Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Saw vs. The Law: Texas Chainsaw 3D turns 10

I think the only slasher movie that was truly born to spawn a franchise was Friday the 13th, simply due to its crass, mercenary heart (the original only existed because Sean Cunningham cynically conceived it to cash in on Halloween's success) and its strict devotion to formula. Some tweaks were required over the course of the first few sequels to get it to where it fully needed to be but that was smooth sailing compared to just about everything else on the slasher front, which have all tended to offer not so easily overcome challenges - none more so than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The fact that the series has gotten to nine movies by now would seem to be proof that Texas Chainsaw Massacre qualifies a successful slasher franchise. I mean, shit, they keep making them, right? But then you look at the movies themselves and the definition of "success" becomes more questionable so it's all in the eye of the beholder, I say (or in the eyes of the rights owners). All of this is to preface a "Happy Anniversary!" shout out to Texas Chainsaw 3D, released on this day in 2013. 

Ten years ago, Texas Chainsaw 3D was not greeted as a return to form for the franchise. But to be fair, it really should be noted that the Chainsaw franchise never really had a form to return to. If anything, the series has been so consistently uneven that quality-wise, Texas Chainsaw 3D was completely on brand. This is a series that never enjoyed a hot streak. Right from its first sequel it struggled to recapture the magic of the original and as many hands as the rights have passed through, no one has never quite cracked the code for turning it into a sustainable franchise. There have been entries that were better than others but it's never gotten to the point where they've been able to fully hit the gas on it. Rather than a series of chronological entries, Chainsaw has instead been more like a series of missteps and retries. 

In line with that, Texas Chainsaw 3D represented yet one more try at being a proper sequel to the original. The only person to actually do that well was, of course, Tobe Hooper with Part 2 in '86 but when that was released it was viewed (incorrectly) as a spectacular fuck up and in reaction to that, 1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, despite the III in its title, became the first Chainsaw to start the trend of Chainsaw sequels pretending that the previous sequel never happened. People talk about the various branching timelines of the Halloween series but Halloween has nothing on the Chainsaw movies. With Chainsaw, outside of the remake and its prequel, every single sequel has initiated a fresh timeline from the original film. There's no Thorn trilogy in the Chainsaw universe, no string of connected movies. It's all just new attempts to figure out how to make a workable sequel to Hooper's original. 

Which, really, is just a testimony to how impressive The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is. It's such a singular achievement that, to this day, no one has figured out how to follow it, much less match it. Hooper made by far the best attempt with Part 2 but it took years for that first sequel to be appreciated and by the time it had been, the series had already long since blown itself up many times over. Given its many shortcomings, to enjoy TCM as a franchise is to learn to be in love with its imperfections and to find its failures to be fascinating and fun rather than dispiriting. 

That's definitely the only way to enjoy Texas Chainsaw 3D. It's not good. Not at all. But it is fun, if you are willing to take it in the proper spirit. I would say the spirit that it was intended to be taken in but, of course, that isn't really true. No one behind this movie intended it to be perceived as hilarious (although there is one shot of Leatherface watching a van of fleeing kids crash and flip over in the distance that I swear was meant to get a laugh) but, you know, once a movie is out there it's the viewers that decide what it is. 

I will say that it was a genuine thrill when this came out in theaters to see it in 3D, just to see footage from the original converted to the 3D format. That was undeniably cool. It was also pretty neat to see TCM 2's Bill Moseley stepping into the late Jim Siedow's role as "The Cook." Thumbs up, too, for the way the opening moments of this directly followed up on the ending of the original. I got a kick out of seeing the Sawyers (including original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen) in a stand off with the cops and a redneck mob. 

Past the opening, things don't quite improve. But at the same time, they become ridiculous so quickly that you don't have to waste any time wondering where you stand with this movie. In the decade since its release, Texas Chainsaw 3D hasn't aged particularly well but on the other hand, it doesn't look any worse for wear, either. If you thought it was ridiculous in 2013, no need to check back and see if you got it wrong. You didn't. On the other hand, if you had a ball with it in 2013, a rewatch won't let you down. If anything, you might have forgotten just how fucking bananas this was. 

"Do your thing, cuz!" might be the most quoted line, not just from this movie but from the entire Chainsaw series, but there's other gems, too, such as the adoptive father to Alexandra Daddario's character of Heather telling her "You came from a shit ape!" I'm also a fan of good ol' boy Burt Hartman (Paul Rae), the town Mayor, telling a cop "It's ok! It's ok! It didn't happen!" after the cop accidentally blows the brains out of a captive of Leatherface. The same cop's take on Leatherface's grooming choices - "Ladies makeup? What a fruitcake!" is hilarious as well. And Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) telling Heather to "Clean this shit up" after he decides to turn a blind eye to Leatherface's slaughter of Burt at the end is a winner too. With no snark, I say that screenwriters Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms have a way with words. You can say that the writing in Texas Chainsaw 3D isn't great but, you know, I say it takes skill to write memorable dialogue and TC3D has that in spades. 

Storywise, the most interesting, if also the most ludicrous, aspect of Texas Chainsaw 3D is how it makes Leatherface into a good guy. I feel that's a reeeal big stretch but director John Luessenhop goes for it anyhow. If nothing else, it does set this entry apart from every other Chainsaw. Rather than having to fear Leatherface, the real danger to the Final Girl here is from all the assholes looking to cover up their crimes. Leatherface essentially rides to Heather's rescue at the end, going to the slaughterhouse where Mayor Hartman and his dirty cops have taken her. Sure, Leatherface doesn't go there with the intention of helping her but once he realizes that he and Heather are blood, they become a team. When Heather tosses Leatherface his chainsaw, it's like Popeye getting his hands on a can of spinach. After serving justice to all the corrupt cops that wanted to sweep the Sawyer's under the rug, Heather and Leatherface return home to whatever weird new life they're going to have and I have to wonder what future movies that followed up on Heather and Leatherface together would have been like. 

Of course, all we can do is wonder because Texas Chainsaw 3D was yet another entry that was supposed to lead to more movies but didn't and was then subsequently ignored by the next film. I can't say that I feel it was all that much of a loss but at the same time, I do continue to sincerely enjoy this silly movie. Ten years since its release, Texas Chainsaw 3D still provides more chuckles than terror but I say that in the Chainsaw series there's room for many different flavors of BBQ.    

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