Once the mildly campy opening narration is out of the way, Kim Henkel’s much-maligned 1995 effort Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation opens on an extreme close-up of it’s heroine, Jenny (Renée Zellweger), applying cherry red lipstick. The waxy cosmetic appears thick and lurid – suggestive of the sickly experience we’re about to encounter – but it doubles as Jenny’s own mask, as she puts on the persona of someone she isn’t. Someone who considers themselves sexy. Someone who gives off an aura of confidence. Someone that she isn’t… but could become.
While out on the street you wouldn’t know it, Netflix’s recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre has sparked more debate between online horror fans and Film Twitter aficionados than any release in recent memory; proof if any were needed that we are in the midst of a franchise renaissance following the box office successes of new Halloween and Scream movies. And while the quality (or lack thereof) of this new sequel will rattle on, it reminded me that a number of the prior sequels and remakes remain unloved, vilified or otherwise dismissed.
Chief among these is the subject of this reappraisal, usually dumped near the bottom of the pile when TCM movies are ranked, and it’s not difficult to see why… but it’s not an opinion I share. Henkel co-created this series with Tobe Hooper, and his bug-eyed offering at the very least understands the sense of hysteria that the first two movies provided, while his new additions baffle and overshadow those who believe the series begins and ends with the iconic Leatherface.
There’s a key moment in Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which I think is key to understanding at least one of the choices here. It occurs some way into the picture once Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) has dispatched a couple of the movie’s wayward teens. He sits by the window in the security of his home, and we sense his own fear and terror. In this scene he briefly appropriates the pathos of Frankenstein’s monster; a tormented figure beset by outsiders (at least, in his mind).
This is a vulnerability not found in your other giants of the slasher’s golden era. No such fragility for Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. It is there, too, in Hooper’s own 1986 follow-up, which retools his original tabernacle of terror into something approaching a comedy. Evidencing a complicated sexual identity, Leatherface is also sympathetic to the subject of his terror.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation takes this to an extreme. More explicitly burdened by a crisis of gender dysmorphia, this film’s Leatherface (Robert Jacks) is a more pitiable and pathetic figure. Granted, at the time of it’s creation this element of trans anxiety was likely played for cheap gawks. Yet the years have been kind to it, and I’d wager modern audiences would be far more sympathetic to the sense of tragedy in Jacks’ version of the franchise’s chainsaw-wielding maniac.
Indeed, he is comparable to the film’s final girl Jenny. Both are struggling with their sense of confidence and identity. Both apply masks to manifest a stronger sense of self than the one they’re presently subject to. For Leatherface it’s the stretched skin of another human; for Jenny it’s that aforementioned lipstick and the prom-dress glamour in which she is adorned for the film’s duration. Both characters are confronted by an even bolder presence; Matthew McConaughey’s intensely played Vilmer.
Like Zellweger, McConaughey’s A-list ubiquity was still some years away. At the time TNG was made, he was a relatively little-known presence, perhaps most recognisable for his scene-stealing supporting work in Dazed and Confused. He takes to Vilmer with the kind of over-the-top gusto usually reserved for Nicolas Cage in hog-wild mode. McConaughey has evidenced elements of this intensity since – there are flashes of it in Killer Joe, and in the barking-mad third act of Serenity – but Vilmer is his chaotic apex; a charismatic, sexually threatening and sadistic invention.
Harassing the film’s fearful teens from the vantage of a pick-up truck daubed with words like “illuminati”, Vilmer is a psychotic extrapolation of the VHS generation. Obsessed with conspiracy theories and sporting a robotic leg-brace that he controls via a collection of TV remotes, he’s a one-man video nasty. There’s a touch of the Cronenbergian about his disability, and one wonders whether he was literally birthed out of a VCR, emerging like Sadako in the Ring from a degraded ’80s slasher movie. Perhaps he also prefigures the young men of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, who weaponise remote controls to rewind time itself?
McConaughey’s performance ensures that he eclipses everyone else in the movie. His interest in Jenny is interesting, however. Rather than dispatching her with glee, his torments amount to an exceedingly warped kind of romance. It is often as if he is trying to coax a more assertive person out of her jailed sense of insecurity. Vilmer seems to sense some potential in her. Granted, he uses a barrage of physical and emotional abuse in his efforts to help Jenny evolve, but underneath the incredible toxicity of Vilmer’s methodology is a kind of overture. He finds her special. Against all odds one might read TNG as the slasher movie equivalent of a romantic comedy, albeit one imagined by Patrick Bateman.
Vilmer’s paranoia (very mid-90s; The X-Files was at the height of its cultural zeitgeist, for example) turns out to be madly justified. In another of the film’s bold moves that most viewers seem to object to, Henkel brings the government directly into the madness. A suit named Mr. Rothman (James Gale) shows up while the family are terrorising Jenny, giving the distinct impression that this particular Texan chainsaw massacre has federal backing (X-Files creator Chris Carter would later fold the idea of powerful administrations working in tandem with serial killers into his other notable TV show Millennium – whether this was inspired by TNG? Who knows.).
The better instalments in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series have reflected the political turmoil of their times (Hooper’s original being the most overt). Is it really a stretch to suggest that TNG keeps up this tradition, placing it within that ‘superior’ bracket? By placing these cannibalistic killers in cahoots with the government, Henkel equates them. If society’s most backward reprobates are capable of monstrous deeds, what can we expect from those in a position of absolute power? Indeed, how are such impulses inspired? TNG suggests that trickledown economics don’t work… but trickledown psychosis might…
Also of intrigue is Tonie Perensky’s Darla. The series has toyed previously with how such monsters hide in plain sight (Dreyton Sawyer’s relative commercial success in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 for instance), but Darla pushes further in this direction. With her power suit and customer-facing offices, she presents a façade of ‘normality’; a pinch-point at which sickness meets suburbia. While not exactly subtle, she represents the threat of what lurks behind picket fences, while also acting as a totem for patriarchal America’s timeless fear of the ‘girl boss’. Perensky is as fearless as McConaughey, for the record, she just tends to get overshadowed (like everyone else).
I know. This is a lot of overthinking on a movie that wears its trashy excesses as a badge of honor. I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation for its simpler, gaudy slasher impulses. I love it’s goofiness. It’s crudeness. It’s obnoxious characters. And it’s scattered thrills (the rooftop sequence has a bit of Halloween IV about it). These immediate surface trappings make the whole a giddy indulgence. But I’m also suggesting that, underneath it’s garishness, there might be more here than meets the eye.
Maybe the film itself wears a mask.