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."
Opening in theaters nationwide today, Texas Chainsaw 3D bucks the lazy trend set by all of the preceding sequels and remakes. The new film starts off with the conventional attractive-youngsters-get-killed-one-by-one formula before switching gears around the film's halfway point. From there, Texas Chainsaw 3D turns delightfully nutty, morphing into the craziest "dysfunctional family" horror-drama seen in years and displaying filmmakers who are clearly more focused on defying expectations than cranking out more of the same.
Texas Chainsaw 3D stars relative newcomer Alexandra Daddario (previously seen in the 2010 fantasy-adventure blockbuster Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and the 2011 Farrelly Brothers comedy Hall Pass) as Heather, a slightly Goth chick living with her unpleasant, adoptive parents and confiding in her athletic, loving boyfriend, Ryan (R&B hit-maker Trey Songz, in his first major movie role). After learning of her long-concealed adoption ("You came from a shit heap," says one of her cold-mannered parents), Heather hops in a van with some friends (including Lost alum Tania Raymonde as her promiscuous, skimpily dressed best friend, Nikki) headed for the small Newt, Texas (population: 2,306) to claim her recently deceased, biological grandmother's estate.
To go into more specific detail about Texas Chainsaw 3D's plot would be to enter into heavy spoiler territory, but it turns out that Heather comes from the Sawyer family, the same bloodline as the antagonists in Hooper's '74 picture, including, that's right, Leatherface himself. And, to put it lightly, it's not a warm nor positive family reunion.
Texas Chainsaw 3D is nothing like the mediocre 2003 remake (starring Jessica Biel) or its maddeningly inferior 2006 prequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. "I can't blame people who've seen the commercials and thought, "Really? Another Texas Chainsaw movie?" says Daddario, whose performance easily bests Biel's and deserves mention alongside that of the O.G. Burns. "There have been so many remakes and sequels lately, so that's totally understandable, and, frankly, I'd feel the same way if I was in their place. It's very different than what people will expect. If you're going to remake or reboot something nowadays, when there's so much of that going on, it's nice to be a part of one that approaches the material with a fresher, even riskier idea."
One aspect that distinguishes Texas Chainsaw 3D is Daddario's character. As the film opens, she's a beautiful introvert, with jet-black hair, midnight-hued eyeliner, and dark clothes that hug her hips and show just enough midriff. It's a horror movie, after all. "I had this initial idea to push her more toward The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," says Luessenhop. And it's easy to see why: After spending the movie's first half fleeing from Leatherface, Heather discovers her true calling and takes charge of the situation. Let's just say that she's got her work cut out for her if Texas Chainsaw 3D yields any sequels. "One thing I really do appreciate about this film is that I get to play a tough, strong woman," says Daddario. "I also get to play sort of a damsel-in-distress for part of it, but it's great to end on a much stronger note. That's not typically found in horror films."
Especially not the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which Burns' Sally Hardesty character does nothing but run, shriek, and look incredibly traumatized once the proverbial shit hits the fan. "She's just so terrified and hysterical," says Daddario about '74 film's protagonist. "At the end, you just see her hysterically laughing because she's gone completely mad. My character gets to go mad in a completely different way."
Not all of the characters are as transgressive, however. As unique as Texas Chainsaw 3D is when compared to the franchise's other sequels, it's also replete with traditional horror tropes to keep the diehard fans satisfied. Case in point: Tania Raymonde's character, Nikki, who's barely on screen for ten minutes before she's lifting her shirt to show off her bright red bra. Hardly 30 minutes later, she's seducing Heather's boyfriend and reminding him about their past trysts. In that respect, Nikki harkens back to that age-old horror tradition of punishing the kinkiest female characters after sex.
Raymonde was up for playing the familiar type. "This is my first horror movie, so I figured, hey, if I'm going to be in a horror movie, then, fuck it, I'll play the stereotypical horror movie character: that venerable slutty best friend," says the 24-year-old actress. "It was an interesting challenge for me. She does get to be a badass with a gun in one key moment, so at least she's not a total ditz. But I understood what my place was in this movie. It's a horror movie tradition, so I was happy to play that part."
For both Daddario and Raymonde, Luessenhop's "grounded" approach was what excited them about the project. "It's always a very tricky thing to reboot a movie that's such a huge cult phenomenon," says Raymonde. "I have serious respect for the original, so that was my biggest concern: 'God, I really hope this will at least try to follow in the footsteps of the Tobe Hooper original.' So when they told me that they had Tobe Hooper's blessing and that they had some of the original cast members onboard, it showed me that they had a lot of respect for the material and they didn't want to just erase everything great that came before. They wanted to pay homage to all of that."
There are two notable areas where Texas Chainsaw 3D veers away from the original. The first is its well-shot, very clearly Hollywood-made visual presentation, a stark departure from Hooper's snuff-film aesthetic.
With its no-name actors and grainy camerawork, the '74 picture looks like it could've been lifted directly from the Sawyer family's home video collection. In author Jason Zinoman's excellent '70s book Shock Value, horror maestro Wes Craven (director of The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street) describes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a movie that "looked like someone stole a camera and started killing people."
Shot in the swelteringly hot summer of 1973, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a grueling, modestly priced $60,000 production in which the tired, underpaid actors didn't need to dig very deep to work up their characters' exhaustion and desperation. Working 16-hour days, the cast members baked in the 100-degree weather as terrible things happened to their on-screen personas. "Let me put it to you gently," says actor Edwin Neal in Zinoman's Shock Value, "I moved troops through the jungles of Vietnam, and it wasn't as bad as making [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre]."
Not only did Hansen never show his actual mug while playing the hideously clothed Leatherface, he never washed his costume once during the entire shoot. As the actor says in Shock Value, "By the end, my pants stood up and I smelled so bad that they wouldn't let me in the food line." Even worse, the film's climactic dinner table scene—during which Sally's head nearly pops from tension as Leatherface, Poppa Sawyer, and the brother try to help the decrepit grandfather smash her head with a hammer—was shot over the course of 26 straight hours. "I got a black eye that day," recalls Burns in Shock Value. "I remember getting beat up by everyone while Tobe [Hooper] was standing nearby saying 'Hit her harder! Harder!'"
Texas Chainsaw 3D, on the other hand, heightened by some nifty 3D effects and an undeniably glossy sheen, gives no impression of qualifying for America's Scariest Home Videos. "I didn't want an overly gritty film," says Luessenhop. "These days, I think people want movies to look like they cost something."
But Texas Chainsaw 3D's actors did endure exceedingly hot conditions on the Shreveport, Louisiana, set—by Daddario's account, the temperatures rose to as high as 105 degrees. Unlike Burns, though, she wasn't subjected to realistic physical abuse, just the kinds of body-pushing to which Olympic runners might relate if they trained while being chased by a large, agile madman. The closest Daddario came to feeling Burns' pain was while shooting a scene where Heather's arms are chained above her head. Her mouth is covered with masking tape, her shirt floats open, unbuttoned, and Leatherface gently presses a slowly humming chainsaw atop her shoulder blade. "It was very physically challenging, but totally worth it," says Daddario. "I embraced what this film was, and I wanted it to have the right shock moments. I definitely knew what I was getting myself into."
While filming, Daddario spoke with Burns about her experiences contending with Leatherface back in the day. The older actress recalled one moment during production when her fellow actors were trying to cut her finger, but they couldn't simulate the skin-ripping well enough, so she yelled, "Just cut my finger." And they did. "However intense our scenes got," says Daddario, "I never had to actually draw blood. So I can't complain."
In addition to issues of realness, the second big difference between Texas Chainsaw 3D and the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one that should satiate gore-hounds. Just how gruesome does the new film get? Since the MPAA ultimately didn't give it and NC-17 rating, it's not unbearably nasty. Some last-minute nipping and tucking in the editing room was done so, you know, people would actually be able to see it without seeking out art-house theaters. As it exists now, Texas Chainsaw 3D is hardly on the same blood-splattered level as, say, Hostel or any of the Saw flicks. Still, the red stuff definitely flows, particularly during a standout sequence where Leatherface abruptly saws a chained-up victim in half, without any cutting away. The carnage is right there, uninterrupted, and very much uncompromised.
This contrasts with Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a wildly misunderstood work. Those who've never seen the picture assume that, due to its wonderfully garish title, it's the most gorily revolting thing ever committed to celluloid, but the exact opposite is true. There's nary a drop of blood seen throughout the whole film. "That movie was so controversial for being so graphic, but it's amazing how un-graphic it really is," says Daddario. "And it was banned in England and even denounced by people publicly, which, of course, only made people want to see it even more."
In Texas Chainsaw 3D, such visual implications are replaced by, amongst other sights of brutality, Leatherface hand-making one of his human-face masks, an impaling via pitchfork, and a body getting mashed up in an oversized meat grinder. "Compared to what we typically see nowadays, it's not so bad," says Raymonde, in the film's defense. "We're so desensitized now. We've seen so much messed-up shit that nobody should ever see, to the point where all of the gore and sickness really doesn't mean anything anymore. So the sad result is that you can do things that don't even shock people anymore. The only thing that's going to shock people is if you write a real story that actually makes sense. That's the tricky part, really, because no one's afraid of anything anymore."
So why forego that kind of less-is-more style in Texas Chainsaw 3D? "I went with the heightened gore in a few specific moments because I felt the movie needed that," says Luessenhop. "That's why the pay $16 in 3D to watch it. I owed that to the audience." Spoken like someone who's well aware that horror ticket-buyers are waiting with charged-up chainsaws to cut both him and his movie down.
But who can complain? The fact remains that Texas Chainsaw 3D—despite its bigger budget, 3D gadgetry, less-harrowing production, and slicker veneer—is closer to the family-comes-first spirit of Tobe Hooper's original than any of the previous Chainsaw pictures. And for that, it's worthy of praise.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)