In 1974 a film was released that permanently put the Lone Star State on the horror-movie map; I probably don't need to name-drop the title, but I will. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre** is a gritty and relentless piece of low-budget, independent filmmaking, and both its importance in scare-film history and its effect on pop culture can't be ignored.
For a Texan and a lifelong horror movie fan, that original film has a special place in my dark little heart, and remains one of my favorite movies of all time.
So, I should be happy to discover a new prequel to the original film is about to be released this year, shouldn't I? Nope. I've come to expect that anything with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in its title that's not the movie from ’74 is going to suck so bad I'll want to bang my head against a wall. This is the plot synopsis for the latest film, Leatherface, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Leatherface is a prequel to 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that revolves around the mystery of which teenage psychopath introduced will ultimately become the chainsaw wielding killer known as Leatherface, as they escape with a nurse from a mental institution with a revenge-stricken lawman in pursuit.
That sounds completely terrible, almost as if it were written as a warning never to see this film.
But beyond the fact that a “Teen Leatherface” story line seems exceptionally silly, there's something about the sequels to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that rubs me the wrong way, and I think it's because I'm a Texan.
Directed by Tobe Hooper, the original has a pseudo-documentary feel — possibly an unintentional quirk owing to its low budget and locally sourced cast — but that makes the scares more intense. Despite rumors to the contrary, it's not a particularly gory film, but it does create such high levels of tension and anxiety that viewers seldom get a break. It's spare and economical with backstory details, which makes the movie more immediate and less tethered by unlikely plot baggage that can ruin the audience's suspension of disbelief.
Having been a child growing up in Texas during the 1970s, I also feel the film portrayed the state accurately — it's not a Hollywood approximation of what Texas looked like at the time, but captured parts of its genuine character. You can almost feel the muggy heat baking off the screen, and that authenticity has never been replicated in any of the other films in the franchise. Those might as well have been filmed in California with Canadian actors and probably were, although I'm not going to exhaustively research that. In any case, every other film in the franchise looks slick in comparison to the original, and something is lost in the process.
Perhaps it's some sort of weird Texas pride thing, but the original movie is so ingrained in the pop-cultural fabric of the state that it saddens me to see bigger-budget films churned out that don't come close to its scary thrill ride.
I'm not one of those folks who think all sequels or reboots are automatically bad, but as of now Massacre's many sequels have yet to deliver anything close to the quality of the first film, and it takes more than a murderous guy in a skin mask armed with a chainsaw to get me interested in seeing a horror movie. I also realize and accept that lots of people like these sequels, and I don't have some right to dictate what gets made.
To each his or her own, but I start to cry a single Texas-size tear whenever I see another film from this series announced. Perhaps some day I'll be happily surprised, but until then I'll just stick to the original horror movie that so artfully paired this state with cannibalistic killer rednecks who have a fondness for chainsaws and masks made from human skin.
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Meanwhile, I'll continue to make occasional pilgrimages to the film locations — the gas station has been turned into a tourist attraction and motel, and the family’s house was moved a few years ago to Kingsland, and is a very nice restaurant and bar now.
I'll also happily pretend that none of the other films in this franchise exist.
** Title sometimes appears as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but we're going with what's on most posters.