21 June 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: AN ATROCITY BEYOND HUMAN IMAGINING

Strap in kids, because the story of how Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation came to exist, and why it was released by yet a fourth studio, is a long and sometimes confusing one; and it is almost certainly more dramatically compelling than the actual content of the movie involved.

In the chaotic fallout that came after the distributing company for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre dissolved, one other man besides Tobe Hooper still had some intellectual claim to the property, if not a practical one: Kim Henkel, the co-writer of the story and co-creator of Leatherface & Co. Having an intellectual claim doesn't really do much for you in Hollywood, of course, and for many years he laid in quiet.

In 1990, 16 years after the original had been released, New Line Cinema took a bath on Leatherface, and elected to put the TCM brand name on ice for a while. The early '90s, after all, were a very bad time for violent horror movies, something keenly felt at this particular studio, where not one but three slasher franchises were put to pasture in four years: TCM first, followed by Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday in 1993 (and as the Friday the 13th franchise dictated, so went the subgenre; this was ever the case), and at last, Wes Craven's ex post facto autopsy of all the things that made up a slasher movie with Wes Craven's New Nightmare in 1994.

So, in 1993 or '94, when Henkel thought it might be a swell idea to revive his one and only claim to fame, New Line didn't have much of a problem renting him the rights to the title for a one-off independent production. Let somebody else lose money on the property, you know? And so it was that Henkel got to take his long-unproduced idea for the One True Sequel and make it into a reality; and he called it The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it was given either a one-week or one-day run (I haven't been able to figure out which for sure) at a local Texas theater eager to show off the talents of the local actors and crew; and then Henkel sat back to wait for a distribution deal.

And wait. And wait.

1994 was a really bad time to be a slasher movie. Maybe the single worst year since the floodgates opened in 1980. And nobody wanted to invest the time and money into a guaranteed flop like TRotTCM. Thus did Henkel's at last realised vision sit and moulder like a hollowed-out corpse.

Until late in 1996, when two movies were released that changed the film's fortunes considerably. One of these was Scream, a film that did more than any one film ever has to revive the entire slasher field, especially those which were knowing and ironic - and while TRotTCM wasn't exactly knowing or ironic, at least it was silly rather than serious. The other film was Jerry Maguire.

"Wait, what?" you say. "What does Jerry Maguire have to do with slasher films?" As it happens, one of the several hungry Texan actors cast in this precise slasher film was a young woman named Renée Zellweger, who had been given the greatest opportunity available to an ingénue in 1996: the romantic lead opposite Tom Cruise in a sure-fire box-office smash. It just so happened that Columbia, the studio that finally snatched up Henkel's opus, was also the company responsible for Jerry Maguire. And if there's one thing Columbia didn't want, it was for their bright new star to have the ugliness of a cheap slasher sequel fresh in everybody's mind (it's tempting, to me at least, to wonder if Columbia bought the film primarily to keep it from being distributed at an inopportune moment). Once Jerry Maguire was safely out of theatres, with an Oscary glow about it, then the horror picture could be dumped safely.

Except, and here's the weird thing, it happened a second time. One of the other stars of TRotTCM was another Texan who'd been in a couple of noteworthy roles in fairly well-received films, and had his own big coming-out number in late 1996. His name was Matthew McConaughey, of Dazed and Confused and Lone Star, but the film that really put him on the map was A Time to Kill. It happened to be the case that his first big summer tentpole movie, Contact, was set for a July 1997 release, and that his agent had some reasonable influence at Columbia, and it was the easiest thing for the agent to make sure that the potentially embarrassing sight of his client as a psycho with a bionic leg would be well hidden. Thus it was that, three years after its "debut", Henkel's first and last film as a director would be thrown out on video in the late summer of 1997, under the gussied-up title of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.

It's probably not the case that a full appreciation of TCM:TNG needs that much backstory, full as it is of irrelevant details that happened a full three years after production ended, but I went into such detail for a reason: it is an interesting anecdote, whereas the film itself is not very interesting at all. Perhaps the only thing that differentiates it from every other late-era slasher film is its forthright comic tone, and even that wasn't new for the franchise, although to be fair, TCM:TNG isn't remotely as aggressive in its unfunniness as TCM 2 was.

I guess I had ought to actually get around the movie. There's the de rigeur opening crawl that invalidates the previous movies in the franchise; once again it appears that the end of TCM wasn't actually right, and we are told that two "minor incidents" occurred in the years since that first case - this is the last gag in the movie that actually worked for me, incidentally. Then the picture itself begins, and right from the start it's obvious that the fourth entry in the franchise is going to be the first one since the original that actually falls into the strictly-defined limits of the slasher film: in other words, it opens on prom night, and it takes about three minutes for us to meet the Expendable Meat. In the release version, that is; the director's cut (never released in any country except Canada, strangely, where it was the only version that ever was released) opens with a scene establishing that the obvious Final Girl, Jenny (Zellweger), has an abusive stepfather. The "bad touch" kind of abusive. Ah, Kim Henkel, you nut!

Anyway, we jump in at the tail end of prom, where the rather dizzy blonde Heather (Lisa Newmyer) is stomping around looking for her boyfriend, Barry (Tyler Cone). When she does so, he happens to have his lips locked around another woman, and Heather storms off to the lovingly restored old car they arrived in, the pride of Barry's father. Fearing that in her current state, Heather will total the car and thereby leave his own life forfeit, Barry runs after her and hops in the passenger seat.

The fight that Heather and Barry have as she speeds along proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the two most awful people in the whole world. I would spare you the details, but there's a passage of dialogue that serves as the tiny version of the argument why TCM:TNG is one of the most atrocious horror films of the '90s:

-B: "Once, I kissed her once! God, it's like I can't talk to my friends anymore, I can't believe how possessive you are."
-H: "Oh right, I guess that's why you were feeling her up?"
-B: "Look, guys need sex. It's bad for you if you get all worked up and then not get it, you can get prostrate cancer. Is that what you want?"

Besides the extraordinary non sequitur into "I guess that's why you were feeling her up", I want to call attention to "prostrate" cancer, which is apparently the type you get when you lie down a lot. I should mention, later in the film it becomes obvious that Henkel was trying to go for "funny," and that at least explains why the writing in the opening sequence is inexpressibly terrible, but it doesn't magically turn it into comedy, or even into something that looks like comedy might have been part of its intention.

As Barry and Heather continue to be wretched, Jenny and her friend-not-boyfriend-she's-a-Final-Girl Sean (John Harrison) pop up from the backseat, where they had hidden to avoid the noisy indignities of the prom, and also because despite anything related to actual human behavior, the four are friends and they all rode in together. The chief result is that Barry's awfulness is no longer about verbally berating Heather, but instead about establishing his superiority to Jenny. Because she is an ugly virgin who never tries to make friends with anybody. Comedy walks in the room, looks at the film for a second, shrugs, and walks out.

Thank God, eventually Heather's bad driving ends in a car crash (actually, in two car crashes, but the first one is a mere scratch, designed to freak Barry out about his dad's car), and the fella they hit ends up passed out on the road. Sean stays behind as the others go off to look for help, eventually arriving at the mobile home office of Darla (Tonie Perensky), a loud-mouthed, large-breasted parody of what people who don't live in Texas think Texans are like. In one of the most unexpected moments of the film, she flashes the local high-school boys driving around and saying obnoxious things, and thus does the series get its first gratuitous boob shot.

So, once she's done flashing teens, Darla calls a certain "Vilmer," and sends him to the accident site. The three are all very grateful, but they shouldn't be - we get to see Vilmer (McConaughey) just a second later, and he is rather transparently a psycho, with his crazy eyes and his giant pneumatic leg brace and the fact that he snaps the passed-out dude's neck just for a punchline, and most damningly, because he is played by Matthew McConaughey. He chases Sean around in his tow-truck for a little bit, and they share some rather arch dialogue (the first twitch of awareness that this was a comedy came right about here, when I thought, "not even an insane person could think that this would be remotely scary or thrilling"), and then Vilmer backs over Sean with the truck.

The others have left Darla, looking to hitch a ride, and of course they get separated. Jenny happens across Vilmer, who gives her the same routine he gave Sean ("I shall kill you, but not until after we have a lengthy dialogue about your feelings about being killed"), but she escapes, for no apparent reason. At the same time, Barry and Heather, having had an insipid conversation about dreadful things, stumble across the house of... is it the Sawyer family still? Anyway, that house. While Barry looks around, and meets the crazy, literature-quoting W.E. (Joe Stevens), Heather runs into the latest incarnation of Leatherface (Robert Jacks), who after four films has devolved from a faceless incarnation of destruction to something more or less like a hydrocephalic autistic child who cross-dresses in women's clothes and women's skin. That Kim Henkel, what a card!

Barry is hammered to death, while Heather gets tossed up on a meat hook, just like in the first movie. Also just like in the first movie, Jenny finds her way back to the one place she thinks is safe - Darla's trailer - only to learn in short order that yes, Darla is a crazy person who ties Jenny up and has W.E. come to pick them both up. But not until after she, Darla, orders some pizzas for dinner. The amount of stress placed on those goddamn pizzas, man.

After an extended "comic" scene that is too toxic to repeat, Jenny ends up at the Psycho Hut, and the film runs off the rails entirely; this is when I stopped wondering if the film was supposed to be funny, and got to enjoy the comparatively simple pleasure of realising that instead of being balls-out stupid, it was just a failure. For this is where TCM:TNG stops being a slasher film or a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film at all, and turns into a sitcom, with the short-tempered guy (Vilmer), the well-intentioned but clumsy girl (Darla), the goofy sage (W.E.) the really zany one who always gets the most applause (Leatherface), and the girl they all have trussed up to skin and eat (Jenny). They yell at each other and throw things and Jenny yells at all of them and begs to be killed just so she can be put out of her suffering, and I tell you what, I completely agree with her.

Jenny almost escapes something like a half-dozen times, but she keeps stopping because otherwise the movie would end too fast. Eventually, they get around to the customary dinner with Grandpa (Grayson Victor Schirmacher) and now a bevy of mummified guests, and the not-yet-dead Heather, who when she finally dies, will have been meat-hooked, kicked, chewed, had the skin on her nose bitten off, set on fire, and stomped with a giant metal boot. Hey, it takes her a long time to die! That's comedy! Kim Henkel has said that he hoped for this whole passage to mirror the (cut) passage where Jenny was abused by her stepfather; when she was confronted with another, more outlandish abusive family, she was finally able to beat the forces of Abuse that she could never overcome before. This is ironic, because I hope for Kim Henkel to die in a fire.

So far, the film has been extravagantly unfunny, not even a tiny bit scary, shoddily-produced, with day-for-night photography that I can't call the worst I've ever seen - the world is full of inordinately bad day-for-night - but it is really bad anyway. The only light has been Zellweger's performance, which could have resulted in a pretty fine Final Girl if she'd been given things to do that weren't shout at the killers about how confusing and irritating they were being. And McConaughey is good enough that you can see why he got bigger parts, thought not why he became a rom-com superstar.

But the worst is yet to come, in the form of a brain-cramping reveal that the crazy family is part of a millennia-old conspiracy where the powerful shadow-government types have a clan of insane people on hand to do the needful killings - JFK, that sort of thing. At first this is presented as Darla's crazy ravings, but then a man in a suit, named "Rothman" in the credits (James Gale, who actually managed to put in some time in an even worse movie than this one: 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain) shows up, and says things that make no sense, and then he leaves, and then when Jenny escapes, he kills Vilmer with a crop-duster and offers to take Jenny to the hospital. I've encountered the theory that Rothman is Henkel's commentary on the making of sequels, and maybe his dialogue would bear that out, if I had been listening to that instead of the rushing noise of blood in my ears. I wonder if Henkel's commentary on making sequels was: "Don't. They are always completely fucking awful." I could get behind that. Because TCM:TNG isn't just a complete failure as a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it's one of the five or ten worst films I've seen from the whole of the 1990s.

Body Count: For sure 5. It's not clear if the kindly couple in an RV who try to help Jenny die when Leatherface knocks the RV over with his chainsaw. If they do, than they make 7, and the only deaths caused in even an inadvertent way by the titular weapon. Also, there's hardly enough stage blood in the entire movie to give someone a convincing paper cut.

For those keeping track, there were approximately 26 deaths in the first phase of Texas Chainsaw Massacres, and a grand total of 3 - not quite twelve percent - were people getting massacred by a chainsaw.

Reviews in this series
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)

No comments: