“Fellas, you have a magnificent horror franchise that has been grossly mismanaged over the years. If you give us the rights, we’ll do for you what we did for Saw.” Within fifteen minutes of uttering this boastful claim, Saw producer Carl Mazzacone left a meeting with rights holders Bob Kuhn and Kim Henkel with a deal for a new series of Texas Chainsaw films which, in the first weekend of this year, chainsawed its way to the top of the US box office charts. Lionsgate, the mini-major which distributed seven Saw films, was happy to get behind Mazzacone’s reboot-of-a-reboot. After all, if Miramax was “the house that Quentin built,” as Harvey Weinstein was fond of saying, Lionsgate was the house that dripped blood, the Saw franchise having brought in nearly a billion dollars at the worldwide box office between 2004 and 2010.
Mazzacone’s next bold move was to forget the five Texas Chainsaw sequels, prequels and reboots* made between Tobe Hooper’s hugely influential original (1974) and the ill-fated 2006 prequel-to-the-reboot, ironically subtitled The Beginning. Instead, no fewer than six screenwriters collaborated on a story which opened with a pre-credit sequence continuing the climax of the 1974 original, before skipping ahead “23 years” to the present day (fudging the dates by about a decade and a half), where Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario) discovers that she has inherited a mansion from her grandmother, an event which provokes her ‘parents’ to admit that she was adopted. Before you can say “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” Heather, her boyfriend (Tremaine ‘Trey Songz’ Neverson) and two pals (Keram Malicki-Sánchez and Tania Raymonde) climb into a VW transporter and head for the small town of Newt, Texas, where Heather will discover that the words of Darryl (Shaun Sipos), a hitchhiker they pick up en route, are eerily prophetic: “Family’s a messy business. Ain’t nothing thicker than blood.”
The Saw films have traditionally been released, as you might expect, at Halloween, and when Lionsgate took the unusual step of scheduling Texas Chainsaw 3D (the “Massacre” reportedly being dropped in deference to the victims of the Colorado cinema massacre) for January 4, and declined to screen the film for critics, few expected the film to make more than a modest impact at the box office. Instead, the R-rated Texas Chainsaw 3D defied dismissive critics (it scored 18% from Rotten Tomatoes and 32% from Metacritic) and tore past The Hobbit, Les Miserables and Django Unchained to claim the no.1 position at the weekend’s box office chart. Lionsgate were quick to announce that a second film – possibly working-titled Texas Chainsaw 3D Part 2 But Really Part 7 If You Count The Ones With Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Biel – was already in the works, with the surviving cast returning for more chainsaw-related mayhem.
Meanwhile, in the UK, critics denied access to a press screening descended on the sole cinema showing the film, the Empire in London’s Leicester Square. “As pointless as one feared it might be,” wrote Time Out’s Nigel Floyd. “This dumb, draggy sequel … trips like a heroine with a sprained ankle over dumb plot twists, poor performances and inept would-be suspense scenes,” wrote Kim Newman in a withering one-star Empire review. (Sadly, Billy Chainsaw had yet to comment at the time of writing.) Haters are gonna hate, as someone from the film’s teenage target audience might say. But is it as dismal as these critics would have you believe?
Perhaps going in with rock-bottom expectations helped, but I actually quite liked Texas Chainsaw 3D. Rather than cheapen the legacy of the original, I thought the recreation of the first film’s ending was a neat way for the filmmakers to set out their stall, dispensing with the Texas Chainsaws of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s before the opening credits have even rolled. Countless horror remakes have taught us that the cast will be tanned, tight-bodied twentysomethings, playing two dimensional characters, even if the films themselves are in 3D. In this respect, Daddario & Co. are no worse than the usual crop; at least they can act – which is more than can be said for Clint Eastwood’s son Scott, who puts in a limp turn as a local cop. Some may argue that cameos from the original ‘Leatherface’, Gunnar Hansen, and other franchise alumni (including John Dugan, Bill Moseley, and original film survivor Marilyn Burns) is a cynical ploy to give the film credibility with long-term fans, but at least director John Luessenhop counts himself among them.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Texas Chainsaw 3D is that it does something no one has managed since the original: it makes Leatherface scary. Not by waving 3D chainsaws in your face (although, as you might expect, there’s a fair bit of that), but the old fashioned way. Two sequences in particular – one involving a chainsaw attack on the occupants of an overturned VW Transporter, the other a smartphone-guided walk through Leatherface’s lair – deliver a level of terror and dread to rival any of the recent remakes and reboots, and although the film runs out of steam in the third act, it does so whilst heading in an interesting, if not entirely unexpected, new direction.
When films as lazily-concocted as, say, the Taken and Expendables sequels are the norm, it’s commendable when a franchise’s rights holders actually seem to give a shit – even if critics don’t.
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)