Sunday, June 9, 2013

Breaking Down Texas Chainsaw 3D (SPOILERS in effect)

"Welcome to Texas, mother fucker!"- Nikki
Synopsis from IMDB; After the first massacre in 1974, the townspeople suspected that the Sawyer family were responsible. A vigilante mob of enraged locals surrounded the Sawyer house, burning it to the ground and killing every last member of the family. Decades later a young woman named Heather learns that she has inherited a Texas estate from her grandmother. she decides to bring her friends along on the road trip to invesitgate her inheritance. On arrival she uncovers she has inherited a mansion but is yet to uncover the terrors that lurk in the basement below it. Written by Tom Thomas
Tobe Hooper gave us Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, a shocking, disturbing, gritty film that redefined cinema and raised the bar for every horror movie to follow. We were introduced to Leatherface, a horror icon so intimidating and frightening he has remained nearly peerless in the realm of slasher films. A big brute who wears a mask of human skin and wields a chainsaw. Inspired by real life mad man, Ed Gein (also the inspiration behind Psycho's Norman Bates), Leatherface has slashed, chopped, and hammered through six films. The three original sequels don't deviate from the original TCM much, they always hit the major touchstones (chainsaw chase, meat hook, dinner scene, etc.) with wildly varying degrees of success and failure. The original four films break thusly;
1; Classic, a must see. More than just a slasher flick, this is society on the brink, a desperate frightening film.
2; Semi-classic, Hooper upped the black comedy alienating some fans, but the film holds up well today. Dennis Hopper is top notch in this twisted retelling of Alice in Wonderland.
3; Great script by David Schow, personally my favorite version of the family and Ken Foree is awesome. Darker and scarier than 2, but for all it's dread it's rather light on violence. And for the ladies, Viggo Mortenson.
4; Ambitious but flawed. I can't say I like it, but I have sat through it four times, so...
Remake; Not bad, but I feel like it misses the point. It's brutal, gory, and sleazy and yet I feel very safe watching it.
Remake prequel; Maybe better than the remake by a smidge, but I still feel like it misses the mark, what makes TCM interesting.
Now, one thing I'll say is that I've had a personal rule that I wasn't going to waste my time writing negative reviews. What's the point? My time is better spent focusing on things I love. I do not love Texas Chainsaw 3D, but I do believe it's the best TCM we've had since part 3.
Let's get the negative out of the way first; Texas Chainsaw picks up moments after the original (1974), and continues in 2012, but focuses on a young woman who couldn't be older than 23. To that point, Leatherface must be in his 60's. Also the film seems to take off on it's own continuity completely ignoring all other sequels. And the 3D shots were incredibly silly. There are other smaller gripes to be had for sure, but let's move on.
The film opens with an amazing montage from the original, really compressing the dread into a bitter pill to rev you up. We next have Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) arriving on the scene to arrest Leatherface, aka Jed Sawyer. Jed's dad (played by TCM 2's Chop Top Bill Moseley), at the urging of other family members,
decides to turn Leatherface over to save the rest of the family. But it's too late for that, because a lynch mob of local rednecks, led by Burt Hartman (Paul Rae) have shown up to get some justice Texas style. A shoot out erupts and and in the melee the Sawyer house is burned to the ground, no survivors. Except a young woman with a baby. Skip the details, the baby (Heather) is adopted and grows up not knowing who she is, until a letter from a lawyer arrives stating that her REAL grandmother has died and she's inherited the old dear's estate. So we're off to Texas! Young friends in tow, in a van no less, and hey look, a hitchhiker! Get to the mansion (???) blah blah blah, secret room behind a steel door, TA-DA! Leatherface! Body count, body count, body count (this is mostly very good by slasher film standards, Dan Yeager makes a striking Leatherface and only Tania Raymonde's Nikki is annoying enough to not miss, not to diss Miss Raymonde, fine actress, awful character). There's some good gore and all the classic TCM touchstones are, er, touched for better or worse, but it's towards the end of the second act when the film finally does something very interesting.
Remember the lynch mob at the beginning of the film, they massacre the Sawyer family. They pose for
pictures in the aftermath, holding up a severed foot, claiming Leatherface's chainsaw as a trophy, etc. Very gross, very redneck. They see themselves as heroes, we the viewer don't see a difference between them and the Sawyers. Heather discovers the truth behind her history, that she was a baby in her mother's arms in the midst of the slaughter and that the giant skin wearing, chainsaw wielding maniac that killed all her friends is her cousin. Heather's grandmother has taken care of him all these years, hiding him from the world. Leatherface is said to have the mentality of an eight year old. Furthermore, he has known all these years that he has a cousin out there and that someday she would return to the family, or what was left of it.
In previous films we've seen different sides of Leatherface, monster, cross dresser, man child, dutiful son. All the while being a lacky, sometimes verbally abused by various family members, but one thing that never wavers is his undying loyalty to his blood. In a way he's a burdened monster, a product of his environment and duty bound-gotta help feed the family. From that perspective, is Leatherface actually evil?
In Texas Chainsaw 3D, we're given no indication that Leatherface has continued killing and eating people in the year's since the end of the first story, as I said 3D picks up moments after the first film, then seemingly ignores everything that came after it. So if we assume Leatherface has been nothing
more than the weird dirty secret living in grandma's basement and his return to killing is because he didn't understand who was now in his grandma's house, we now have a whole new Leatherface on our hands. The first original idea with the character since 1974. He's now a twisted version of Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men. Proven in his emotional outburst when he realizes Heather is his long lost cousin at which point she becomes the George to his Lennie and they, silly as it may sound, team up to get revenge on the Hartman. That made me like this film. Something human in the midst of a totally inhuman situation.
Of course, if he hasn't been killing all these years, why is his lair outfitted with meat hooks, butcher tables and all kinds of blades? Why does he still live in the skin masks? Are they part of his psychosis like they were for Ed Gein? And what about grandma (played by the original's Marilyn Burn's)? Grandma was part of the family, she knew what her kin did, she knew what Jed was. Did she spend the ensuing years hiding Leatherface's crimes while eating the human flesh he prepared in his room?
No indication of that what so ever. Grandma fed him, took care of him, and he apparently protected her and her home. I think the Of Mice and Men comparison stands. In no way do I make the case that Leatherface/Jed is not a deplorable human monster, but a monster like Frankenstein's that needs to be set apart from society, because he could never, even as a prisoner or mental patient, fit in the confines of our world. He needs a protector, a mother, a George, to protect him from society as much as protect society from him. The film would have benefitted with more scenes of Leatherface and Heather together as family as well as more scenes building on the Sawyer/Hartman family feud. There's a diamond in the detritus with Texas Chainsaw 3D. Buried beneath the need for a body count and cool kills there's a deep, psychological, gore fest begging to get out.
The original TCM, like the original Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th (the Mt. Rushmore of horror there) is important and effective because of how it changed horror films and how it affected audiences by holding up a fun house mirror to the American family, I mean family values are well in place with the Sawyers, they take care of their own. It's one of the many unsettling elements of that film. Making the monster human helps save Texas Chainsaw 3D by eliciting compassion for a gruesome beast who can casually hang a man on a meat hook and cut him in half with a chainsaw with as much regard as a butcher would pay a dead pig.

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