14 June 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE SAME THING ONLY DIFFERENT

On the second Friday of 1990, a little less than three and a half years after its immediate predecessor, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was released; the third film in the series, and the third different studio responsible. This time, the honors were done by New Line Cinema, soon to acquire something of a reputation as the place where horror franchises go to die, and the story of how they got their grubby paws on the property isn't remotely as exciting as the mob-enhanced saga of how the amazingly mercenary Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus found themselves with the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. In 1986 - the very same year TCM 2 was released - Golan and Globus's Cannon Films had produced an awe-inspiring 43 feature films, making its largest cumulative profits ever. By the end of 1989, in the wake of high-profile, massive flops like Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Cannon had hit rock bottom, and simply blinked out of existence.

Bob Shaye at New Line certainly knew from making a profit out of cheap shockers, and it's not hard to figure out why he thought that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre brand name was a safe bet, especially given the studio's desire that the new film be a return to the series brutal roots, and not the gross buffoonery of the first sequel. Sadly for the filmmakers, Leatherface eked out the slimmest of profits, running less than one million dollars in the black after a protracted battle with the MPAA and a fairly aggressive marketing campaign highlighting both the reboot and the overstated "controversy" surrounding the film's violence. The poison done to the series is part of our story next week, so for right now let's just note the presence of yet another series-killing failure from 1989 (well, it was supposed to be), the Year That Killed the Slasher Film.

Having said that, Leatherface absolutely does not deserve the ignominy of association with the wretched likes of The Dream Child and Jason Takes Manhattan. It's certainly a cut above the standard late-'80s horror film, though hardly up to the level of Tobe Hooper's original, and while it might not be memorable on its own, it doesn't hurt to watch it, and if there's one thing we should have all learned from the first Summer of Blood, "it doesn't hurt" is the next best thing to "a timeless masterpiece of world cinema."

Opening with yet another spoken narration of on-screen text, Leatherface again tosses most of the story established by the first film out the window, and it simply ignores the existence of the second; this latter fact being unquestionably the most sensible and appealing element of David J. Schow's script (fun fact: Schow, before embarking on an erratic career as a screenwriter was - is still - a horror novelist, who coined the phrase "splatterpunk" to describe the genre's movie-influenced embrace of ultraviolence in the '80s). Apparently, after her ordeal in 1973, Sally Hardesty slipped into a coma and ultimately died in 1977. Four years after that, her story of a family of cannibals was traced to a single man named W.E. Sawyer, a man alleged to have a split personality that only emerged when he wore a crude leather mask. Hogswallop, of course, and it's certainly not the nine-years-dead Sawyer who we see under the film's opening credits stitching together a new face out of other faces. Recycling, you might say. Treasure this incredibly disgusting sequence, o gorehounds, for the MPAA's scissors were so thorough and merciless that it's terribly close to being the only notably bloody scene in the whole movie.

Cut to: Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler, who played some particularly expendable Meat in Friday the 13th, Part VII), a couple in that magic place where they're not quite sure if they just broke up or not, stuck in traffic in Texas on the way to bring Kate's dad his car back from California to Florida (a premise altogether too close to The Hitcher, one of the greatest horror films of the '80s). Ryan turns the radio to the Exposition Channel (sadly, we are not told if it's KOKLA, where four call letters just aren't enough), and we find out that the traffic jam is the result of a police blockade, stopping rubberneckers from getting to the grisly site of a mass grave full of some four or five dozen bodies in various states of decay. The magic of cinema takes us to that very pit of hell, where a couple of greyish blobs of sculpted putty are held out for our viewing pleasure.

Driving, driving through the endless heart of Texas - which is actually southern California, to the film's incalculable loss - Michelle and Ryan ultimately stop at one of those creepy middle-of-nowhere gas stations on the Left that you find every hundred miles or so in the American West with signs like "last chance for gas, 100 miles" all over, where they meet the incredibly unpleasant Alfredo (Tom Everett) who spends his time either hitting on Michelle or spying on her using the toilet in a scene that is 100% exactly like the same moment in Psycho, only with the shots mirrored. Ryan is too much of a glasses-wearing pussy girlyboy to save Michelle, so everybody is very lucky when a rugged Texan in a cowboy hat shows up to give Alfredo what for. Calling himself Tex (manly!), he's played by an unbelievably young Viggo Mortensen, who had not yet mastered the art of being a good actor, and his virility proves small defense against Alfredo's shotgun.

With Tex dead, the kids tear ass into the desert night (which was, seconds before, afternoon), and Alfredo calls forth his buddy in a giant fucking pickup to run them down. The timing on all this is a bit confusing, but the short version is: after they've been run off the road, they meet Leatherface himself (R.A. Mihailoff), and they run away.

I'm going to step in and mention something that bothered me, a lot, about the movie: it seems like everything from the moment Tex is shot until pretty much the end credits is some variation on "Leatherface or one of his kin show up, but the heroes run away". Leatherface is a slim little thing at 81 minutes, 85 if you've cut the uncut version, but that's 81 minutes of almost nothing whatsoever happening. For all I bitched and moaned about the Friday the 13th series last year, at least they've got the goods: making movies about teenagers dying en masse may be vile and immoral, but dammit if the films don't deliver teenagers dying by the bucket load. Leatherface has an almost mesmerising paucity of deaths, only scene after scene of Ryan, Michelle and the characters they pick up not quite getting sliced apart. And when Ryan finally gets killed, it happens offscreen (in the R-rated version; in the director's cut, we learn that this is because he wasn't actually dead yet).

There is, however, some fairly decent suspense sequences, such as the one that just ended in a stalemate: much as Spielberg used flotsam on the ocean surface to indicate the shark in Jaws, director Jeff Burr like to use a lot of close-ups on Leatherface's leg, with a steel brace clamped on, to show the killer's omniprescence. Burr's not as good as Spielberg, obviously, but he's better than most of the people working in the genre at the same time, and Leatherface earns some legitimately intense moments because of it.

So where were we... Michelle and Ryan nearly run into a wilderness expert of some kind, Benny (played by Ken Foree, the sort-of lead in George A. Romero's majestic Dawn of the Dead), and tell him their story. Wisely observing that two freaked-out young people evading psychos in the dead of a Texas night could use the skills of a bona-fide survivalist, be bids them well and heads back to his car, where he meets our third mad cannibal: allegedly his name is Tanker (Joe Unger), but I never caught it. I was probably too busy looking at his hook-hand. Benny runs (Jesus Christ), smack into Leatherface, but their fight is cut short by the appearance of a haggard, tough-looking young lady (Gina, say the credits, and she's played by Beth DePatie, who debuted in nothing less than 1989's A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child!), who taunts the killer and... runs fucking off. A little bit later, she meets Benny again, and explains her backstory - she was the only survivor of the cannibal clan's last massacre. He heads back to find Michelle and Ryan, and the girl gets killed by Leatherface: our very first death in what was marketed as a slasher movie, something like three-fifths of the way through.

Meanwhile, the kids bump into none other than the not-so-dead Tex, who is, that's right, a psycho killer. He gives chase, Ryan gets caught in a bear trap and seemingly killed, and Michelle runs to a house where the now-ossified third act tradition of the Final Girl in a TCM movie getting tied down to dinner - "tied down" in that "spikes driven through her hands to the chair" sense - with Grandpa (or here, Grandpa's long-dead corpse) as she is subjected to the horrifying mise en scène of the family's house. The particular image that everybody always mentions is the doll that the unnamed little girl (Jennifer Bank) living with her daddy Leatherface carries around, made of the bones of what sure looks like a human infant. In a bit of a twist on the formula, however, there's a survivalist with a BFG hunting the psychos this time, and the result is the first TCM with what a sufficiently depressed person might describe as a "happy ending."

Slag on it though I might, there's a healthy chunk of stuff in here that very nearly works. And why shouldn't it? It was all stolen lock, stock and barrel from the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The ugliness involving buried bodies near the beginning, anonymous young people just traveling through the area, the gas station, the ending, the presence of a helpful black man (who, in the original, appeared in two shots and had no dialogue), a few specific passages of dialogue, and some elements of the family members' personalities, are all there. It's just that in Leatherface, they're all scaled back a bit, made a little less Gothic (the house in particular is a model of restraint compared to the Gein-inspired hideousness of Hooper's original vision, even in the misbegotten sequel). Sequels that are tinier than the original? What will they think of in Hollywood!

Really, Leatherface is as much a remake of the original as it is a sequel, maybe more. But a very special kind of remake, at least nominally in the same continuity as the first (nominally, I said), implying that crazy cannibal families accrue to Leatherface wherever he goes, and to crib a phrase, "all this has happened before, all this will happen again": Leatherface is a mythological being, really, who crops up from time to instigate the same terrible chain of events, only to vanish and leave the truth confused and unclear in the years to come. I'm not really meeting the movie half-way on this; it's more like I'm really drunk and calling the movie from a bar, and the movie is like "yeah, okay, see I have this girl over, so I'm gonna let you go..." But I need to do something to explain the weirdness all over Leatherface, which is sort of the same and sort of different, not as brutal, not as elemental, not really a slasher at all even though about half of the plot is close enough to make no difference. Even Leatherface's mask is just not quite what it was in the first two; it's a bit... wetter?

It's hard even to say that Leatherface really feels like a movie at all, it's more like variations on two themes: one of those is Hooper's TCM, the other is "people running all over Texas." It's dreamlike, really, with nothing individually making much sense next to everything else (three presumably-dead people pop up again, hale and hearty, as the movie reaches its climax), and a great deal of stuff all sort of being mashed together. It's weird how compelling the movie is. There's a sense that anything might happen at any second, because largely speaking, anything does, and if that's not tension, it's close enough that I'd rather watch it than a generic Dead Teen Movie. As hard as it is to nail the film down (not exactly a remake, not exactly a slasher, not exactly gory even though it nearly got an NC-17), it apparently knows what it is, and though it's hardly a great genre film, it surely deserved better than to get hung out at the ass end of the Slasher Decade.

Body Count: 6, I think (I'm not sure if the little girl lives or dies). Only two of those are "good people," only one of them is the kind of violent that sets weak stomachs a-churning, and not one of them involves a goddamn 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: