Sunday, October 16, 2016

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Relationship-troubled couple Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) are driving across the USA, bringing the car of Michelle’s dad to Florida. Right now, they are smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.

Some time after passing a police investigation digging up a mass grave, they end up at a gas station in the middle of the desert, meet a reasonably friendly and charming cowboy (Viggo Mortensen) and find themselves threatened with a shotgun by the crazy gas station owner (Joe Unger), which drives them to flight on a rather suspect road, chased by someone in a truck who throws a dead dog at them. Then follows a hectic attempt to change one of their car’s tires with only a flashlight for lighting; and a head on collision with the car of the improbable Benny (Ken Foree, hooray). Improbable, because he’s a black survivalist, and an actually decent guy to boot. Be that as it may, this is a very bad place for anyone to crash one’s car, and soon everyone is hunted by good old Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff) and his new and improved cannibal family. Unpleasantness ensues.

I think Jeff Burr’s sequel to/reboot of  the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre based on a script by David J. Schow (perhaps known to you as the guy who coined the term Splatterpunk, and a pretty fine writer of fiction) is rather unfairly maligned. Of course, this film doesn’t have the visceral punch of Hooper’s original, and it didn’t change (or try to change) the direction of the horror film as a whole, but then, if I’d set the hurdle a genre film has to jump this high, I’d hardly ever get to enjoy one. For a New Line Cinema – “the place where horror franchises go to die” was their motto, I believe - horror sequel this is surprisingly engaging stuff.

I’ve read in various places online (hopefully not all working from the same wrong source) that Schow’s initial concept for the script was to treat the plot as the truth behind the urban legend that then created the Hooper original, which explains why Leatherface here has a new family that sort of but not completely resembles the old one, and why the parallels and nods towards the original play out as they do. It doesn’t explain a starting text scroll that suggests the first film did indeed happen (Schow, the scroll, and I prefer to pretend the Hooper’s second TCM never happened, which is good for everyone’s sanity), but I’d bet that’s just useless studio meddling, particularly since the “truth behind the massacre” idea makes perfect sense if you ignore that scroll. In any case, Schow delivers a playful but generally not campy variation of the original, including some elements that look glaringly late-80s/early 90s horror to my eyes. This works particularly well in the film’s first half or so, somewhat less so – yet still enough - in the finale when things become a bit too late-80s/early 90s action movie to be taken seriously anymore, and not at all in the pretty damn stupid final five minutes. But all in all the plot makes sense, and the film flows.

It does so of course also because Jeff Burr is one of the truly capable journeyman filmmakers of this particular time in the genre, with a nice hand for suspense – and much of Leatherface is focused on suspense and hits thriller beats more than strict horror ones – and the ability and knowledge to shoot relatively generic scenes in ways that aren’t always totally generic and obvious. This may not sound like much of an achievement but it really puts Leatherface miles above most horror sequels of its time. It feels like the work of people with a degree of respect for their audience and the genre they are working in, and that’s not at all something you can expect from any kind of sequel.

If I were in a criticizing mind, I’d remark that the glossy sheen of filmmaking of this time doesn’t jibe too well with the grime the material asks for but I’m not in that kind of mood tonight.

No comments: