Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation

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In discussing “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation,” it would be easy to dwell on the film’s failure to include even one chainsaw-related death. So let’s do that. Three people die in the movie, and each one of those deaths involves something other than a chainsaw. And come on — three deaths? That’s not a massacre. That’s barely a spree. Instead of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” it should be called “Texas Various Weapons Handful of Murders.”

Actually, the working title was “The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which was kind of misleading because the Texas Chainsaw Massacre had already returned, twice, in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” and “Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.” But Kim Henkel, the man who co-wrote the 1974 original, returned to the series this time, again co-writing the screenplay with Tobe Hooper and actually directing it himself. Good for him! He had never directed a movie before. From the looks of things, I’m not sure he’d ever seen a movie before.

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This sequel — which seeks to reboot the franchise, or perhaps function as a remake of the original, or perhaps just grab some cash by putting the words “Texas,” “Chainsaw,” and “Massacre” in the title — is notable for starring Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey before they became famous, and well before we got tired of them. It’s amusing to see them in this light. Zellweger hadn’t yet adopted her practice of sucking a lemon before every close-up, and McConaughey is barely recognizable without his shirt off.

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Zellweger is the main character, a virginal high school girl named Jenny who is “ugly” because she wears glasses. (Don’t worry, though — she loses them halfway through and gets to be “pretty” for the rest of the film. Whew!) She’s at the prom with her platonic guy pal, Sean (John Harrison), who has no interest in her, we are told, because he’s a geek. If the film were made now, he would be her gay best friend, but Texas did not yet have gays in 1994. Anyway, the two of them wind up with another couple, jerky Barry (Tyler Cone) and dimwitted Heather (Lisa Newmyer), because they happen to be in the back seat of Barry’s car when he and Heather leave prom. Why are they in the back seat of any car, let alone one belonging to a jerk who isn’t their friend? There’s the implication that they were smoking weed, though I don’t know why they couldn’t use Sean or Jenny’s car, or just go behind the gym like everyone else.

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The real reason they’re in the back seat, of course, is that the movie needs them to be with spiteful Barry and spineless Heather, and Henkel couldn’t think of a good way to make that happen. The four of them wind up lost on a dirt road, apparently never having driven from their high school to their homes before, and manage to get into a fender-bender with the only other car on the road. The driver, a fellow teen, is unconscious, so Sean stays with him to be murdered while the others walk to the nearest house to call for help and then to be murdered.

They come across a trailer that serves as an office of some kind for a lady named Darla (Tonie Perensky), who is only too happy to call a tow truck for them. Sadly, we know from having seen too many of these movies that Darla is secretly in cahoots with the murderous rednecks who are going to turn up any minute now. (I don’t know what’s in it for her. Maybe she gets a commission on every slaying?) Jenny, Barry, and Heather have not seen those movies, though, so they just start walking back to the scene of the car accident to wait for the tow truck.

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Unbeknownst to them but beknownst to us, the tow truck has already arrived, driven by a man named Vilmer, played by Matthew McConaughey (or “Matthew McConnaughey,” according to the closing credits). Whereas most tow-truck drivers will quote you a price on the phone then charge you twice that when they arrive, Vilmer quotes you a price on the phone and then, when he arrives, kills you. Sean and the unconscious teen are the two latest victims of his customer service skills. Sean and unconscious teen, we hardly knew you.

Anyway, belligerent Barry and doormat Heather get separated from Jenny while walking back to the car, leaving her to be picked up by Vilmer, who is verbally abusive and exceedingly hostile, even for a tow-truck driver. Once Jenny realizes that Vilmer intends to kill her — it only takes seven or eight minutes of one-on-one time with him — she leaps from the moving vehicle and runs into the woods, where she is promptly menaced by a chainsaw-wielding maniac. At last, a chainsaw! Its wielder is a hulking, brain-damaged monster who can’t speak coherently, so he’s either gotta be Leatherface or one of the Green Bay Packers. There’s no indication whether this is the same Leatherface as in the other “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movies, though, or whether he’s a copycat. Maybe there are many Leatherfaces out there. Maybe the backwoods of Texas are littered with inbred maniacs who live in squalid shacks and murder teenagers. That would actually explain a lot about Texas, especially if those maniacs are registered voters.

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Meanwhile, when pugnacious Barry and shallow Heather wandered off on their own, they stumbled across Leatherface’s house. Leatherface’s brothers, Vilmer and W. (Joe Stevens), live here, too, though it would appear they leave the housekeeping to Leatherface. W. likes to spout quotations from William Shakespeare and Franklin D. Roosevelt, which is the movie’s idea of being quirky. The whole family engages in a lot of filth hoarding and corpse stockpiling, which is the movie’s idea of the South. Leatherface captures Heather and puts her in a freezer, then whacks Barry on the head and drags him around for a minute, but then Barry gets up and runs away, never to be mentioned or heard from again, apparently having escaped from the movie entirely. This makes you hate Barry even more, which you didn’t think was possible.

After a lot of running around and screaming, Jenny ends up in the clutches of Darla, who reveals herself to be Vilmer’s girlfriend, and then gets taken back to Casa de Leatherface for further abuse. Vilmer, who is the brains (such as they are) behind this operation (such as it is), has convinced Darla that he’s in the Illuminati, though he does not explain why this means he and his brothers need to kill people. One suspects the Illuminati thing is just an excuse. Leatherface, who I kind of feel sorry for, is clearly very perturbed about something, but while he angrily swings a chainsaw around a lot of the time, he won’t ever commit to striking anything with it. His actions are probably nothing more than a cry for help. Also, he’s probably not allowed to hit things with the prop chainsaw, because it would break, and then the movie would go over budget.

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Oh: At this point the movie decides Leatherface is a transvestite. Just FYI.

So Vilmer, W., Darla, and Leatherface (but mostly Vilmer) menace Jenny for a while, having been instructed to pad out the runtime because the screenplay forgot to give them anything specific to do. There were probably six or seven days of shooting where the actors arrived at the set and were given script pages that just said, “GENERAL ASININE LEWDNESS,” which they improvised for the cameras while Henkel and the producers went to a strip club. Then Vilmer bites off part of Heather’s face, then sets her on fire, then crushes her head with his bionic robotic leg. Oh, did I not mention that Vilmer has a bionic robotic leg? Well, he does. There, I’ve just told you as much about it as the movie does.

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But then, just when the movie couldn’t get any more nonsensical or random or badly photographed or oddly edited, a man arrives at the Leatherface house in a limousine. We don’t know who the guy is, but he can tell he’s Vilmer’s superior. Well, clearly: almost anyone would be Vilmer’s superior. I mean he’s Vilmer’s boss or something. Whoever he is, he takes charge of the situation, licks Jenny’s face — because why not? — and reveals that he has a series of hooks implanted in the flesh of his belly. This is explained even less than the bionic robotic leg.

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If it goes without saying that none of this is scary, then pretend I didn’t just say it. None of the violence is very graphic either, which defeats the purpose of a movie like this. I mean, what’s the point of having a guy with a bionic robotic leg crush a girl’s head if you’re not going to show it in gory detail? The fans ain’t exactly watching this for the Shakespeare quotes. What they are watching it for is to see multiple deaths, some of them chainsaw-oriented, with the gruesomest killings being administered to the most loathsome characters. I need hardly tell you that the film disappoints on all those levels, as well as on multiple other levels. Some of these levels were invented by the movie just so it could fail on them. That’s how ambitious it was.

— Film.com