Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Texas Chainsaw (2013) - A 2D Review and the Slasher Horror Franchises


The Slasher Horror Franchises

Franchises, namely horror franchises and more defining slasher horror franchises. Since the mid/late-80s, no matter how diminishing the quality of each entry into an ongoing series of a slasher icon’s rampaging adventures as long as the green is being emptied from the pockets of the readymade audiences of these genre brand names the studio executives will shamelessly with little hesitation immediately greenlight the next instalment. The hungry fanboys will lap up anything that is put down in front of them despite the lack of freshly baked new ideas that is being brought to the table. The same time the fans are being fed yet more of what they love, they keep the cash cow fat that the suits keep well in line as a business model not willing to tamper with its structure with creative thinking to take it into a new direction. They consider it a risk in the worry that they might lose the consumer demographic that has been so good to them. If something is not broken why fix it?


The formula injected into these franchises follow a same basic pattern that their core audiences know very well and more importantly enjoy. Up until the turn of the 21st century, these films were made specifically with the fans of the series in mind. From around about the mid-80s onwards up until this point, most slasher sequels would perform solidly well at the box office in their opening weekends and then gradually start to drop down a few places from its second weekend. This is because it was predominately the fanbases of these series of horror movies that turned up for the opening and by the time the weekend was out the majority of the fandom would have already seen these latest instalments.


Most of these films would make back their low budgets and make a profit on top of that during these few days in their domestic markets before they opened worldwide to revenue that was even more lucrative. Because of the already substantial gross in their native homeland of North America some would even be released straight to home video in foreign markets to save money on promotional advertising for/and theatrical exhibition and still make a killing (lame pun intended) on rental. Take the Friday the 13th franchise for example, which from 1981’s Part 2 up until ‘Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday’ (1993) were all released DTV in the United Kingdom.


While innovatively pushing boundaries does not mix well with franchise horror, the fans are shooting themselves in the foot. This is because they are helping to make a mockery of a genre that they care about and love so passionately when they constantly turn up to these sequels knowing that the last few odd entries in the series were just complete and utter shitfests. There is nothing wrong though with turning up repeatedly for new movies in a franchise when it has a good track record of maintaining the quality.


The Friday the 13th series was dead after 1984’s The Final Chapter and the A Nightmare on Elm Street series was doomed after 1987’s ‘Dream Warriors’. Both of these films were the last good instalments of their respective series. The reason that these entries worked so well despite not straying too far from their set in stone commandments of their fanbases was that they attempted to do something just a little different. They just changed it up a bit but simultaneously they did not forget who their audiences were taking the best of both worlds by keeping to their roots but attempted to do something new at the same time. A difficult line to walk along but they made it in the end.


‘A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors’ elaborated on the sadistic humour of Freddy Krueger and brought him out of the shadows, employed fantastically imaginative elaborate set-pieces for the murder dream sequences incorporating each victims’ fears and the characters were given special powers that they fantasied about in their dreams to battle Freddy on more even terms. There was also more added mythology with the delving into Krueger’s disturbing origins. The dream demon’s humour elements worked because it did not spill over into the seriousness of the horror corrupting it (see Fright Night (1985) and the Differences Between Horror Comedy and Horror with Humour). Unfortunately, this was not kept up for the rest of the series. Go to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter(1984) - It Really Was “The Final Chapter” for more about that movie.


Soon after these two films, these franchises went on a downward directory that they never climbed out of heading into just purely outright commercialism with these once terrifying and memorable antagonists of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees becoming marketing tools as the faces of merchandise and were now anti-heroes that the fans would root for rather than fear them. It just is not real horror when you are rooting for the killer, not caring about, and not being scared for their victims. The studios would dish out every time just the most preposterous premises showing that they were really reaching insulting their audiences’ collective intelligence.


Freddy just became an overbearing clown coming out with one-liners left right and centre descending into shameful self-parody corrupting the horror and the plots well just lost the plot with nonsensical outlandish storylines. Jason came back as a damn zombie going right into into cheesy territory with some pathetically stupid scenarios that were just flat out embarrassing to watch. Voorhees went on to battle a girl with psychic powers, take a trip to Manhattan, turn into a body-swapping demon and was shot up into space. This is all just cringe making stuff. Yes, I am fully aware of the ironic satirical self-referential humour of ‘Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI’ (1986) and ‘Jason X’ (2001) but all they did was just make a joke out of a once truly terrifying movie madman. This hockey-masked maniac went from one of the very better early 80’s slashers with The Final Chapter to this dreck. The character deserved better… like to have stayed dead as a mutilated corpse after the finality of the climax of that aforementioned title. Tragically sad.


Now since the turn of the century slasher franchise horror is not just aimed at the existing fanbases of horror icons. Going back to my review of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) - “The film is primarily for the franchise’s fan base and a new generation who are aware of the character’s high profile in popular culture.” I then went on to say - “His complete appearance is to please the fanboys and young impressionable newcomers who expect it after a tirade of commercial advertising for the product (sorry, movie) with the villain’s image as the main selling point. While the Freddy Krueger of Wes Craven’s original 1984 film was the opponent and Nancy Thompson was the heroine and lead character, here it is obvious who the true star of this corporate business strategy really is.


Going back to The Loved Ones (2009) and What the Hell is “Torture Porn”?!!!  - “…remakes and reboots of brand horror titles are the big performers symbolising the sad sorry state of the genre in America. Little creative vision is on display here, with Hollywood instead opting for product renewal filmmaking to appeal to the already existing fanbases of franchises and to reintroduce iconic movie maniacs already deeply embedded in popular culture to a new generation who are even in the slightest bit aware of these famous characters. There is no care for the material just a hack mentality to sell the product with no name music directors assigned to make it all look good having no idea as to what goes into making horror cinema.


This is product filmmaking repackaging horror icons in new trendy ways to draw in casual horror viewers with these appealing new looks. These franchise entries do generally better at the box office both domestically and internationally as these remakes/reboots are now aimed at two demographics - not just at the fanboys as it was back in the 80s but they are now seeking audiences from a generation of newcomers. However, despite the movies’ commercial successes, these remakes and reboots are not offering anything new creatively and all they are doing is giving horror an even worse reputation that it had before with mainstream critics.


I am though all for watching the continuing slaughterthons of our beloved horror icons if they are done right with quality creativity in the filmmaking made with heart and soul with the passions for these characters and their mythologies evident on the screen. Jason Voorhees has not been scary since The Final Chapter, Freddy Krueger not since ‘Dream Warriors’, Michael Myers not since Halloween II (1981) and Leatherface… well actually this character was scary in 2006’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning’. This movie was one of the exceptions in the remake/reboot field with a completely new story that was well told in a nasty uncompromising manner with no comfort zones or positive resolution to the unrelenting nightmarish experience. It bettered the 2003 remake that it was a prequel to which was a hit and miss affair taking the basic premise of the first film but applying different plot points with a whole new cast of characters and adding a lot of gore that of course was not present in the original movie. Results were mixed.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has had more ups and downs than Tower Bridge. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original is an undisputed masterpiece and one of the greatest of all horror films with its visceral assault on the senses in both its vision and sound that attacks its audience with its depictions of human madness. It is a great work of artistry existing as a waking nightmare. Hooper’s own follow-up The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) is a madcap black comedy parody of its predecessor and is a helluva a fun ride. Then things start to get patchy with ‘Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III’ (1990). The theatrical cut is a chopped up travesty whereas the unrated version makes for just an okay piece of passable entertainment. It was an attempt to get back to the nastiness of the original but did not attempt to anything new and is nothing at all special. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation’ (1994) is an incompetent piece of filmmaking and is one of the very worst horror sequels ever made written and directed by the co-writer of the original Kim Henkel. An enjoyable hammy over the top performance from Matthew McConaughey is its sole redeeming quality.


It is no wonder then that the franchise was rebooted with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company taking the reins of the series with the remake and its prequel ‘The Beginning’. Now though with the rights for the franchise having reverted to Lionsgate, we have a new seventh entry but it is again a restart… that goes right back around to the original ’74 version.


Texas Chainsaw (2013) - A 2D Review

Note: I was unable to attend a 3D showing of this movie, as it was not showing in the technology at both of my local multiplexes. Therefore, obviously there will not be any critique of the 3D special effects.

‘Texas Chainsaw’ does a ‘Halloween H20’ (1998) completely ignoring the sequels to the original  and also the rebooted Platinum Dunes efforts using the events of that first film as a backstory for its mythology in an attempt to kickstart a completely new series with a fresh take on the source material.


The opening title sequence uses footage from the original movie to recap its climax that lead into and dictate the events of what transpires here in the opening scene just a mere hours later slightly blurred around the frames to give it that flashback look. The fantastic Bill Moseley takes over the role of the late great Jim Siedow as The Cook Drayton Sawyer seamlessly integrated into the first film’s finale in a single shot. Moseley returns for the role in the first of the new footage as the Sawyer’s farmhouse is laid siege by the townspeople of Newt, Texas, due to the Sawyer’s aiding their bother Jed aka Leatherface (Dan Yeager) in the murder of the teenagers just previously. Extended family members of the Sawyers have turned up to help defend the farmhouse including Boss Sawyer (a cameo by original Leatherface actor Gunnar Hansen). The Sawyer’s farmhouse was especially reconstructed for the movie with meticulous attention to detail nailing it right down to a T. A gripe though is that it does look a bit too clean. 


All are shot down by the angry mob of rednecks led by Burt Hartman (Paul Rae) after the farmhouse is set on fire by Molotov cocktails thrown through the windows. One of them Gavin Miller (David Born) takes an infant baby Edith from the arms of her shot mother Loretta Sawyer (Dodie Brown) and then murders her. He and his wife Arlene (Sue Rock) adopt the child, as Arlene cannot conceive. The mob are heralded as town heroes but Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) who was also present here could not disagree more as he gave the Sawyers the opportunity to turn over Leatherface but the rednecks overruled his decision.


After the title card, we flash forwards to present day where we meet again all grown up and gorgeous Edith Sawyer now named Heather Miller (the beautiful Alexandra Daddario) who is working in the meat section of a local grocery store in another part of the country. Heather also has a hobby making art with a fondness for making collages out of chicken bones. What does all this tell you? She receives a letter notifying her that her grandmother has just died and that she has left her everything. Knowing that the people she thought were her grandmothers are both dead she goes to see her parents Gavin and Arlene. They tell her the truth about her adoption but not about where she came from. With that, she travels to Newt to her real grandmother’s estate to collect her inheritance and to find out her family’s background. Along for the ride are her boyfriend Ryan (Tremaine Neverson) and two other friends Nikki (Tania Raymonde) and Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sánchez). Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker Darryl (Shaun Sipos).


This follows a similar narrative as the original as in how Sally and Franklin Hardesty visited the grave of their grandfather due to hearing reports of vandalism and grave robbing along with three other friends taking them to Newt whereas here it’s Heather’s inheritance and the search for the truth about her family. The role of the hitchhiker is similar to the characters of the hitchhiker in both the first film and the remake in the respect that they introduce the protagonists to the horror that is in store for them. In the original movie, it was an antagonist an actual member of the Sawyer family being Leatherface’s brother, and in the remake, it was a traumatized survivor of the cannibal family who committed suicide. Here we have a shady stranger who tries to steal from Heather’s recently inherited estate while her and her friends go out into town that brings Leatherface out of his hiding place. Much like the first film Leatherface starts to attack the intruders of his home. While this is obviously fucking stupid to leave a complete stranger behind alone in the house this serves as a narrative device to move the story forward in bringing the danger out that threatens the group of friends.


There has been much criticism towards the time jump here. The first film was set on 13th August 1973 and here it is the present day thirty-nine years later as the date on the gravestone of Heather’s grandmother Verna Sawyer reads 29th September 2012. The female lead though Daddario playing Heather is in her late twenties and the filmmakers even tiptoe around the year the original movie was set by only stating that these events happened on 13th August even though it is obviously set in the 70s being one of the most quintessential culturally significant representations of that decade. There is no excuse for this illogical incompetence except that the filmmakers just wanted to get some young hot girls in as a bit of eye candy rather than go with the older alternative of 39 to 40 year olds.


Saying that though, they wimped out on giving us the T & A action but were more than happy to give us plenty of gore in a movie essentially made for the fans. At one point, in the film’s climax Heather has her arms chained up with her shirt undone wearing no bra, but somehow the shirt still manages to cover up her breasts. This is frustratingly teasing and a big cop out with the filmmakers just playing it safe here. The kills here are nothing creative but they do not shy away from being graphic and are nastily mean spirited. How innovative can the writers be anyway with the murder set-pieces with the use of a chainsaw? There are some well-timed jump scares here and there but overall the proceedings are not very scary with a distinct lack of suspense. 


You may remember a clip from the trailer of a potential fairground massacre. This is not the case and is a missed opportunity. You can just look forward to a groan inducing nod to the Saw franchise instead being that Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures are involved here. Although, it could be that the writers were just giving Leatherface focus in that he was chasing solely after Heather, as she is one of the intruders of his peace. There are no random murders here as every victim plays a part in the story.


Leatherface’s chainsaw fodder here is not the usual obnoxious teenage stereotypes we usually have to put up with. One-dimensional sure, but this is a slasher, no deep character study and I did not mind spending time with them, and the performances by the cast are passable doing capably what is asked of them. There is though some dodgy dialogue to wince at. Heather and her friends really do not make the usual dumb mistakes we are used to seeing in the sub-genre, as they are not aware of Leatherface’s presence for most of the time until he makes himself known. The characters then react accordingly as any panic-stricken individuals would do in just trying to get the hell of there. Although, despite the scene in which Heather is hiding in a empty coffin in an open grave as Leatherface’s chainsaw cuts through being very tense stuff it is an obvious hiding place for her to be in and easy for him to find.


After the fairground sequence, Heather is taken into police protection. During her stay at the police station, she finds out the truth of her family’s massacre from police files that have been left out after it was determined by Sherriff Hooper that it was Jed Sawyer that was trying to kill her. This is where her character flips the script in her enragement of how her brutally her family was taken away from her. This is foreshadowed in the earlier scenes that allude to the Sawyer’s madness running in her blood. Knowing that the townsfolk who are responsible for her family’s mass murder are going to try to kill her now that she knows the truth namely the now  Mayor Hartman whose family were rivals to the Sawyers she calls her grandmother’s lawyer Farnsworth (Richard Riehle) who tells her that her cousin Jed Sawyer is part of her inheritance. She did not get around to reading the letter that her grandmother left her telling her of this. Now knowing that Leatherface is her only remaining relative she takes sides with him. 


A running theme of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise has always been about family and this is a unique take on that. It boldly gives our protagonist here psychopathic tendencies and changes our view of Leatherface to that of sympathy. Especially in the closing scenes in which Heather finally reads her grandmother’s letter that helps her to realize that she has found her family after everybody who was close to her before has lied to her and has died (Trey was cheating on her with Nikki). Leatherface defended her and he will continue to protect her as long as she takes care of him. “The Saw is family.” 


This sequel has been unfairly maligned by both mainstream and genre critics since its release. It is true that the movie does not live up to the original but then again not much does and it does not try to either. It does not try to replicate the stylistic traits that were employed in that first film that made it such an unapologetic mind fuck save for some flashes of homage to it in the respect of its iconic visuals and sound and narrative devices. Tobe Hooper himself did not strive to replicate his movie with his own sequel knowing he could not top it and his sequel very much stood out on its own terms with a very different tone. This is the case here but this film is again very different. Despite its overall execution lacking in certain departments, with the scare factor quite low, some cringe worthy dialogue and a whole load of dumb illogical inconsistencies plaguing the proceedings I could just not help but be entertained by what this movie does get right.


Conclusion

While being no great feat of filmmaking ‘Texas Chainsaw’ at least attempts to do something different with the series’ formula but does not stray too far from what the franchise’s fans expect of it. This movie is a throwback to the better examples of 80’s franchise horror made with just the fans in mind, and more importantly, it is of decent quality like those better efforts. It has a new perspective on the franchise that I would like to see continue in a run of new films expanding on this new mythology by elaborating on it with new ideas but at the same time not forgetting the roots of the series. It is this filmmaking mentality that made Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: The Dream Warriors’ (1987) the very best sequels of their respective franchises.


While not as strong as those films and not being the very best in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, this sequel is a fun and entertaining semi-successful beer n' pizza flick that will appeal to the fans of the franchise and the slasher sub-genre in general and comes recommended for those Leatherface junkies and slasher completests. 

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2013 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission. 

6 comments:

  1. One fairly substantial point, here, though: with the possible exception of the new entry, neither THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE nor any of its subsequent iterations are slasher movies (and from your description, it isn't one, either).

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    1. The original TCM is a forerunner to the slasher and is one of the sub-genre's main template innovators. This latest film in the series is of the post-golden age era of the slasher. It is part of a franchise that was specifically resurrected in 1986 with TCM 2 as part of that golden age of the sub-genre.

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    2. The slashers using TCM as a template would have been a dream, indeed, but, unfortunately, that didn't happen. Slashers were simple moral fables about bad little boys and (especially) girls being punished in creatively horrific ways for their deviations from stern Puritanical morality. That's galaxies removed from TCM, a film in which so much was going on that entire volumes could be written on it. TCM is Southern gothic, survival horror, a tale of the U.S. winding down and beginning to feed on itself, and about a million other things. The follow-ups lose most of that, but none of them go in the slasher direction. It does TCM a great disservice to unfairly associate it with the slashers.

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    3. There is no doubt that TCM ’74 is an early forerunner to the slasher sub-genre. The film innovated many conventions that were seen in the slasher’s golden age in the 80s when the sub-genre became the full package. This included the masked/faceless hulking killer, the use of power tools as murder weapons, the final girl etc.

      ‘Black Christmas’ ‘74 was the first proper slasher employing the uses of an unseen mysterious stalker picking off a group of young adults (these type of characters are another common characteristic in the sub-genre), POV shots of the killer and a setting of a secluded location. ‘Halloween’ ‘78 took all of these elements and carried a sub-text of the immorality of promiscuous youths who are punished for their sins whereas the pure virginal character often a woman is now the final girl who survives.

      All this became essential components of the slasher with horny young teens who are always the victims, which also entailed explicit sexual material of soft-core nudity and sex scenes and then they are murdered. The final girl would always be the sensible one who didn’t partake in such activities. ‘Friday the 13th’ ’80 brought the visceral gruesome murder set-pieces. Thus, the golden age of the sub-genre was born.

      TCM was franchised in ’86 as part of this golden age as it was an important influence on the slasher. There is no “great disservice” in associating TCM with this sub-genre as the movie plays an important part in helping to shape American modern horror. This is why Leatherface is considered one of the big four slashers along with Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. The series might not strive for all the conventions seen in slashers but a film like ‘Maniac’ is also not a film of the sub-genre in the traditional sense either but it’s most certainly a part of it.

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    4. It's not a film of the sub-genre in any sense. The "final girl" in TCM isn't a "final girl" at all, insofar as the slashers defined that convention. In the context of the slashers, the "final girl" was exactly as you described her--the virginal good girl who babysits the kiddies while her horny friends are out partying. That's how she's able to survive and to defeat the menace. TCM has none of that. The use of a chainsaw as an instrument of death is, in TCM, thematic--the pioneers who built America but have now been rendered obsolete by automation, and are now feeding on what they built using, as their weapon, a symbol of the very thing that did them in. On the rare occasions when power tools were employed in the slashers (the slashers didn't really adopt that as a convention to any real extent), they were just used as yet another way to kill people.

      The slashers are, with fewer than half a dozen notable exceptions, the cinematic equivalent of low-grade dog-food. They lifted elements from everywhere. That doesn't mean the films from which they lifted should be associated with them. Hitchcock's PSYCHO, TCM, Bava's BLOOD & BLACK LACE and, in particular, BAY OF BLOOD, and many other films were pillaged by the slashers. Some of these were of much lesser merit (and the influence of something like BLACK CHRISTMAS is always insanely overstated), but the ones named (and many more) towered over the slashers like gods over ants, and it is a great disservice--an outright insult--to present them as slashers. The slashers took only superficial elements from these films, and were a devolution from, not an evolution of, them. Equating these films with the slashers is, likewise, terminally superficial. In the real world, it happens for exactly the reason you identify--the TCM sequels start right in the midst of the slasher craze. Mainstream writers do this sort of thing all the time. A few years ago, James Parker, writing in the Atlantic, erroneously identified such films as the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remakes, and SAW as slasher films, alongside actual slashers (the example jumps to mind because I wrote about it at the time). We should do better.

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    5. You’re right; TCM ‘74 doesn’t have any of the “virginal good girl” stuff when it comes to the final girl. This is because the film is as I said a “forerunner” to the slasher sub-genre. It innovated the basic concept of the female survivor whereas ‘Halloween’ ‘78 filled it up with metaphor. There are many slashers employing the use of power tools as TCM helped to popularize it. Yes, it’s feasible that the use of the chainsaw in the movie may carry the sub-text you’re talking about but it doesn’t mean the basic idea of using power tools did not influence slasher films. In addition, you cannot escape the fact that Leatherface the large hulking masked/faceless antagonist was an influence on the look of the killers in slashers.

      What you’re saying is contradictive. Yes, slashers did take a lot of inspiration from giallo movies. Therefore, the slasher sub-genre will forever be associated with gialli for being its bastard offspring as that genre is a “forerunner”. When it comes to ‘Psycho’, it is again a very early “forerunner”. You just have to take look at the sequels to see that particularly ‘Psycho III’ which itself is very close to being a sleazy 80’s slasher. The original version of TLHOTL and ISOYG are of the rape and revenge sub-genre. Yet again, these films are “forerunners” to the slasher. If the originals are rape and revenge movies this makes their remakes part of this sub-genre as well. The Saw series are essentially splatter films.


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