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!

Movie Review: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

There few experiences more baffling in enjoying movies than coming across a movie which is incredibly flawed, but that you love regardless. It’s exactly how I feel about the absolutely brilliant, but fundamentally hamstrung Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and it seems like a lot of people have been feeling this about Suicide Squad as well. Recently, I rewatched another film which I felt was brilliant but flawed, the 2006 slasher film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane… and dammit, I just cannot stop thinking about it. The film is way deeper than it might appear at first glance, or even more than pretty much any slasher film I can think of for that matter, and yet it feels like the film was totally passed over and in need of a revisiting.

Good God that is a gorgeous poster, largely thanks to the equally-gorgeous Amber Heard. Fantastic tagline too, this poster basically single-handedly sold me on the film years ago when I first saw it.

Oh, and be warned – I’m going to attempt to dig deep into this film’s themes, so expect spoilers galore. Got it? Good.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane revolves around a girl, Mandy Lane, who comes off of summer vacation to find that everyone in the school now seems to agree that she has become smokin’ hot in the past couple months. She is content to stick with her nerdy friend, Emmett, but with her newfound attention, she starts drawing the eyes of the popular guys on campus, including football jock Dylan and his friends, Jake, Bird, Red, and also the admiration of these guys’ girl-friends, Marlin and Chloe. Dylan invites Mandy to a party in hopes of hooking up with her, but Mandy insists that Emmett has to come if she does, much to Dylan’s consternation. True to form, Dylan tries to seduce Mandy unsuccessfully, but then Emmett makes him look like a fool, causing Dylan to punch him in the face. Later, Emmett heads to Dylan’s roof to look down on the partiers, but Dylan comes up and tells him to get down. Emmett then convinces Dylan that he needs to do something to impress Mandy and make her fall for him – like jumping from the roof into his pool. Dylan decides to risk it and jumps, but strikes his head on the edge of the pool and is killed instantly.

9 months later, pretty much everyone in the school hates Emmett, and Mandy has seemingly moved on to the more popular cliques. She receives an invitation to go to a house party at Red’s ranch, which she agrees to attend along with Jake, Bird, Marlin and Chloe. All 3 of the guys brag about how they will be the “first” to hook up with Mandy, while Chloe and Marlin both vie for Jake’s attention. Throughout the party, Mandy is subjected to attempts to seduce her by the guys (particularly Jake and Bird), but she is very tepid about going along with the advances – she clearly isn’t interested, but the guys try regardless. Red’s ranch hand, Garth, shows up around the property at various points to keep things in order, and Mandy clearly finds him instantly intriguing (as does Chloe).

As the night goes on, Chloe and Marlin make a joke about Jake having the smallest penis at the party, which causes him to storm out in a huff towards the barn. Marlin chases after him and proceeds to give him an apologetic blowjob, but when it comes time to reciprocate, Jake just laughs and tells her to piss off. Marlin is furious, but is suddenly attacked and fatally wounded by a hooded assailant. Unaware of this, Jake returns to the house to try to force Mandy to sleep with him, but she rebuffs him aggressively. Frustrated, Jake gives up on Mandy and steal’s the group’s only vehicle and a gun as he drives off in a drunken stupor to find Marlin for another round. When he finds her, he gets drawn into a trap, where he is shot in the head by the hooded assailant.

The partiers hear the shot and assume that it’s Jake acting stupid and drunk, but Garth threatens to put an end to the party. Mandy manages to convince him to hold off until morning at least, until the car drives back to the house and the driver (who the partiers assume is Jake) launches a firecracker at them. Bird chases after the truck and Garth threatens to call Red’s parents, but they decide to just put an end to the party instead. When Bird catches the truck, he finds that the hooded assailant is actually Emmett. The pair fight, but Emmett ends up slashing Bird across the eyes to blind him before stabbing him to death.

The next morning, Emmett sneaks into the house to admire Mandy and leave a blood-stained message. Realizing that something is badly wrong, Garth tries to lead the group out of the ranch, but is shot in the shoulder by Emmett. Red and Chloe make a break for it out the back door of the ranch to get help, but Emmett intercepts them and shoots Red. Chloe runs back to the house to try to get Mandy to help her, but when she runs into her arms, Mandy stabs her to death. We discover that Mandy has been in on this with Emmett all along, and they had planned to kill the popular kids is a testament to their love for one another. However, when Emmett insists that Mandy kill herself and then shoot him in the heart, Mandy decides against this. Emmett becomes infuriated and tries to kill her, but Garth suddenly appears and shoots Emmett, wounding him. Emmett stabs Garth a few times before chasing after Mandy with a machete. The pair fight, but Mandy gets the upper hand and stabs Emmett to death. She then heads back to find Garth and save his life by rushing him to the hospital.

From the plot synopsis, it probably sounds like the film is pretty standard for the genre, but there are a few things which make it stand out. First of all, the film is absolutely gorgeous, with some fantastic cinematography from Darren Genet. That said, the night scenes, which make up the bulk of the film, aren’t nearly as memorable as his unnerving, incredibly harshly lit daytime segments, which run the gamut from an almost-tender shot of hand-holding in the sunset (if not for the rapey connotations of the scene itself) to the almost documentary-style way that the camera tracks Chloe as she runs away, screaming, as Emmett chases after her in his truck. Much of the film reminds me of the harsh, washed-out grittiness of Tobe Hooper’s slasher classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which almost-certainly was a major visual influence on the film.

The performances in the film are also fairly solid. No one really stood out to me as being poor, although the only one who stood out to me as particularly noteworthy was Whitney Able as Chloe. It might be because that character had the best material to work with, but she goes from “typical mean-girl cheerleader stereotype” to a truly pitiable and tragic person that I genuinely felt sorry for… unlike basically every other character in this not named “Mandy”. I also thought that Luke Grimes played a really contemptible asshole with Jake, putting in enough smugness that he’s kind of entertaining to watch rather than being unbearable (you should have been taking notes, all you irritating sacks of shit from Project X). I’d like to say that Amber Heard did great as Mandy, but I’m a little indifferent on her performance. To be totally fair though, she’s playing a character who spends the vast majority of the film in a (seemingly) passive role, so she isn’t able to really assert herself until the end (where she does a good job). If nothing else though, she definitely has the looks to sell the idea that these guys are all going crazy over her.

My main beef with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane though comes down to the script side of things. If you go into this expecting a slasher film, then you’re probably going to find that it’s fairly boring – very little seems to happen during its middle segment, and you literally get 60+ minutes into the film with more than half of the total body count occurring before any of the characters even realize that there might be a killer on the loose. For my first viewing, I was just sitting there watching the movie slowly go by with characters just getting killed off occasionally, seemingly without much consequence in the film itself, which was making me wonder what the whole point was.

However, the film is much more interesting on that second viewing, where you already know what you’re going in for and have your context recoloured. I didn’t miss the film’s clear commentary on aggressive hypersexuality the first time (it’s incredibly in-your-face about it), but when you go into the film realizing that it’s the entire point of the film (rather than being a generic slasher), it makes the film so much more coherent. My understanding of gender relations has also improved considerably since I first watched this film, which helped colour my perception quite a bit. When I first saw this movie, I was probably leaning more on the idea that this was a “Beta Uprising” slasher film and kind of empathized a little bit with Emmett. I had realized there were feminist themes to Mandy Lane in my initial viewing, but after my second viewing it seems pretty clear to me that the film is just saturated in them.

Of course, most reviewers picked up on the feminist themes in the film, but some didn’t think that the film’s approach was successful. Bitch Flicks’ review of Mandy Lane claims that the film stops short of being feminist because they felt that the film was declaring Chloe and Marlin were traditional slasher “whores” who were deserving of their deaths, and claimed that the film would have been better if they had only killed off the men as a message about the harmfulness of toxic masculinity*. However, I believe that this analysis was unfortunately shallow and off-center since they seem to think that Mandy is supposed to be the film’s innocent feminist icon. In particular, I’m not so sure that the film is condoning Marlin or Chloe’s death for being sexually active like they claim – after all, Chloe’s death in particular was incredibly sad and didn’t occur to me as being “comeuppance” like “whore deaths” so often do in slasher films.

From the moment that the film begins, Mandy is absolutely immersed in a culture of in-your-face hypersexuality and superficial relations. There’s a clear element of sexual entitlement amongst most of the male characters, as nearly all of them seem to believe that they are going to be sleeping with Mandy at some point. Even the least-aggressively entitled character, Red, seems to think that he is going to get with her at some point, despite not actually doing anything to see this hope through. In my opinion, the superficial relationships on display throughout the film are one of the first keys to understanding the narrative. If you pay attention you’ll find that, for all of their big talk about hooking up with Mandy, none of “the boys” actually bother trying to get to know her. Most of the time, their interactions with Mandy seem to come down to gazing at her lustfully, telling one of the other guys that “they’re gonna hit that” and then trying to woo her with transparently-empty attempts at charm. Chloe and Marlin aren’t much better – despite supposedly being best friends, the two girls constantly tear each other down, such as Chloe’s repeated insistence that Marlin is fat (she isn’t) or Marlin insulting Chloe for having pubic hair (which she insults as being “Sherwood Forest” down there). Both girls are completely complicit in the boys’ objectification of them. In particular, Chloe’s relationships also clearly revolve around the superficial – she spends the entire party trying to get with Jake, and when he ignores her she tries to seduce Garth in turn, unsuccessfully. In one of the film’s more tragic scenes, she also laments to Mandy in private that Mandy is so much prettier than her. Her melancholy tone conveys utter defeat, but the fact that this is the first thing she really says to attempt to connect with Mandy suggests that prettiness is the only thing that she really understands. Honestly, I think that this exchange might have been the moment which sealed her fate at the film’s end.

However, the film gives us a clear counter-point to the superficial relationships in the film in the form of Garth (pay attention, this is going to become a trend). Garth is the one character who actually makes an effort to get to know Mandy, and without the ulterior motive of trying to fool her into sleeping with him for that matter. In fact, during one of their bonding moments, he ends up feeling like he can’t be with Mandy because she is “about 10 years” too young for him. This conveys that he respects her and finds her very interesting, but doesn’t want to force a relationship with someone so much younger than him, while also standing in stark contrast to the other guys, who only really talk with Mandy if they think it’ll get them closer to sleeping with her. It’s also worth noting that Garth demonstrates his responsibility and seriousness throughout the film – on a number of occasions he decides not to party with the teens because he has work to do around the ranch, or he wants to keep them safe. Contrast this to Bird, who only volunteers to walk to the ranch because he thinks he will get to hook up with Mandy on the way there, or who gets pissed off when he needs to restart the generator because he thinks he’ll miss another opportunity. Mandy, for her part, clearly finds Garth very intriguing, but unlike Chloe, she wants to get to know him and not just use him as a one night stand.

The second major key to understanding the film is the idea of sexual competition. This is made very obvious near the beginning of the film when Emmett chases after Mandy wearing a shirt which has “natural selection” written across the front of it, which is intended to convey the old “survival of the fittest”/Social Darwinian philosophy shared by assholes everywhere. Going along with the superficial relationships, the film is absolutely awash in hypersexual competition amongst the characters. Pretty much every sexual reference which is clearly framed in a negative light is linked to some form of attempt to tear down or compete with others. Just as a short list of examples, we have Chloe insisting Marlin is fat, Marlin’s comments about Chloe’s “Sherwood Forest”, Jake bragging about having hooked up to girls from 42 of the 50 States, Bird volunteering to walk back to the ranch so he can get rather rape-y with Mandy, Jake refusing to reciprocate to Marlin after she gives him a blowjob, etc. One particular instance that deserves further elaboration though is when Jake’s rather extreme reaction when Chloe and Marlin agree that he has the smallest dick in the room. Jake is such a toxically-masculine character who has been constantly attempting to one-up everyone, that this rather public declaration of him having the smallest manhood is nothing short of a devastating blow to his ego (especially since he’s trying to get with Mandy at the time). This explains why he gets so worked up about something so trivial, because as far as he is concerned, he’s the top of the pile, the alpha male if you will. Chloe also comes to fit into a similar mold as the film progresses. She brushes off the “Sherwood Forest” comment at the time, but later in the film, she is seen breaking down and crying as she attempts to trim her pubic hair in order to up her perceived value. At one point, we also see that she wears a padded bra in order to make it appear that her breasts are bigger than they actually are – a superficial and somewhat short-sighted move in many respects, but one which allows her to compete more “effectively”.

It’s also pretty clear that all the obsession about Mandy is just an extension of this hypersexual competition. Everyone wants to get with the “pure virgin”, Mandy Lane because she is unconquered, and whoever gets to her first will have their status instantly boosted as a result. In contrast, Marlin and Chloe are both sexually active, so hooking up with them isn’t considered particularly desirable. This is most clearly demonstrated when Jake finally gives up on Mandy and decides to just go have sex with Marlin again, claiming that he’s going to go “back to the well”. There’s a sense that if any of the guys do get with Mandy, then that will be the end of it – they may obsess over her now, but that’s only because she is “pure”. If she started indulging the boys’ desires, then their interest in her will wane considerably until her “sexual currency” is worthless. The toxic masculinity of this mindset is extremely clear and should be distressingly familiar to anyone who anyone who pays much attention to the manosphere (particularly pick-up artists): the idea that real men should be having lots of sexual partners, but women who have had lots of sexual partners are dirty, worthless whores with shrivelled vaginas. The hypocrisy of this mindset is staggering, but in Mandy Lane, Marlin and Chloe are complicit in it – it’s not a coincidence that both girls are lusting after Jake, the biggest misogynist in the entire group. It’s also worth noting that this competition for Mandy’s attention ends up coming down to grand gestures (eg, Dylan jumping from the roof into the pool, as if that would make Mandy instantly drop her panties for him) or really transparent lies that they think will impress her (eg, Bird claiming that he “respects the woman” and then forcing Mandy to hold his hand and give him a not-so-innocent kiss on the cheek… as if his words speak louder than his actions). Who does end up impressing Mandy, you may wonder? Garth, who just… is. He doesn’t do any grand gestures or lie to try to impress her, he just is himself and does the right thing when it is needed. He out-battles the competition without even having to consciously compete.

The third key to understanding the film is in Emmett’s role… which, compared to the other two keys, the film doesn’t shed quite so many answers on, and so interpretation is going to be relied on a bit more. Based on the previous two keys though, it would seem to me that Emmett is representative of a different, more primal sort of “competition” than the other boys are involved in. I believe that this is the entire point of the film’s opening 10 minutes, which focuses almost entirely on interaction between Dylan and Emmett. In this opening, Dylan attempts to woo Mandy through sweet words, charms and his physique. Emmett very clearly realizes that he can’t compete with Dylan in this arena, as demonstrated by the scene of him standing in front of the mirror without a shirt… which he then puts back on in defeat before sitting alone at the pool during the party. However, when he heads up to the roof, Emmett figures out that he can compete using his brain and convinces Dylan to effectively commit suicide. In Emmett’s (clearly sociopathic) mind, he may think “sure, Dylan might have been a more charming fellow and have a nicer body, but what good does that do him if he’s dead and I’m not?” Emmett may hate the superficial nature of the popular kids in the film, but many ways, he’s not much different than they are.

Emmett’s ruthlessness can ultimately be boiled down to just more gestures and competition – on a far more vicious scale, but gestures and competition none-the-less. He believes that Mandy is impressed by his viciousness (and, to some degree, she kind of is), so he attempts to escalate it show just how devoted he really is. His obsession pushes him too far though, as the gestures and the ideas become the real thing he’s in love with. For example, I believe that Emmett is basically holding Mandy up like a goddess of purity. When he kills Marlin, just after she gives Jake a blowjob, he is particularly vicious. He forces her to fellate the barrel of a rifle before breaking her neck, a level of sadistic “comeuppance” which he doesn’t reserve for any of the other characters. While Bitch Flicks might argue that this is just a misogynist moment of “slasher-flick whore punishment”, I’m not entirely convinced that that is the intention – rather, I think it is intended to signify Emmett’s own sense of twisted misogyny which has developed from his obsession over a single, idealized woman. It is certainly within reason to believe that he views Marlin as a worthless slut who gratifies other men, unlike his perfect angel, Mandy, hence why he forces Marlin to fellate the gun barrel (an image which effectively symbolizes “sex = death”).

The crux of Emmett’s big display at the film’s end is that he and Mandy have a suicide pact, which he believes will show his ultimate devotion to her to the entire world. In fact, he believes that this display will be so effective that it will inspire “copycat killings”, like they’re the Romeo & Juliet of mass murderers. However, what would this gesture actually do for Mandy? The only person who “benefits” from this suicide pact is Emmett, because it will show the entire world just how much he loved Mandy Lane, while preserving her role in the plot so that everyone will still believe her to be the pure, virginal woman (in fact, if she’s dead, then she’s eternally untarnished). In a sense, the mass murder and then suicide pact would (in Emmett’s mind) set him up as the ultimate conqueror – the man who overcame all the other men he was competing with in a permanent sense and then won Mandy’s heart forever. Does he really “love” Mandy though, or is he in love with this idealized notion of her? The fact that he goes berserk when Mandy rejects the suicide pact suggests to me that he’s in love with his idealized angel and his own grand gesture, rather than Mandy as an actual person with her own beliefs and wishes. Ultimately, Emmett reveals that he’s no better than Jake or Bird – forcing his will on Mandy and believing that he is entitled to her, but unable to comprehend that maybe she isn’t interested (the fact that she rejects his suicide offer by saying “you should never do anything for me” just hammers this home harder).

As screwed up as that mindset is, I’ve been to the sorts of places that Emmett’s mind has gone in this film, and so I find his logic disturbingly understandable (y’know, minus the murder). In high school, I was obsessed with this one “pure” Christian girl who I missed my very brief chance of dating before she moved on. However, I couldn’t get over her and ended up shielding her from other guys in the school who I thought we assholes, much in the same manner. In fact, at one point I was sorely tempted to push one asshole down the stairs who wouldn’t stop creeping on her, and at the time I decided against it… because she’d probably sympathize with him and not me. Now I probably would have been too level-headed to actually go ahead with it, but that was the sort of obsessively-screwed up I was in high school. I was also so obsessed with her purity aspect that I was very consciously shutting out any sort of sexual thoughts or feelings in regards to her, and would get pretty furious if other people spoke about her in a sexual way. In fact, it was unhealthy enough that I wondered what the hell I would do if we ever did actually end up dating and get together, I’d probably not be able to cognitively handle it. So… yeah. You can probably understand why I saw a lot of Emmett in myself when I first watched this film.

The final key to understanding the film is Mandy herself, or rather, understanding her motivations. We’re never really given an entirely clear understanding of why she turns on her supposed “friends”, to what extent she was involved in their murders, or exactly why she turns on Emmett at the end (although, as I stated above, it’s likely that she had come to realize that he was no better than the other boys). As I wrote earlier, I think Bitch Flicks makes a mistake in holding up Mandy as a straight feminist symbol in the film. While there are certainly feminist ideals attached to her, her sociopathy makes it a little difficult to view her as a simple, Nathaniel Hawthorne-style walking symbol. It’s pretty clear that she’s not just railing against the patriarchy throughout the film, but that’s hardly enough to make the film “not feminist”. Rather, to me she seems to be more of an independent character through which feminist themes are explored.

In an initial viewing of the film, it feels like Mandy is a passive figure for most of the action. She spends most of the film being gazed at while other characters attempt to get with her, or is off somewhere else while those characters get brutally killed. However, on a second viewing, it becomes much more clear that she is in control nearly the entire time. Scenes where she appeared passive as she watches the other characters bragging about sexual conquests or belittling one another gain a sinister subtext as we realize that Mandy is not just witnessing – she’s cataloguing their sins. She’s an interesting sort of slasher anti-hero – instead of hunting down and killing the characters, she influences other people to eliminate the characters for her. This also is where I disagree with Bitch Flicks’ assessment that we’re supposed to hold her up as a pure feminist example, because as the film goes on, it’s pretty clear that we’re not supposed to be condoning the deaths of the characters. Chloe and Red in particular begin to grow close during the increasing stress of the night and are set up in a manner which makes it seem like both of them are blossoming into a real relationship which could help them both (particularly Chloe with her tortured self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy). However, when they are both dispatched, it is a truly tragic and heart-wrenching moment which we pretty clearly are meant to not feel good about. I’d rather see these characters become good people than lose their lives as punishment for their mistakes, but Emmett and Mandy see things otherwise.

Where does Mandy’s murderous motivation come from though? This is a puzzle that I had to mull over for quite a while because the movie doesn’t give us a straight answer. However, I think I might have come up with a convincing answer: the one big common feature which unites Mandy and Garth is the fact that both of them have lost someone incredibly close to them (in Mandy’s case, her parents; in Garth’s, his wife). If you’ve ever lost someone close, or listen to the Dead Things podcast, you’ll know that it’s a life-altering event which changes your entire outlook on the world. Now picture this – Mandy is surrounded by this superficial, belittling hypersexuality, which she has come to realize is meaningless next to the grand scope of mortality. Then, after the summer break, she comes back to school and suddenly finds herself immersed in the fickleness of this superficial attention, which causes her to resent it even more. She’s almost like the Jigsaw killer, lashing out at people for not appreciating their lives, and the lives of other people who they just use and abuse. This idea is also demonstrated when Mandy kills Emmett, declaring that she wants to finish high school instead of dying for him, suggesting to me that Emmett isn’t even really all that cognisant of the finality of his own actions.

There is also a seemingly inconsequential scene in this film which I think really hammers home this link between Mandy, Garth and death. During one conversation, Garth reveals that he had to kill off the entire herd of cattle at Red’s farm because they came down with an illness, to which the partiers are incredulously surprised that he had the stomach to eliminate the entire herd by himself. As Garth explains, it was his responsibility and it had to be done. The fact that Mandy and Emmett have their final confrontation in the mass grave that these cows were buried pretty-explicitly draws a link between the characters and this idea of eliminating the diseased for the greater good. For Emmett, eliminating the other characters improves his standing and acts as a gesture of his devotion to her. For Mandy, it would seem that she shares Garth’s view – she views the superficial, the toxically masculine, the competitors, as the diseased which must be eliminated for the good of the “herd”, and values honesty and the responsibility to step up and do what is necessary – hence why she turns on Emmett. This also helps to explain why she likes Garth so much, because she sees a connection in this philosophies… although Garth may not see them as quite so similar if he understood Mandy’s true nature.

And that’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. I do hope that I helped shed some light on why I love this film so much, in spite of its rather slow plotting in the middle. I understand the reasoning behind it, but I can’t help but be kind of deflated by the way that the film kind of drags and feels inconsequential at times. If you look into the film beyond the surface level though, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is a real treat full of interesting themes and ideas – I mean, after all, isn’t looking beyond the skin what Mandy would want you to do anyway? Something to consider.

7/10

*For one thing, this could easily be construed as misandrist, which is something that the feminist community doesn’t need to be getting legitimately thrown our way. Furthermore, I believe that the existing message in the film is more nuanced than that heavy-handed sort of conclusion would have been anyway.

Retrospective: Final Destination 5 (2011)

Welcome back for the 5th and final entry in the Final Destination retrospective! In this post we’re covering the latest entry in the franchise, Final Destination 5. As I have mentioned previously in this retrospective, in pre-production it was being bantered around as 5nal Destination, although this was thankfully changed very quickly. That was one good decision, but after the disastrous The Final Destination, did anyone expect this to be any better than that? Was Final Destination doomed to the same law of diminishing returns which has plagued every other slasher series? Well, read on and find out…

Once again, before I go any further, I just have to mention that Final Destination 5 had some great promotional posters. I guess I’m a bit of a sucker for a great poster, but the art team really outdid themselves with this one. Some of them are just painful to look at (in a good way), but really capture the morbid spirit of the series quite well… in fact, the one with the rebars was so effective that it ended up getting banned by the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK… unwarranted in my opinion, but if they thought that was bad, then I would just hope they haven’t seen the DVD cover for Severance

Anyway, after the shit-show that was The Final Destination (one which I enjoyed somewhat, but guiltily), it looked like the series was going to die… until the studio execs saw the box office numbers coming in. The damn movie made $186 million worldwide. Despite the big “THE” in its title, the producers decided that it was more of a suggestion than commitment and so set about working on a 5th entry in the franchise. However, thankfully, they knew they’d screwed up with The Final Destination and wanted to set things right. They claimed that they wanted to make the movie more suspenseful and dark. That’s all well and good, but talk is talk: remember what they said about wanting to use 3D properly and not just fling things at the audience in the previous movie? Marketing buzz is cheap, results are all that is really worthwhile in Hollywood.

Perhaps the most intriguing production news surrounding the film was that neither series directors James Wong or David R. Ellis were returning (Ellis was probably not asked back after the poor reception of The Final Destination and/or because he was working on Shark Night 3D and Wong… probably because everyone hated Dragonball Evolution and/or because he was working on the much ridiculed TV show, The Event). Instead, the producers announced the acquisition of a new director, Steven Quale. This was Quale’s first major film, having only directed a TV movie and the documentary Aliens of the Abyss. However, the man did have some impressive credits to his name, being second unit director on both Titanic and Avatar. As you can probably guess from his short CV here, the man is friends with James Cameron. In fact, apparently it was James Cameron who personally recommended him to direct this movie, which is pretty damn impressive. So, a man who has connections to the legendary James Cameron was going to be directing Final Destination 5? Colour me intrigued…

Well enough about the production and now onto the meat of the film itself. The characters are what you’d expect from this series – not the worst, but not the best either. I can’t say any of the leads did a standout job, but they were all serviceable. The tradition of throwaway characters continues though, with 4 obvious ones this time around (and 1 red herring): Isaac Palmer (who went to the Frankie Cheeks school of douche-baggery), Dennis Lapman (“the boss”, although he’s so throw-away in this movie that it’s actually quite hilarious), Olivia Castle (the obnoxious but pretty girl in the cast) and Roy Carson (the angry factory worker, who actually wasn’t even a part of the actual disaster). The red herring, Nathan (an intentionally subverted token black guy), is actually pretty cool, although he’s not given enough time to develop. While this is a bit of a problem in most Final Destination movies, it’s less of an issue here, since there are some actual character development moments built into the script, so I actually found myself sympathizing with the non-expendables (as few in number as they were).

As expected, the film follows the same basic set-up as the other movies, but with a bit of a twist… which we’ll get to in a minute. First of all, we have to talk about the absolutely spectacular opening disaster. In fact, it was declared one of the single best sequences of any film all year, in a year which included such movies as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the final Harry Potter film, Sucker Punch and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s not even empty praise either – it really earned it. Don’t believe me? Well I’ll let it speak for itself:

It’s pretty clear that Quale has learned a great deal about spectacle from Mr. Cameron, because this scene is very Cameron-esque in its crowd-pleasing scope. I haven’t seen it in 3D, but from what I hear, it’s fantastic and I can believe it. The depth provided by it must make the viewing experience absolutely dizzying, and further plays (and preys) on peoples’ fear of heights. If I had to complain about this sequence, I’d say that I’m a little off-put by the sudden emphasis on gore, but it doesn’t really take away from the scene all that much. As far as I’m concerned, Final Destination 5 has the best opening sequence in the whole series.

So, does the movie blow its entire load in the opening 10 minutes then? Well, not exactly. Like I said, there’s a bit of a twist on the normal formula. However, rather than the twist being “he gets more than one premonition!” or “the photos have clues!”, the writers have come up with something quite interesting – Bludworth (Tony freaking Todd is back!) reveals that the only way to successfully cheat Death is to kill someone else in order to steal their remaining years away from them*. This idea adds a lot of suspense and tension to latter-half of the film which, in previous movies in the franchise, tended to be rather weak. They honestly should have introduced this new element in Final Destination 3, because it really is a great conceptual evolution for the series.

Beyond even the twist on the formula, Final Destination 5 would still be considered one of the best entries in the series if only for some of the masterful death sequences. The first of these, the gymnastics sequence, is so tense that I consider it a textbook definition of great suspense. Quale just does a great job setting up a number of potential causes of death, giving us many red herrings and just plain stringing the audience along until the shockingly simple payoff. Check it out:

Holy crap. That’s by far the best death scene in the whole movie (in part because it doesn’t rely on excessive gore to satisfy the audience), but the others don’t exactly disappoint either. The other one of particular note is Olivia’s death, which is sure to get more than a few people shifting in their seats just from the set-up alone. I won’t go into much more than that, but this image alone should suffice…

Also, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the ending. If you plan on seeing it, then skip ahead a paragraph because this is a pretty massive SPOILER… So it turns out at the end that the two leads have survived the ordeal and are going to live happily ever after as a chef’s apprentice in France… wait a second. That’s right, the movie was secretly a prequel all along, and they just stepped onto the plane which blew up at the start of the first movie. I’m pretty sure no one saw that coming (in fact, on more than one list I’ve seen, it’s considered one of the best and most unexpected twists in cinema… not at the same level as Planet of the Apes mind you, but it’s quite impressive for a movie of this calibre). Again, it’s a bit of a piss-off to see the characters get killed at this point, but the cleverness of the ending softens the blow enough that it’s totally forgivable.

So, I’d say that it’s pretty clear that I quite liked this movie. Hell, I even loved the opening credits. While it’s still pretty unambitious conceptually, the level of craftsmanship on display is shocking. On my first time seeing the series, I would have put Final Destination 5 second to the original, but now that I’ve seen them both a few times, I’d have to give the crown to this entry. It’s just so well-done compared to the somewhat-flawed original.

7.5/10

With the success of this film (it made $158 million worldwide) it seems like there will be more entries in the series soon… and while I haven’t heard any announcements, I’d be satisfied if it ended here. The chances of pulling out another movie of this calibre are pretty slight, considering the producers’ resistance to any ambition beyond “teen slasher movie”. However, if it does happen, I hope that they really run with the premise and create something which breaks formula. I’ve got a few ideas of my own floating around, so if anyone from New Line is reading this, you should hit me up *wink wink*. I’d welcome any comments on what people think would improve the series as well if it continues.

Aaaand that does it for my first retrospective! If you have any comments on this series, I welcome them. Also, if you have any suggestions – be it for future retrospective series, or how I can improve my current style – then I’d welcome those as well. Finally, if you liked this, then I’d appreciate if you’d “Follow” the blog – I get ~25-50 views a day, but it’s always good knowing that you’re amassing an audience. Thanks for reading!

*This, of course, opens up some speculation as to Bludworth’s origins. The easy train of thought is to assume that he is Death incarnate, but the producers have denied this multiple times. However, I actually read a theory on TV Tropes which really stems from the twist in this movie: the theory goes that Bludworth had a premonition and killed someone in order to keep himself alive… in fact, he may have killed several people over the years to basically achieve immortality. It’s a chillingly intriguing idea which could provide plenty of material for a potential movie…

Retrospective: The Final Destination (2009)

Welcome back for Part 4 of the Final Destination retrospective! In this post we’re going to cover the poorly-titled The Final Destination. This was a bit of an intriguing entry for a couple reasons, although the fact that it was in 3D might be the most important. In fact, it was early to the party for the 3D craze, arriving a whole 4 months earlier than Avatar (and even then, Avatar didn’t reach a fever pitch until about 3 weeks after release when people actually started seeing it en masse). Did the 3rd dimension make this the best entry in the series yet? Well… read on and find out…

As a side-note before we get into the retrospective, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t get this entry out today as I have spent most of the weekend writing an essay for school. However, as of the time I’m writing this, I’ve got about an hour til midnight so I’ll either get it out by late on the 10th or early in the morning of the 11th. This is only really important because I want to have a schedule for my retrospectives of 3 or 4 days between posts (work permitting). To me, there’s nothing worse than a blogger who can’t maintain a consistent schedule and so I’m going to attempt to commit to one… for retrospectives anyway as a start. For regular blog posts I’m committing to at least 1 post every 7 days.

Anyway, enough of that, let’s talk about people getting killed… IN GLORIOUS 3D!

So after Final Destination 3, the series producers were looking to expand the franchise. They ended up deciding that 3D was a good way to do this (possibly anticipating Avatar, which had been in production for quite some time, or My Bloody Valentine 3D, although apparently they had planned Final Destination 3 to be in 3D oddly enough). James Wong was unavailable to direct (he was working on… Dragonball Evolution… good God), so the duties were passed on once again to David R. Ellis. Well… hopefully he learned from his experiences with Final Destination 2 and managed to create something better, right? Nothing wrong with a little optimism, right?

In this case, yes. The Final Destination is easily the worst movie in the entire series for a number of reasons.

First of all, the characters are largely unsympathetic. I liked the main character, Nick O’Bannon, his girlfriend Lori Milligan and the token black guy, George Lanter, but that’s literally the extent of it. Furthermore, it’s not due to the script or even the direction… if anything, it’s from the actors themselves, although I’d be hard-pressed to say anyone put in a great performance… and the main reason I liked Lori was because she was good looking to be brutally honest…

Anyway, everyone else is a massive douchebag. Nick’s best friend, Hunt, is completely unlikeable… almost as much as Frankie Cheeks. Ouch. There’s even a character who is literally just called the “Racist Man”, because that’s the extent of what his “character” is. So, once again, David R. Ellis presents us with cannon fodder for Death to have his way with, making it rather difficult to become engaged with the film.

“Well okay,” you may say, “I come to Final Destination for the deaths, not the characters anyway.” Well on that front the death set-ups are… strange. At one particularly silly stretch of the movie, a character gets her head stuck in her sunroof while inside a car wash, while at the same time, another character gets his ass stuck to the bottom of a pool… umm, what? Even worse though, most of the time the film doesn’t properly build enough tension before a death – Death seems to be striking at random half the time and sometimes the deaths themselves are just really abrupt, particularly in the opening scene. And speaking of the opening scene, I’m not sure what they were thinking. The other films’ opening disasters preyed on common phobia – fear of flying, fear of getting in a huge pileup, fear of rollercoasters. All sensible. But this movie has the fear of… race cars? Rednecks? And, near the end, fear of movie theaters? Uh, okay… I don’t know about you, but I can’t say I’ve ever been worried about getting killed at a sporting event. And for that matter, how does half the arena get destroyed by a race car crash? The stupidity in this movie is pretty boggling (although the death of the Racist is pretty awesome).

Another point of contention would be that the deaths look really fake half the time. In previous Final Destination movies, they used lots of dummies, make-up effects and minimal use of computer effects for the deaths, and they worked quite convincingly most of the time. However, in The Final Destination, the majority of the deaths are done using CGI. I can’t be sure of the reasons for this, but I imagine it’s in part due to the 3D focus. Apparently the producer, Craig Perry, said that he wanted the 3D to add drama and not be there to throw things at the audience, but that did not translate to the final product at all. I’ll admit I haven’t seen this in 3D, but from what I’ve seen of it in 2D, it seems like all they did with it was throw shit at the audience (and, in one particular instance, I mean that quite literally).

As for the story… eh, what about it? It’s the exact same plot we’ve seen in the past 3 films, and they really didn’t go to a lot of effort to differentiate it. And they didn’t even put Tony Todd in it! I mean, at least he got an un-distracting voice-over cameo Final Destination 3, but he’s completely absent here. At least the ending didn’t piss me off this time, because I didn’t really give a damn about the characters getting run over by a transport… and, admittedly, they were a bit clever about it all – the ending reveals that everything which the characters has done to subvert Death has actually been a part of his plan all along (*cue transport truck*). It’s clever and expands the series somewhat, but for this movie it’s too-little, too-late…

Honestly, the best part of the movie is the opening credits – the montages are very cool and the music is good as well (apparently the soundtrack was highly praised, oddly enough). Otherwise, The Final Destination is objectively a piece of crap. Between this, Final Destination 2 and Shark Night 3D, my opinion of David R. Ellis is pretty low (although he was a hell of a second unit director).

Yet, despite all of what I have just said, tearing the movie apart… I kind of enjoy it. I think I’ve seen it more than any other Final Destination movie, which even I’ll admit is pretty sad. I enjoy it in the same capacity that I enjoy the (even worse) Aliens vs Predator: Requiem – an exercise in stupid fun that doesn’t require anything beyond that. It’s a bad movie on pretty much every level, but it’s also enjoyable and kind of fun in spite of it all. It takes a special kind of movie connoisseur to enjoy a movie like this, but if you can extra fun from crappy movies then you might dig this… either way, I’d recommend any other movie in this series over this any day of the week though.

3/10

Be sure to come back soon for the final entry in this retrospective: Final Destination 5!

Retrospective: Final Destination 3 (2006)

Welcome back, good readers, to Part 3 of the Final Destination retrospective! In this post we’re going to cover the next entry in the series, Final Destination 3. If you haven’t read the previous 2 entries in this series, then I would recommend that you do so to get up to speed and see how this franchise has changed over the years. Did this entry improve on the formula after the disappointing Final Destination 2? Well, read on to find the answer to that…

Final Destination 2 was pretty terrible, and really wasted the promise that the original contained, trading that out for laughs and gore. Perhaps the producers and folks at New Line Cinema realized this and ended up getting James Wong back on board for the third entry in the series. Promisingly, Wong was both writing and directing, so with any luck the crew who crafted the first film would be able to put it back on track (so to speak), right?

Umm, well no, not exactly.

First off, this is the point where the series really embraced its formula and became a straight-up slasher film. Aside from the leads, death is almost never subverted, so the middle section of the film is basically just scenes of people getting killed in sequence. This could have totally destroyed any sense of suspense that the film could try to establish, but there’s a bit of a twist: suspense no longer comes from wondering if Death is going to kill his victims, but rather how. This is done in an odd manner (Death hid hints in some… photographs? Dammit Death, you bloody photobomber!), but it does invoke a sense of morbid curiosity.

Considering that this is a Final Destination movie, it should also be noted that the opening disaster was a strange choice. On one hand, it makes sense – a lot of people are afraid of roller coasters, so you can prey on that phobia – but on the other, it comes across as rather silly. In fact, the film is pretty silly overall: bimbos get killed in a tanning bed, a guy’s head gets torn up by an errant flying motor, a football player’s head gets crushed by his weight machine, etc. Compounding this problem is the decision to set the story in a high school setting. Yeah, the other 2 films in the series had followed high schoolers (or possibly early college in the second movie), but they didn’t center their actual story around that setting, it was merely in the background. Unfortunately, Final Destination 3 revels in high school horror and all that that entails – there’s the usual social cliques for each of the characters (jocks, preps, goths, etc) and the romance subplot you can expect in basically every high school movie. Most of the characters are now totally throw-away and exist only to get killed to sate our bloodthirsty appetite… especially Frankie Cheeks. Good God, he is by far the most grating character in the entire series.

That said, Final Destination 3 has its positives. For one thing, it’s fairly well-made overall. Sure, it’s very silly and gratingly cliche at times, but it still manages to be far more interesting than your average horror-slasher. Final Destination 3 manages to be quite entertaining overall (thanks to Wong’s direction), even if the script is pretty crappy (thanks to Wong’s, uh… writing). I’m also quite glad that, while the movie shifted the series straight into slasher-horror, it isn’t overly gory. Now I’m not adverse to gore by any means, but I think it often distracts from any sort of actual horror a movie could try to build up, is just a crutch for some bad filmmakers and is just totally fetishized (see any Saw sequel, especially those after the 3rd). Anyway, considering that the Saw series and Hostel were kicking off the gore-porn trend at this time, that’s pretty surprising to me.

Anyway, you might be able to tell that I’ve been skirting around something throughout this whole post, and if you could then you’re totally right. That “something” is the movie’s greatest strength: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and, to a slightly lesser degree, Ryan Merriman. The chemistry between the two leads totally carries this movie – without them, Final Destination 3 would probably be utter crap. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, fresh off her first major role in Sky High, really elevates the material she’s given here and makes her character, Wendy Christensen, very interesting and sympathetic. Considering the crappy script she’s given, Winstead’s performance makes this movie far more watchable than it has any right to be. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say she’s my favourite character in the whole series. Ryan Merriman’s Kevin Fischer also aids in this regard, as the chemistry between Wendy and Kevin is excellent (perhaps they became friends beforehand on the set of The Ring Two?). Wendy and Kevin really form the emotional core of the film, which is especially important in a movie with so many expendable characters. In fact, it makes the ending quite infuriating because it is certainly implied that (SPOILER ALERT) they get offed like every other bloody hero in this series. I guess they never actually show it for real, so you can hold out some hope that they escaped, got pregnant and gave birth in order to end the cycle, but that’s mostly just optimistic wishing on my part… all I’ll say is stop killing your freaking leads for no good reason!!!

The only other character of (positive) note is Kris Lemche’s Ian McKinley, a philosophical goth character. While he has even less material to work with than Winstead or Merriman, Lemche manages to make Ian a very interesting character in his limited screen time. Ian’s philosophizing about Death’s plans actually manages to create some tension and moral questioning for the leads. He becomes unhinged towards the end and makes for a rather weak secondary villain, but up until that point he’s quite intriguing.

As you can probably glean, Final Destination 3 is largely buoyed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ryan Merriman’s performances, competent filmmaking and a bit of good ol’ fashioned fun. However, the script is extremely weak and the series had become noticeably formulaic at this point. It’s a pretty middling entry overall. I enjoy it for the fun that it manages to deliver, but I really appreciate it for the performances from the main characters – without that, this would really be a hollow entry and I probably wouldn’t have even gotten into the series at all.

6/10

Be sure to come back soon for Part 4 of this retrospective: The Final Destination!

Retrospective: Final Destination 2 (2003)

Welcome back to Part 2 of the Final Destination Retrospective! In this post we are (obviously) covering the second entry in the franchise: Final Destination 2! This entry in the series is interesting for a few reasons: not least of which because it is the only direct sequel in the series. I would definitely recommend reading the first entry in this retrospective if you haven’t yet in order to see how Final Destination 2 tries to differentiate itself and improve on its predecessor. Does it succeed? Well… we’ll get to that in a minute.

Before we get into the movie itself, I just want to say that this movie has an awesome poster. Seriously, look at it. The use of colour and blending is really striking and visually appealing. Certainly far better than the Brazilian DVD cover… how did they ever consider that better than the official movie poster?

Anyway, moving on. Final Destination was an unexpected success, and so New Line Cinema was eager to make a sequel. Unfortunately, the original crew was unavailable at the time so an almost entirely new production team was brought in. This meant that the film was given completely different writers and a new director, David R. Ellis. This was a bit of an… odd decision to say the least. David R. Ellis has a long history in Hollywood as a stuntman and coordinator, as well as a second unit director. His one full directorial credit at the time was Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco… or, as I remembered it from my childhood spent watching Homeward Bound all the time, The Exact Same Movie as Before. Since Final Destination 2 his major credits have been Snakes on a Plane, The Final Destination and Shark Night 3D… his CV is full of largely trashy and gratuitous horror films. With the benefit of hindsight, you can probably figure out for yourself that he wasn’t exactly a great choice (although, to be fair, original director James Wong has put out some seriously shitty movies in his time, including The One and Dragonball: Evolution). Also, on a related note, it turns out that David R. Ellis passed away in January, which I did not realize until now. He wasn’t exactly a director I liked, but I appreciate the work Ellis put into film during his lifetime (look at his credits on IMDb, he worked on some big films like Scarface).

Anyway, the only returning cast from the first movie are Ali Larter’s Clear Rivers and Tony Todd’s Bludworth – both good characters in the previous film, although the decision not to bring back Devon Sawa’s Alex Browning really hurts Clear’s character. The chemistry between Clear and Alex was part of what made these two characters interesting in the previous film, and by cutting Alex out Clear becomes considerably less engaging – in this movie she is less of an independent figure and more of a poor attempt to make a badass chick. Aside from Clear, the two main characters are AJ Cook’s Kimberly Corman and Michael Landes’ officer Thomas Burke. Unfortunately, neither character is anywhere near as engaging as the main characters from the previous film. I mean, was somewhat sympathetically inclined towards Kim and Michael, but neither character was particularly well-acted or had much depth at all. In fact, the only other new character I even had an inkling of sympathy for was Rory (Johnathan Peters), a hopeless drug addict who’s pretty much resigned to death. However, Rory’s really the exception here: pretty much every character in Final Destination 2 is underdeveloped (if developed at all) and are basically just there to act as cannon fodder.

At least Kim is easy on the eyes. 😉

Okay, well they dropped the ball on the characters… how’s the story then? Well I’ve got some good things to say here at least. For one thing, it’s obvious that there was at least an effort put in to break the 3-step Final Destination formula of “1) Premonition of disaster 2) Try to escape death 3) Everyone dies” which basically every movie in the franchise follows. For one thing, Final Destination 2 shakes up the formula slightly – Death is working in reverse, trying to clean up all the loose ends caused by the characters in the last movie. This element is revealed about midway into the film and is actually quite an interesting connecting twist, although it could have done with some better integration. The other major new element is the idea that the characters can successfully cheat Death through certain means, in this case creating a life which would not have existed otherwise (and therefore making Death’s former plan out of date). This is actually an element that I really liked, and one which I wish they would reintegrate in future installments. I hate how they always kill off the characters at the end of these sorts of films, it’s basically a big middle finger to the audience saying “oh, did you care about those characters? We didn’t, they’re just there to die.” That aside, if the characters in this film were better done then this particular change might have been even better to Final Destination 2 overall, but as it is it’s a cool expansion of the concept.

However, while there are some changes to the formula, Final Destination 2 is largely just a rehash of the first movie, only with more of an emphasis on the death scenes. That said, the first 45 minutes work fairly well, but feel like they only exist to get us to the aforementioned death scenes. Compare this to the first movie where everything, up until the final 20 minutes, felt very natural and gelled together well – the character development was considered just as important as the death scenes. Luckily, while Final Destination 2 emphasizes the deaths more, they really pull out all the stops on them. First off, the opening disaster is FREAKING AWESOME. Watch this:

Holy shiiiiit… say what you will about David R. Ellis, but I’m sure that this sequence was totally his work. As a second unit director he was responsible for such classic action scenes as the car ambush scene from Clear and Present Danger or the highway chase in The Matrix Reloaded (both of which were the only real highlights from their respective films), and you can really tell that that’s the case here. Of course, the scene is totally ridiculous (cars turning into nuclear bombs when their roof hits a trailer), but undeniably spectacular as well. Of all the opening disasters in the series, this one is really the visceral highlight for quite some time.

Aside from the opening disaster, Final Destination 2 is also the point where the individual death scenes themselves started getting very creative and really become the crux of the films themselves. Consequently, this also marks the point where the series really started to move towards horror/slasher rather than thriller, although it hasn’t abandoned its roots completely yet. In any case, this entry features some really wicked deaths – while they aren’t set-up as well as they were in the previous film, the deaths themselves are wildly creative and very darkly funny (highlights at 0:55, 2:20 and 2:43):

So what is my assessment of Final Destination 2? Honestly, while I think the deaths in this one are pretty cool at times, it’s the last 45 minutes that I don’t particularly like. The film was being pretty clever up until that time, at which point it basically becomes a montage of deaths strung together weakly. In all, while it has its moments and is certainly not the worst movie in the series, Final Destination 2 is probably the one that I enjoy the least – it really had some promise, but it doesn’t come to fruition in part because it has the weakest cast in the whole series. I’d recommend it if you’re a fan of the series, but if not then the 2 videos I posted here should provide all the highlights you need.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon for Part 3 of this retrospective: Final Destination 3!

Retrospective: Final Destination (2000)

Hello readers, I’m about to embark on something that I’ve been wanting to do since I started this blog in December. As I’m sure most of you are aware, I’ve done movie reviews quite frequently on this blog. In fact, 4 of my Top 5 most-viewed posts have all been movie reviews (for those curious, my top 5 posts are: Hulk, Judge Dredd, 5 Reasons to Prepare for the Ape Apocalypse, Transformers 3 and Dredd). However, since starting this blog I have really wanted to start writing franchise retrospectives – and I’m not talking about mega-franchises like Harry Potter or Terminator. Rather, I want these sorts of articles focus on franchises which, for whatever reason, don’t get nearly as much written about them and yet have a very interesting history (well… maybe I’ll do a Star Wars every once in a while, but it’ll be the exception rather than the rule). If you were ever looking for a place to read about The Howling series or Resident Evil movies, then I’d suggest you start following me! If not… well then follow me anyway, make me feel like I’m accomplishing something here.

Anyway, the first franchise which is getting the retrospective treatment from me is the Final Destination series. As a little background, I was only really dimly aware of these movies until about a year ago – I had always thought they were bog standard slasher films. My only real interactions with the series had been in the form of a Final Destination 3 poster which I swear was outside the local movie store for years, and the laughter which accompanied the (thankfully redacted) announcement that the 5th entry in the series would be called 5nal Destination (who didn’t read that as “Anal Destination”? Seriously?). However, this changed when a friend and I happened to be hanging out when Final Destination 3 came on the TV. Despite having little interest at the time, we watched the first 30 minutes or so before we had to leave. However, what I had seen had been very intriguing, so I decided to track down the movie and see how it ended. I’ll save my thoughts on that particular movie for later, but suffice to say I tracked down the other films and watched them all out of order (I watched them in the following order: 3, 5, 1, 4, 2).

First off, I’m going to mention the characters. Unlike some other movies in the series, Final Destination actually goes to some effort to flesh out its characters and make you give a damn about them. Devon Sawa’s Alex Browning is an interesting lead, a bit of an outsider who you can’t ever be entirely sure isn’t totally crazy. I also quite liked Ali Larter’s Clear Rivers, a character which actually manages to subvert the stereotypical “female love interest” role and become a figure of her own. In fact, of the main cast there’s only really 2 throw-away characters there to provide some quick and easy death fodder… which is actually not too bad by the standards of this series. The lead actors put in acting which ranges from “pretty good” to “serviceable”. Of the leads, I felt that the only one which was really weak (both in acting and characterization) was Kerr Smith’s Carter Horton, the typical bully character. However, he does develop a bit by the end which redeems him somewhat. Oh, and no discussion of Final Destination characters is complete without a mention of Tony Todd’s Bludworth – he only gets about 5 minutes of screen-time, but he just steals every scene he’s in. The man has a creepy voice and just knows how to chill you to the bone with little more than a look and a smile.

Of course, in addition to all of these characters is the main attraction of the whole movie – Death itself. Despite never actually appearing on-screen (aside from some very mysterious liquid and in a reflection), Death is a very real presence and character in the film. The film really establishes Death as a morbidly creative force which interacts with the world to kill his victims, dropping them clues about their impending demise for little more reason than we likes the thrill of the hunt. The methods which Death uses to slay his victims are very imaginative, although they don’t devolve into full-on gore porn like some of the later films in the series. The fact that Death never actually appears just makes him all the more frightening – he’s an omnipresent, inescapable, inexhaustible force which is going to inevitably hunt down and kill the characters that we are becoming invested in and he could strike at any time. Furthermore, compared to other slasher villains like Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees or Leatherface, he doesn’t devolve into self-parody – Death is established pretty early on as having a very dark sense of humour and irony and this is one of the aspects of the series which has remained true throughout (although each movie will play with the details somewhat). Director James Wong should be commended for pulling off this sense of malice for a villain who isn’t physically present, because I can just imagine how easily it could have backfired on him. The fact that it was his first film makes the achievement even more impressive.

What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the first Final Destination is that it is quite different from its successors. Whereas subsequent movies in the franchise would skew closer to slasher-horror and eschew character development in favour of a body count, the original Final Destination is obstinately a supernatural thriller film with some very light slasher elements. The emphasis is really clearly on mystery and suspense rather than on killing off people in the bloodiest ways the writers can imagine. It’s unfortunate that the other movies in the series don’t do this more often, but in Final Destination characters actually survive Death’s attempts to kill them more often than not. As a result of this, and of the fact that we actually give a damn about the characters, the potential death scenes have a lot of suspense – you can’t really be sure whether or not a character really is going to die, or even the manner in which Death will attempt to off them. Of course, Death has a really morbidly creative streak and his plans tend to have redundancies in order to ensure that he collects his kills…

Any discussion of a Final Destination film is incomplete without mentioning the central disaster. In this movie it’s a plane crash, which really does prey on many peoples’ fears. The filmmakers could never have predicted that this would become even more powerful only a year later after 9/11 – seriously, I thought that they were just banking on post-9/11 paranoia when I first saw this movie, until I found out that it was released a full year prior to it… quite prescient indeed! In any case, the disaster itself is very frighteningly well-done, weakened only in that it doesn’t look entirely convincing now. However, it was done with nearly entirely practical effects, so it’s quite impressive what they managed achieve.

Of course, following the opening disaster, the surviving characters are one-by-one picked off by Death, and it is here that the film slowly starts to come apart. Being the first in the series, Final Destination isn’t plagued by franchise fatigue yet, and so it manages to keep this section interesting with some creativity and philosophy rather than defaulting to slasher tropes. The characters struggle with a variety of conflicting emotions – why (and how) were they spared from the wreckage of Flight 180? And when Death starts coming after them, they all are forced to wrestle and come to grips with the idea of their own mortality. It’s some really interesting stuff, and far beyond what I would expect of a teenage thriller/horror film of this sort. Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes of the film largely drop this philosophizing and it is at this point that things start to get really weak. I felt that these last 20 minutes really didn’t engage with me nearly as well as the rest of the movie have and end up putting a bit of a damper on the whole experience… and that’s just unfortunate, because I really do like this movie. It has some great ideas – they might not all be executed perfectly, but it’s generally a well-done film with an intriguing premise that puts it head-and-shoulders above a run of the mill thriller/horror movie. When I first saw it I would have given it an 8/10, although I think that was a bit generous now. That said, I definitely enjoyed it, and certainly recommend seeing it even if you are turned off by the ideas of the sequels.

7/10

Be sure to come back soon for Part 2 of this retrospective: Final Destination 2!