Friday, October 27, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation' (1994)

Shot in 1994, premiered at South by Southwest in 1995 and barely released in theaters in 1997, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation never had the chance to be more than a cult object, which is mostly what it's become. Although just as terrible as the third movie in the series, The Next Generation is more of an eccentric vision and thus more interesting to watch, even if it's largely incoherent. Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the original movie with Tobe Hooper, returns to serve as both writer and director (it remains the only movie he's directed), and if the second movie was Hooper's twisted perversion of the original approach, then The Next Generation is Henkel's. Once again, the movie more or less ignores previous continuity to serve as a direct sequel to the original, an idea this franchise returns to again and again.

The opening text crawl is also back, serving to rewrite continuity as it contradicts the third movie's assertion that one of the original perpetrators had been apprehended; here we are told that none of the original murderers were ever caught, and that two "minor incidents" have occurred since then, which is an odd (and inaccurate) way to describe the second and third movies. Anyway, once again it also doesn't really matter, since the homicidal family (renamed the Slaughters from the Sawyers) is made up of completely new characters whose relation to previous villains is unclear. They've got their own Leatherface (played by Robert Jacks), of course, but at this point Leatherface is almost like a code name and persona that anyone can adopt, rather than an actual character.

The most notable aspect of the movie (and part of the reason its release was contested for years) is the presence of pre-fame stars Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, who'd both appeared in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused the previous year and were part of the mostly Austin-based cast. While The Next Generation was busy finding distribution, the two stars hit it big (McConaughey with A Time to Kill, Zellweger with Jerry Maguire), and their reps reportedly worked to block the release of this low-budget horror embarrassment. The truth is that it's not really an embarrassment for either of them: Zellweger is solid as the would-be victim who finds her inner strength, and McConaughey is amusingly hammy as the leader of the Slaughter family, in a much more effective performance as a psychopath than his recent turn in The Dark Tower. He even gets to throw in a signature "all right, all right, all right."

Zellweger plays one of a group of teens who wander off from their prom and get lost in the woods where they encounter the Slaughter family, who apparently live like a 10-minute drive from a major suburb. The first movie made it seem like Leatherface and his kin were hidden away in some mystical backwater, but here Darla (Tonie Perenski), the Slaughters' accomplice, literally goes out and picks up fast food at one point in between murders. McConaughey plays Vilmer, this movie's version of the seemingly sane family member who turns out to be the craziest of them all. He has some sort of bionic attachment for his leg that he controls with old TV remotes (!), and the increasingly bizarre final act seems to imply that he might not be human at all.

That final act, in which a mysterious Englishman shows up in a limo and tells Zellweger's Jenny that the Slaughters are part of some grand Illuminati conspiracy meant to use fear to inspire transcendental experiences in their victims (similar to the motivation for the villain in the Saw series), is just insane enough to keep the movie kind of intriguing. While Henkel at first seems to be going for a generic, slightly self-aware teen slasher movie in the vein of other contemporary horror films, he takes things in weirder and weirder directions as the story goes on and the family gets more screen time. Leatherface himself is often relegated to the background, barely getting to use his signature chainsaw and never actually chainsaw-massacring anyone. He's made into a full-on Buffalo Bill-style crossdresser in the finale, adding yet another nonsensical layer to the story that Henkel doesn't bother exploring or explaining. The commercial release of the movie cut seven minutes from the original version, which might account for the choppy pacing but probably can't justify the onslaught of utter nonsense.

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