. Then when all of their friends start disappearing, he begins to panic at the thought of losing Sally too and just pitifully sticks with her even though he can’t keep up on the uneven terrain. Oh, and then he gets chainsawed to death by a masked maniac to boot. I just feel so sorry for the poor guy, he’s just having an awful day and everyone else is treating him like crap.

The villains are also all very interesting characters. The idea of having a family of serial killers is pretty unique and is an often-forgotten element of the Chainsaw movies which helps set it apart from the other slasher franchises. The first member of the family we meet, Edwin Neal’s unnamed hitchhiker (given the name Nubbins Sawyer in subsequent films), is very compelling. He has a speech impediment and clearly has some sort of mental health issue, but is also just gleefully sadistic. His introduction is tense because he’s so clearly unhinged and fascinated by violence. He also clearly has his own internal logic which makes sense to him but to the audience is completely unpredictable, making any sort of interaction all the more tense. This is demonstrated in a couple different interactions, such as when he takes Franklin’s knife and then cuts himself with it to see how sharp it is. It is also shown when Franklin refuses to pay the hitchhiker for a photo, which insults him and leads him to attack Franklin. In the hitchhiker’s mind, he did Franklin a courtesy and the refusal is like spitting in his face for a job that he did.

There’s also the gas station proprietor (given the name Drayton Sawyer in subsequent films), who is played to perfection by Jim Siedow. He’s almost like an evil Mr. Rogers in this film – he’s the nice guy of his family, the only one who is clearly sane. However, he’s unmistakably evil: he abuses people for no other reason than to assert his dominance (seen when he prods Sally while tied up and when he beats up his siblings, making up excuses for doing so), oversees the violence in the family and then secretly sells human remains at his gas station as barbecued meat (oh, and ere’s some second-viewing horror for you: Franklin ate some of that meat). He also really hates getting his hands dirty, as evidenced by his line about how he can’t stand killing, so he leaves that to Nubbins and Leatherface. He’s just a really great, colourful and memorable character; I’d argue that he gives the best performance in the whole film.

Before we get to Leatherface, I also want to mention Grandpa Sawyer. He has a very minor role in the film, but the family’s patriarch is almost corpse-like. In fact, during the chainsaw pursuit, Sally comes across Grandpa in the attic along with Grandma’s decaying corpse and I thought he was just another corpse in the Sawyer house on my first viewing. Then when they drag Grandpa down for dinner later I thought they were just lugging a corpse around, so imagine my surprise when it turned out that he was actually still holding on to life! It was a “WTF!?” moment for me for sure and just another element of what makes that dinner scene so unsettling. Are we meant to believe that this is actually happening, or has Sally gone truly insane?

Then there’s the most enduring aspect of this film, the main attraction himself, Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface. He’s such an interesting character and unlike most slasher villains. For one thing, he is obviously very mentally handicapped in this film (Gunnar Hansen attended a special needs school to study the students in preparation for the role) and is incapable of speech. In spite of this, he is arguably the most dangerous and sadistic member of the family. At one point, Drayton berates Nubbins for leaving his brother alone, implying that when left to his own devices Leatherface will just murder people indiscriminately. Like Nubbins, he has an identifiable but twisted logic in the film – from his perspective, people just keep invading his property and he’s defending it. He’s even visually shaken after killing Jerry, freaking out and looking out the windows to see if there are any other trespassers because he can’t understand what’s going on. However, he also clearly relishes in killing as he has a look of pure bliss as he carves people up. He even has some rudimentary, animalistic cunning, such as when he lures in Kirk and Jerry to their deaths by making pig noises. His mask is also a crucial aspect of the character. There are apparently three different masks worn in the film, each representing a different aspect of Leatherface. The most obvious are the iconic “killing” mask, which he wears to kill Kirk, Pam and Jerry. It has a really simple but great look in this film, like it’s very worn out and made in a very rough manner. It also shows off his eyes and mouth enough to allow Gunnar Hansen to be quite expressive. It might work best for me because it isn’t really designed to be a “scary flesh mask”, it just gets to be scary on its own merits (also, holy shit, I saw a face transplant article on CBC a while ago and they have pictures from the procedure… you could straight-up make a face mask like Leatherface’s in real life). He also wears two masks which are meant to make him look like a woman, which are possibly even more unsettling than the killing mask. He wears these during the dinner scene and they are meant to convey that Leatherface is trying to be “domestic” rather than a butcher at that time.

Despite being very simple on the surface, there’s a lot that you can say about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which makes it far more than just a really well-made slasher film. The most obvious theme to me is the divide between urban and rural, or society and savagery. Sally and her friends represent “civilized” urban society and when they venture into rural Texas it’s like a strange, unknown world to them. It feels like an American gothic story to me, where all of the evils of society are hidden just beneath the veneer of normalcy. Everyone in rural Texas is portrayed a being at least somewhat eccentric, from the straight-up psychopaths in the Sawyer family, to the drunken and crazy locals just hanging out at the graveyard. The land itself is even run down, from the shut-down slaughterhouse, to the quaint gas station, to the old homesteads that the group witnesses. The Sawyer family’s savagery seems like more of an extension of the reality that they live in, rather than some aberration unique to them. In their world, you have to do what you can to survive, including hunting to eat. I wonder if this is perhaps why Tobe Hooper decided to make Franklin a paraplegic to further show the divide between these two worlds. In the civilized world, Franklin can get by well enough, but as soon as he enters the rural parts of Texas he is getting attacked by the elements and the locals. Even his old family home can’t accommodate him in his state and he is ultimately killed by Leatherface because he’s unable to flee on the rough terrain. On a similar note, Kirk and Jerry are the men of the group and would traditionally be seen as the “protectors”, but the fact that they are overpowered almost instantly by Leatherface shows the might that he has in his own environment. Considering that the film has an early reference to cattle being killed with a hammer at the slaughter house in the “good ol’ days”, the fact that both of the men are killed this way clearly is meant to equate them with cattle in the Sawyers’ eyes.

And speaking of the slaughterhouse, that leads into another theme of the film which resonates with me regarding how capitalism is ruining the lives of rural people. Nubbins mentions that his grandfather and Leatherface used to work at the slaughterhouse and were legendarily good at killing cattle efficiently with a hammer blow. However, when bolt guns were introduced into the business it made the process even more efficient and presumably caused Leatherface’s job to be redundant. You could even argue that Grandpa’s living corpse is symbolic of the family’s refusal to let go of their past despite capitalism making their living obsolete. You can also see this economic depression in the fact that the Hardesty homestead has been abandoned and left unsold; no one wants the property anymore. Drayton also mentions when kidnapping Sally that he had to go back into the gas station and turn the lights off, because the price of wasted electricity is so expensive that it could put him out of business. You can connect the dots pretty easily for how a family on hard times with a talent for killing cattle would turn to murdering and eating people, all because economic opportunity has been drained from the community. You could also argue that this is why Nubbins takes Franklin’s refusal to pay for a photograph as such an insult. He believes that he did a favour for Franklin and gets screwed over for his work. This might even mirror the circumstances of Leatherface losing his job after years of loyal service, so Nubbins might be even more enraged by the snubbing as a result.

The other theme which I find particularly interesting is the concept of family. The traditional family dynamic is twisted in fascinating ways in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I’ve already mentioned how it’s unique that the film features a family of psychopaths, but it goes much deeper than that. The Sawyers have a traditional southern family, with grandpa as the patriarch and grandma having died some time ago. However, since he’s comatose and unable to lead the family, Drayton has had to take over as the head of the family, handing out abusive-levels of discipline to his brothers when they misbehave. Leatherface’s place is also quite interesting in this family – since the matriarch of the family has died, he wears masks with makeup on them to fill the void in the family. The family dynamic is most clearly felt during the dinner scene, which is clearly meant to be a nightmare version of the idea of “southern hospitality“, only now with human remains strewn everywhere, a family of psychopaths and the attempted murder of the guest. However, as twisted as the Sawyers’ notion of family is, it’s juxtaposed against the family dynamic of Sally and Franklin. Sally doesn’t get along with Franklin very well, in fact she seems to find him to be a burden that she is forced to bear. The only time they have any sort of familial moment is when Franklin asks if she wishes he didn’t come with them, but she clearly lies when she says that she’s just tired. In comparison to the Sawyers, the Hardesty family is more fractured and broken, even if it is more “conventional”.

As you can probably tell, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is far more than just an average slasher film. I don’t tend to like slasher films very much, but I really do love this one – it’s incredibly well made (especially considering the low budget which gets used as an asset rather than a hindrance), deceptively fascinating and deeply unsettling. Its status as a horror classic is undisputed and I would definitely put it up there as one of my favourite horror movies of all time.

8.5/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we move onto the next entry in the series, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2!

15 Best Movie Posters of 2018

If you’ve read any of my movie reviews, you might have noticed that I always have a whole blurb at the start of the review critiquing the design of the film’s poster. I really love a good movie poster, it’s a piece of art unto itself. Films that treat their poster as more than just a piece of marketing deserve special recognition, so what better way to do that than a year-end countdown?

Also… man, it’s hard to believe that the last time I did a movie posters best-of was 5 freaking years ago! I’ve always wanted to turn it into an annual thing, but it has never actually happened for whatever reason. Hell, I even had a folder with notable movie posters saved in 2015 or 2017, but the countdown just never materialized. So, with any luck, this will be commencement of the first annual IC2S Best Movie Poster countdown!

(Images come courtesy of the film poster database Internet Movie Poster Awards.)

Honourable Mention: The Predator

This poster deserves special mention just because of how weird it is. This is one of a series of stylized posters featuring the Predator living a “cool” lifestyle of playing basketball, skateboarding and break-dancing. It’s such a bonkers design, made even weirder by the tongue-in-cheek “ALIEN” brand on their computer and basketball jersey. The neon graffiti aesthetic is also so at odds with Predator that this whole thing becomes really interesting. I mean, it’s more respectful to the franchise than The Predator was at the very least.
15) Acrimony

Acrimony has a couple really cool posters, but in my opinion this one is the best of them. Maybe I’m somewhat biased (red and black are my favourite colour combination), but the poster itself is just quite striking and says a lot about the film and the dangerous nature of its protagonist through its use of imagery. Plus, if Acrimony‘s Tomatometer is anything to go by, its posters are higher art than the film itself.

14) Isle of Dogs

This poster works on a few different levels, any one of which could be enough to get someone to want to see the film. First of all, it shows off the film’s unique artstyle with each of its colourful characters on display. It also hints at Wes Anderson’s particular “flat” style of directing, something which would excite anyone who had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox. Furthermore, it also shows the film’s Japanese setting, not only with the title and sole human character, but with the way that the dogs are arranged vertically as if they were kanji. Character posters are an overdone trope with major releases these days (one that Isle of Dogs is not immune to), but it’s nice to get a poster like this which shows off all of the characters in the film in an equal light, from the major to the minor, while also conveying that the film’s style is as important as any singular element.

13) Goodland

This poster mainly makes the list because, I mean look at it, it’s a gorgeous composition. The reflection in the water also has some thematic significance for the film, representing how the events of the film turn everything upside down. It’s just a cool, visually striking poster, one that could easily be considered art unto itself.

12) Active Measures

Visually, this isn’t a particularly complex poster. Rather, this one succeeds for just how effectively it conveys the idea of the film through simple images. The sheer scale of the maze also goes to show that this isn’t a simple affair, rather things have been progressing and going in Putin’s favour for a long time to get them to the point where they could potentially have influence in the highest levels of the White House.

11) Ant-man and the Wasp

A list of the best movie posters of the year is never complete without one good Drew Stuzan-style poster and I had a few candidates to go with this year. While Black Panther, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War all had posters competing for a spot, I ultimately went with Ant-man and the Wasp. I just thought that the red, gold and white looked far more striking than any of its competitors. The equal prominence of Ant-man and Wasp as the co-leads also helped as it lent the poster just a bit more flavour to the composition, splitting the cast in half down the middle. Ultimately, it just makes the film look like a ton of fun, which is exactly what the Ant-man franchise is going for, moreso than any other Marvel franchise.

10) The American Meme

This poster for The American Meme goes to show why taglines are so important. There are a few different posters for this documentary, but this one is definitely the most eye-catching of the bunch. The tagline and image alone are enough to convey the idea that one should be cautious on social media, which is enough to make me intrigued on what sort of angle the filmmakers are going to take. In fact, of the films on this list that I haven’t seen, this is one that I am definitely going to check out entirely because of the poster. I’m not sure what higher praise you could give a film poster than that.

9) Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

This is another one of those posters on this list which earns its place mostly by just being really cool and well-composed. It does get some points as well for managing to convey that this isn’t “just another Spider-man movie”, with its animation style, different costume for Miles Morales and the clothing he’s wearing over the costume which helps convey his character. Oh, and to top it off, the poster just makes this film look like a ton of fun.

8) Beats of Rage

…and speaking of fun, we’ve got Beats of Rage. There were a couple films in 2018 with 80s arcade-inspired posters, but Beats of Rage takes the cake in my opinion. I have absolutely no idea what this film is about, but the poster is making me interested just due to how insane it looks. Is this like a mash-up between Mad Max and Dance Dance Revolution? I almost want to watch it to find out, but I feel like there’s no way it can live up to the insanity in my head.

7) The Endless

This is one gorgeously haunting poster. It almost looks like it could be a pretty cool desktop background, but the poster is also designed in such a way as to make it simultaneously unsettling to look at. The darkness encroaching throughout the image, the gigantic cosmic portal dwarfing the human characters and the humans all getting sucked into the vortex all make for a creepy image. This is another one of those posters that gets me interested on its own and having looked into the film more as a result, it sounds enthralling.


6) The Meg

The Meg had some of the funnest and most impressive marketing campaigns of the year, promising an entertaining popcorn film with a shark bigger than any other (whether the film delivered on that promise is up for debate). The posters helped to build up that hype, that this was a shark movie for the modern blockbuster age. I liked this poster the most, as it shows off the scale along with some humour in the process, while also riffing on Jaws.

5) Avengers: Infinity War

There were quite a few cool posters for Infinity War (even the obligatory, normally-boring character posters were pretty great), but this series of five posters were by far the best and most stylish. Thanos takes the center poster, but the two posters to either side of him feature stylized versions of all of the major characters in Infinity War. It just goes to show just how epically unprecedented the scale of this film is, while also just looking super cool in its own right.

4) Deadpool 2

Unsurprisingly, Deadpool 2 had a slew of great posters to choose from, but this one was definitely my favourite. For one thing, it just looks really stylish and eye-catching. Most importantly though, the meta aspect of it is just pure Deadpool, made even better with all the random extras in the audience super excited to see the movie and Deadpool’s own enthralled expression. The marketing really shows off the character’s unique sense of humour and why this isn’t “just another superhero movie”.

3) Truth or Dare

Man, it was super hard to pick between the top 3 entries on this list, they were all super close. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this poster is that it’s for freaking Truth or Dare. Look at that thing, it makes you flinch and promises a far more brutal film than what you would be actually getting into. Furthermore, the neon green and pink style of the poster is really interesting and eye-catching. If there’s one thing I don’t like about this poster, it’s the stupid “Truth or Dare” grin on the corners of the skull’s face, but that’s more of a failing of the people who made this movie rather than the poster itself. I really wish that this was a poster for a better movie, it it does go to show that sometimes the marketing can transcend the film it’s trying to sell.

2) The Clovehitch Killer

Everything about this poster is so unsettling, from the sleeping victim to the masked killer, the washed out colours, the incongruous domestic setting, the voyeuristic framing, even the title which contextualizes everything and makes it even creepier. This is another one of those films that I am definitely going to check out this year based on nothing more than this extremely unsettling poster. I mean, if the poster is this artfully disturbing, you’d hope that the film itself can capture some of that energy right? I look forward to finding out!

And now for our winner of the 2018 IC2S Movie Poster awards… Drum roll please!

1) Free Solo

OH GOD. If ever there was a poster that conveyed exactly what the film was about, this has to be up there among the most evocative. Like… how. How do you manage to make that climb? Can you even take breaks on the way up? How does he survive? Good God, how high is that cliff!? Has a poster alone ever given someone vertigo before? I have so many questions because of this poster and the only way I can get my answers in a satisfactory manner is to watch Free Solo. Again, there is absolutely no greater praise you can give to a poster than that and I have seen few posters that have pulled that off greater than this.