Dazed and Abused: Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Next Generation is Good, Actually

Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation in the midst of a fit while clutching a chainsaw in one hand.

There seems to be a chainsaw massacre in Texas pretty frequently these days, huh? Dividing upon its release (like the previous flicks) and in this writer’s opinion unfairly skewed, this 1995 follow-up takes the lightning-in-a-bottle critical success of the ’74 original and spins that bottle on its head in the middle of a veritable minefield. The result is an equally absurd dive into the macabre, faithfully denying its audience the “why” of it all, while unabashedly participating in and furthering its own brand of outrageous acts of cruelty.

This might be a bold statement these days (although it’s hard to tell with the internet delivering underrepresented takes) but the 1995 sequel/re-imagining is among the best of the sequels to the original.

Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or, as we know it today, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, opens on a group of high-schoolers fresh out of prom. We follow two couples leaving the event, driving down some podunk Texas backroad, destination unknown. As in the original film, this is our chance to get to know these kids and for the most part, they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. Nor are they the nicest — Barry, our resident dimwit starts to defend his infidelity in conversation with his girlfriend by weaving some half-baked excuse, stating: “Look, guys need sex. It’s bad for you if you get all worked up and then not get it, you can get ‘prostrate’ cancer. Is that what you want?” Shortly after the discourse that follows (and to be fair, there’s a lot to unpack in Barry’s thinking here) they get into an accident, totaling the car.

The kids find an office trailer nearby, where sharp-dressed businesswoman Darla (Tonie Perensky, Varsity Blues) calls her boyfriend, Vilmer (played by a relatively fresh-faced Matthew McConaughey), who just happens to be a tow truck operator. Where the Hitchhiker had his obsession with photography mixed with pyromania and Chop Top his chrome dome and affinity for cheap disguises, Vilmer is a step up (literally) with his bionic leg attachment operated via remote control, mixed with variable nuclear levels of a consistent bad temper. From the moment he arrives on the scene of the crash Vilmer’s intentions are made clear, sowing the seeds of terror in soil littered with fresh blood, guts, and crushed skulls. Welcome to the world of The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Original Texas Chain Saw scribe Kim Henkel took on directing for this wild follow-up. A few years after 1990’s Leatherface, Henkel didn’t much care for the direction the franchise was taking (sorry, Jeff Burr) so he penned a script and brought in an interesting Venn diagram of crew members that had previously worked with Richard Linklater (mainly those from Dazed and Confused) and Tobe Hooper.

Left to right: Taylor Shea Cone as Barry, Lisa Marie Newmyer as Heather, and Renée Zellweger as Jenny are stranded on a Texas backroad.

Editor Sandra Adair expertly cuts up Chainsaw using her chops from the editing rooms of the aforementioned Texas summer hangout, almost mutating the neat yet palpable chaotic energy from Dazed into a near-perfect volatile solution for Henkel’s desire return to form. Deborah Pastor put her blood, sweat and tears in the same production through one of the most important yet unsung aspects in film, production design and set decoration (the house’s interiors are all thanks to her). She goes so far for authenticity’s sake in Chainsaw as to procure one of the bone chairs from the original film to feature in this fourth installment.

Cinematographer Levie Issacks worked on two sets with Hooper prior: the underrated Spontaneous Combustion and made-for-TV cursed object yarn I’m Dangerous Tonight. Kari Perkins did costume work for many a Linklater flick after this, and last but not least Wayne Bell, who composed the scores to the original Massacre and 1976’s Eaten Alive, not to mention sound for the first two Chainsaw movies, and would go on to do the same in Linklater’s Before trilogy and Boyhood. The strengths of this illustrious crew converge to deliver Henkel’s vision, and that is returning to the simple yet ineffable reasons why we were so drawn to the ’74 shocker in the first place. It all points to a very well-organized chaos.

Organized chaos is the perfect description for this sequel. The proceedings follow very closely those of the Hooper-directed original film, but not necessarily beat by beat. The significantly harrowing kill scenes are lovingly echoed down to the meathook sequence. It also manages to avoid any depiction of gore and blood shots, instead using the power of editing and sound design get the better of its audience. Next Generation doesn’t rest entirely on referencing the original, however. It has more sinister designs in mind. If anything it reintroduces the tools it quotes of the original and then takes those up to explore new avenues, although with more dark humor on its sleeve (aligning itself closer to Part 2 in this regard) but by still maintaining the concentrated hostility of its own concoction.

The ultimate example of this — at maximum effect — is with McConaughey’s Vilmer using his bionic leg attachment for another worthwhile feature, crushing skulls. This is all facial expression and sound design. The camera never leaves his face and there is no cut to the victim. Despite going against what horror movies had been doing in the past 15-plus years by touting its effects repertoire and going for the close-up gross and bloody cutaway, it gets the most bang for its buck. The performances are what ultimately sell the movie, as its cast is as strong as it is charismatic.

Up-and-coming actors Rene Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey headline, truly surprising & fulfilling in bringing their own brand of mayhem to the production. Yet it’s the cannibal family that really brings the meat to the table, in more ways than one. Oh, and McConaughey makes a reference to his Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson three-quarters of the way through (and it’s exactly what you think). In this follow-up the family member archetypes are similar to previous entries, but these guys are an entirely different family. These are the Slaughters. There is a Leatherface, sure, but seemingly different from the one we’re used to. Played by Robert Jacks, this Leatherface not only changes faces based on mood but gendered dress too, something alluded towards in the first film but fully explored here, and progressively so.

Leatherface wearing his best duds, complete with a fully made-up face with matching red lipstick and nail polish.

The family member’s roles become clear as you meet each and every one, as The Cook, Leatherface, Chop Top, and Grandpa all played their roles before. After a little while you might feel that a lot of this terrorizing and torturing seems a little routine for our group of murderous outcasts, and you’d be right about that. At a certain point the house is visited by a mysterious figure with a haircut almost as horrendous as the acts of violence the Slaughter family inflict on their victims. This is where the film loses some people. But it serves to supply an extra aspect of the film that openly interrogates the “why” that as stated above, is being kept away from its audience as if it were a state secret.

But…what if it were?

Without spilling the barbecued beans, it’s safe to say that scream queen Marilyn Burns gets a lightning-fast cameo (it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment) late in the flick, so keep your eyes peeled. Pair that with the above puzzling character’s visit and you’ll open up some very vague yet amusingly ridiculous possibilities. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation may not be for every fan of the legendary slasher but it is worth a gander for those new to the sequel or a re-visit for those fuzzy on the details. It successfully challenges the minimalism of the first film with a barrage of excess, and in doing so peels the flesh of the legendary classic back to reveal that there never, ever needs to be a reason “why.”

 

Andre is an avid film watcher, blogger and podcaster. You can read his words on film at letterboxd and medium, and hear his voice on movies, monsters, and other weird things on Humanoids From the Deep Dive every other Monday. In his “off” time he volunteers as a film projectionist, reads fiction & nonfiction, comics, and plays video games until it’s way too late.

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