The White Elephant Blog-a-Thon at Lucid Screening celebrates the act of dumping bad movies in other critics' laps and watching them squirm.
Aphorisms For Those Attempting to Survive The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
We live in a world where an artwork titled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an object of adoration, and praise, powerful of influence. The 1974 film is so respected that sequels, remakes and whatever The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is, may be deemed disappointments, unworthy of association, or sacrilege. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a standard to which film artists may aspire. Remind yourself, once in awhile, that this is the world you live in. I guarantee it will cheer you up.
Two automobile accidents in the same car are required to drive our hapless saw-fodder teens into the dark Texas woodlands. Do two entirely separate car crashes in five minutes signal a thematic excess of mayhem throughout the entire picture? It does not. It does signal something about the plot logic of the movie.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation has a fourteen-syllable title which becomes increasingly nonsensical as one reaches the end. There is no chainsaw massacre. There is not a sole chainsaw death. There are no chainsaw injuries. There is not explicitly a "next generation" of chainsaw-massacrers within the film, though it may be a remake/boot/imagine of the 1974 film for a new generation of moviegoers.
Should one be viewing the film in its original release title, Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one may ponder how a massacre can "return."
For as much shit as I talk about Tobe Hooper and his post Chain Saw work, defenders of the wayward auteur can always take comfort: none of this is his fault.
Kim Henkel, co-writer and producer of Chain Saw '74, certainly less beloved, must shoulder all blame, however, for writing and directing The Next Generation. It is less curious to that Halloween sequels accumulated too much complicated, needless backstory over time, and began jettisoning sequels from continuity, or, more accurately, picking and choosing which threads to continue their convoluted, silly tale. Henkel, however, free to make a direct sequel to his own first story, to integrate those elements he may have liked from the two Chain Saw sequels, or (yeah, sure) find a means by which to smooth over continuity disjunction once and for all, opts for none of the above.
He takes a stranger approach, recreating the basic scenario even while acknowledging the entire series in a title card, then through a last-act subplot implies an ongoing, eternal cycle of Chainsaw Massacre Houses, set up by the Illuminati or something, and intended as a "spiritual experience" either for the perpetrators or the victims, or as a research facility for understanding the nature of the base emotion of horror. In the last few scenes of the film, a mysterious (in relative terms) manipulator figure with an atrocious haircut and a black suit, whom the credits identify as "Rothman" (James Gale) appears, scolds the villains on their Ultimate Purpose, and exits. Literally, boundary-less conspiracy theory has motivated all the Texas Chainsaw films. Figuratively, Henkel is attempting to equate his films, and if he is generous, all horror films, with philosophical thought experiments designed, as Rothman puts it, to uncover "the true meaning of horror."
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation proposes to explore The True Meaning of Horror. Do we find an answer to this grand question? Does it matter if you truly ask the question, if you name-drop the question?
In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, four kids are stalked through the moody Texas nightscape by a family of weirdo lunatics, including a beefy guy wearing a mask made of cut-off human faces and very excited about a chainsaw. Every time it seems they have found assistance at the outskirts of civilization, their helper turns out to be another member of the nutzo posse. One extra-screamy girl survives by running and running and running. The end.
This perfectly solid plot sketch served Henkel well in 1974, and he does not invent a new one for The Next Generation. Henkel retains the most successful setpieces and iconic images from Saw '74 -- Girl on a Meathook, Chase Thru the House and Out the Attic Window, Sawing Down the Door, Heroine in a Bag, Sick-Ass Sunday Dinner at Murder House, Leatherface Spins Around in the Road -- and slightly expands them, but does not improve or "pump up" the scenes in any way either adrenalizing or satiric. So his Next-Gen Final Girl, Jenny (Renée Zellweger. Yes, for-reals), jumps out of the attic window... and then scrambles around on the roof, up a TV antenna, and jumps up onto an overhead power line, while Old-Gen Marilyn Burns was fine just smashing to the ground. The end result is the same: Leatherface slices the line and Jenny winds up KO'd on the lawn.
Henkel has, in the 20 years since writing a TCM-Universe story, apparently forgotten all the motivation behind his plot and character choices. He fills in the blanks willy-nilly to make a new tale with the old template, and the result is semi-coherent at best, only intelligible with more effort than the film has earned, and intensive knowledge of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and possibly sequels. While Saw '74 follows bickering hippie teens on an already spooky trip through Southern Gothic territory to check family graves for possible desecration, Next-Gen is about four kids ditching the prom and just kind of driving around town. It's a different situation, but it's not a stronger set-up. The hillbilly creeps of Saw '74 are all types, but they are quick-sketch interesting loony types, whose sociocultural motivations we can fathom. Next-Gen offers a wide freak gallery (yes, yes, completely out of continuity), but the character dynamics are not well-designed to play off each other, which is injurious in a screenplay so heavy on scenes of their interaction. Our new Leatherface (Robert Jacks) is simpering and dull, which is far more offensive than the full female drag costuming that offended so many Fangoria readers. Bartlett's Famous-spouting ignoramus W.E. (Joe Stevens) is just a guy in a plaid shirt with a single quirk. Darla Slaughter (Tonie Perensky) is a sassy real estate lady? A real estate lady is your scary backwoods stereotype? No comment. And though often touted as the film's sole comic saving grace, as family alpha male, self-mutilator and robotic-legged Vilmer, Matthew McConaughey looks like he's having fun, but his performace is entirely ear-sandblasting shouting and popping neck veins. McConaughey is not a performer loose-limbed and imaginative to have a "top" to go "over", and the result is unmodulated and embarrassing.
The cannibal family are not cannibals in The Next Generation. They still skin people, put them in deep freezers, hang girls from meathooks, and decorate with bones. Instead, they eat pizza. This is apparently some kind of '90s pop culture joke, as opposed to, say any kind of subtext that might be found in Saw '74 with its entire backstory built upon the family history with the local slaughterhouse. The posts stand in the same spots, but the signs themselves have been erased.
Rothman enters the film far too late, in too cryptic a manner, and is not developed enough to register as a character, but for a brief moment as he outlines his desire to expose the Meaning of Horror, his direct orders to Vilmer and family, and detached demeanor, he becomes a stand-in for all horror filmmakers. Presumably the ancient shadow-government conspiracy is behind the deus ex machina airplane-propeller murder of Vilmer in the climax, wiping out an experiment that yielded unsatisfactory results. His chauffeured limousine is the chariot that whisks Jenny away in her final escape from Leatherface. The masked maniac alone survives, for he is the true iconic monster of the piece, and the keystone to future exercises in horror. Leatherface is an archetype of our genre-subconscious, and no plane to the skull will obliterate him, after all. But Rothman sits across from Jenny, assuring her she needn't be afraid, and that she'll be delivered to a hospital or a police station, if she likes. And Rothman expresses his deep regret that this best-laid plan has failed.
The stand-in for every horror filmmaker apologizes deeply and directly for the appalling, stupid mess of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.
There is one interesting, clever inversion of slasher formula that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation pulls off perfectly. As Jenny fights, runs, is beaten up and terrorized through the course of the film, Renée Zellweger looks prettier, cooler and more stylish.
The new film seems unsure why it is repeating the old film so frequently, because it is not a traditional update of "dated" material; it openly acknowledges the first movie, and then, in a final-scene coda, makes confusing overture toward fusing both movies into a sort of Texas Chainsaw meta-mythos, intentionally repeating the first film's highlights with variation as if part of a grander metaphysical scheme. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation certainly does not earn this moment with its half-assed conspiracy subplot. Had the idea been properly developed as the central plot, it might have been a small moment of glory, not just for the franchise, but the genre. To wit, Jenny is delivered bloodied and frizzle-haired to a hospital, and questioned by a policeman played by John Dugan, who portrayed the withered Grandpa in Saw '74. As Jenny realizes his promises to solve the crimes are short-sighted, she stares off after a woman wheeled past on a gurney. The orderly is Paul A. Partain, wheelchair-bound Franklin in TCSM. The woman is original Saw Survivor Marilyn Burns. And the Final Girls stare at each other in understanding and despair: this cycle continues, will always continue. We need to be repeatedly submersed in fictional horror, so we can understand horror in our lives. The Final Girls in that hospital scene recognize each other as manifestations as a genre archetype, and within their world, they feel the weight of being the girl designated to shoulder the brunt of the Meaning of Horror.
This has been The Exploding Kinetoscope's grueling entry in the Lucid Screening White Elephant Blog-a-Thon. The 'thon continues all April Fool's Day '07... and be sure to check out how I forced Ben to write about the Burt Reynold's vanity carnival The End!