Man, New Line Cinema sure had a thing in the ‘90s for taking all their acquired horror movie franchises and rebranding them with the slasher’s name as the title. Jason Goes to Hell, Freddy’s Dead and, of course, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)
Anyway, Leatherface was New Line’s attempt at revitalizing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise which never really had the success or box office numbers as their more popular slasher flicks. The more cinematic, rock ‘n roll sheen of the film certainly breathes some life into it, though once again at the expense of the gritty, filthy texture that made the 1974 original so memorable and enduring. If anything, it actually feels like it could pass as a sequel or prequel to the 2004 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, as it seemingly has more in common with that incarnation of the franchise than the original. But then again, seeing how wildly the original series’ atmosphere fluctuates between sequels (going from “serious” to “comedy” to “serious” to “comedy”), it’s a little tough to keep score.
Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) are making their way through the dirt roads of Texas and, of course, that means they’re about to get eaten. The charming Tex Sawyer (Viggo Mortensen… no, really), the handyman Tinker Sawyer (Joe Unger), the bumbling perv Alfredo Sawyer (Tom Everett), the voicebox-impaired Mama Sawyer (Miriam Byrd-Nethery) and “little girl” (Jennifer Banko) are ready to chow down on some sweet human flesh. Michelle may just find rescue from a local survivalist, Benny (Ken Foree), but to reach her, he’ll have to match his AK-47 against the chainsaw-swinging stylings of Leatherface (R. A. Mihailoff).
Leatherface is probably one of the most palatable installments in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, before the remake called a “do-over”. If it has any particular strength over its predecessors, it would be that the “family” dynamic of the Sawyers is presented as an actual family. The first two installments focused only on the three brothers and their nigh-antagonistic relationship with one-another. Leatherface spices things up by expanding the family past just the sibling rivalry of the brothers (which Leatherface now has three more of), giving us a mother figure to keep the twerps in line and an actual child who is every bit as blood-thirsty as the rest, just to make things extra freaky. While there’s no beating the classic chemistry of Drayton, Hitchhiker (or substitute Chop-Top) and Leatherface (all but one of whom were dead by this point in the narrative), I’m glad Director Jeff Burr chose not to try and copy that relationship.
The newest additions to the Sawyers bring their own eccentricities, though not all stand out. Tex is ostensibly the star villain of the film, almost battling Leatherface for the spotlight. Viggo Mortensen, a decade before he became a superstar, brings a handsome face to the Sawyers, who are almost routinely depicted as the most snaggle-toothed redneck stereotypes known to man. It allows him to contrast with his greasy, wall-eyed cohorts, anyway.
Tinker and Alfredo don’t leave much of an impression, though Mama and “little girl” shine, as they bring out “the best” in the lunatics (seeing them baby their kid sister or dutifully obey the orders of their mother). Grandpa’s there, too, but father time has finally caught up with him and he’s portrayed by a decaying corpse seated perpetually at the dinner table.
Then you’ve got Leatherface-himself. New Line Cinema seemed intent on giving Leatherface a harder edge than he ever had in the previous installments, which might seem contrary to his character. He obeys his Mama, but when his brothers start pushing him around, he bites back pretty hard. Once again, this portrayal of the character seems more in tune with how he’d appear in the remake series. Still, elements of Leatherface’s “gentle giant” persona from the previous films leak through, including a brief moment where he tries to share some Walkman music with the nailed-to-a-chair Michelle.
Story-wise, well, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has the problem of following a particular formula way too strictly and the installments can get pretty dull when taken together. A bunch of stupid kids go down a back road, they get hunted, a female gets kidnapped, she watches as the Sawyers have a crazy dinner party, there’s a chase as she escapes, roll credits.
Leatherface follows this same formula, with only the character of Benny taking the fight back to the Sawyers as a means to keep things from getting too monotonous. He’s portrayed by horror legend Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead, From Beyond), who brings that same “he’s a real nice guy but don’t fuck with him” presence that makes him one of my favorite recurring players in the genre. And I’ll admit, it was satisfying to see someone competent and capable actually turn around and fuck up the Sawyers for a change.
To focus on a single problem with the film that irritated me, I’d have to point out the ending. Benny is pretty much killed during the swamp battle during the climax, and though they tried some fancy editing to cover it up, there’s only so much you can do with “gets his head chopped by a chainsaw and sinks to the bottom of the mire”. The way he returns at the end just reeks of being “slapped on” to give the flick a happier send off, kind of like the ending to G.I. Joe the Movie. Don’t worry everybody! Duke’s gonna be okay!
The original ending (included on the astonishingly thorough and extras-packed 2003 DVD) isn’t exactly what I’d call “better” than the one we got, but more of a lateral move in quality. It shows Benny’s full death scene in the swamp, followed by the inexplicable return of Viggo Mortensen for no good reason and a cheesy part where Michelle says her prayers after killing Leatherface (who isn’t shown surviving in this one). It offers up a more “depressing” finish with Michelle having her well-earned escape thwarted, which I rather liked, but that other stuff with Viggo Mortensen and the prayers was just stupid.
Though it claims to be a sequel (the opening narrative scrawl mentions the past movies), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III seems more like a first attempt at a remake that quickly decides it’d be happier as a loose sequel. The next crack at rebooting, Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would fumble at the one yard line, too, settling on being an “in-betweenquel”. We’d finally get our full-fledged remake in 2003 with Marcus Nispel’s flick, though to reiterate my opening statement, that movie feels more like it’s trying to remake “Leatherface” than the original 1974 film.
If there’s anything left to be said about the movie, it’s that the “Lady of the Lake” teaser trailer is amazing. Hit up You Tube for that if you know what’s good for you.