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Monday, February 6, 2017

Filmland - Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

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For those not clued into the world of video games, Resident Evil has just released its 7th installment under the title Biohazard.  This year’s latest installment in the zombie video game series comes with one foot in the world of cinema, however, as it’s been released around the same time as the latest Resident Evil film The Final Chapter.  Now, I’m not here to go on and on about the complete failure of adaptation that is the Resident Evil films, mainly because, much like the games, following the plot of Resident Evil is a convoluted and deeply unrewarding exercise. 

However, RE7, as it’s known, also draws from the world of film.  It’s a slow descent into horror based around a monstrous backwoods cannibal family in the American wilderness, a premise drawn heavily from the horror classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  As such, I thought this would be the perfect chance to dive into the strangest entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise to see how the southern fried horror flick and Resident Evil’s corporate zombapocalypse stylings have a bigger point of overlap than you’d think. 

First, a little background for those new to the series.  Released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of a handful of films from prior to the ‘80s that are consider progenitors of the Slasher film genre.  The mid ‘70s was a time when American horror was beginning to take the shape that would define it during its most profitable era and films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre played a significant role in that.  

The film was inspired by the real-life killings of Ed Gein, the same origin point that inspired Psycho, and which as defined a lot of the Slasher genre.  Ideas like furniture and clothes made out of human skin, posed corpses in the home, and serial killers lurking in America’s backwoods and nowheres all spring out of this same central case, especially given that Friday the 13th was inspired by Psycho as well. 

The film is the story of a group of teenagers going to check out an old house one of their members inherited only to be set upon by a deranged cannibalistic backwoods family.  The family is made up of 3 members- a manic hitchhiker, played by Edwin Neal, a seemingly ordinary gas station proprietor played by Jim Siedow, and Leatherface, a hulking brute with no language skills and a mask made of human skin, played by Gunnar Hansen.  

The film is a brutal watch and damn frightening, a great blend of the small budget, sleazy sensibilities that defined the drive-in cinema of the time with the movie school technique that was informing more and more projects of the era. 

12 years later, the Slasher boom had hit Hollywood and horror blockbusters were big business, leaving studios hungry for brand-name horror to turn into franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th.  Given its previous success and ties to the origin of the Slasher genre, Texas Chainsaw Massacre seemed like an obvious choice for a franchise.  The 1st sequel was made by the original director and is more of a black comedy than a horror film, which has alienated a lot of fans even though I treasure it. 

Hollywood tried again in 1990 with Leatherface, a sequel/reboot that ignored the 2nd film entirely and brought in a new director.  It’s a decent entry in a junky way, thanks mainly to the presence of veteran actors like Ken Foree and Viggo Mortensen as well as the quality work of Kate Hodge in the lead role.  Then, in 1997, we get to today’s subject- Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation AKA Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 

The first thing to understand about TCM4 is how much of a product of its time it is.  The first half of the ‘90s was basically the fallow period for horror, where the giants of the 1980s were giving way to entropy and stupidity.  Jason Goes to Hell ended the Friday the 13th brand for nearly a decade, while the likes of Freddy’s Dead and The Curse of Michael Myers were bad enough to force reboots for both franchises. 

What’s more, Wes Craven’s Scream had just swept into this situation and reshaped the entire horror landscape.  Disposable, cannon fodder heroes and unkillable silent monsters were out, young, recognizable stars and mystery costumed killers were in.  The best example of this in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the two leads- Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey.

Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is yet another quasi-reboot of the franchise, ostensibly keeping the first film in continuity while disregarding everything else in the series.  The story follows four teens who end up lost in the Texas backcountry while driving away from their senior prom.  Zellweger plays the lead teen, Jenny, but the names don’t matter. 

There’s more or less no characterization of the victims in this movie, aside from Zellweger they’re just there.  That’s actually by intent, believe it or not, as writer Kim Henkel has stated the characters were meant to be exaggerated cartoonish caricatures.  This is some of the influence of the early ‘90s horror aesthetic, where a lot of horror franchises were going self-aware to some degree. 

In any event, the teens crash their car somewhere in the Texas wilderness and then end upset upon by the newest version of the evil family, eventually all being either killed or drawn together in the family’s dilapidated farmhouse.  The new family is a 4 person group led by Matthew McConaughey’s Vilmer E. Slaughter, a deranged trucker with a hydraulic leg.  McConaughey may be the best part of this movie because he is giving it 110% in every scene. 

He’s not really serious about anything and he’s in no way a credible threat, but his willingness to go insanely over the top with his character is a delight.  He’s the only person on set who seems to be aware what he’s doing is patently absurd and is trying to match the energy of that lunacy.  There’s also Darla Slaughter, played by Tonie Perensky, as the “normal” family member who poses in polite society as an insurance agent and Walter Slaughter, who quotes things a lot.

Which brings us to Leatherface, played by Robert Jacks, and the baffling decisions made with that character in this film.  So, as I mentioned, Leatherface was based on American serial killer Ed Gein, the guy who basically inspired the whole horror trope of “making a woman suit.”  Stuff like Norman Bates’ dressing as his mother, Leatherface’s skin mask, and Buffalo Bill’s mania all draw from the real life skin suit Ed Gein made to try and “become” his mother after her death. 

So, in Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they make that comparison point very transparent as Leatherface ultimately puts together a woman suit of his own, which we see during an extended dinner sequence where the Slaughter family enjoys pizza.  I’m really not sure why this was added to the film, it’s not really disturbing or anything just kind of awkward, particularly since Leatherface doesn’t have any human qualities so dressing him up as a person is very bizarre.  Like so many decisions in the film, it seems caught between a genuine interest in revisiting the source material and a desire to mock it, and I haven’t even gotten to the Illuminati yet. 

This is what I was alluding to earlier about the weird crossover between Resident Evil’s Umbrella Corp type villainy and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s backwoods barbarism.  Throughout the film, there’s a bizarre sprinkling of references to the Illuminati.  Vilmer’s tow truck service is called Illuminati towing and Darla describes Vilmer as working for a vast and powerful organization that secretly runs the world. 

During the film’s 3rd act dinner scene, which is comprised mostly of unintelligible screaming from Vilmer and Leatherface, a new character we’ve never seen before played by James Gale shows up.  He’s a well-dressed man in a suit and limo and is known only as Agent Rothman.  

He berates the family, Vilmer especially, insisting that he needs to “show these people the true meaning of horror,” an act which enrages Vilmer but not enough to actually do anything about it.  It’s an incredibly bizarre scene and seems to imply that Rothman is somehow in charge of or at least utilizing the family’s activities for his own mysterious ends. 

Later, he shows up again during the film’s finale when Zellweger’s on the run from Vilmer and Leatherface.  Apparently, that chase scene wasn’t enough horror for Rothman as he has one of his operatives in a nearby crop duster plane fly down and kill Vilmer with the propeller before rescuing Zellweger in his limo.  He tells her that her experience was meant to be “spiritual” but “things went wrong,” before dropping her off at the police station. 

This guy, Agent Rothman, and his shockingly vast resources comprise the biggest mystery to ever enter the Texas Chainsaw franchise.  He’s never been followed up on but wields power and influence of a frightening magnitude that would also explain how the family has existed for so long.  Kim Henkel, the film’s director, co-author, and co-creator of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre has given some insight into what Rothman’s role in things might be.  

While he could be an Illuminati type figure, he seemed to favor the idea that Rothman was part of a cult that sort of fed people to the family in an attempt to give them a spiritual awakening through the horror of it all. 

Now, of course, I doubt referencing the universally maligned 4th entry of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise was really on Capcom’s mind with Resident Evil 7 but it’s a bizarre overlap just the same.  In a way, it seems like an idea ahead of its time for Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just considering our current political climate.  

I don’t want to dig too deep into current events here given I do that all the time anyway, but it’s hard to miss the parallels between the Illuminati/family relationship and our current situation.  The idea that some kind of rich, powerful, corporate oligarchy keen on inflicting horror upon the populous would utilize the worst of rural Americana is pretty much the nightmare we’re living in these days- talk about timing.   

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