Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—it's a title that quickly conjures up a multitude of colorful images, none of them particularly heartwarming. Images come to mind of a country boy wearing a cowboy hat and spurs getting brutally dismembered by a supercharged power tool. And those who've actually seen filmmaker Tobe Hooper's 1974 horror masterwork will find it hard to shake the memory of a chubby, wheelchair-bound teenager taking a chainsaw to the belly or of a sexy, provocatively dressed brunette being hung from a rusty meathook as she screams in agony.
Yet despite what you may think, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t all about mayhem. In fact, those perceptions do a disservice to a low-budget but nuanced piece of auteurist cinema. That fat kid (actor Paul A. Partain) whose belly gets carved like a rump roast? The viewer never actually sees the blade hitting his skin—instead, Hooper shows audiences his sister's (Marilyn Burns) wide-eyed shock and helpless revulsion as the human-skin-masked Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) murders her handicapped brother. When Leatherface sticks his female victim (Teri McMinn) on the meathook, you never see the metal rip through her flesh—only her pain-stricken face and the bucket resting beneath her dangling feet. Throughout The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the dots are easily filled in without Hooper needing to actually show any of the grotesque details. The pain and terror are palpable, but the gore is kept off screen.
Hooper and his co-writer Kim Henkel were far more interested in showing why Leatherface stalked and killed the hippie travelers who stumbled onto the Sawyer family's rural, secluded farmland. One of the many aspects of Hooper's game-changing original that's given it such a lasting, constantly re-examined legacy is its handling of the Sawyers. As horror movie clans go, they're nightmarish. Leatherface—the hulking, somewhat effeminate, mentally underdeveloped son who wears flesh masks (Hooper's nod to real-life serial killer Ed Gein) and, at times, women’s clothing—savagely kills innocent people and then hands over their limbs to his cannibalistic father (Jim Siedow) disturbed brother (Edwin Neal), and practically dead, corpse-like grandfather (John Dugan) to enjoy for dinner.
What's going on beneath the Sawyer brood's sociopathic surface is a sharp dose of compelling, delicately rendered family drama. Leatherface may be a chainsaw-wielding monster who bashes folks' heads in with mallets, cuts open stomachs, and hangs screaming young women by their backs on meathooks, but, deep down, he's just a frightened little kid trying to receive love from his daddy, the irascible Drayton Sawyer. And the only way he's able to feel any father-son compassion is by delivering fresh meat to the dining room table.
Unlike most other slasher movie villains—the personality-free Jason Voorhees (the Friday the 13th series) or the escaped mental patient turned unkillable ghoul Michael Myers (Halloween)—Leatherface is surprisingly easy to root for. And that's exactly what director John Luessenhop tapped into once he signed on to make Texas Chainsaw 3D, the seventh entry in one of the horror genre's most revisited and name-recognized franchises.
Before accepting the assignment, Luessenhop had never directed a horror picture—hell, he wasn't even a fan of scary movies. His only major filmmaking credit was Takers, the reasonably successful, though critically lambasted, 2010 action flick starring T.I., Chris Brown, and Idris Elba. So why risk provoking the ire of horror lovers by directing yet another film derived from Tobe Hooper's undisputed classic? For the Southern-born Luessenhop, a former New York City lawyer turned moviemaker, it was the Sawyer family ties and Leatherface's unexpectedly sympathetic nature that resonated the most.
"[Leatherface] isn't just a nightmare," he says. "Underneath that mask, there's a very damaged, very abused kid whose mental state never evolved. He has very simple reactions to things. Like, those kids shouldn't be in the house—I'm going to kill them. Or, that girl got away—I guess I got to go get her. When we attacked Texas, my approach was, 'OK, so what will this be about? It can't just be about whether a girl gets away or not. We've all seen that movie.' So then this idea of family really started materializing, and how even if you're a monster, you've still got a family. Once we came up with that thought and backed into it, this project became really cool."
Initially, though, Texas Chainsaw 3D's intimate, family-driven storyline was non-existent. In the original draft of the script, the film was ridiculously cartoonish. "The scripts I started off with were closer to something like The Terminator," Luessenhop recalls with a dismissive laugh. "Leatherface could deflect bullets with his saw."
Nonetheless the director was enticed by "daunting task of having to follow a picture that's in the elite of horror." He went back and re-watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in an attempt to figure out what made Hooper's movie resonate so profoundly with audiences. "I took my cues directly from Tobe's picture," says Luessenhop. "There's one scene in particular that really spoke to me. After Leatherface finishes killing the kids, he goes to the window near the front of the house and he frets, which shows, to me, a consciousness, regret, and remorse—as well as the fear that once [his father] Drayton comes home, he might be in trouble for killing these people. I didn't want to lose that part of the character, that there is a person behind that mask."
Hoping to tap into the original's underlying theme of family, Luessenhop took a decidedly unconventional approach to handling a modern-day horror reboot. "As much as I may make fun of that earlier script, it was helpful because sometimes you have to blow things up really big to show you what they're not, and that's what it showed me," he says. "I knew that the script was at the wrong end of the spectrum. The other end, though, was much provocative and grounded, which is where I wanted to keep the movie.
Luessenhop completely rewrote the script along with screenwriter Kirsten Elms, emphasizing Leatherface's interaction with the murderous Sawyer family patriarch, and connecting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in ways that go beyond superficial shocks. "Tobe's picture is really the one that, for me, gave the most excitement and inspiration," says Luessenhop. "I saw all the other Texas pictures and, without commenting on them, I just pushed them aside."
It was decided that Texas Chainsaw 3D would be a direct sequel to Hooper's original film, one that ignored the collective existence of every other follow-up or remake. As a nod to the original's ardent supporters and Hooper's work itself, a few of the older movie's original stars were invited to co-star: Hansen, Burns (the first-ever Chainsaw heroine), and horror mainstay Bill Moseley (who memorably went batshit as the wacky Chop Top in Hooper's own 1986 sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). When the MPAA first screened Luessenhop's film, they were ready to give it the ever-dreaded NC-17 rating for extreme gore. Which, of course, is catnip for any self-respecting fan of hardcore horror.
As these attention-grabbing tidbits about Luessenhop's production began surfacing online, an unexpected question popped up in skeptics' minds: Could the latest Texas Chainsaw flick be something other than a cash grab, a la the recent, rightfully maligned reboots of horror classics Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street? Might there be more to Texas Chainsaw 3D after all? For the director who had every reason to expect the worst reactions from horror fans', the gradually shifting critical perspective came as a big relief. "You had every right to be skeptical of another Texas Chainsaw movie, especially one that's in 3D," says Luessenhop. "I was very concerned that people would think this was just another mercenary studio undertaking of a popular but overly revisited horror franchise."