Written by: Kim Henkel (screenplay), Tobe Hooper (characters)
Directed by: Kim Henkel
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey and Robert Jacks
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Family values have gone straight to hell.”
I’ve waxed nostalgically about this before, but it bears repeating here: there was once a time (before all of us had the benefit of the internet) when movies would arrive unannounced to rental store shelves. In retrospect, I’m sure The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation appeared in multiple issues of Fango (probably under its original title, Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but imagine my surprise when I walked in a local store to discover that there was a brand new Leatherface movie out there. For a brief moment in time, The Next Generation held some promise.
The feeling was short-lived, of course, as that initial excitement quickly dissipated into bewilderment before giving way to the various phases of grief (I was particularly hung up on denial for a long time—how could a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie end up this bad?). Fifteen years later, I’ve arrived at the “acceptance” stage; they say time heals all wounds, and I guess that applies to chainsaw-sized gashes aimed right at the gut.
After a standard-issue opening narration (that shrugs off the previous two films) that indicates five years have passed in silence, we meet our latest pack of fresh meat: Jenny (Renee Zellweger) and her friends, who are set to go to their high school prom. Jenny’s friend (Lisa Marie Newmyer) catches her dopey boyfriend (Tyler Shea Cone) tonguing with another girl, so they all ditch the scene and squabble about it until they encounter a car accident. All of this is just a useless precursor to what should be the good stuff, as the group eventually comes into contact with the deranged, backwoods Sawyer clan, this time headed up by loose cannon Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey), who also doubles as a tow truck driver.
Of course, there’s not much that qualifies as “the good stuff” in The Next Generation; like the entry before it, this one functions as sort of a quasi-reboot or remake, only in this case the approach was kind of coming from the height of arrogance since original co-writer Kim Henkel was out to make what he considered to be a “true” follow-up to Hooper’s masterpiece. That’s one of the many baffling aspects about this film; had it been made by a group of guys who managed to snake the franchise rights and produce a cheap cash-in, it’d be easier to swallow as a wholly misguided dud. Instead, Henkel should have known better since one would assume he deserves at least a little credit for how the first one turned out. The Next Generation provides plenty of evidence to the contrary, though, since it leaves one wondering if he ever even bothered to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, much less write it.
It’d be easy to say that Henkel doesn’t get what made that film great, but I’m not so sure he even gets what makes most movies competent. His film fails at the script level, where he exhibits an ignorance for structure and tone. Whereas the original film masterfully straddled the line between mystery, suspense, and black humor by keenly escalating, The Next Generation tries to sprint out of the gate and promptly trips a few meters down the track. When Vilmer reveals himself to be a psycho by almost immediately breaking a victim’s neck (thus giving up the ghost early on), the movie really has nowhere to go until Henkel resorts to the infamously gonzo subplots that have made the film memorable despite itself. No longer content to let a crazy group of cannibals be a crazy group of cannibals, Henkel went and turned the Sawyer clan into agents for some ancient Illuminati that may or may not be space aliens in what is truly the most off-the-wall reveal in any of the major horror franchises. Such wackiness might be commendable if it were accompanied by any true thoughtfulness, but it just stands as a random, mystifying element that feels like a joke nobody could ever get.
Speaking of jokes, Henkel hopelessly attempts to navigate the treacherous black humor of the original by highlighting the absurdity early and often. Hooper attempted the same thing to various success in the first sequel, but Henkel largely fails since the film is more unpleasant than funny. If the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is akin to a kooky family gathering that’s full of people you can tolerate, then The Next Generation is a full-on family reunion where the disavowed and disowned members of the clan pop out of the woodwork to embarrass everyone. All of the characters (including most of the kids) are either insufferable or non-entities, and most of the film amounts to everyone bitching at each other for interminable stretches. By the end of the movie, it feels like Henkel has wielded dialogue much like Leatherface does his sledgehammer, as he sufficiently pummels your brain into sludge with inane, insipid sequences that smack of someone trying way too hard to replicate the deranged feel of the original film.
Despite the final product, I do think it’s apt to say Henkel did try pretty hard; it just turns out that he was in no position to make a definitive Texas Chainsaw movie since it looks like he should have never quit his day job as a screenwriter (though you can argue he was maybe a two hit wonder in that arena too, so the poor guy has been desperately clinging to this TCM glory all this time). Some things about the film actually work—it’s remarkably tolerable for the first fifteen minutes or so, where Henkel drops you into the legit Texas backwoods, shrouded by pines and fog. Even though it results in the Sawyer abode being inexplicably stuck in the middle of the woods, it’s about as atmospheric as any other low-rent 80s-style slasher. Unfortunately, it quickly become as inept as most of those films as well. To his credit, McConaughey does throw himself all the way into the Vilmer role, and, like Viggo Mortensen before him, he’s got a sort of rugged charm that makes him more endearing than he should be considering he’s a homicidal maniac walking around with a semi-robotic leg. Zellweger is suitably fine as a cute Texas wallflower, but it’s pretty easy to see why she especially wanted this movie to be shelved forever since she spends most of the movie being salaciously licked and crept upon when she isn’t enduring the various tortures of the Sawyer clan.
Their most famous member, Leatherface, is sadly one of the nonentities here, as he’s been reduced to a parody of his former glory. Much has been made about the enhanced nature of his feminine side in this one, but his not-so-latent transvestitism has been there since the original. More disconcerting is how outright laughable he is in this one; instead of being a legitimately frightening manchild wielding a huge chainsaw, he’s just a pathetic lump wearing a cheap-looking costume. It takes a lot to screw up Leatherface in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, but realizing this reveals just how thoroughly screwed this endeavor was. The film was indeed shelved for years; shot in 1994, it didn’t see release until 1997, at which point it was probably met with plenty of confusion. Thankfully, the franchise rights didn’t stick with Henke l for long, as Platinum Dunes eventually got their hands on them and righted the ship however briefly.
These days, The Next Generation just feels like that drunk, somewhat lovable uncle that stumbles by every now and then; by no means can it even be argued that it isn’t one of the worst horror sequels ever (and, by proxy, easily the worst of this particular series), but it somehow feels like such a harmless affront. Maybe it’s just so stupid that picking on it feels a little too easy, so you just smile and nod as it rambles, whines, and squeals. As such, it is unquestionably best in its truncated 84 minute form; this was the cut initially released to home video, and it excises a lot of fluff from a movie that’s full of it. If you absolutely must face the full assault, you’ll have to resort to Lionsgate’s Canadian DVD release, which presents the 93 minute uncut version with a passable full-frame transfer (the cut U.S. release is anamorphic widescreen). One of the truly horrific franchise misfires of all-time, The Next Generation has to be seen to be believed; I’d like to say that it lives up (down?) to its infamy, but that still doesn’t quite capture the breadth of its inanity. For better or worse, it’s everything you’ve ever heard and probably a little more. Rent it!
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