Retrospective: Leatherface (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

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

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

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

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

Retrospective: Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/10

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

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

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

Pretty meh horror poster if I do say so myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/10

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

Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.5/10

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

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

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation! Normally I would try to avoid talking about the quality of a film too much until I get to the actual analysis, but I feel like I need to be a little more upfront with The Next Generation than usual. As of the time of writing, this film is ranked #41 on the IMDb Bottom 100 alongside such prestigious contemporaries as Birdemic, Troll 2 and half of Uwe Boll’s early catalogue. Yikes. However, the film has received some reappraisal since its release and has its defenders, some even saying it’s one of the best Chainsaw sequels. Which side did I fall on? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out…

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

PRODUCTION
When Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III failed to scare up big business, New Line Cinema shelved any further sequels that they had planned. As a result, the rights for the film reverted back to Kim Henkel, the writer and co-creator of the original 1974 film. That said, in part due to the shady financing of the original film, the rights for this franchise are quite complicated and required years of litigation to sort out properly. At the time of The Next Generationa trustee for the owners of the original film, Chuck Grigson, had a slice of the rights and had to be paid and promised a cut of the profits before Henkel could have a stab at the franchise.

For the production portion of this retrospective, I was able to find cast interviews and a documentary of the making of the film with first-hand footage which will inform most of my information and assumptions about the production, unless otherwise specified. Perhaps disappointed with the direction the sequels had gone, Henkel decided to go about making his own entry in the franchise, titling it The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the documentary, Kim Henkel implies that he never really understood why the original Chainsaw Massacre resonated with people so much; he says that it looks to him like a backyard film made by kids and that its appeal is that people like watching other people get brutalized. Special effects and stunts crew member J. M. Logan states that Kim Henkel said that The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre “was what he wanted the original Chainsaw to be. He’d been working on it ever since. This is the movie he wanted to make without Tobe’s influence. This was his pure vision.” The film was made on a low budget, on location in Texas with local cast and crew. It was produced by a wealthy lawyer friend of Henkel’s named Robert Kuhn, one of the investors for the original Chainsaw and one of the fellow rightsholders for the franchise. J. M. Logan estimates that the budget was in the neighbourhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars and everything was done as basically and cheaply as possible. Along with that came the creative freedom that Henkel had wanted and which Chainsaw sequels had thus far been denied. In many ways, filming tended to mirror the production of the original Chainsaw: shot on a gruelling schedule to avoid extra expenses and with the safety of the people involved being a questionable concern. The film was almost entirely shot at night in hot, humid weather with little in the way of amenities for cast and crew.

In retrospect, the cast was the most notable aspect of the film and which would dominate any discussion surrounding The Next Generation. Renée Zellweger was cast in the lead heroine role as Jenny, while Matthew McConaughey was cast as the main villain, Vilmer. Both were on the cusp of super-stardom and this was their first major leading role in a film. They, along with most of the other cast, were local Texan actors and for many of them, Chainsaw was one of their first films. Among the film’s heroes, Lisa Marie Newmayer was cast as Heather, Tyler Cone as Barry and John Harrison as Sean. Among the villains, Tonie Perenskie was cast as Darla, Joe Stevens as W.E. Slaughter and James Gale as Rothman. This film’s Leatherface (referred to only as “Leather” by the characters) was played by Robert Jacks.

After receiving positive reviews at a premiere screening at South By Southwest (which Matthew McConaughey reportedly attended), Columbia Pictures signed a distribution deal for the film. However, as Zellweger and McConaughey’s careers started to take off, Columbia pushed the film’s release back to try to take advantage of their newfound stardom (which is pretty common with small budget films like this, such as what House at the End of the Street did when Jennifer Lawrence‘s career began to take off). However, as they did so, an agent for Zellweger or McConaughey put pressure on Columbia Pictures to not release the film in order to prevent it from damaging their client’s career. Apparently this worked, because the film’s release was delayed further, which caused Henkel and Kuhn to sue Columbia for failing to follow through on their distribution deal. Then, to make matters worse, Chuck Grigson went and sued both sides for not delivering on the terms set in the deal he had signed with Henkel in order to get the rights. Tyler Cone and Robert Jacks have gone on record stating that they believed that Zellweger’s agent was behind this further delay, but considering that McConaughey is the only one named in the legal case Grigson made regarding the estoppel, it would seem to me that it was his agent who was responsible. In either case, neither Zellweger or McConaughey have disassociated themselves from the film or even really had bad words to say about it. After being reedited by the studio and being renamed Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the film was finally released on August 29, 1997 in only 23 theatres in the US, grossing $185,989 and being critically panned.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens at a Texan prom. Heather finds her boyfriend, Barry, kissing another girl. She leaves in a huff and gets into Barry’s father’s car and speeds away as Barry get in with her and tries to console her. His efforts are thwarted by their friends, Jenny and Sean, who were apparently hiding in the back seats doing drugs this whole time. Heather’s manic driving gets the group into two accidents, the second of which wrecks the vehicle and leaves another motorist badly injured. Heather, Barry and Jenny go to find a service station while Sean stays with the injured motorist. The group finds a woman named Darla at a real estate office who calls for a man named Vilmer who has a tow truck. However, when Vilmer arrives, he breaks the injured motorist’s neck and then repeatedly runs over Sean with his truck.

Barry, Heather and Jenny try to get back to Sean, but somehow manage to get separated. Barry and Heather come across a house and try to find someone who can drive them out, but Barry gets held at gunpoint by W.E. Slaughter and Heather gets captured by Leather and stuffed in a meat freezer. When Barry goes inside the house to try to find Heather, Leather bludgeons him to death and then hangs Heather on a meat hook.

Meanwhile, the now-lost Jenny is picked up by Vilmer, but she quickly realizes that he’s insane, a fact which is confirmed when she sees Sean’s body in the back of the truck. She jumps from the truck and flees into the woods, but is pursued by Leather with a chainsaw. He chases her through the woods, to the house where Barry was killed and then back to the real estate office where Darla comforts her. This is short-lived though, because soon W.E. arrives and stuffs her in the trunk of Darla’s car. Darla goes to pick up some pizza for the family and then comes across a badly-injured Heather in the middle of the road, having somehow escaped the meat hook.

Vilmer begins taunting Jenny, but Jenny steals a shotgun and nearly escapes. Darla tells Jenny that Vilmer works for the Illuminati, but Jenny doesn’t believe her. Darla then takes Jenny to yet another dinner scene, where Vilmer continues to manically taunt Jenny and Heather. However, when he tells Jenny that Leather wants to wear her face for his new mask, a dark-suited man named Rothman shows up and intimidates Vilmer, telling him that he’s supposed to be showing Jenny the meaning of true horror. When Rothman leaves, a visibly-shaken Vilmer takes Heather and then crushes her head before telling Leather to kill Jenny with a chainsaw. Jenny manages to break free though and flees into the woods with Leather and Vilmer in pursuit.

Jenny manages to come across an RV being driven by an elderly couple and escape with them, but then Vilmer and Leather drive alongside them and the RV crashes. When Vilmer and Leather pursue Jenny on foot, a crop duster swoops down and strikes Vilmer in the back of the head, killing him. Leather is distraught by this and stops as a black car pulls up and rescues Jenny. Rothman is there and apologizes to Jenny for everything that happened, saying that it was supposed to be a spiritual experience before dropping Jenny off at the hospital.

REVIEW
You might be able to tell from that plot description, but Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is… hoo boy, it’s an experience to say the least. Let’s start with the things that I liked first though. First of all, the references to the original tend to be much more sly than the in-your-face references in Leatherface. By far the best reference was that the camera flashes in the opening scene mirror the flashes illuminating the corpses in the original film, even playing the same sound effect. It was very clever and actually has some purpose for the film as well as it signifies that these kids are going to be corpses before this is all over. Also, the film looks fairly professional, especially considering the low budget. It certainly doesn’t have interesting cinematography or atmospheric lighting (unlike Leatherface), but the film at least looks like it wasn’t shot by Tommy Wiseau (although there’s at least one shot I noticed where the camera is focused on wrong person, leaving the person the shot’s supposed to be focused on somewhat blurry). Oh, and I’ll admit that I grinned like a school kid when Matthew McConaughey walked out and went “ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT!” And… uhh… yeah, that’s seriously everything I liked. This movie was so bad that those are the best things that I can come up with to praise it for without reservation.

First of all, let’s talk about that script, because that’s where most of this film’s issues stem from. Seriously, at at least half of the notes that I took when watching this film were some variation of “WTF!?”, because there’s just so much baffling shit in this film. I mean, look no further than the introduction of our heroine, Jenny. She just shows up in the back of the car with Sean, having apparently been lying on the floor for the past several minutes silently as Barry and Heather argued and sped through the roads of Texas. I get that it’s supposed to be a funny moment, but there isn’t really any set-up so you can’t call it a joke, it just makes you go “wait, WTF just happened?” The Next Generation goes in a dark comedy direction like Chainsaw 2 did, but that doesn’t really explain all the insane stuff that happens, or make the comedy particularly good. For example, Darla is portrayed in her introduction as a cartoonish sexual deviant. When a group of kids break the window of her office, her response is to… flash them? Umm, it’s one thing to be an exhibitionist, but is she trying to encourage vandalism against her property as well? Then there’s the most obvious comedic scene in the film, where Darla goes to pick up pizza with Jenny tied up in her trunk. The scene just keeps going on and doesn’t really add anything to the plot, but tries so hard to be funny. The main issue is that this farcial scene just comes out of nowhere, suddenly making Jenny and Darla out to be a couple of oblivious idiots, as if this is a completely different movie. I mean, it’s kind of funny that Jenny just goes with Darla’s threats as long as she pokes some air holes in her bag, and it’s kind of funny that they’re surrounded by tons of people (including clueless cops) at the time. I get that this is probably meant to be a send-up of slasher films, where no one notices these crimes happening around them. However, the scene is so at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie that is just confusing and frustrating to watch. Plus, as I already said, the scene makes our heroine look like a complete idiot, which goes against the actual intent of the film in literally every other scene in the movie.

Then, when the film’s not trying to be funny, it screws up with writing so sloppy that you can scarcely believe that this film was written and directed by a professional screenwriter, let alone one who had considered this a passion project twenty years in the making. First of all there are all of the pointless characters, of which Sean is the most egregious. He’s is implied to be Jenny’s boyfriend and is introduced in a manner that makes you think he’s one of the main characters. Nope, he gets maybe three lines and then gets killed without us knowing a thing about him. How about the motorist who crashes into the group’s car? Nope, he gets left behind and then has his neck snapped the moment we see him again without having learned a thing about him (he’s literally credited as “I’m Not Hurt” after his one line in the film). I could just keep going on and on: there are the cops in the pizza scene, a friend of Heather’s who we meet at the prom, the old couple who pick up Jenny, crash and then are immediately forgotten, etc.

Then there are all the moments in the script that just don’t make any sense and which are just done for convenience’s sake usually. Like, how did Jenny manage to lose Heather and Barry? I get that a truck passed by and Barry and Heather chased it, but they’re on a road and Jenny has the flashlight, I sincerely doubt they could manage to lose each other. Or how about Heather inexplicably conjuring the upper body strength to pull herself off the meathook and then crawl out into the woods without anyone noticing? Or the scene where the film accidentally makes Jenny look like an idiot, because she doesn’t freak out when Darla calls Vilmer again. This comes after having already revealed that Vilmer is the guy who killed Sean, so shouldn’t she have realized that the tow truck driver is the guy who killed him?

Even beyond the script, there’s just so much wrong with this movie. We’ve got a car crash where you can clearly see the stunt driver in one shot and then in the next shot you see I’m Not Hurt with his head smashed against the windshield. You’ve got bad editing which makes it look like Barry, who’s within earshot of Heather, doesn’t even notice her screaming for minutes on end when Leather attacks her. You’ve got Rothman, who just finishes chewing out Vilmer for being a crazy, unhinged dickhead, turn around and then repeatedly lick Jenny’s face (WTF)!?! You’ve got “scares” which consist of people coming across something that isn’t actually scary and then playing loud, jump scare music. These aren’t even used as fake-outs for a real scare – they are the scares. Even when you have moments that are potentially thrilling, such as Leather chasing Jenny through the woods or Vilmer freaking out at the dinner table, these are just weak rip-offs of scenes which were effective in the original Chainsaw.

As for the characters, they are not great. Jenny’s a decent final girl and actually gets some chances to fight back and turn the tables on her tormentors, but Renée Zellweger’s performance is fairly flat and, as I’ve mentioned, sometimes the script just makes her into an idiot for no discernible reason. Then there’s Heather, but I really can’t tell you all that much about her. She seems like a fairly normal, stereotypical teenage girl, but Lisa Marie Newmyer’s performance is not great. Plus, as soon as she gets put onto the meathook her character doesn’t really have any more presence in the film… even though she somehow gets off the meathook, is present for the whole dinner scene, gets set on fire and gets her freaking head crushed. Seriously, she gets put through the wringer in the second half of the film, but she doesn’t really get to react to any of it. Then there’s Barry, who is both a total asshole and an idiot to boot. He’s the kind of character who cheats, lies and insults everyone to get his way, who is always talking up how great he is, and who just constantly does stupid shit (such as calling the guy with a gun on the other side of a flimsy door a “dumbass” after he locks them out of their own home).

As for the minor villains, we have W.E. Slaughter and Darla. W.E.’s played well enough by Joe Stevens, but the character isn’t particularly compelling – he likes to quote literary figures, but that’s about his only quirk of note. Darla, played charmingly by Tonie Perensky, is better and is probably the least-insane of the villains. However, she’s very cartoonishly sexualized and the fact that she spends half of her scenes with Vilmer getting violently abused by him is uncomfortable to say the least.

Moving onto the main villains, we’ve got “Leather” – that’s what this film calls him anyway and I refuse to consider this character the Leatherface we’re familiar with, because holy shit he’s an abomination. Gone is the Leatherface whose twisted motivations you could understand, now he’s just a cartoon who spends every moment of every scene he’s in wailing and screaming like an idiot. I’m not kidding – he screams the entire time he chases Heather, he screams when he bashes Barry, he screams during the entire 5-10 minute sequence where he chases Jenny through the woods… the only time he shuts up is during the dinner scene, but even then he does almost nothing during that entire sequence. It’s incredibly grating to listen to his ceaseless wailing. On a possibly-related note, Kim Henkel plays up Leatherface’s gender ambiguity much more than any other Chainsaw film does. Some people take issue with the idea of Leatherface in drag, but I’m okay with this, personally. Gender ambiguity and cross-dressing has always been a defining aspect of the character, a fact which is often forgotten (or straight-up ignored in the more commercial Chainsaw sequels). I’m not sure if I like the way that Henkel went about playing up this aspect of the character though. According to Henkel, Leather’s “confused sexuality” is “complex and horrifying at the same time”. He also claims that he made the gender ambiguity of the character more upfront compared to the original Chainsaw because “you can’t be comfortable because this is a minor and incidental perversion”… and when you add those two elements together, that sounds a lot like homophobia to me, or at the very least leveraging the homophobia of the audience against itself. That’s why I mention that Leather’s constant wailing might be intended to be playing into flamboyant gay stereotypes, not to mention the fact that the character’s name has been changed to “Leather”. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this. It wouldn’t surprise me if Henkel is intending to parody gay stereotypes by making the biggest gay stereotype he possibly could (complete with a giant, roaring, penetrating phallus-shaped weapon), but I don’t feel like that was the intent, especially considering how the character has absolutely no agency of his own in this film. Making things even more complicated is the fact that actor Robert Jacks was, himself, a homosexual, but I don’t know how much influence he had on Henkel’s decisions about the character.

Even if the portrayal of Leather wasn’t questionable, the mask alone would make this the absolute worst incarnation of the character out there. Good God, there is nothing else in this film which shows how shoestring this film’s budget was than the awful Leatherface masks. They are so rubbery, like a Chinese knock-off of a Michael Myers mask. It looks even worse when Leather dresses up like a woman and actually wears a woman’s skin to achieve the effect – this could have been incredibly horrifying imagery, but it just looks like a bad, rubber Halloween costume. This is all so unfortunate because near the end of this film’s dinner scene, Vilmer claims that Leather wants Jenny because her face will make a great new mask for him. I don’t think Henkel realized it, but that alone is an amazing idea for a whole Chainsaw film. Just imagine that villainous motivation – Leatherface sees someone he thinks is beautiful and he’s chasing them around just to get ahold of their face so he can wear it and be beautiful too. Holy shit that’s a disturbing idea, one which is just a passing reference in this film and which never gets capitalized on. Fuck this movie.

As for Vilmer, he’s a strange case. I think that Matthew McConaughey puts in a legitimately good performance, totally losing himself in the role. However, he actually goes so far with it that it makes the performance distracting in its insanity. I mean, he’s always watchable, but the character is so insane and random that you can’t even begin to fathom what his motivations might be or take him in any way seriously – this is the sort of character who will deepthroat a shotgun one second and then hold it over his head howling like a Tusken Raider the next. The film doesn’t even bother with any mystery or suspense with the character, despite him appearing fairly normal – he shows up, immediately kills I’m Not Hurt and then kills Sean. I question why anyone even follows him because he seems to have no direction. Vilmer abuses Darla to the point of almost killing her on multiple occasions and he bashes W.E. in the head with a hammer when he gets angry, which actually kills his brother as far as we are shown. Of course, then we find out that he works for the Illuminati, the “people who killed JFK”. I went into this film knowing that about the Illuminati twist, but holy shit it made no sense. The film explains that the Illuminati want to give people a transcendent experience via “true horror” and aren’t really happy with how Vilmer is going about it, but… well, at what point did they become so disappointed? Are they okay with Vilmer murdering at least three other people just so Jenny can have this experience? Why would the people who killed JFK have any sort of interest in transcendent experiences for random people? Why would this secret society care so much about the integrity of this experience that they would elaborately murder Vilmer by crop duster and then appear to personally apologize to Jenny for it, thereby blowing their cover!? Maybe, again, if the film had set anything up then this might have come across as something other than baffling, but as it is it just comes out of nowhere. Oh and just to make things even more confusing, Kim Henkel has hinted that maybe Rothman isn’t really part of the Illuminati, maybe he’s just a cult leader… because that just helps make this movie better I suppose? I’m pretty sure that this whole Illuminati subplot is intended to be a Cabin in the Woods-style commentary on the relationship between horror sequels and the audience, saying that horror sequels have failed to provide audiences with a true, transcendent experience of horror. Rothman even comes out and straight-up apologizes to the audience, saying: “It’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincerest apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am”. This might have been an interesting commentary if The Next Generation wasn’t a bad horror sequel in itself – being self-aware about being bad doesn’t excuse the fact that your film is still bad… if anything, it makes it more insulting that you didn’t just go and make a movie that wasn’t shit.

Hell, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is not just a bad horror sequel, it’s a truly abysmal one. To put it in The Howling terms, it’s no New Moon Rising (where it literally could not possibly be worse), but it’s in the ballpark of Your Sister is a Werewolf and The Marsupials, where the decisions about the making of the film were all wrong and you end up with something bafflingly bad. Or, to compare it to other slasher films, this movie is worse than Jason Goes to Hell (the Friday the 13th where Jason turns into a body snatcher and, among other things, crawls up a dead woman’s vagina in order to be reborn from her). This movie is just so dumb, senseless and dull, and has the audacity to think that it’s making some sort of grand statement in the process. Just thinking back on this movie makes me more annoyed with its existence. This is the sort of film which reminds you that creative freedom isn’t always a good thing and, while I appreciate that Henkel had his own vision for the franchise, the end result was not worth the effort at all.

2/10

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

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

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be covering the third film in the franchise, 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III! This is one of those rare movies where the trailer is more famous than the film itself, featuring an insane, Arthurian bestowing of the chainsaw to its titular villain. Any movie would have a hard time living up to a teaser that ridiculous, but could Leatherface beat sequel fatigue and the departure of Tobe Hooper? Read on to find out…

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


PRODUCTION

After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Cannon Group had the rights to the franchise. However, by 1989 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of cash. New Line Cinema bought the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from The Cannon Group and hoped to bring another major icon into their stable on par with Freddy Krueger. The film was written by David J. Schow, who had done uncredited writing for New Line on A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Schow decided to bring the franchise back in line with the original film, ditching the campy and comic elements that Hooper had brought to the fore in Chainsaw 2. The studio also sought to turn Leatherface into an icon in his own right, rather than focus too much on the Sawyer family, hence why the film puts the name “Leatherface” in the forefront for the first time.

After being turned down by Tom Savini and a young Peter Jackson, New Line approached Jeff Burr (who would later go on to direct several Puppetmaster sequels) to direct the film, as he had just come off of the relatively successful Stepfather II. Burr was very reverential of the original Chainsaw and as a result had some specific demands for the film if he was going to direct – he wanted to shoot in Texas on 16mm film like Tobe Hooper had and Gunnar Hansen had to come back as Leatherface. New Line Cinema thought that this was hilarious and immediately dropped Burr from the production, wanting someone who would kowtow to their own demands and hoped to secure a major actor to play Leatherface. Unfortunately for them, neither of these dreams came to pass and after their replacement director Jonathan Betuel dropped out, New Line convinced Burr to take over production again. However, by this time it would have been May or June of 1989 and New Line had set a firm release date of November 3, 1989, meaning that Burr was under an intensely fast five month deadline to complete the film. He also had to relinquish some of his demands, as sets had already been constructed in Southern California.

New Line didn’t get the big name actor they wanted for Leatherface and a deal could not be reached to get Gunnar Hansen to return. Instead, the role went to former wrestler R. A. Mihaloff. The film’s leading roles went to Kate Hodge (in her first film role) and William Butler (an actor now famous for getting killed in horror movies) as the hapless couple Michelle and Ryan. Horror legend Ken Foree, most famous for being the hero of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, was brought in to play the survivalist hero Benny. A young and virtually-unknown Viggo Mortensen was cast as the villainous Eddie “Tex” Sawyer, a casting decision which single-handedly made me interested in this film. Of the other villainous cast, Joe Unger was cast as Tink Sawyer and Tom Everett (in one of his first roles) as Alfredo Sawyer. Caroline Williams also appears very briefly in a cameo sequence, reprising her role as Stretch from the previous film.

Setbacks and creative clashes between Burr and New Line basically defined the production of Leatherface. Filming locations were destroyed by wildfires, crew members dropped out and sequences Burr had wanted to film, such as a scene where Leatherface would wield a chainsaw on horseback to play off of the Arthurian teaser trailer, were too expensive for the film’s minuscule budget. Test audiences also were not enthused about the film’s ending so New Line did reshoots and changed the ending without Jeff Burr’s knowledge, leading to a more definitively happier ending which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Then, when the film was submitted to the MPAA, the film was slapped with an X-rating (the last film which would receive this rating before the NC-17 rating was created), necessitating over five minutes of the film to be cut. All of these delays meant that the film was pushed out of its November 3rd released date and shunted to January of 1990, at the time considered the release window where movies went to die. All-told, the film ended up grossing less than $6 million and cooled any interest New Line had on turning Leatherface into a new icon for the company.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film’s opening crawl positions Leatherface as an alternate continuity to Chainsaw 2, where law enforcement raided the Sawyer house and apprehended Drayton, believing him to be the “Leatherface” Sally had referenced before she went crazy and died in a private health care facility in 1977. Drayton was executed for the family’s crimes, but Leatherface escaped. After an opening scene that features Leatherface killing a woman, the film follows a couple, Michelle and Ryan, driving through Texas. They pass a police checkpoint where investigators have discovered a mass grave of over forty murder victims before stopping at a gas station. Here they meet a hitchhiking cowboy named Tex and the station’s perverted proprietor, Alfredo. Tex gives Ryan directions to a nearby town that doesn’t appear on their map and then discovers that Alfredo has been spying on Michelle through a peephole in the women’s washroom. Alfredo and Tex get into an altercation which leads to Alfredo shooting him, while Michelle and Ryan flee towards the town Tex mentioned. However, night falls and the town is still nowhere in sight when the pair are pursued by a truck and attacked. Their car is damaged and they have to change the tire, which is just barely completed before they are attacked by Leatherface and flee. However, while fleeing they collide with another driver named Benny who is passing through the area. Benny tends to the couple and is initially skeptical of their claims about being hunted by crazy people, until he comes across a man named Tink who has found the scene of the accident. Benny grabs a rifle from his truck before Tink rams it and then Leatherface attacks. Leatherface nearly kills Benny before the sister of the woman he killed in the opening scene arrives to distract him before doubling back to help Benny. This woman, Sara, tells Benny that Leatherface and his family have been setting traps and luring passersby into the area to be killed, including Sara’s family. Benny then goes to try to help Ryan and Michelle, and Leatherface finds and kills Sara shortly thereafter.

With Sara dead, Leatherface then begins hunting Michelle and Ryan. While fleeing him, Ryan steps in a bear trap and Michelle is forced to escape without him. She comes across a house where she finds a little girl, who then stabs Michelle with a knife before Tex arrives and reveals that Michelle has escaped into the Sawyers’ lair. Tex ties up Michelle and then freaking nails her hands to a chair to make sure she doesn’t try to escape. The rest of the family begin to gather for dinner, including Tink, Leatherface, the elderly Mama Sawyer and Grandpa’s withered corpse. Ryan’s body is brought in and suspended with meat hooks before revealing that he’s still barely alive. Tink presents Leatherface with a golden chainsaw as a gift and then tells him that he still needs to finish the job and kill Benny to prevent any loose ends.

Meanwhile Alfredo, the family butt-monkey, is headed to a bog to dump the family’s latest victims’ remains. Benny sneaks up on him and knocks him out after unsuccessfully trying to get information. The little girl, revealed to be Leatherface’s daughter, kills Ryan with a hammer and then Leatherface prepares to kill Michelle as well. However, before he can, Benny finds the house and opens fire with his rifle, killing Mama, blowing Tink’s fingers and ear off and double-tapping Grandpa for good measure. In the chaos, Michelle tears her hands out of the nails and escapes. Leatherface pursues her into the woods while Benny and Tex fight. Benny kills Tex by lighting him on fire and then hurries to help Michelle. They fight Leatherface in the bog, with Benny being seriously injured before Michelle bashes Leatherface with a rock.

The next morning, Michelle manages to reach the road and is surprised when Alfredo’s truck pulls in front of her. However, Benny is driving it and offers to help her, but then Alfredo shows up and knocks him out. Michelle grabs Alfredo’s shotgun and then shoots him in the chest. Michelle and Benny then finally escape, driving away as Leatherface watches and revs his chainsaw.

REVIEW
It should perhaps be unsurprising that Leatherface ditches the comedic elements of Chainsaw 2 and brings the franchise back to its horror roots. It might have even overcompensated in some ways because this film is just grim and nasty at times. The film opens with Leatherface making a new mask from a fresh kill and we actually get to see him slicing the removed face up and stitching it together. There’s also the scene of Michelle getting her hands nailed to a chair which is just brutal to watch. The film seems like it was intended to be even gorier before the MPAA forced cuts, because there are a lot of potentially gory scenes which the film cuts away from at the last second (such as Ryan’s head getting bludgeoned). However, that doesn’t take away from the other nasty elements of the film which are less explicit. Alfredo is a disgusting pervert with juvenile, rapey vibes and I wished he would just die whenever he was on screen. Oh and then there’s the scene where Mama Sawyer tells Michelle that she cut her own genitals out years ago, that she also castrated Grandpa Sawyer and that Leatherface loves to rape and mutilate genitals as well… this just comes out of nowhere and is way beyond the sort of nastiness that we’ve already come to expect with this character. Like, wasn’t Leatherface established as a butcher who loves killing indiscriminately? Hell, the whole cannibalism aspect doesn’t even get touched upon. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re trying to work in more elements of Ed Gein into the character, but the way that it just comes out of nowhere in the last half of the film and goes against the character as he has been established is questionable (although it gives new meaning to the idea of objectifying people as “meat” in this franchise).

Another element worth noting is that most of Leatherface‘s story just doesn’t make any sense when you apply scrutiny to it. This wasn’t really an issue with the other two films – the first was very simple and realistic, whereas the second’s comedic and campy tone paves over some of the stranger aspects one could point out. However, Leatherface is just fundamentally flawed. For example, we find out during this film that the Sawyers are luring passing motorists into ambushes, which is a pretty cool idea and makes this film feel akin to something from The Hills Have Eyes. However, rather than intimidate locals into sending people their way, they instead set up an elaborate and pointlessly convoluted scheme. Basically, Tex tries to hitchhike with people who attend the gas station and take them back to his house. If that doesn’t work, he tells them about a shortcut to town and then gets Alfredo to pretend to shoot him to cause the motorists to flee to town and run into the Sawyers’ trap. Hey… why not just shoot any motorists at the gas station? Is that not less convoluted and less likely to go wrong? Why did they even need to hunt people down? I don’t think it’s for the fun of it all either, because later they complain about how there are still loose ends out there, but they went and created those loose ends in the first place with their stupid plan. Also, what about the body dumping? I thought the Sawyers ate their victims, but we see Alfredo dumping dismembered corpses into the bog and the bodies found by the police are also intact. So… what are the Sawyers even doing in this film? Are they just draining blood to feed to Grandpa and making skin masks every once in a while now?

There are also parts of the film which straight-up needed to be cut because they don’t add anything, such as a pair of investigators we’re introduced to early in the film who are digging up bodies and then never show up again. What was the point of introducing them? Or what about the reporter in the same scene who inflates the body-count and then can’t pronounce the state of decomposition? It’s meant to be a dig at news media, but the film never bothers to do so again, so what was the purpose of this? What about the earring worn by an armadillo, a dead coyote and Tink? This doesn’t seem to have any other purpose than to reveal that they’re linked, but this link goes unexplained and makes no sense in the film. Oh and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sara as well. She acts as a deus ex machina to save Benny’s ass from Leatherface, acts as an exposition dump to explain what is going on and then is immediately killed by Leatherface despite the implication that she’s a tough survivor to have lasted a whole week on the run. She’s a totally unnecessary character and if the production hadn’t been so rushed she would have been either fleshed out significantly or cut entirely. You’re telling me that she’s been lost in the woods and can’t get away for over a week now, but Michelle manages to get back to the road in a single night? Suuuuure.

As for the actual script, I’ve got to say that I really did not like Michelle and Ryan. They spend the first half of the movie bickering with each other and Ryan especially comes across as a dick. Michelle does get more enjoyable in the second half of the film when she starts fighting back against the Sawyers, but neither character is particularly fleshed out. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue in this film is really clunky, and Michelle and Ryan get saddled with a number of stinkers. For example, when Michelle is driving in the dark and they can hear a vehicle somewhere, Ryan and Michelle argue about where it’s coming from… until the truck turns its lights on behind them, Michelle comments on this and then Ryan yells “It’s coming from behind us!” The line just makes you want to go “No shit, dude!” There’s also a line where Ryan claims that there are a bunch of guys after them with guns, but only a minute later they’re saying that there are two people after them. Sara also has a pretty dumb line where she tells Benny he had the wrong idea bringing a gun to a chainsaw fight… um what? He later uses that gun to disarm Leatherface and take out half of his family in one volley, I’m pretty sure he’s fine.

Benny’s arrival helps breathe new life into the film, thanks largely to Ken Foree’s capable performance. Benny is just way more interesting to watch since, as a survivalist, he actually knows what he’s doing and is prepared for this kind of scenario. He even gets into multiple fights with the villains throughout the film and is constantly rescuing the less-capable characters selflessly. Ken Foree is great in this film, but I have to say that the best performance goes to Viggo Mortensen as Tex, hands-down. He’s no Chop Top, but Viggo works a fair bit of depth into the character. By Sawyer standards, he’s mostly sane and has a very charming veneer. However, when that veneer drops he reveals that he’s on the edge of breaking, such as when Tink calls him by his real name “Eddie” and Tex almost cuts his hand off before asking him politely to call him “Tex”. Unfortunately, the other Sawyers aren’t nearly as compelling. I’ll get to Leatherface in a moment, but while all of the Sawyers in this film have their quirks, no one really gets all that much material to work with. Tink is the tech guy for the family and seems to be fairly sane. Mama is the matriarch and has had a tracheotomy. Leatherface’s daughter is a little psycho (and the child actor playing her is not great at delivering dialogue). Oh and Alfredo is a one-dimensional piece of shit who talks to himself, threatens to rape people and is implied to have engaged in necrophilia. Lovely.

As for Leatherface, he’s once again a very different character. One rather cool addition to the character is that he wears a metal leg brace after the injury he sustained at the end of the first movie. This actually allows Michelle and Ryan to hear him approaching when he first arrives, which could have been a cool, Jaws-like way to build suspense. Unfortunately, it only really shows up in this first scene, but it was a potentially smart way to make the character even scarier. Also, Leatherface no longer seems like he’s severely mentally deficient, or at least nowhere near the same level of dangerously stupid as he was previously. For example, in this film he now knows how to drive and is teaching himself how to spell, although he seems to only be able to view humans as “food” in a humorously unsubtle scene. His biggest issue seems to be that he’s incapable of speech, but he actually fights back against his family now. In one scene, Tink throws Leatherface’s Walkman in the oven as a lesson, but Leatherface fights back and forces Tink to reach into the flames to retrieve it, which is a far cry from when Drayton Sawyer was beating him for killing people back in the first film. This ties into Leatherface being just generally far more physically imposing in this film. At one point he tears the trunk of Michelle’s car off with his bare hands and the golden chainsaw he receives near the end of the film is ridiculously massive (apparently weighing around 80lbs). Between being made less cripplingly stupid and getting ‘roided up, Leatherface feels a lot more like Jason Voorhees in this film, which I can’t help but feel was New Line Cinema’s vision for the franchise. However, it also makes the character feel more generic. Also, once again I’m not a fan of his mask. It doesn’t look rubbery like it did in Chainsaw 2, but it instead looks like it’s made of mud and is just plain ugly (in a bad way).

Another thing that really grates me about this film is that has some really heavy-handed references to the first film, especially in the first act, to the point where it almost feels like a remake at times. Off the bat, we’ve got a couple driving through Texas and listening to grisly news reports about a mass grave and then camera flashes illuminating corpses when we see this mass grave. Then when they reach the gas station, Alfredo takes Michelle’s picture and asks her to pay him for it and Tex tells us that Alfredo lost his job when the old slaughterhouse shut down. And, of course, there’s yet another dinner scene, this time complete with a body hanging from meathooks. Look, the dinner scene was truly iconic and horrifying, but do we need to rip it off in every subsequent Chainsaw film?

Man, I’ve really been ragging on Leatherface throughout this retrospective, but it really isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound. Taking cues from The Hills Have Eyes and having the villains lure victims into their territory (complete with booby-traps) is actually ingenious and, while the justification isn’t really there in the script, it helps give this film its own identity in the franchise. Having the villains actively hunting people now is actually a pretty smart way to advance the franchise formula, if only a little. Also, Jeff Burr’s direction is quite good especially considering the film’s low budget and the fact that at least half of the film is shot at night. This could make things very hard to see, but Burr lights the scenes very well without it seeming unnatural. Also, while the film is nowhere near as tense or suspenseful as the original, it does have some pretty horrifying and nasty sequences, as I have mentioned, which make for a gruelling atmosphere at times. And, as dumb as the script is sometimes, there’s also some great payoffs, such as when Benny uses Sara’s lighter that he acquired from her earlier to light Tex on fire, or when Michelle flees into a bog and the audience realizes that it’s the bog Alfredo was dumping corpses into earlier. It would be unfortunate if I did not mention some of the cool sequences as well, most notably Leatherface and Benny’s fight, where Benny disarms him and then Leatherface pulls out this mini-saw Tink made him, which he uses to cut Benny’s leg and get the upper hand!

What can I say about Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III? It’s a competently-made film which is just brought down by some unfortunate elements, most importantly its frustratingly annoying leads and the shaky plot. Oh, and the studio interference certainly didn’t help, because I’m certain that that led to the movie feeling like a generic slasher sequel (most notably in its rather stupid reshot ending and that there isn’t really any sort of social commentary to the film). That said, compared to its contemporaries, this film is miles ahead of such films as Jason Takes Manhattan or The Revenge of Michael Meyers, not to mention New Line running A Nightmare on Elm Street into the ground with The Dream Child and Freddy’s Dead. I have to say that it’s nowhere near as messy as Chainsaw 2, but it also less distinctive and the characters are far less interesting. All-in-all it’s a slasher sequel – a fairly decent one, but a slasher sequel none the less.

4/10

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

Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/10

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

Retrospective: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.5/10

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

Retrospective: God’s Not Dead – A Light in Darkness (2018)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry we’re covering the latest, and possibly last, entry in the franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. After the garbage fire that was the previous film, could it be possible for this series to get even more insulting? Read on to find out…

The poster carries on the same design aesthetic as the previous films in the franchise. I like it a lot more than the previous one – visually, it’s a far more interesting design.


God’s Not Dead 2 released on April 1st, 2016 and was (unfortunately) only an April Fool’s joke if you paid to see it. That said, it landed in the year that evangelicals would help to put Donald Trump into office as the 45th President of the United States, a result which has been… contentious to put it lightly and which has shed a light on how brutishly tribal, steadfastly political and stunningly hypocritical the evangelical church is in America. I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that the God’s Not Dead franchise helped to bring about these turn of events in their own small way. These films were just reflections of things that evangelicals already believed, but (as per Sean Paul Murphy) Pure Flix was drawn to creating inflammatory content to generate more ticket sales, which fanned the flames and drove evangelicals to act.


Even before November 2016 rolled around, a third God’s Not Dead film had been confirmed, although the premise was not set. David A. R. White stated that “We’ve just been in a lot of prayer and trying to figure out exactly what God wants number 3 to be. Because you know we don’t just want to just do what we want to do, we really want to follow where God is leading on these movies.” Now, details on what exactly happened are hard to come by, but Harold Cronk (who directed the previous 2 films), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the writers of the previous 2 films) were not brought back to work on the new film. Instead, an unknown writer/director by the name of “Michael Mason” was brought on to spearhead the third entry in the franchise, signalling a new direction for the franchise.


David A. R. White returns as Pastor Dave, this time taking on the film’s leading role. Benjamin Onyango would return as Pastor Jude and Shane Harper would also return as Josh Wheaton, but they both appear in relatively small roles and none of the other major characters from the series (such as Amy, Martin or Ayisha… sigh, so much for my Josh/Ayisha shipping) make any appearance. The new major roles are filled out by John Corbett as Dave’s estranged brother, Ted McGinley as the university chancellor and Jennifer Taylor as Dave’s love interest. The filmmakers also made a big deal about securing Academy Award winning actress Tatum O’Neal in a role, but it ends up being a very minor as one of the board members at the university.

Owing to how hard it is to find information about this film’s production, I actually found some intriguing little tidbits. On the minor end of things, I found confirmation that this film was at one point given the subtitle of “A Light in the Darkness”, but that the “the” was subsequently dropped, presumably because they would have thought it was too long a title. This just gives me a bit more insight into Pure Flix’s marketing ideas and why I was probably on the right track when I was thinking about why they didn’t just call this series God is Not Dead, as they clearly should have. Perhaps more intriguing is the identity of “Michael Mason”, as I found some conflicting stories which suggest that this is a pseudonym for an unidentified director. The candidate which had been suggested was Jon Gunn, director of My Date with Drew, Do You Believe? and The Case for Christ and it was postulated that he used the “Michael Mason” pseudonym because it would have been his 3rd Christian film in a row and might have pigeonholed him as a “Christian director”. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s also worth pointing out that a November 2017 interview with Shane Harper had the film’s director listed as “Jonathan Michael”. Perhaps this an early, half-masked psuedonym before Michael Mason was settled on? Regardless, it’s really interesting to speculate on.

Also, one last thing to note before we move onto the story of the film: this movie bombed at the box office. While the first film had made around $60 million domestically and the second had made around $20 million, A Light in Darkness brought in just over $7 million – less than both of the previous films had made in their opening weekends. Ouch. I feel like by this entry the series’ reputation was already tanked, so there was less interest, not to mention that it was yet another unnecessary sequel. Perhaps most importantly though, the Christian film industry had really kicked into full gear since the release of God’s Not Dead, and as a result A Light in Darkness was beaten out at the box office by fellow faith-based films I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, all of which released in a 3 week span around the Easter season (which I commented on at the time). It’s also probably worth mentioning that Black Panther was still tearing up the box office at the time as well.


The film opens with Pastor Dave getting released from jail after the post-credits scene in the last film because… well, we aren’t really told why, but they basically have nothing on him after all. Dave’s jailing creates a controversy about the church being on university grounds. Jude meets with Dave after his release and a couple nights later they hear a brick being thrown through the church window. Dave tries to catch the vandal while Jude goes to turn off the alarm – however, the brick accidentally caused a gas leak which explodes, fatally wounds Jude and burns the church. Dave is left in shock as the university uses this opportunity to try to seize the church grounds in order to build a student union centre, which Dave refuses. As a result, Dave seeks out his estranged brother, Pearce, who is a social justice lawyer and non-believer. With Pearce’s help, Dave goes to court against the university to retain control of the church, while waging a media campaign which inflames further controversy over both sides of the conflict.

Eventually, Dave discovers that a local student named Adam was the one responsible for the gas leak which happened accidentally after taking out his frustrations over the church. Dave has Adam arrested after confronting him, but Dave’s lashing out further hurts his public perception and leads to Pearce dropping out of the case. As Dave’s life begins to spiral out of control, he does some major soul-searching with God and realizes that he’s hurting people with his needless crusade. As a result, he announces that he’s accepting a settlement with the university, drops the charges against Adam, builds a new church elsewhere and just asks everyone to stop fighting one another.

As you can probably tell from this synopsis, A Light in Darkness is… actually a movie for once, not an over-glorified object lesson. It’s truly shocking to see the difference between this film after the last two entries – in fact, a significant chunk of my notes while watching were just me expressing surprise about how plot points are treated with far more nuance than they were previously. I have to give Michael Mason (whoever they are) some credit for just how much better this film is compared to the other two in nearly every way. Harold Cronk was a competent director, but his two films in this series had a very flat, workmanlike quality (and the less said about the scripts, the better). In contrast, this movie immediately demonstrates a considerably more interesting directing style and better cinematography. The script for this film is also miles ahead of the last two entries. In fact, I feel like A Light in Darkness only really has a couple of obvious issues that are worse than in the other films in this series. Worst of all, its pacing is glacial at times and without the batshit insanity or scenery chewing of the previous films, it’s easy to be bored for long stretches of this film. Also, David A. R. White is a decent actor for the most part, but having to carry a whole film on his shoulders seems like a bit of a strenuous effort for him. He had succeeded in the previous two films by being a bit of positive, comic levity combined with strong chemistry with Pastor Jude. However, A Light in Darkness sees Pastor Dave taking on a dark, dramatic role. There are a couple of moments in the film when David needs to display some sort of strong emotion (such as when he’s crying for Jude while the church burns and when he angrily confronts Adam about the fire) but he tends to be unconvincing, like he’s holding back for fear of looking silly. Again, he’s mostly solid though and his chemistry with John Corbett helps to keep things going strong.

I also have to give Pure Flix some credit for actually listening to the criticisms they received this time and using them to actually take a step forward… but just how big was that step? Let’s take a closer look…


One of the first things that will strike you about this movie (assuming you’ve seen the other two entries in the series), is that the portrayals of Christians and atheists are considerably more nuanced. Let’s focus on the portrayal of the Christians first, because that is probably the starkest difference compared to the other films. The Christians in this film are considerably more unsure of themselves and Pastor Dave is even straight-up villainized by the film for most of its second half. When Dave starts a social media campaign to get public support for his cause, this causes an unintended harassment campaign against the university’s chancellor, Elsworth and his family, as he gets doxxed, receives harrassing phone calls, death threats and has his window smashed with a brick. This is an unfortunately realistic example of how Christians can be dicks and how they can cause evil without even intending it. I’m wondering if this was inspired by Christian ugliness that the filmmakers witnessed stemming from their own movies perhaps? To make matters even more complicated, Elsworth is explicitly portrayed as a good friend of Dave’s, and possibly even a Christian too. This doxxing causes Elsworth to violently confront Dave, but the Pastor refuses to relent to help his friend.

Dave just becomes more of a mess from there. Adam texts him anonymously, hoping that Dave will forgive him for starting the fire. Instead, Dave confronts Adam, accosts him, pushes away a security guard and makes a huge stink which is caught on film and tanks his public reputation, but leads to Adam’s arrest… and we’re definitely meant to agree that Dave did the wrong thing here. Again, these should be obvious, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is agreeing with common sense is just so strange to me, they’ve conditioned me to expect the worst. Adam’s girlfriend, Keaton, has been questioning her faith throughout the entire film and it becomes obvious that it’s the actions of the Christians that are eroding that away. She confronts Dave, says that she’s seeing no mercy from the man of God and that Adam is “tired of feeling judged and rejected by the people who should be loving and accepting.” While the film is still clearly on the side of Christians, it at least is able to acknowledge that they’re often their own greatest enemy, rather than the external enemies that the other films leaned into.

The atheist characters are all given far more nuance that in the previous films as well. Dave’s brother Pearce is probably the most compelling character in the film. He has this playful “older brother” routine that he does with Dave in all their interactions, but it’s obvious that there is a tension due to some sort of major falling out with his family’s faith. That said, he helps Dave because they are family. Pearce even gets some digs in on Christians which ring true, such as when he accuses Dave of “playing the victim”. Everything comes to a head towards the end of the film when Dave chews out Pearce for leaving him to care for his parents alone. Pearce reveals that when he was struggling with his faith, no one took the time to help him to sort out his feelings, it left him feeling like no one cared. As a result, he lost his faith, which broke his parents’ hearts. The callousness and inaction of Christians bred tragedy which led to even more tragedies. By the end of the film, Pearce is still an atheist and this isn’t portrayed as some moral failing. He does take his childhood Bible with him, implying that he may go back to searching, but that’s left entirely up to the viewer to speculate.

The other major atheist character is Adam, who is immediately hostile to the church when he’s introduced. This might seem like old hat for God’s Not Dead, but it’s a bit of a misdirection as we are very much intended to sympathize with Adam. At the start of the film, Keaton breaks up with him for belittling her struggles over faith, which leads him to vandalize the church and then accidentally starts the fire when a thrown brick breaks a gas line. He is no Mark from the first film though, Adam is devastated by his part in this and immediately wants to turn himself in to the police. In fact, Keaton is the one who tells him not to for fear of getting into trouble. Later we find out that Adam is so hostile to religion because his mom was beaten by her dad and when she divorced him to get away, the church called her a sinner for it. Once again, we’re given an admission that Christians are the monsters sometimes and that the “rules” aren’t nearly as black and white as some people claim. That said, the pattern with Adam and Pearce is that they are atheists because the church pushed them away from faith, rather than because they have a logical foundation for their belief. Keaton supports this idea when she says that “the whole world knows what the church is against, but it’s getting harder and harder to know what it’s for.” Their experiences certainly don’t represent all atheists or people who fall away from the church, so I’m not sure that the filmmakers “get it” yet – they still don’t seem to understand that the things that the church fights so hard for (eg, homophobia) run counter to the things that it’s supposed to be all about (eg, loving your neighbour). Still, the non-Christian characters are still miles better than anything in the previous two films.

The other non-believing characters are treated in a similarly, mostly-reasonable manner. For example, the university board members actually have a pretty legitimate reason for why they want the church off of the campus – the church was there when the university was founded, but times have changed and now there is an issue of favouring one religion over all the others. That’s a textbook example of Christian “persecution” which is actually just treating them the same way that they would any other religious group. Furthermore, Dave’s arrest had been drawing unfavourable attention and the fire showed that there was violence starting to be committed over the building’s presence on campus. There are even some discussions about whether they might just keep the church on campus for historic reasons, but they decide that it’s better to build a student centre in the long-term. There’s no moustache-twirling, sneering, villainous monologue about how they’re going to kill God this time, they just have a very legitimate concern about favouring Christians over all the other faiths on campus (for an example of why this is reasonable and relevant, take a look at how Christians respond whenever the Church of Satan does anything). On a similar note, it’s also worth pointing out that the conspiracy theorizing of the previous film is mostly gone. In addition to the reasonable motives of the board, Pastor Dave is released before we’re even two minutes into the film because, the franchise has realized, there’s absolutely no reason for them to even arrest him in the first place. This should be obvious to everyone, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is acknowledging it as well goes to show just how different these films has become off the bat.

That said, the film does have some weird, lingering issues when it comes to its non-Christian characters. Early on we have a scene with Keaton and Adam hanging out with their friend Teo and his girlfriend. Teo leads the conversation, chatting about the Mandela Effect at length, which he equates to being as legitimate as the idea of Jesus walking on water. It’s a weird scene, because it’s either completely pointless, or the film is trying to say that the things that non-Christians believe are equally as ridiculous as any supernatural belief in Christianity… except that the Mandela Effect is not in any way a serious scientific belief, so I’m not sure why they had this scene at all. Furthermore, the non-Christian characters specifically get set off whenever Dave says that he believes in “one truth”, which suggests that the filmmakers clearly still believe that non-believers have some sort of knee-jerk hostility to Christians.

In addition to providing more nuance for the atheists and Christian characters, A Light in Darkness also erodes much of the persecution complex that the previous films were cultivating. The acknowledgements that Christians cause issues as well goes some way to establishing this. There is also one famous scene near the end of the film which makes this most starkly clear, where Dave speaks with Pastor Roland at a local, predominantly-black church:

Dave: “What’s important is that Christians stop rolling over all the time, when is it our right to fight? I’m tired of being pushed around. I’m tired of turning the other cheek. […] I’m just saying that I think it’s time that Christians stand up for themselves.” 

Roland: “People were drawn to Jesus because of his love, his patience and kindness. He managed to preach the truth without losing himself in the bargain. He was gentle with the meek and hard as a rock with the arrogant. And when he talked to the foolish, he was patient and never became a fool himself. And he was never proud David.” 

Dave: “This has nothing to do with pride, Roland. And no offence, but maybe you’d understand a little better if you were the one being attacked.” 

Roland: “Brother who do you think you’re talking to? I’m a black preacher in the deep south. I could build you a church with all the bricks been thrown through my windows. […] We cannot respond to hate with more hate. And don’t forget: we are called to be a light in the darkness.”

The message seems clear, even if Dave doesn’t necessarily “get” it at the time: black people have been persecuted for centuries and when the first sign of trouble comes to evangelicals they act like they have a monopoly on suffering. The fact that this film’s title is dropped in this exchange is also proof that this is one of the film’s fundamental messages, and honestly it’s a pretty damn good one. Hearing Pastor Roland talking about not responding to hate with more hate resonates far more effectively than the heavy-handed equating of Grace to Martin Luther King Jr in the previous film. This is also reflected on the God’s Not Dead blog where, after the second film came out, suddenly the tone changed from sensationalist and combative to calm and reflective.

For all the good steps that A Light in Darkness has taken, it still has some major issues gnawing away at it. I’ve alluded a few times now that the filmmakers still don’t quite understand what they were wrong about in the previous two films and, while I give them credit for trying to fix their problems, I can’t ignore how their lingering issues taint this film’s attempts at change. The proof of this is found in this film’s cameos. The only Christian celebrity cameo comes from the Newsboys, who make a very brief appearance on a news program where they make this nonsense metaphor about the symbology of the cross which doesn’t really add anything to the film. Despite this film’s efforts to step up their Christian message, the two main cameos in this film come from the conservative world: Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, and Judge Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News personality. If you have no idea who these people are then you might take this movie’s efforts to improve Christian and non-believers’ relations at face value. However, if you do know them, it undermines this movie’s efforts entirely because they are “two of the most aggressive and combative voices imaginable” and yet are portrayed as the voices of reason throughout the film. The AV Club review of this movie sums the situation up well:

“Frustrated Dave might well be paraphrasing Loesch’s video from last April, where she ranted against Trump protesters who “smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding […] The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” When Loesch appears in the film, it’s to pull a “so much for the tolerant left” line in flagging the university’s decision. Later, Judge Jeanine gets to voice the film’s moral: “It’s a sign of the time: everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening.” What she means is that the left is yelling and not listening to the right”.

The fact that Judge Jeanine is the one saying the film’s other moral stands in stark contrast to what Pastor Roland was saying, which puts this film into a major identity crisis. On the one hand, we have a legitimate effort to bring people together, to portray Christians and non-believers in a more respectful and realistic light and to urge its audience to be less divided. However, on the other hand, we have a film which is still in bed with American far right activists and portrays them as being far more reasonable than they are without any sort of irony. The film makes this even more embarrassing during an exchange between Pearce and Josh. Josh says that he was studying to be a civil rights lawyer and Pearce says that he didn’t strike him as a liberal. Josh replies that “I don’t think standing up for the oppressed is exclusive to a political agenda” and that “my beliefs are the foundation of change” because all humans are made in the image of God. He then lets out the ultimate stinker of a line when he says that “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior”… whoo boy. What “oppressed people” are you referring to Josh? Are you in favour of the rights of homosexuals? It should be obvious to anyone watching that evangelicals don’t have a good history of standing up for the oppressed, for even being “social justice warriors” and that conservatism is by its very nature uninterested in the rights of minorities. It’s one thing to make the not untrue statement that Jesus supported social justice, but it’s another to say that evangelicals are a force for social justice. These are, after all, the people who voted in, and continue to support, Trump in spite of everything that they profess to hold good and moral.

Combine all of this with the film’s ending, where Dave sacrifices his crusade for the church in order to stop both sides from fighting with one another, and we’ve got a conclusion which seems to run counter to the message that the film had been building towards. “Let’s stop shouting at each other and start listening. It’s the only way that things will get better” could come across as a legitimate call for Christian peacemaking in a time when the country is divided. However, by putting their message into the mouths of out-of-character conservative activists, I have a hard time seeing the film’s ultimate intent as anything but the following: after eight years of Obama, evangelical get their own candidate into power, decide that there’s no reason for anyone to legitimately protest now and are just trying to shut down all opposing views. After all, “stop shouting, start listening” suggests that the people you’re shouting down have something legitimate to say, which is hard to justify when you consider the surge in racist and nationalist movements, or that America is drawing itself dangerously close to fascism.

A Light in Darkness is a confused film. It’s a bit dull at times, but I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. There are moments that I legitimately liked quite a bit, particularly the shot where Dave prays and the church around him melts away into a view of space, getting across the idea of God’s presence without requiring words. It’s the first time in this series that God appears and is actually a loving deity for once, giving guidance to a lost and grieving soul. However, as I have said at length, the filmmakers’ refusal to break from their right-wing associations completely undermines the sincerity of the film’s message. This has led to some very polarizing reviews from audiences, with some fans of the other films disliking it for not being “inspiring” enough, while others appreciated the strides the film took to improve the series. For my own part, I feel like A Light in Darkness is just short of being a truly good film. I never would have expected to say this, but it’s almost too bad that we’re probably not going to get a fourth film – I’m extremely curious to see how the franchise would have evolved given one more try. Oh well, hopefully Pure Flix doesn’t backslide after this film’s tepid reception.

5/10

And here is my final ranking of these films:
1) God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness – 5/10
2) God’s Not Dead – 4/10
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – 2/10

Thanks for tuning in for another retrospective series! This one was a bit more torturous than the others just due to the films involved, but I always love writing them. Until next time!

Retrospective: God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry, we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God’s Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God’s Still Not Dead, c’mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out…

…eh, I don’t really like this poster much. I mean, it’s fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God’s Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film’s leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film’s success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God’s Not Dead 2, I’ve been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don’t want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn’t as much information about what actually inspired God’s Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix’s association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie’s website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix’s audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply “Christian” films.

It’s also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God’s Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze “It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? […] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true.” I… what?

David… you know that people get annoyed by lies too… right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can’t see anything else? Sigh… I think I’m starting to understand why the “logical” arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

The story of God’s Not Dead 2 picks up a few months after the last film ended and follows a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley. One of Grace’s students, Brooke, comes to Grace for advice because her brother has recently died and she doesn’t know how to cope with the loss. Grace confides that she trusts in Jesus, which helps to prompt Brooke to explore Christianity after she discovers a Bible that her brother had kept hidden. Brooke then asks a question in class about the non-violent protests of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, relating them to Jesus, which Grace answers and explains. However, one of her students reports her for doing so, which prompts the school board to try to fire Grace. Grace is represented by a young, non-Christian lawyer named Tom Endler who tries to get her to stand down and concede to an apology. Grace refuses because she believes that she did nothing wrong. Brooke’s parents are then approached by Pete Kane of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants to represent them in suing Grace with the explicit intent of stamping out Christianity in America once and for all.

Grace is then put on trial for violation of the separation of church and state, with Pastor Dave managing to end up on the jury for the case. Tom mounts a defence by arguing for the historical authenticity of Jesus with supposed “experts” Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace showing up to explain as much. Brooke is eventually brought in by Tom and Grace to testify, but she ends up giving further evidence to the ACLU’s case by revealing that Grace had spoken to her about Jesus outside of school. Everything’s looking grim for Grace when Tom comes up with a baffling final gambit, putting Grace on the stand as a hostile witness and badgering her to tears about her faith, saying that they’re going to silence, fine and jail all the Christians. Somehow, this causes the jury to rule in her favour, much to the embarrassment of the ACLU. After the credits, Pastor Dave is arrested for not handing over sermon transcripts earlier in the film.

As you can probably tell from the plot summary, God’s Not Dead 2 ditches the previous film’s interconnected storylines in favour of one main plot. There are still a couple subplots, but these are given far less prominence than in the first film and all tie directly into the main plot. This, honestly, is probably to the story’s overall betterment, as I did suggest previously that God’s Not Dead could have used some stronger focus overall. Honestly, in a lot of ways God’s Not Dead 2 is an improved sequel – the production values are a bit better, the performances are all good across the board, the story’s a bit more focused and the scope and stakes get raised enough that this doesn’t just feel like a straight rehash of the first film. There were also some subplots that I thought were legitimately really good – basically everything revolving around Martin (Paul Kwo, reprising his role from the first film) is great as we witness him grow from an awkward and excited young Christian to one who is resolved to preach, even when it costs him the respect of his family. I also found elements of Amy’s subplot (Trisha LaFache, also reprising her role) to be interesting, as she grapples with her faith after her cancer goes into remission. Unfortunately this intriguing aspect of her character gets dropped pretty quickly and, while Amy remains in the film for quite some time thereafter, she doesn’t really add anything interesting in the rest of her screentime.

The only problem is… well, God’s Not Dead 2 sets itself up in such a manner that an objective and detached review of it is basically impossible. Like I just said, technically this film has the pieces needed to be better than the first movie. Story-wise, I found its courtroom melodrama and proselytizing duller than the first movie’s classroom drama, despite the overall tighter focus of the sequel. I think this simply comes down to the rivalry of Josh and Radisson, which was far more interesting than Grace and Tom’s flat characterization and Pete’s scenery chewing. That’s not really the main issue though, as it’s the actual themes of the story that lets this movie down so hard and make the two hour runtime into even more of a slog. Once again, the filmmakers ideological bent is on full display, but this time they really lean into it, to the point where it straight-up ruins their movie from conception. The plot is just plain dumb and stretches credulity to the breaking point. That said, if you’re a part of the conservative evangelical bubble then you might not even notice that there is an ideological bent to this movie at all – or worse, you might even feel validated by it.

Let’s just get right into the portrayal of atheists in this film. It’s clear that the filmmakers were aware of the atheist backlash that the first film inspired, but it seems that it only inspired them to double-down, because God’s Not Dead 2 is way more offensive to atheists than the previous film was. This is evident from the very first scene of the movie through the portrayal of Brooke’s parents, Richard and Catherine. Brooke is clearly struggling and withdrawn because of the death of her brother, but her parents are totally over it and don’t seem to care anymore at all. Right off the bat this is a step beyond anything that the filmmakers had portrayed in the previous film. They imply once again that atheists are incapable of love, but now they also seem to believe that they can’t even care about their own children!? I was watching and wondering if this might just be a coping mechanism for Brooke’s parents, but no, this movie straight-up implies that atheist parents don’t give a shit about their own kids. I’ll be honest, I was floored by the very start of this film, it was unbelievable that the people behind this film would think this of atheists. I mean, as I have reiterated multiple times now, they were aware that atheists were offended by how they were portrayed in the first movie, so you’d think that the right move would be to be more careful in how you represent people going forward to make sure that there are no misunderstandings, right? Well, we’re getting the message loud and clear here, the filmmakers clearly think that atheists are heartless automatons. I had thought that the filmmakers just sucked at portraying non-Christians in the previous film, but here we get to see right off the bat that everyone involved in the production of this movie is totally incapable of empathy. Brooke’s parents never get better throughout this movie. There is no sympathy from or for them. During the trial, Richard is more worked up about his daughter getting “preached to” than the fact that his own son died. Seriously, shouldn’t atheists mourn harder when someone they know and love dies? Hell, at the end of the last movie, we were supposed to think it a good thing that Pastor Dave and Jude were celebrating the death (and last-second conversion) of Radisson. Just… how could they be so lacking in empathy for people who have different views?

Also worth pointing out is Martin’s father who shows up for one brief, but important scene. After Martin converts to Christianity, his father arrives to take him back to China because he believes that Martin is disgracing his family and that Martin is throwing away his future and the sacrifices that his family has made for him. It isn’t really explained why he believes this, but I think that the audience is supposed to understand that China persecutes Christians and implies that this is the end-result of state-sponsored atheism. When Martin refuses to recant, his father slaps him (which now means the God’s Not Dead films are two for two when portraying non-Christians of other nationalities as violent degenerates, hooray!), disowns him and then immediately returns to China. In all honesty, this scene works far better than the domestic abuse sequence in the first film and could have maybe been an affecting scene if there had been any sort of reasoning given for Martin’s father to be so vehemently anti-Christian. Instead, it just comes across as more of the same “atheists are bad and hate Christians just because” message. Give me the God’s Not Dead movie about Martin going back to China to be a minister, that could actually be incredibly interesting if it was written well (although knowing this production team, I have my doubts).

The most prominent atheist character is Pete Kane of the ACLU. For what it’s worth, Ray Wise puts in a deliciously hammy performance, turning every line from Pete into a sneering, sinister proclamation that guarantees that you’ll at least be entertained when he’s on-screen. That said, the material he’s working with is just plain stupid. I’ll get to the fact that the ACLU are the villains in this movie later, but Pete Kane is meant to represent how dastardly and hateful the organization (apparently) is. From his very first scene, Pete is seen as eagerly relishing the chance to make an example out of Grace and to “prove once and for all that God is dead”. He’s not even subtle about it when he’s around Grace and Tom, telling them straight-up that “I hate what people like your client stand for and what they’re doing to our society”. Bloody hell, I know that there are militant atheists who talk like that, but this movie acts like they’re the status quo.

Of course, the film tries to make Pete out to be a hypocrite during the trial when he claims that “Christianity is not on trial here” in his opening statement, despite it being obvious to the audience that this is not the case. To hammer that home, he also makes a big fuss about not wanting to offend any Muslims in the court, dog whistling to the audience the idea that liberals are afraid of offending Islam but hate and attack Christianity. Basically, throughout this movie Pete grins gleefully any time something happens that negatively affects Christians, while looking exasperated any time someone in the defence acknowledges that it’s pretty much a settled fact that Jesus existed. Hell, he looks downright shocked when J. Warner Wallace reveals that he was an atheist and that “I’m a Christian because it’s evidentially true” (in your opinion, sure).

As cartoonishly evil as Pete Kane is, his characterization is echoed in a number of smaller atheist authority figure roles in this film, all of whom are totally hostile to Christians. Whenever the news media gets shown in the film, the newscaster goes on a tirade about how Grace and Christians are zealots, fundamentalists and that the only extremists we need to worry about are the hardcore Christians. This portrayal of the media just felt so weird to me because it has the tenor of a Fox News segment, but with right-wing talking points swapped out for insults that get thrown at conservative evangelicals. Maybe I just don’t know the American media and how sensational their reporting style is, but I feel like this might just be the filmmakers projecting their own media’s style and assuming that that’s how everyone does it.

In addition to the media, the entire school board is immediately against Grace (her union rep even says “What were you thinking?” when asked whether Grace said the “words of Jesus” in class). Principal Kinney is particularly villainous, giving Grace these over the top evil looks and during her testimony against Grace is almost as much of a mustache-twirler as Pete Kane. Kinney is also seen shutting down a student protest led by Brooke in an effort to further silence Christians (that the audience this movie was directed at would be trying to shut down student protests that disagree with their politics less than two years later gives a contemporary viewing some delicious retrospective irony). Meanwhile, when Pastor Dave refuses to hand over sermon transcripts to the prosecutor’s office, the officer overseeing this goes from being fairly casual and routine to something resembling a body snatcher. I’m not kidding, he stands up, stares and ominously asks Dave if he really wants to refuse to comply, before stating that “a nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

Now before I get into the next section I need to write about the only sympathetic non-Christian character in the film, Tom. We’re never really given his opinion on faith at any point in this film, other than that he’s a “non-believer” at the time when he agrees to represent Grace. Surprisingly, we don’t even get a big conversion scene by the end, although it’s probably safe to assume that he is totally convinced by the pro-Christian arguments as the film, since the movie seems to think that they “proved the existence of Jesus Christ” as the ACLU puts it at the end. The thing about Tom is that he’s just doing his job without letting personal biases get in the way, which shouldn’t be that unusual but… well, this is God’s Not Dead 2 and it’s shocking whenever this series doesn’t imply that a non-Christian eats babies for breakfast.

Anyway, one of the strangest parts about the portrayal of atheists in this film (Tom aside) is that there’s this uniformity to their actions which suggests that the filmmakers seem to think that there’s some kind of enormous atheist conspiracy unfolding in America looking to silence all the Christians. How else can you explain the uniformity of the atheist characters’ hostility to the Christians, their unspoken agreements about what is “unacceptable”, their encroachment into Christians’ freedoms and their certainty that Grace is going to be destroyed from the outset? The way that this film’s plot gets kicked into motion even suggests conspiracy, as the second Grace mentions Jesus in class, a student secretly gets his phone out and texts… somebody about it (it’s unclear who, it could have been Obama himself for all we know), as if this was a surveillance state like North Korea. At worst, a student might mention that their teacher talked about Jesus in class, but odds are that absolutely none of the students would give a shit. Hell, I live in godless, heathen Canada and when I was in high school we had a history teacher throw on a VHS tape about how the Bible was useful for archaeologists – a couple of students in the class scoffed, but that was about it. I know that’s anecdotal, but c’mon filmmakers, do they really think that students would immediately rat her out?

The whole conspiracy angle of the film gets more obvious when the ACLU become involved, as even before Pete arrives the school board discusses how the ACLU has been waiting for a case like Grace’s for years, as it provides them with the opportunity they need to silence Christians for good. The choice of the ACLU as villains for this film, especially when painting them as hypocritical and evil bastards, is truly baffling and I can only think that it’s a result of the filmmakers’ ideological leanings and their association with the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ACLU often sticks up for the rights of LGBTQ people, access to abortion and the separation of church and state, which turns them into an obvious target for conservative evangelicals, despite the fact that the ACLU defends the rights of pretty much anyone, Christians included. To put it simply, “essentially all of [the ACLU’s] positions irritate social conservatives […] the ACLU supports free speech including the free expression of religion; what they oppose is government funding or lending official (or the perception of official) support to religious activities in violation of the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, the ACLU has defended the rights of religious bigots to espouse those views, although it does not condone the contents of their speech.” Interestingly, the ADF are totally absent in this film, as is any sort of public support for Grace (up until Brooke organizes a protest for her). Does anyone remember Kim Davis, and how her refusal to issue wedding licenses landed her support from public and political figures, such as Mike Huckabee (who shows up in this film to fellate the evangelical audience for a vote)? The film instead makes it seem like no one supports Christians in order to make it look like they’re a minority class.

 
 

Anyway, when the ACLU gets involved in the film, they sway Brooke’s parents to sue Grace by promising that “there is not an Ivy League admissions board that could resist giving Brooke a spot because she was involved in a landmark separation of church and state case”. This was another one of those moments that made my jaw drop at the audacity of this film. So the entire Ivy League is populated by militant atheists who only admit similarly-atheist students? Bloody hell, is it any wonder that evangelicals are accused of being anti-intellectual? Similarly, the prosecutor’s office demanding sermon transcripts is treated like this grand next step on the road to making Christianity illegal, the sort of thing that evangelicals always say is definitely coming. This scene is actually based on something that happened… but it feels like the writers totally jumped the gun, because “Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices.” Simply put, they take an event that happened, but change the outcome to make it seem like the atheist conspiracy is all-powerful and overreaching in America and that the audience’s freedoms could be snuffed out any day.

This conspiracy theorizing is borderline-hypocritical when you consider that one of this film’s defences of the historical veracity of the gospels is that there wasn’t a conspiracy involved in their authorship. Their justification for this is that since there were too many witness involved, someone would slip up. It’s actually not a particularly great argument, since conspiracy isn’t exactly the issue. I’d definitely recommend diving into the history of the gospels and early church, but in short the text of the gospels we have today were all very likely second-hand accounts, would likely have been coloured somewhat by the burgeoning schools of thought within the young religion about who Jesus was and what he represented, and weren’t even necessarily meant to be what we would now consider as “historical” accounts. Anyway, this conspiracy defence seems odd when you consider that this film is throwing in its own atheist conspiracy theory, although the filmmakers would probably say that it’s self-evident when you look at all the “persecution” in America. I’ll just let Sister Rose Pacatte of the National Catholic Reporter comment on this aspect of God’s Not Dead 2: “the premise of both films is nothing more than politicized religion as a vehicle to feed conspiracy theories.” Ouch.

 
 

All of this feeds into the fact that God’s Not Dead 2 is explicitly a more political film than the first was. In his interview with The Blaze about the film, David A. R. White said that this film was “all about making an impact” and that it was an intentional move for the story to shift to the public square. It shouldn’t be surprising that this film was released in the middle of the 2016 presidential leadership race, with the aforementioned Mike Huckabee clearly making a cameo just to appeal to the evangelical vote. By portraying government overreach and painting all authority figures as openly hostile to Christians, the filmmakers also incentivize their audience to mobilize against these institutions in order to “take back America”. After all, Tom’s opening argument in the case is that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution or bill of rights, which seems to imply the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that has morally eroded over time. Tom’s opening statement is a baffling argument which is only technically true, but the First Amendment makes it crystal clear that not only is separation of church and state enshrined within the law, but it was also a principle of the nation’s founders. Hell, if we’re going to be nitpicking constitutional amendments, then the Second Amendment is free game as well. This is another moment that just feels like the filmmakers won’t understand the people that they’re writing about, because arguing technicalities about church and state separation does not feel like the sort of thing that a non-Christian lawyer would engage in – rather, it sounds like the sort of weak argument an evangelical might espouse impotently to other evangelicals.

In the first film, there were plenty of characters who were atheists or hostile to Christians, but it was always framed as a personal and individual thing. In God’s Not Dead 2, this is reframed into being a political issue. The scene where Grace mentions Jesus in class does so in a manner which also correlates the message of Jesus with that of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Taken by itself, this is a reasonable comparison to draw. However, the film also very explicitly wants us to see Grace and her situation throughout this film as being a parallel to Jesus (even having her echo the words of Jesus during his crucifixion, asking God if he has forsaken her), and therefore implies that the struggles Christians face in America are on the same level as the Indian independence and black civil rights movements. It should go without saying that this is unthinkably deluded and borderline insulting when you consider that they’re appropriating progressive icons to attempt to justify their conservatism – not to mention that only months after release this movie’s audience would, by and large, be voting for a man who was blatantly racist, xenophobic, authoritarian and immoral.

I also find it quite interesting that, for a movie which so blatantly proclaims the existence of God in its title, He is completely absent in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, the characters talk about God all the time, how good He is, how much of an impact He has on their lives, etc… but God doesn’t actually do anything in this movie. At least in God’s Not Dead, God was very clearly present in Dave and Jude’s storyline, even if it did end up portraying him as some sort of Final Destination murder-force. In comparison, Grace’s victory is portrayed as a surprise, but there isn’t any sense that it was some sort of miracle from God. The film also makes arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, but these are far less frequent and given less prominence within the story compared to Josh’s lectures. Furthermore, at least the first film seemed concerned about the fates of its non-Christian characters. In God’s Not Dead 2, the only people that convert are the ones who were immediately receptive to the Christians’ message, and the rest of the non-believers are nothing more than evil, unrepentant obstacles to “the truth”. As a result, God’s Not Dead 2 is arguably not really a “Christian” film in the sense that it’s not about the virtues of the faith – rather, it’s a political film about the imagined struggles of the American brand of evangelicalism.

Add it all up (the disingenuous portrayals of Christians and atheists, the conspiracy theorizing and the political rallying cries) and you have a film which puts the evangelical persecution complex on display greater than just about any other film out there. This also ties into this not really being a “Christian” film at all – after all, the conflict in the movie is entirely driven by the persecution that all of the Christian characters are subjected to by the rest of the world (Amy is the only exception, although her very minor crisis of faith is resolved the next time that we see her). Grace makes this clear in what is clearly intended to be the film’s core message: “I would rather stand with God and be judged by The World, than stand with The World and be judged by God” (“The World” in evangelical nomenclature meaning the necessarily sinful and immoral culture outside of Christianity which clashes with the “true” values of the Bible). This also applies to the numerous court cases listed in the film’s end credits, similarly to the first film. Naturally, the film’s audience takes the presentation of these cases at the filmmakers’ word, although if you look into them closer, it becomes clear that these cases revolve around Christians not understanding discrimination in business settings, Christians refusing their professional obligations as healthcare providers, or involve the filmmakers intentionally leaving out crucial details entirely to make the cases seem like persecution when they clearly aren’t (if you’re curious about all of the cases, The Friendly Atheist has a comprehensive rundown). You can see the persecution complex on full display on the God’s Not Dead website, which for years was documenting similarly one-sided accounts of Christian persecution throughout America, and had this exceptionally nasty, sneering, combative tone that it would apply to everything, even when celebrating the film’s release.

If you’ve checked out any of those links to the film’s blog, you might also have noticed how this movie constantly markets itself. God’s Not Dead 2 has more product placement than a Michael Bay or Adam Sandler movie, the only difference being that it’s exclusively advertising for products in the evangelical bubble (a bubble which, might I remind you, heavily commodifies religious adherence and expression). Just look at this list of really obvious plugs throughout this film:

  • We’ve got Lee Strobel showing up during the trial, is placed as an expert we should look up to, literally name-drops his books in a manner that doesn’t make sense within the scene, and then gives us a sales pitch about why he’s an authority on the historical existence of Jesus.
  • We’ve got J. Warner Wallace showing up in a similar manner, name dropping his books and then being poised as a credible expert with evidence that Jesus is God (which he never really gives us, so I guess you’ll have to buy his book).
  • We’ve got the Newsboys who show up to perform a new song and hope that it becomes another #1 hit after their success with the first film.
  • The end credits directly advertise for the Alliance Defending Freedom in the event that you feel persecuted for your faith.
  • In addition, the film advertises itself no less than 3 separate times during its ending, telling the audience to once again text “God’s not dead”, and even offers a handy, prebaked hashtag for everyone to send out on social media in order to generate buzz for the film. Bloody hell…
And, because this is the Christian media industry, this isn’t even the extent of this film’s monetization. In addition to the film itself, this movie has its own branded soundtrack, study guide (including a student version!), 40 day devotional, a novelization, t-shirts, audiobooks, church kits, a series of books based on the movies, even a goddamn silicon bracelet. Movies like this are their own mini-industries within the evangelical bubble, much like Star Wars is to the wider culture.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking to give this movie a final score that I could feel secure in awarding. It’s easy for this film’s audience to say that people who hated this film merely disagreed with its message (in fact, it’s probably playing into the filmmakers’ intent doing so). On the one hand, I have to give the film some points for being fairly professionally made, and Ray Wise is always entertaining to watch. However, the film refuses to present itself in an enjoyable way to anyone outside of a very narrow political worldview – in fact, it’s openly hostile to worldviews that don’t match the filmmakers’ own. As a result, I feel more than justified in saying that this film is straight-up trash which exists only to stoke evangelicals’ persecution complex and to cynically rake in cash and political fervour in doing so. I would rather watch a freaking Bibleman video than this movie again.

2/10

Bibleman, Bibleman! Does whatever a Bible can! This isn’t a joke, it’s real guys! Can’t afford sets? Proselytise! Look out! Here comes a Bibleman!

Be sure to tune in again soon as we come to the final entry in this series: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness!

Retrospective: God’s Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God’s Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy… Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I’ve heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in – I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we’re going to start this at the beginning, with 2014’s God’s Not Dead.

The film’s poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there’s a certain evocative element to this design which I can’t deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film’s story… Good job, I guess.

God’s Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God’s Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That’s the official story at least. I can’t be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the “atheist professor” while growing up in the church. God’s Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God’s Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren’t similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God’s Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects – the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn’t even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

The story of God’s Not Dead is structured in a manner similar to Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a number of characters’ narratives intersecting, and all centred on an overarching theme, in this case Christianity and faith. The main plot revolves around a student named Josh Wheaton who takes a philosophy class taught by the notoriously hostile Jeffery Radisson. Radisson tries to get everyone in the class to declare that “God is dead”, but Josh refuses and is forced to defend his position over the course of the next three lectures, while Radisson grows increasingly hostile at his defiance. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a few side-plots: Amy is a hostile liberal journalist who gets cancer, her boyfriend Mark is a psychopathic and self-interested businessman (there isn’t really any thrust to his scenes beyond that), his sister Mina is Radisson’s girlfriend (or wife maybe? It isn’t clear at all and I have heard conflicting answers) who is growing apart from him because she is a Christian, Ayisha is a secret Christian within a very traditional Muslim family, and Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude can’t get their car to start when they want to go on vacation (seriously, that last one is a subplot which gets a lot of screentime during this film).

Eventually, this all culminates in Josh winning the debate against Radisson, most of the atheist characters convert to Christianity and Radisson gets hit and killed by a car, being converted on his deathbed by Pastors Dave and Jude (and thereby justifying all the screentime they’ve had throughout the film on their seemingly pointless subplot). Everyone rocks out at a Newsboys concert and the film encourages everyone to advertise the film for them (again, seriously).

With the plot out of the way, let’s get to the positives for God’s Not Dead first. For the most part, this is a very competently-made film. The directing and production values are better than you’re probably expecting – it certain looks like an independent film, but not an amateur made-for-TV movie. The acting is also mostly solid across the board, with only Josh’s girlfriend putting in a clearly bad performance (although she is dispensed from the plot pretty early on, luckily).

Other than that though… hoo boy. I’m just going to get the technical issues out of the way first; the editing is really weird sometimes. For an early example, Radisson is handing out pieces of paper to his class to sign “God is dead” on, when the film suddenly cuts away to Pastors Dave and Jude arriving at the airport. This cut was made for seemingly no reason, and I can’t understand it because it deflates the tension of the classroom scene. The only justification is that at the end of their scene the pastors say “God is good”, which is then contrasted by Radisson saying “God is dead” before cutting back to the classroom, but this doesn’t justify that first, abrupt cut in the slightest. There are weird edits like that sprinkled throughout God’s Not Dead, in part due to its story structure. That said, the script is definitely the main issue in this film, and it brings down an otherwise competent production. I’ll get to the broader implications of the script later, but for now aside from the pastors and maybe Josh, the characters are, on the whole, very one- or two-dimensional at best, serving more as object lessons rather than fully-realized characters. Obviously, that is a major issue for a character drama like this. Furthermore, this film’s script is just plain dull for the most part, stretching itself thin over an almost 2 hour runtime. I recall that around the 40 minute mark I was feeling like the movie was starting to drag, and then I saw that there was still more than an hour left and I just thought “How!?!” Honestly, the film could have done better by focusing much more on the main plot, maybe building some tension by actually giving us some insight into Josh’s research (he just sort of shows up with his big presentations each time), and show us more of the strain that this stand was apparently putting on him (he loses his girlfriend due to ridiculous circumstances and Josh says that he is falling behind on his school work because of it, but we never really see how this is really weighing on him).

Still, God’s Not Dead would have probably just come and gone without a fanfare if that was all that was wrong with this film’s script, but I think we all know that that is far from the case. God’s Not Dead fails spectacularly in two main departments: its apologetics and its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians, both of which I feel are rooted in the filmmakers’ ideological bases. I feel like the filmmakers were expecting a negative reaction from the secular world when they made God’s Not Dead, but I do not think that they were expecting that the most vehement drubbings of the film would be from within the Christian world itself, due to these two major flaws.

Let’s start with the apologetics. Both Josh and the film itself are quite explicitly tasked with proving that God exists, but their arguments in favour of God are not particularly compelling. Josh presents three lectures which I’ll boil down simply:

  1. The Bible always contended that the universe didn’t always exist, whereas science assumed the universe had always existed until the Big Bang was discovered, implying that science shouldn’t be taken as an absolute. He also argues that something had to have caused that Big Bang to occur in the first place. When a student asks who created God, he says that that’s based on an assumption that God must be created.
  2. When faced with Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe created itself, Josh uses some quotes to undermine Hawking’s authority and suggest that since Hawking also said that philosophy was dead, taking him at his word would contradict Radisson’s entire career. He then says that evolution doesn’t prove where life came from and claims that in a cosmic sense, life and all of evolution has occurred very suddenly (that particular argument was just confusing when watching and, on review, makes no sense – it’s just plain wrong, evolutionary time isn’t measured on a cosmic scale, it’s measured on an… evolutionary scale).
  3. Josh argues that evil exists because of free will and that we can join God in heaven because He allows evil to exist temporarily (also very funny in this part, the filmmakers use a slide of The Creation of Adam by Michelangeo and airbrushed Adam’s dick off so as not to offend any prudish evangelicals in the audience). He argues that without God there are no moral absolutes, although Radisson would say that cheating on a test would be “wrong”. Josh quotes Dostoyevski, saying that “without God, everything is permissible”. Josh then makes the claim that “science has proven God’s existence” without any basis, and gets Radisson to admit that he hates God, to which Josh asks “how can you hate someone who doesn’t exist?”

I don’t really want to spend a lot of time breaking down these arguments (if you’re interested, there’s a good article on Psychology Today which does just that), but suffice to say that they don’t even come close to proving that God exists, despite Josh’s assertion otherwise. Most of his arguments are just turning atheistic arguments back at themselves or creating an intellectual uncertainty that an individual could choose to fit God into. At best, his arguments convey that we don’t know where life came from, so if you want to believe in God then that’s your choice, but that’s still a failing grade when your stated task is to prove the existence of God. Even worse, while Josh could conceivably make a case that God exists in general, he instead makes his task basically impossible by immediately restricting himself to proving the existence of his own Judeo-Christian God. This results in quite a few potential objections that could have been made towards Josh, but are never brought up, such as that his argument over evolutionary leaps sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to justify the creation narrative, of which there is absolutely no evidence. It’s clear that the filmmakers did some apologetics research (there’s even someone credited with this in the film crew), but I question whether they put the film’s claims up against real philosophers or academics. If they did, then it certainly does not come across in the film, because the arguments are clearly weak. All that said, considering that this film is clearly directed towards the evangelical bubble, it’s expecting its audience to already have formed the same conclusion as the filmmakers, meaning that the need for strong proof is basically non-existent.

The other big issue with God’s Not Dead‘s script is its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians. Let’s start with the Christians: they’re all portrayed as intelligent, respectful, happy, even-tempered people which everyone should aspire to be like, from the applauded heroism of Josh, to Ayisha’s faith in the face of persecution, to the eternal optimism of Dave and Jude. The one exception to this is Josh’s girlfriend, Kara – she is set up as someone who is a Christian, but when Josh decides to stand up for his faith she constantly orders him to just lie and sign the paper. She’s also a total idiot: she picked a crappier school in order to be with him, she has the next 50 years of their life together mapped out and him failing this philosophy class is enough to derail the whole plan. Kara is an awful, stupid shrew of a character who only exists to up the stakes for Josh when she breaks up with him (although considering how he reacts, they weren’t going to last 50 more years anyway) and to contrast against the “virtuousness” of Josh. I’d argue that, based on the way Kara is written, we’re meant to her as”lukewarm” or “not a real Christian”, since she does not give God priority in her life.

In contrast, let’s look at our atheist characters… individually, because holy crap is there a lot to say about all of them. Let’s start with Mark, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain – Mark is an unabashed, self-described asshole businessman who only cares about making himself better off. In his introduction, he won’t even give directions to his girlfriend unless she will do something for him in return (I keep having to make this same aside throughout this review, but again, seriously). Even when his girlfriend tells him that she has cancer, he accuses her of “breaking our deal” that their relationship is just about getting something out of each other for personal reasons, and then immediately breaks up with her because a cancer-striken girlfriend is a total drag. Oh, and he also has a mother with dementia who he refuses to see because she won’t even remember that he was there. And to put a cherry on top of it all, it is very much implied that Mark is the one who hits Radisson with his car and then leaves him to die. Mark is a deplorable, selfish, unsatisfied, loveless person who is very clearly meant to be the object lesson for Josh’s assertion that “without God anything is permissible”. Put simply, Mark is meant to represent the fundamentalist idea that atheists are amoral (it’s a pervasive enough idea that even atheists tend to think it’s true), but is such a cartoonish dick that you have to wonder if the filmmakers really think that there’s anyone like this. Look, I shouldn’t have to say that being religious doesn’t make you a moral person any more than being an atheist makes you amoral. In fact, if the filmmakers had done some actual philosophy research, they would have known that ethics and morality are an entire school of thought in their own right which doesn’t require a religious background.

Next we’ll look at Amy, Mark’s girlfriend who is a gotcha journalist and blogger. Amy is clearly intended to be a left-leaning character, although thinly drawn and from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn’t understand why a leftist might legitimately hold those kinds of beliefs. This is shown early on when Amy ambushes… sigh… Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) and his wife. Her interview questions consist of the following: does he hunt (duh), what gives him the moral right to maim animals (“I don’t maim ’em, I kill em!”) and what does he say to people who are offended that he prays on his TV show (he shuts her down with Bible verses). Naturally, Willie throws out some way-too-eloquent-to-be-real answers and Amy doesn’t even respond or react to them with her own questions or follow-up. Look, obviously there are anti-hunting people, just like there are people who don’t want to see prayer on TV, but these are definitely a very small minority – most reasonable people don’t really give a shit about either. Now, what if Amy had been upfront about the sorts of things that actually rile people up about the faith of the Duck Dynasty crew, the sorts of things that a real journalist would probably be interested in capturing in an interview? Would it have seemed like the secular world is just targeting people of faith unjustly? Would his rebuttals have seemed to reasonable when he’s trying to explain that he doesn’t hate gay people? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, Amy gets cancer out of nowhere and spends most of the film grappling this grim reality after Mark dumps her. By the end she’s back to her old tricks, sneaking into the green room with the Newsboys before a concert and asking the band “How can you sing about God and Jesus as if they’re real?” Umm, because they believe that they are, duh? The band then throws out some more very obviously scripted answers which cause Amy to break down and convert out of absolutely nowhere. If Mark is meant to represent the amorality of atheism, then Amy represents the liberal media. However, in addition to making Amy a really poor journalist in general, the filmmakers once again show that they don’t understand why Christianity is so often “targeted” by the media by not realizing that it is the beliefs associated with Christians which come under fire (such as homophobia or, ahem, anti-intellectualism), rather than belief itself.

Rounding out the main atheist cast is Jeffery Radisson, Josh’s philosophy professor, representative of the “liberal elite” in education… I have a ton of notes to get through on this one because he is so, so bad. Before we even meet him, Josh goes to enrol in his class and is discouraged from doing so because Radisson has such a history of anti-religious fervour that the entire school is well aware of it. Somehow Radisson has never been disciplined for being blatantly discriminatory, even though he starts every semester off by trying to get everyone to sign a paper to say that they agree that “God is dead” (the act of which, he reveals, is worth a whopping 30% of the students’ total grade!?! What kind of a bullshit class is this?). Radisson seems simultaneously shocked when Josh denies this, and smug in his belief that a first year philosophy student won’t be able to prove the existence of God.

As events unfold, a number of things about Radisson’s character become more and more clear to the viewer. First of all is that he is incredibly hostile and clearly nursing a personal grudge, which is truly apparent when he stalks and confronts Josh after class on a couple occasions and tells him that he’ll freaking destroy his future for defying him. Radisson ends up being straight-up dictatorial, wanting all his students to fall in line with what he believes and turning into a giant man-baby in the face of any sort of dissent. This is also demonstrated in Radisson’s relationship with Mina, a former student of his who he somehow fell in love with despite the fact that she is a Christian! During a faculty dinner party, Radisson constantly belittles Mina and her faith for no other reason than because he is a smug, misogynist dick, which the entire faculty goes along with (because they are all atheist monsters as well, even down to shark-like glances at Mina when she pipes up about her faith). When Mina (understandably) breaks up with him, Radisson says that he won’t accept or allow Mina to leave him, a move which obviously doesn’t work. I mean, who aside from a narcissist or a sociopath would think like that?

As Radisson’s life just falls to pieces, between Mina leaving him and Josh “beating” Radisson in each debate, it’s revealed that Radisson is such a militant atheist because when he was 12, his mother died of cancer. God didn’t answer his mother’s prayers or his, so he hates God for taking her away from him, a fact which proves to be the coup de grace in the final debate. This makes Radisson demonstrative of the infuriating fundamentalist belief that “there are no atheists”, since they can’t even conceive of the reasons why someone could logically and reasonably not believe in God. The end of the film seems to suggest that his experiences have caused Radisson to undergo a fundamental change in his life and he goes to try to reconnect with Mina before changing his life and becoming a better person. Just kidding about that last part, the filmmakers have him get hit by a freaking car and make a deathbed confession to Pastors Jude and David (justifying their role in the plot and implying that this was all part of God’s convoluted murder plan), rather than provide first aid to the severely injured man. It all makes Jude and David come across as callously perverse in a sense, as they say that this deathbed conversion is a cause for celebration – I mean, I understand their logic, but a dude just freaking died here.

Beyond all that, Radisson is just further proof that the scriptwriters don’t understand the kinds of people this movie is supposed to be portraying, nor did they bother to consult any. I doubt there’s any atheist philosophy teacher who hates God so much that he would avoid even discussing him. I mean, if I was in that class I would take the invitation to sign “God is dead” as a teaching tool to show the class that you’re not supposed to take anyone’s word for granted – this is a philosophy class after all, which is supposed to be about the art of solving problems using logic. Radisson also seems to hold quotes from scientists such as Stephen Hawking (even on subjects he is not accredited for such as theology and philosophy) to a level bordering on reverence. When Josh dares to challenge Hawking’s belief that the universe created itself, he scoffs at Josh’s insolence. It’s almost as if the scriptwriters believe that an atheist believes that science or scientists are inerrant on the same level that evangelicals hold their Bible. Even the philosophical quote that makes up the film’s title, “God is dead” from Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is botched in this film so badly that I had to look up to make sure that my interpretation of it wasn’t wrong (it wasn’t). Radisson claims that the phrase means that it is settled that God does not exist, nor has he never existed. Rather, this quote is tied to a very specific time and place – the advent of the Enlightenment and modernity at the turn of the 20th century had brought about social changes which were causing belief in God to plummet in the Western world. As a result, the concept of an “absolute moral reality” (God) was now meaningless, which would lead people into nihilism. As David Kyle Johnson puts it:

“Radisson doesn’t know what the phrase ‘God is dead’ means. […] He thinks it means that ‘God never existed in the first place.’ The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God’s existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search.”

Oh and I would be totally remiss if I forgot to mention the worst subplot in the film, the one revolving around the only non-Christian religious character, Ayisha’s father, Misrab (is… is that intended to be a pun on miserable? Bloody hell…). From his introduction, Misrab comes across as controlling and traditionally conservative in his Islamic faith, most notably by forcing Ayisha to wear a niqab in public and questioning her when he sees someone make casual conversation. From her introduction Ayisha shows that she does not want to wear the niqab, taking it off whenever her father is not around to see her. Misrab comes across as very sinister from little more than the way that the camera frames himself and Ayisha. It is later revealed that Ayisha has secretly converted to Christianity when we see her listening to a sermon by… Franklin Graham!?! Oh what the literal fuck were the filmmakers thinking when they dropped that name bomb here? Could they be any more tone-deaf? Again, bloody hell, this is the worst subplot in the whole damn film. Anyway, Ayisha listens to Graham’s sermon and then her brother sneaks up on her for absolutely no reason, sees what she’s listening to and then tells Misrab. Misrab goes into a rage (presumably because she’s listening to other religions, but who knows, maybe he’s suitably pissed that she’s listening to Franklin bloody Graham) and begins angrily slapping Ayisha in an incredibly uncomfortable domestic abuse sequence that ends with him throwing her out onto the streets as both of them cry at the circumstances that led them to this outcome. As villainous and reprehensible as Misrab is, I can at least understand where he’s coming from here and see that what he’s doing is breaking his heart, rather than just being cartoonishly evil like the atheist characters. I realize that this sort of awful shit happens, but bloody hell, what does it say about the scriptwriters when the only non-white family in the whole movie is a stereotypical, misogynist, domestically abusive Muslim family, especially considering the sort of audience this film is supposed to be catering towards?

Part of the problem with Ayisha and Misrab’s subplot is that I question whether the scriptwriters really knew what they were doing with it, or whether they just threw it in for an example of Christian persecution and an opportunity for some serious melodrama. I feel like the main reason this was added to the movie was because most of Josh’s proofs of the existence of God could apply to Islam as well, so the filmmakers felt the need to show that they were just as wrong as the atheists. Islam ends up being a contrast to Christianity – whereas the Christians are free and don’t hate women, the Muslims come across as dangerously old-fashioned and violent. The thing is though, this subplot is disingenuously one-sided. For example, while the film portrays Islam as being stifling and oppressive to women, I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years of women who have left the Christian church because of the way that it treats women. The sort of Islamic tradition on display in God’s Not Dead is a clearly conservative one rooted in “sharia law”, which is not too far off from the sort of theocracy that American evangelicals seem to hypocritically push for. Furthermore, Misrab tries to comfort Ayisha early in the film, saying that:

“It’s hard living in their world and being a part of it. A world you can see but can’t touch. I know they seem happy, but know that when you look around at all these people, there is no one who worships God, not the way he deserves and demands to be worshipped. We must never forget who and what we are. That is the most important thing.”

That statement could have just as easily been given to, say, Paster David and no one would question it, but I’m not sure the filmmakers even realize how their depiction of Muslims in this film really isn’t far off from the reality of Christians. After all, how many LGBT youth have been disowned or thrown out of their houses by supposedly Christian families for coming out of the closet*? There’s just so much disingenuous cognitive dissonance in the portrayal of Christians and Muslims that it’s just as insulting as the characterization of atheists.

If I haven’t made it obvious, I feel like a lot of this film’s failings stem directly from the filmmakers’ skewed evangelical ideology. This is quite evident throughout the film as I have already stated, from the lack of understanding of basic philosophy (in a movie about a philosophy class), to the arguments convincing only to someone who already believes in them, to the insulting depictions of “the other”. It even shows up in the little moments throughout the film – at one point, Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of 80 students in Radisson’s class, Josh is the only one who has ever been to church. This is a preposterous estimate considering that nearly 80% of Americans are Christians, but it belies the belief shared by evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority (growing up in an evangelical household, I certainly believed this too). As Alissa Wilkinson said, “White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”. This is made all the more obvious by the end credits, which list a number of “examples” of Christian persecution in America… if you count business discrimination, largely revolving around refusing to serve homosexuals and providing health care for abortions, as “persecution”.

The filmmakers’ conservatism also plays into some of the film’s failings. Now, I don’t believe that there was an explicit intent to make God’s Not Dead into a piece of conservative propaganda, but the filmmakers very clearly fall on that side of the political spectrum, from the people they choose to credit onscreen (Lee Strobel, Franklin Graham, Willie Robertson, etc) and those that influenced the film off-screen (the Alliance Defending Freedom). This leads to such previously mentioned failings as having a Muslim character listening to Franklin Graham, to having Amy be a left-wing caricature. Sean Paul Murphy, a scriptwriter for Pure Flix, actually might have some insight into how politics were influencing the studio’s direction by the time God’s Not Dead was being produced:

“I grew up watching indie films of the 80s and 90s, those filmmakers managed to make art with small budgets because they had a passion for the medium. It’s not the budgets. It is a disregard for the art of filmmaking. And faith films will not get better until the audience demands something better, but they tend to evaluate films solely on the message itself. As for the counterproductive hatred of atheists and other non-believers, I tried to buck that trend. In Hidden Secrets, the first film produced by Pure Flix (but its second release), my co-writer and I sought to create a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal […]. Nowadays, however, the audience reward films that fight the Culture War for them.  It is easier to generate anger than compassion. I have no interest in that.”

As a result, we’ve got a film with aspirations to sway agnostics towards God, which claims that it has empirical evidence for His existence, but which fails to even understand the positions of those it is arguing against. Meanwhile, it draws in Christians with cameos from celebrities within the evangelical bubble, has a cross-promotion with Christian music label Inpop Records (which provided the film’s soundtrack, including the title song), sets up a blatantly cynical viral marketing campaign which encourages the audience to tell everyone to watch the film and provides an affirmation that everyone’s out to get the poor, innocent Christians. After all, the conflict in this film stems from a hostile atheist forcing his beliefs on a Christian, when that Christian was content not to force them on anyone.

In summation, God’s Not Dead is just a boring movie to watch, with a crappy script and extremely problematic portrayals of Christians and non-Christians at its core which undermine any sort of debate which they may have been trying to foster. It’s not even like I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film (I do believe in God as well), it’s more the filmmakers wrongheaded notion that the world is suppressing Christianity that’s the issue. There is a line of thought on this film which claims that this film is about “being forced to accept that other people might believe something different”, or that the filmmakers hate atheists and relish in their suffering, but I don’t believe that is the intent. Their conception of them is, however, downright insulting, owing to a profound lack of imagination and empathy. When it comes down to it, I just don’t believe that evangelicals understand why it is that students tend to grow out of the church when they go off to school, and the answer is, quite simply, evangelicalism. When you create such a rigid, dogmatic and fragile structure which requires a denial of science and intellectualism, coupled with a belief that every word of the Bible is infalliable, and that this is the only way to be a true Christian, then of course they’re going to come to the conclusion that it’s all wrong. Maybe if they could actually step outside of the evangelical bubble, then perhaps they could have come up with some stronger arguments for why God is not dead**.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon when I cover the next entry in the series, God’s Not Dead 2!

*I’d recommend reading Unfair by John Shore for some heart-wrenching examples of this.
**Sigh, why did they call this “God’s not dead” anyway, considering the quote it’s named after is “God is dead”? The only thing I can think is that the producers assumed that there wouldn’t be enough audience members familiar with Nietzche’s quote, and therefore “God is not dead” would be less natural-sounding than “God’s not dead”. Again… doesn’t give much credit for the intelligence of your audience.

Retrospective: Jurassic World (2015)

Welcome back to the final entry in the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we we will be looking at the latest film in the franchise, Jurassic World. After years of false starts, could the Jurassic Park franchise rejuvenate itself for a new audience? Read on to find out…

There was a more “traditional” Jurassic Park poster, but this was probably the big one and demonstrates how the franchise’s marketing has shifted in the 14 years since Jurassic Park III.

Following the release of Jurassic Park III, the franchise entered a protracted state of development hell. Spielberg and Johnston hinted at a number of ideas that they had for sequels, including pteranodons attacking the mainland as hinted at the ending of Jurassic Park III. However, development seemed to shift away from following-up on Jurassic Park III‘s loose threads and onto other ideas. One of the first which seemed to gain traction involved the dinosaurs spreading uncontrollably, with Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough reprising their roles and the lovely Keira Knightley being rumoured to play a grown up Lex Murphy. Stan Winston’s studio moved forward with special effects planning, filming locations were scheduled and actors were signed on, and it seemed like Jurassic Park IV was underway.

However, not all was well on the project. A script couldn’t be agreed on, perhaps because the central premise was bonkers – pretty much every story that they came up with revolved around some sort of genetically modified dinosaurs being used as mercenaries and wielding guns. Drew McWeeny, who saw an early version of the script, probably said described the situation the best: “I think it’s well-written and certainly inventive, but I also think it just might be the single most bugfuck crazy franchise sequel I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to see this thing onscreen. It just doesn’t seem possible that Universal would make something this vigorously whacked out.” Suffice to say, the film continued to have issues putting together an acceptable script and its production dragged on longer and longer. Years after the fact, concept art from this time in the film’s development leaked online, which featured a variety of ass-ugly dino hybrids.

Between 2006-2008, a variety of stories, scripts and filming rumours were bounced back and forth, but still nothing was materializing. Then, on November 4, 2008, Michael Crichton passed away and it seemed like the general consensus was that the franchise should die as well. However, rumours surrounding a fourth film persisted regardless, with Johnston stating in 2010 that there were plans in place for another trilogy.
It wasn’t until early 2012 that Jurassic Park left development hell and began to materialize into what would become Jurassic World. Retrospectives veterans Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were brought on to script the project after the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Brad Bird (of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Mission Impossible 4 fame) wanted to work on the film, but was preoccupied with Tomorrowland, so instead he suggested that producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall consider Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow had only directed one full-length film at this time, Safety Not Guaranteed, but the producers were sufficiently impressed by it that they brought him on board. Juan Antonio Bayona, director of the tsunami disaster film, The Impossible, was also considered, but was unable to commit to the project. He would eventually be brought on to direct the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Trevorrow became involved with rewrites of the script along with Derek Connolly, and they incorporated three ideas that Spielberg wanted – a functional theme park, a human who has a relationship with trained raptors and an escaped dinosaur antagonist. A few scenes were also inspired by sequences in The Lost World novel, namely the velociraptor motorcycle chase and the Indominus Rex’s ability to change colour.

Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role of Owen Grady, a role he landed just prior to his big breakthrough in The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. As a result, he was inadvertently the first real “movie star” to lead a Jurassic Park film, an inadvertent situation that the marketing was quick to capitalize on. Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I admire who (at the time) had been looking for her big break as a lead actress for about a decade, was cast as the female lead, Claire Dearing. The film features two child leads played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, who play Claire’s nephews who are visiting the park. The film’s human antagonist is Vincent D’Onofrio as Vic Hoskins, who wants to use the dinosaurs for military operations. Rounding out the main cast is Irrfan Khan as Simon Masrani, the owner of Jurassic World after the death of John Hammond. The only returning character is B.D. Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu, who had a small role back in the original Jurassic Park as the scientist responsible for creating the dinosaurs, and who returns here in a small but important role.

The story of Jurassic World picks up in the present, where John Hammond’s vision of a dinosaur theme park has been realized and has been a fully-functional success for years now. The film follows Claire Dearing, the park’s administrator who is preparing to launch a new attraction involving the park’s first hybrid dinosaur, Indominus Rex, but there are security concerns regarding how dangerous it is. She is asked to have the park’s raptor handler and trainer, Owen Grady, to come and inspect its paddock to ensure that it is safe. Meanwhile, Claire’s two nephews, Gray and Zach, travel to the island to see her, but she is too busy with work and they end up having to sight-see together. While Claire and Owen are inspecting the Indominus paddock, the Indominus engineers an escape and the pair then have to try to stop the rampaging beast, protect the safety of the park guests and find Gray and Zach.

If the previous two films in the franchise were meant to be distillations of what Jurassic Park is, you would think that dino-carnage is the only thing that actually matters in this series. However, the dino-carnage in Jurassic Park only mattered because of a number of other elements which made the film so much more than those b-movie roots – strong characters, spectacle, a compelling narrative and a fascinating sci-fi hook. Jurassic World recaptures at least a couple elements of this formula which the other two sequels had lacked, and is definitely owes more of its structure to the original film than any other movie in the franchise. In addition to the theme park angle, it also explores some ideas which were largely brushed aside in the other sequels, such as the theme of humans tampering with genetic engineering.

Seeing a fully functional park is definitely cool and easily one of the best aspects of Jurassic World. It actually takes 40 minutes for things to start getting bad, so we get some time to see attractions and how the park operates. While it isn’t as interested in the spectacle and logistics of running a theme park as Jurassic Park was, it does use this to help ratchet the stakes up as the film progresses. As things get worse and worse, the guests’ safety becomes a concern, as does the fate of the park itself, which can’t survive another major PR disaster. That said, the portrayal of the park and its safety is also very questionable, and I’m pretty certain that this wasn’t intentional either. Like, how has the Mosasaur never jumped into the crowd and killed anyone yet? How have the raptors never jumped out of their enclosure’s low walls or dragged the handlers down by their poles? Didn’t Jurassic Park insist that raptors were basically diabolical? And why does the gyrosphere ride have no rails and allow people to drive around virtually endlessly amongst herds of dinosaurs? Even the Jeeps in Jurassic Park were on rails. These are just a few of the weird issues that permeate throughout Jurassic World‘s portrayal of its titular park, and while they’re really just small niggles, they’re just weird, distracting and rather obvious engineering problems.

The other fantastic idea that Jurassic World presents is the idea of a hybrid dinosaur. In the novel, genetic engineering was a more important element of the plot than the actual dinosaurs were, so the franchise probably should have exploited this element a long time ago*. The Indominus Rex makes for a truly fearsome antagonist, to the point where I don’t know how future films in the franchise are going to manage to live up to it. I mean, any dinosaur antagonist will feel like a step down now, and human antagonists have never been compelling. What makes it so fearsome is its unpredictability and high intelligence – the twist that it is part-raptor was quite clever and makes for a great “Oh shit” moment when it turns Owen’s pack on their human handlers. It also doesn’t hurt that the Indominus Rex is brutally violent. It immediately leaves an impression with its first victim, who you can see getting his leg ripped off as the Indominus devours him. Moments later, it chomps down on a helpless security guard without mercy. Then when the ACU try to contain it, it annihilates the squad and one gets messily devoured while blood showers the camera. These first couple scenes really establish how nasty (and questionably PG-13) the Indominus Rex is, and the film is always at its best when it is involved in the action.

Remember how I said that strong characters were one of the core elements of Jurassic Park? Well… Jurassic World did not get that memo, and it suffers greatly for it. Owen does some cool things, but he’s such a generic American action hero – he’s always right, he’s a man of action, he is brash and standoffish, he doesn’t adhere to authority he disagrees with, etc. One would hope that more of Chris Pratt’s natural charisma would get to shine through, but unfortunately it is mostly buried underneath a bland character. Claire is similarly just an archetype, the workaholic woman who learns to ease up over time. Bryce Dallas Howard does her best (and kind of succeeds), but the role is… questionable to say the least – I’ll get to that later though. As for the two kid characters, Zach and Gray, they live up to the series’ legacy… which is to say that they have one character trait and are otherwise useless to the plot outside of being a burden. Gray is implied to be a high-functioning autistic genius who is obsessed with numbers, but this never really actually impacts the plot any. Zach is his older brother, who is just an insensitive dick for most of the film until he decides to become a better brother.

Outside of the leads, the new owner of the park, Masrani, is actually pretty cool. He actually takes responsibility when things go south and is surprisingly heroic… I just wish that he got to do more before his unfortunate death. The character of Lowry is also a mixed bag – on the one hand, he actually has some good comic relief moments, particularly his subverted “action romance scene” moment. However, he’s also borderline insufferably meta, being an extremely obvious audience surrogate and Jurassic Park fanboy who makes no sense within the context of this universe. He is kind of funny the first time you see the movie, but he just gets cringier on repeat viewings.

Vic Hoskins is also so terrible that he brings the movie down along with him. The character himself is just irredeemably evil for the sake of being evil, to the point where he sees dinosaurs attacking the innocent guests and grins about it. The moment he appears on screen you know that a) he’s going to be the bad guy, and b) he’s going to get munched on before the film ends. More crucially though, Hoskins is the vector through which the film introduces its idea of having raptors trained as military weapons. This idea was already tenuous enough in Aliens, and here it makes even less sense. Like, there are a host of really obvious reasons that real world militaries are turning to drones and cyber technology rather than training animals for combat (reliability, cost, practicality, ethics, etc). Really, this is the sort of idea where creating genetically engineered humans might actually make sense at some point within the Jurassic Park universe, but the technology is clearly not there in this film. It’s just an awful subplot which unfortunately only gains prominence as the film moves towards its conclusion and weakens the latter-half of the story.

That’s part of my problem with Jurassic World – it has some clever ideas, but it often just decides to take the dumb or lazy route for the sake of convenience. Maybe the most eye-rolling example of this is that everyone’s radios/phones stop functioning properly at the absolute worst times. This is an inexcusable trope in most films when it happens once, but this happens at least four freaking times in Jurassic World. Even worse, Zach and Gray’s phone won’t get any reception one minute, but then the next it suddenly works and alerts the Indominus Rex to their position because convenience. There’s also a moment where Masrani is told that, despite being the owner of Jurassic World and InGen, that he’s not authorized to know what genetic modifications were made to the Indominus Rex, a claim which he doesn’t even question, because the film wants that to be a twist later. The characters also make just so many stupid decisions for the same reason – because it’s what the plot needs. For example, after being told to return to the park, Zach drives off in the gyrosphere with Gray and, after seeing a hole torn in the fences, decides that that would be a good time to go off-road. Oh, and predictably, the gyrospheres have no override system, or anything to stop them from leaving their enclosure. Hell, the whole plot hinges on character stupidity – when Owen and Claire think that the Indominus Rex has escaped, instead of calling the control room to figure out where it is, Claire speeds off in her car and then calls them, because the plot requires her to be a) away from the Indominus Rex paddock, and b) in the control room. Even worse, Owen and a couple workers decide to saunter into the paddock before finding out where it is, which ultimately leads to the Indominus Rex escaping.

This issue of laziness and convenience is so bad that I feel like I need to break down a whole sequence just to demonstrate how egregious it gets. So, first off, Owen and Claire are being hunted by the Indominus Rex in the ruins of the old park when Masrani flies overhead with his helicopter. This causes the Indominus Rex to give chase to the helicopter, which it somehow gets ahead of. Then Owen and Claire suddenly teleport to be right beneath the helicopter as it chases the Indominus Rex into the aviary. Pterodactyls and dimorphodons escape and begin flying towards the park guests. This is where the editing (unsuccessfully) tries to mask the ridiculous leaps in distance, time and logic that unfold in order to make this scene work. The dinosaurs pursue Zach and Gray’s jeep back to the park, while Owen and Claire somehow run to some command centre** before the flyers can make it to the guests and attack. Zach and Gray make it back and then minutes later, Owen and Claire arrive with the ACU before things can get too out of hand. And then, to make things even more silly, Owen and Claire make out while people are getting mauled all around them. The time/space dilations here are on the level of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, where they’re clearly just throwing logic out the window to craft the scene that they want and to get characters where they’re needed, and expecting us to be too passive to notice. I’m not sure if this is on the script, the editing, or Trevorrow’s direction, but it is Jurassic World at its worst.

In regards to Trevorrow’s direction, it is generally decent throughout. He takes a cue from Jaws in hiding the Indominus Rex from full view until well over an hour into the film, which was a wise decision. However, his action sequences are hit-or-miss affairs. Unlike Spielberg, whose films both had long and extremely tense action set-pieces, Trevorrow’s action sequences are far more frequent, but lack the same sort of punch. The first two Indominus Rex attacks are exciting, but brief, and final battle is exciting (in part due to its fanservicing), but most of the action sequences don’t really stand out all that much to me. Sure, they’re bigger and louder than the dino carnage of the other films, the body counts are considerably larger, and they somehow managed to work multiple explosions into a film involving dinosaurs, but they lack that same level of investment and excitement. This might be because the story isn’t compelling enough, or that we don’t really get all that invested in the characters, rather than that the sequences themselves fall flat on their own.

The special effects are also worth noting in Jurassic World. Previous Jurassic Park movies always relied skillful utilization of animatronics, puppetry and top-notch CGI to bring the dinosaurs to life. Jurassic World, by contrast, switches almost entirely to CGI for this purpose, and it really shows. The creatures are clearly rendered with far more detail, but they don’t feel nearly as real to me. Contrast the gallimimus scenes in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World as an example, there’s something about how the dinosaurs and characters interact which doesn’t hit the same chord. The early sections of the film impress that “no one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore”, which is a clear commentary on the status of blockbusters since Jurassic Park III came out. Since then we’ve been inundated with so many CGI-heavy blockbusters that relying exclusively on CGI just makes Jurassic World lose any sort of special feeling that the series used to enjoy. Hell, say what you will about Jurassic Park III, but the spinosaurus was an animatronic in half of its action scenes, and a bloody impressive one at that. As far as I can tell, animatronics were used a grand total of once in Jurassic World, when Owen and Claire find a wounded apatosaur. This was actually a wise time to use animatronics too because it makes the scene feel more real and sad as it slowly expires in the characters arms.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, it wouldn’t be an I Choose to Stand post without mentioning the film’s, um, troubling gender relations. There have been many words said about whether Jurassic World is sexist, but is this merited? Thanks to memes, most of this conversation was boiled down to “Claire wears heels, because sexism”, but is there more to it than that? Well, the film portrays Claire as a workaholic, uninterested in other people and too busy to have normal relationships with people. She is also very clearly written to be obsessed with maintaining control. The character’s entire arc is about learning to stop putting so much value into her career and more into getting a relationship and having children. This could be a totally fine arc if handled well, but Jurassic World makes some really strange decisions which make me question whether it is just archetypically sexist, or just ridiculously ignorant of the implications its narrative is conveying. Like, there’s literally a scene where Claire’s sister tellers her that she should have kids, which Claire says is unlikely, but her sister insists that she will and that it is worth it. I mean… are they aware how condescending this scene comes across? Are they aware that this is in any way a potentially touchy subject? As The Daily Beast puts it, “Jurassic World is not about corporate greed, anti-militarization, crass commerciality, disrupting the food chain, or dinos eating the shit out of people. No. It’s about a woman’s ‘evolution’ from an icy-cold, selfish corporate shill into a considerate wife and mother.” Meanwhile, her relationship with Owen just reinforces this – he is belligerent, but always one who takes control when he can, which seems to be what attracts her to him. He’s basically the definition of a manly man, and she isn’t able to be truly fulfilled until she ditches her icy exterior for him.

Beyond Claire’s characterization, the death of Zara also has attracted some questions of sexism, mainly due to the way the rest of the film treats women and just how over-the-top her death is. While I personally feel like this is another clear instance where Trevorrow was just tone-deaf about how this might come across, I’ll just leave you with this quote from him where he is oddly excited by the notion that he’s going to get to murder a woman in spectacular fashion:

“It was the first time a woman was going to die in a Jurassic Park movie. We’re an equal opportunities bunch of murderers! So we felt, ‘Alright, let’s make it the most spectacular death we can possibly imagine – let’s involve multiple animals from sea and air…’ I love this moment so much. We’re playing on the audience’s expectation and jadedness. […] But we definitely struggled over how much to allow her to earn her death, and ultimately it wasn’t because she was British, it was because she was a bridezilla. […] In the end, the earned death in these movies has become a bit standard and another thing I wanted to subvert. ‘How can we surprise people? Let’s have someone die who just doesn’t deserve to die at all.'”

All-in-all, Jurassic World is kind of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it’s hard to deny that it’s probably the best Jurassic Park sequel we’ve gotten… and yet, due to its bland characters, lazy plot and general stupidity, I kind of hate a good deal of it. It’s an odd situation, where I appreciate the first half of The Lost World enough to give that film some love, and I truly enjoy the dumb fun of Jurassic Park III, but find myself turned off by how lazy and generic Jurassic World gets at times. The film could just have been so much better if they trusted in their audience’s intelligence a bit more.

6.5/10

So, what does the future look like for Jurassic Park? Well, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom releases this year, so it doesn’t seem like we’ll need to wait another 14 years until the next entry. That said, Fallen Kingdom looks… intriguing. The first trailer definitely turned me off – on the one hand, at least it’s trying something different and we’ve been told that the bulk of the plot is being kept secret for now, but is the volcanic eruption the crux of the plot? Trying to evacuate the dinosaurs? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the basis of a particularly compelling film to me. However, the Super Bowl trailer dropped just days before this was posted (and after I had written this retrospective), and was considerably more intriguing. Looks like dinosaurs on the mainland again? Maybe as a more central part of the plot, it could work this time.

If I was going to write a Jurassic Park film, I’d probably push the genetic engineering element even further forward. The films have kind of ignored the impact of their own tech on the wider world. For example, while human-dino hybrids are an awful idea, the idea of more genetic manipulation in general is under-utilized outside of the Indominous Rex. And what about rival corporations? Part of the concern was that InGen didn’t earn their knowledge, but how much worse would it be for the corporate knock-off brand of dinosaur? Why do they need to go to InGen for weaponized dinos, why not go after a competitor which they obviously would do if InGen won’t suit their needs? Why even use animals for their weaponized creatures anyway, why not just create super soldiers? There are plenty of angles that can be covered, but the issue with Jurassic Park continues to be that audiences expect the same plot structure in each one.

This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
Jurassic Park – 9/10
Jurassic World – 6.5/10 (I waffle between this being the best and worst sequel in the franchise though)
Jurassic Park III – 6/10 (arguably the worst, but it’s at least more consistent and fun than The Lost World in my opinion)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park – 5.5/10

*I actually heard an interesting fan theory that the spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III was actually InGen’s first weaponized experiment, which would explain its considerably heightened aggression compared to the dinosaurs in the previous films. The film hints that InGen has been working on other dinosaurs in secret, but it never actually followed up on that plot hint. It would be an obvious retcon, but it’s a cool idea that I kind of hope that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will follow up on.
**One could argue that this command centre was somewhere close to the old park ruins and the aviary, but I’m not buying that. First of all, there are a lot of people here, and if that was the case then Zach and Gray could have just headed here instead of back to the park, since an active building would have been marked fairly obviously. Secondly, if it was there then couldn’t Owen and Claire have gotten some help? Or maybe Masrani could get some ground support? And why wouldn’t the Indominus Rex have gone here instead of hunting the heroes if there were other people close by? It’s an obvious plot hole, and one which we’re supposed to ignore for convenience’s sake. Unfortunately, at a certain point, convenience gets abused to the point where I can’t help but notice it as the pile just gets higher.

Retrospective: Jurassic Park III (2001)

Welcome back to part three of the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this post, we’ll be diving into 2001’s Jurassic Park III. After the muted reaction to The Lost World and Spielberg’s decision to step away from the series, would a new director inject fresh life into the franchise? Read on to find out…

After The Lost World, Spielberg was ready to step away from directing the franchise and instead went on to produce. Joe Johnston instead was brought on to direct after having offered to direct the previous entry. Johnston would later go on to be well-known for The Wolfman and Captain America: The First Avenger, but at the time he was already famous for making quality family-friendly, special effects-heavy blockbusters such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and The Rocketeer. Without a novel to form the basis of the plot, a new story had to be written from scratch for the first time in the series history. The first draft of the script revolved around teenagers getting stranded on Isla Sorna, but this was ultimately rejected when Johnston was officially brought on board. The second script revolved around Pteranodon escaping from Isla Sorna and killing people on the mainland and featured a number of characters which would make it into the final film, including Alan Grant and Billy Brennan. This script would have had two main plots – one with Grant and company crashing on Isla Sorna, and another investigating the attacks on the mainland. Production went underway for this version of the script, with sets, costumes and props built to support it. While it was not based on any previous works, some action sequences were inspired by scenes from the novel versions of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, such as the aviary and the spinosaur attack on the river.

However, in an Alien 3-style turn of events, the script was rejected by Johnston and Spielberg only 5 weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, with $18 million already poured into the production and a series of sets which now needed to be worked into a non-existent story somehow. The parallel plotlines were deemed too complicated and the film was ultimately truncated into a single rescue mission plotline, with a script getting rushed to meet the filming schedule. A final script was never actually completed during the production, which is never a good thing to hear (although some films, such as Iron Man, prove that this can still work out in the end).

As I alluded to before, the only returning character in a major capacity in Jurassic Park III is Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. Laura Dern makes a delightful return in an important cameo role as Ellie Sattler, although some fans might be disappointed to see that Grant and Sattler did not work out as a couple. Considering that she very much wanted kids and he did not, it’s not surprising to see, but Neill and Dern have great chemistry still and there’s a sad undercurrent in their interactions which shows that they clearly still really like one another. Of the new cast, the most notable is definitely William H. Macy of Fargo, Boogie Nights and Shameless fame, who plays Paul Kirby. Téa Leoni also appears as his ex-wife, Amanda Kirby, and Trevor Morgan as their son, Eric Kirby. Rounding out the main cast is Alessandro Nivola as Billy Brennan, one of Grant’s dig assistants who is a bit of an adventure-seeker. The cast is actually rather small and not nearly as strong compared to past films in the series, but most of them put in solid performances (barring one, but I’ll get to that later).

The plot of Jurassic Park III revolves around the Kirby family, whose son Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna. Desperate, they con Alan Grant and Billy Brennan into helping them find their son, but soon get stranded on the island and have to fight for survival as they are hunted by a relentless spinosaurus and a pack of velociraptors… wow, I’m actually kind of surprised that I got the whole plot summarized there in only two sentences, but that just goes to show that Jurassic Park III is a very thin film on the plot side of things. Considering that the script never was completed, this should perhaps be not so surprising, but Jurassic Park III is content to just be a fairly standard B-movie action-adventure story. Compare the set-up and character establishment we get in previous films in the franchise to Jurassic Park III. In Jurassic Park, we get nearly an hour before the running and screaming starts. In The Lost World, we get nearly 40 minutes. In Jurassic Park III, we get only 20 minutes to get to know people before the film rushes us into the running and screaming. On the plus side, at least the rescue mission set-up gives the audience and characters direction, provides emotional catharsis and a bit of time to breathe between action sequences and allows the characters to develop a bit, but no one is going to say that Jurassic Park III ever takes its time to get anywhere.

Perhaps owing to the rushed script, much of Jurassic Park III‘s plot feels incredibly contrived. While the idea of someone getting stranded on Isla Sorna is an interesting idea, the entire plot gets thrown into motion because Eric and Ben (Amanda’s boyfriend at the time) are parasailing and the crew of the boat they chartered gets devoured without explanation within minutes of arriving after passing through a fog. This is just the first of a number of “convenient” events which occur which don’t really make a lot of sense or which aren’t really explained. Like, within minutes of landing on Isla Sorna, the characters are attacked by the spinosaur, the “professional” mercenaries with the big guns are wiped out and their plane crashes, putting the rest of the plot in motion super conveniently. Then there’s just lots of little moments that are done for a cheap scare or “because plot”. Why is Ben’s skeleton still hanging in the tree he crashed in? Why does the raptor hide behind the glass tank motionless? Why is the spinosaurus even hunting the humans anyway (at least The Lost World went to great pains to justify why the t-rexes would be following the moveable feast)? And who the hell is constantly calling Paul’s satellite phone every second of the day!? Hell, we even get another Chekhov’s Lucky Pack for the second film in a row.

On the character side of things, it’s nice to see Alan Grant back. While Malcolm’s the funner, more dynamic presence in Jurassic Park, Grant was always my favourite character. In this film, he has gotten surlier, more world-weary and disillusioned after the events of the first film. Billy provides a nice counter-point to him, with some youthful enthusiasm and optimism, although his character isn’t as well developed as one might have wished. As for the Kirby family, Paul is definitely the likeable and learns to grow braver and more capable as the film progresses. Eric is also rather interesting, being probably the most capable character in the film, although once he gets rescued he just becomes more of a tag-along. That said, he’s the first child character in this series to not be a complete burden and is probably therefore the best child in the whole franchise. Finally, we have Amanda Kirby, and oh my God is she annoying. Eric isn’t the burden in this film, because that role goes to Amanda, who is constantly making insufferably stupid decisions. I’m not sure if she’s supposed to be so annoying, or if that’s Téa Leoni’s fault, but bloody hell you’re going to wish that she would become dino chow, even though within the first 10 minutes you know exactly who is going to live and who is going to die in the film. Of the obvious cannon fodder, I actually rather like Udesky, who knows that he’s in way over his head and just wants to get the hell off of this island. He tends to be good for a laugh at the expense of his cowardice, he lasts just long enough to leave an impression on you and gives us probably the best death in the film to boot.

Joe Johnston is a very competent director, but he doesn’t bring the same sort of energy to the proceedings as Spielberg. He may not have had his heart in The Lost World, but that film still had its standout sequences which Jurassic Park III can never really match. The first spinosaur attack and the aviary scene are both quite exciting, but the action sequences tend to not stand out quite as much as they did in the past. That’s not to say that they’re bad, but they just aren’t given the same sort of flair. Sometimes the direction/editing is wonky as well, most notably when Grant gets knocked out on the plane, which is handled with a first person perspective fade to black. The film moves at a brisk 90 minutes, which could be down to the fact that there was no script in place more than anything else. Also worth noting is that the special effects are still very good, the CGI is well-utilized and the animatronics are still central to bringing the dinosaurs to life.

Perhaps due to his past as a director of kid-friendly family blockbusters, Jurassic Park III is much lighter in tone than previous entries were. The emphasis seems to be on fun and humour and rarely on building tension and horror, which is further aided by the way the film telegraphs very obviously who is going to live and who will die. The only character whose fate is up in the air throughout is Billy and in the film’s standout sequence, it appears that he is killed by a flock of pteranodon (we can even see a lot of blood in the water as he is washed downstream). However, the film totally cops-out in the ending when it reveals that not only did he somehow survive this attack without any sort of explanation, but the US Marines also manage to find and secure him before Grant and his group. It’s a bullshit ending that makes absolutely no sense and just feels like someone threw it in at the last moment to give us an unearned feel-good ending.

Jurassic Park III is certainly the divisive film. Some people like it more than The Lost World, but there is also a sizeable chunk of the fanbase who despise it for a number of reasons. There are some people who dislike the admittedly lazy and throw-away plot, or the shift from a serious and tense tone to one that is much more light-hearted. The sense of wonder has also been largely jettisoned in Jurassic Park III, focusing instead entirely on the running and screaming with one very short scene of admiring the herbivores late in the runtime. The portrayal of the dinosaurs also has definitely caused some fanboy rage. The spinosaurus is less of an animal and more of a terminator as it chases the survivors around the island. Fans also hate that the spinosaurus beats a t-rex in a fight early in the film, which is thrown in as an obvious way to establish that “this new dinosaur is better than the one you already like”. The rage that scene inspires is bad enough that the Jurassic Park wiki page for it has to include warnings not to get butthurt about it. Some fans also hate how the velociraptors are portrayed, although they are definitely more menacing than they were in The Lost World in my opinion.

For my own part, I’m a bit mixed. I definitely acknowledge Jurassic Park III‘s obvious problems, but it’s obvious from the get-go that the film is aiming to be little more than a b-movie filled with unpretentious dinosaur fun and I feel like it succeeds in its aim. It’s certainly less disappointing than The Lost World, which aimed higher but missed the mark, even if Jurassic Park III‘s aims are far lower as well. It’s definitely a throw-away film, but I always enjoy myself when I watch it so I feel like it deserves some points for that at least.

6/10

Be sure to come back soon as we round out this retrospective with Jurassic World!

Retrospective: The Lost World – Jurassic Park (1997)

Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. After the first film set box office records and captivated the imaginations of audiences everywhere, a sequel was practically guaranteed. Could Spielberg and company recapture the same magic which made the original film so special? Read on to find out…

As I said in the previous entry, The Lost World: Jurassic Park apes the original film’s poster hard, only really differentiating itself with rougher, decayed design and a cool tagline.

After the success of the first novel and film, Michael Crichton was pressured to write a sequel. Most fans (myself included at the time) had expected the sequel to involve Nedry’s embryo canister in some way, and even Spielberg explored this option, although it was ultimately dropped and never explored outside of the Jurassic Park Telltale game. After discussions with Spielberg and others, Crichton eventually relented when he got an idea for a sequel, which would be published in 1995 under the name The Lost World. However, by the time the novel was nearing publication, Spielberg was uncertain if he was going to return to direct, with Joe Johnston (who would eventually direct Jurassic Park III) offering to take his place. Shortly after The Lost World was published, Spielberg announced he would direct the film, although with some reluctance.

The Lost World novel was… not great, to say the least. It’s pretty clear that Crichton’s heart wasn’t truly in it, and the plot definitely suffers for it. The story of the novel revolves around Ian Malcolm hunting down a scientist who is stuck on Isla Sorna while Lewis Dodgson (the guy who Denis Nedry betrays John Hammond for in the original book and film) attempts to capture dinosaurs at the same time. Lots of mindless dinosaur-based carnage ensues. The film wisely discards most of this plot set-up, retaining only the most skeletal bits of it, most notably the idea of a “site B” where the dinosaurs were bred in secret in their own ecosystem. Perhaps notably, Crichton was not involved in the writing of the sequel. Other than that, the film also features a sequence from the novel where t-rexes knock a vehicle off of a cliff, which ended up being the standout moment of the film. The Lost World also features a number of sequences inspired by the first novel, including the opening beach attack, a character being swarmed and killed by procompsognathus, and a t-rex attacking characters hiding behind a waterfall.

Other inspirations on the film included Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (which obviously inspired Crichton as well) and the film Hatari!, which apparently influenced the scenes of hunters capturing dinosaurs. The ending was also changed three weeks before filming began, because Spielberg decided that he wanted to see dinosaurs attacking the mainland instead of the originally-planned ending which would have seen the characters attacked by pterodactyls as they attempted to flee the island.

The only actor returning in a major role is Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. As the standout of the first film, this was a rather inspired idea, although this film sees him becoming more of a standard action hero than the sardonic, doom-saying mathematician he was in the first adventure. Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello appear in cameo roles as their characters John Hammond, Lex and Tim, respectively, but they do not have a huge impact on the plot. New additions to the cast included most notably Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding, Ian’s lover. Vanessa Chester is also brought in as one of Ian Malcolm’s daughters, a spunky African-American girl named Kelly (the fact that she’s a mixed race child is actually quite surprising and notably refreshing, considering how rare this still is to this day). Rounding out the heroic cast is a young Vince Vaughn also appears as a resourceful and opinionated nature photographer, Nick van Owen, who is joined by Richard Schiff’s detail-oriented engineer, Eddie Carr. On the other side of the coin, the film’s primary antagonist is Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow, played by a weaselly Arliss Howard. The film also features a couple standout performances from the hunters, particularly the late, great Pete Postlethwaite as Roland Tembo. Of the new cast of characters, Roland is by far the most entertaining and badass, easily stealing every scene he’s in with his intensity. Also worth mentioning is Peter freaking Stomare as a seemingly sadistic mercenary, Dieter Stark. All-in-all, a good cast nearly on par with the original, and once again no one puts in a poor performance.

The Lost World picks up 4 years after the first film ended. InGen has covered up the incident and Ian has been discredited after he tried to go public with what happened. However, after a dinosaur attack on a wealthy family, it is discovered that InGen is hiding a second island full of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, where they would breed them before their delivery to the park. Hammond commissions Ian and a team to document and protect the creatures in their habitat, and Ian initially refuses until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding, was approached as well and is already on the island. He and his team head to Isla Sorna to rescue her and realize that Ian’s daughter, Kelly, has stowed away on board as well. Before they can do anything about this realization, a group of hunters led by Hammond’s corporate nephew, Peter Ludlow, arrive on the island and begin rounding up the dinosaurs to take to the mainland. Nick van Owen and Sarah free a bunch of the dinosaurs and destroy the hunters’ camp, but discover an injured t-rex infant and try to rescue it. The baby’s parents follow them back to their trailer and attack it, leaving both teams stuck on the island and having to band together to survive…

Remember how I said that there was a current of child-like wonder running through the first film? The Lost World is much darker in comparison, with some really nasty scenes punctuated throughout: the opening scene where a child gets mauled by procompsognathus, Eddie getting ripped in half by a pair of t-rex, Carter getting stomped on by a t-rex and sticking to the bottom of its foot, Dieter and Burke’s deaths ending with a shower of blood, raptors wiping out probably two dozen hunters mercilessly and the civilians getting chomped in San Diego. It’s still PG-13, but it’s certainly darker and scarier than the first film was, without the awe that the first film inspired at times. In spite of this, the film is also clearly aiming for a younger demographic than the first film as well, as it is quite clear that the studio was building in merchandising opportunities whenever it could. This is felt most obviously in the InGen hunting team’s equipment, which includes elaborate vehicles like something out of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I can actually remember the toys that they were selling at the time, and the hunters’ vehicles were featured quite prominently there. This clearly mandated merchandising is just one example of how The Lost World is a film which doesn’t have nearly as much heart put into it as the first did, being largely made due to fan and studio pressure.

The film also suffers from a weak script. While no one puts in a bad performance, it doesn’t help if your actors aren’t given anything to work with, and The Lost World definitely fails nearly everyone in this regard with a plot which is far too thin. For example, we’re given only 30 minutes to establish all the characters and make us care about them before the “running and screaming” starts, which is only really 1 or 2 scenes for most of the principal cast. The script just doesn’t flesh anyone out enough or give them time they need to make us care. Kelly suffers most egregiously from this, being nothing more than a burden and only contributing in one cringe-worthy scene of Chekov’s gymnastics to save Ian from a velociraptor. Sarah Harding and Nick van Owen also suffer greatly from the scripting deficiencies, with us only really getting the thinnest sketches of their characters before the action begins. Making things worse, we don’t really get any development of any sort for the characters after their 1 or 2 scenes of establishment, which just makes it even harder to care about anyone.

Furthermore, the characters tend to act stupidly for little more than plot convenience. For example, Sarah (a paleological behaviour expert) decides to start petting a baby stegosaur while in the middle of their herd, which obviously leads to the rest of its family attacking her to defend their baby so we can get an early action sequence. She also later tells the group that the t-rexes will be tracking them with their superior sense of smell and then in the next scene is seen with a jacket covered in baby t-rex blood smearing it all over the trail behind them like a total oblivious idiot when Roland points this out to her (and of course, not even Roland thinks to actually ditch the jacket at that point). Nick is also a common victim of this problem, most egregiously when he decides to rescue the baby t-rex by bringing it back to the team’s trailer, thereby bringing the wrath of the parents down upon them. Even Ian isn’t immune to this – one minute he’s desperately trying to get Kelly off of the island, and then the next he’s helping Sarah and Nick sabotage the hunters before trying to get the radio to work again so Kelly will be safe (of course, Sarah and Nick’s sabotage operation destroys all the radios on the island, whoops!).

All that said, the film is buoyed significantly at the 45 minute mark by the t-rex attack on the trailer. This is easily the best part of the film, which ramps up the tension as we wait for the t-rexes to approach, to their attack which flips the trailer and leaves it leaning precariously over a cliff while Sarah lies helplessly on a breaking pane of glass, to Eddie’s heroic rescue attempt and subsequent tragic death. It’s a major shot in the arm right when the film needed it and arguably one of the best single sequences in the entire franchise. And honestly, character development issues aside, The Lost World is basically as good of a sequel to Jurassic Park as you could expect up until this point… however, the moment that trailer falls off the cliff and explodes, the film suddenly nosedives significantly, turning into a series of running, screaming and senseless death (Roland himself says it best when he calls the group of faceless mooks a “moveable feast”). As I said in my retrospective of the first Jurassic Park, that film could have been worse in its second half when the characters stop developing and just run away from the dinosaurs, but we already had gotten to know and like them by that point so it wasn’t an issue. The Lost World does not have that luxury. It has a hard enough time making us care about its principal cast, not to mention the dozens of nameless, faceless cannon fodder which are suddenly brought into the fold at this point. Sure, we get some interesting action sequences here, such as the t-rexes attacking the hunters’ camp and velociraptors ambushing them in the long grass, but these scenes lack the emotional punch of the first film and instead trade that for sheer visceral excitement. They succeed to some degree, but it is not a worthwhile trade-off by any means.

The film also suffers in the notoriously half-baked t-rex escape in San Diego. You can definitely tell that Spielberg rushed this ending into the film, because it very distinctly feels like it was filmed and conceived separately from the rest of the movie. The idea of a t-rex rampaging in a populated city is actually rather interesting and fits well into the series’ themes, but the film does not set it up well enough for it to feel like an earned payoff. Instead, it plays out like a very bog-standard monster movie and jettisons all but two of the characters we were supposed to be trying to become attached to throughout the rest of the film. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Die Hard with a Vengeance and its clearly half-assed ending. It does serve as one of the big showcases for the CGI though, which has improved significantly in the intervening 4 years between films. In fact, I’d say that The Lost World deserves the reputation that Jurassic Park‘s special effects are so often bestowed with, because the CGI is utilized more often and holds up nearly flawlessly. That said, the animatronics and puppets are still being used frequently in this film, which is great to see as well and helps to ensure that the film’s effects still remain great to this day.

All-in-all though, The Lost World is disappointingly mediocre. It has promise, but it seems content to just squander all of it and turn into a mindless romp packed with as much dinosaur carnage as possible by the halfway point. The non-existent character development also cripples any sort of emotional investment in the film, making the carnage far less engaging than it was in the first film. In fact, The Lost World is the 3rd-lowest-scoring film in Spielberg’s filmography, after Hook and 1941, making it something of a black mark on his directoral career. Maybe with a bit more time in the oven and a bit more enthusiasm, Spielberg could have spun gold again, but as it is, The Lost World falls short.

5.5/10Tune in next time as we tackle the third film in the franchise, Jurassic Park III!