The original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is deservedly revered as not just a classic horror film or one of the great proto-slasher films, but as a testament to savage American art. From the opening text crawl and ominous voice over telling us that what we are about to experience is a true story, to the unrelentingly grim docu-like shooting style, to Marilyn Burns’ unending scream through the second half of the film, TCM still holds a power over viewers. Regardless of how sophisticated special effects became in the ensuing years, or how much gore we’ve been treated to, it holds a power to not lose its bite despite how desensitized we, the viewer, may have become after more than 40 years living on a horror diet. The film spawned seven sequels, none of which have been particularly successful from a critical or financial perspective, a few comic book series, a couple of video game appearances, and many toys. As a franchise, TCM doesn’t have much in common with Friday the 13th, Halloween, or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Sequels weren’t churned out almost yearly and Leatherface, though the only real constant character through the series, isn’t the same type of unstoppable killing machine, though obviously he’s a tough son of a bitch and survivor. Director Tobe Hooper didn’t give us a sequel until 1986 with Part II, a gore-soaked black comedy that featured Dennis Hopper as a rogue Texas Ranger hunting the Sawyer family across the state. The film was a bomb, somehow (and it honestly confuses me, because I adore Part II) and the its distributor, Canon, sold the rights to the studio Freddy Kreuger built: New Line Cinema.
To its credit, New Line was committed to making a hardcore horror film. At the time, the studio would have been getting ready to close the final chapter on their flagship franchise, A Nightmare on Elm Street, with 1991s Freddy’s Dead, but in addition to TCM, New Line would also be taking over Friday the 13th from Paramount following the box office bomb of 1989s Jason Takes Manhattan. In retrospect, that sounds like the making of a modern Universal Pictures monster-verse, but it took two decades to get Freddy and Jason on screen together and New Line was only able to hold on to Leatherface for one film. The results of that film would be a troubled and speedy shoot, tussles with the MPAA, and a director who wanted his name removed from the final product. The steady deluge of sequels based on a handful of seemingly durable characters left in the hands of a mixed bag of directors through the 1980s had started to show enough wear and tear to prove the slasher movie business model was perhaps not so well thought out by the ’90s.
Leatherface; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is a far different animal than its predecessors. While there’s still a streak of black comedy, the overriding tone is much grimmer thanks in large part to a gory and terrifying script by splatterpunk author David J Schow (The Crow, Critters 3, Black Leather Required, Negative Burn). Schow gave Leatherface a new family, keeping only the corpse of Grandpa. Leatherface has seemingly grown up a bit. We find a more confident, sure-footed Leatherface than we’ve previously seen, he seems less troubled about the doings of the family business and he’s certainly grown into the aggressive nature that would burst out in explosions in the previous movies. Part III sets a tone for the subsequent films in that family members become replaceable, and though Kim Henkel, the co-writer of the original TCM, returned for The Next Generation (1994) and tried to bring Leatherface back to something more recognizable from the first film, we see the other films (a remake, a remake prequel, and a sort of new part two to the original film) really taking the model of Part III’s Leatherface. He’s quieter, deadlier, and less conflicted about slaughtering people. This isn’t a negative for, but I feel it really hurt the remake and prequel significantly. Part III evolves the story, whereas the other two missed the point.
In Part III, we join an unmarried couple, Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) driving from Los Angeles to Florida. She’s not coming back and the relationship is strained. Their drive through Texas coincides with the local police’s discovery of a horrific body pit full of rotting, mutilated corpses. This scene ups the ante from the original film’s opening on a desecrated cemetery and foreshadows the more gruesome turns we have in store. Soon, after hitting an armadillo, the couple pulls over at a gas station where we meet a handsome drifter named Tex (Viggo Mortensen) and a creepy gas station attendant named Alfredo (Tom Everett), who could be an appropriately aged hitchhiker from the first film, down to the Polaroid camera capturing his future dinner. Tex is looking for a ride and trying to help the couple out with a shortcut on a new road that isn’t even on their map. When Tex catches Alfredo peaking on Michelle while she’s in the bathroom things get crazy, with Alfredo grabbing a shotgun, shooting out the couple’s back window, and apparently killing Tex. Michelle and Ryan speed away, taking Tex’s route, while Alfredo cackles to himself about the trap being sprung.
As the sun sets, the garage door opens, and a monster truck covered in animal hides pulls out and chases Michelle and Ryan into the desert night. They’re able to lose the truck, but get a flat tire. After several tense moments of trying to get it changed, Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff) appears out of the dark and attacks them. They narrowly escape, only to get into an accident with another vehicle being driven by a survivalist named Benny (Ken Foree). Benny tries to help the couple, they warn him of the crazy people chasing them, but he’s doubtful of their claims and leaves them on a hillside while he goes for help. Back on the road he’s surprised by a tow truck driver that’s already on the scene. He has a hook hand and we quickly begin to be wary of him, as does Benny. The tow truck driver is named Tinker (Joe Unger), and it doesn’t take long for us to learn his being there is no accident.
Following another Leatherface attack in the woods, Benny narrowly escapes, but loses Michelle and Ryan, who get separated from each other. Michelle wanders through the woods and comes across a remote house, and we all know who lives there. The house initially seems far more normal than the previous abodes of the Sawyer clan. It’s not until Michelle follows a young girl upstairs that we find a room of skeletal remains, and the little girl is a nasty little chip off the old block, stabbing Michelle in the leg. Next, she’s caught by Tex, who was part of the trap the whole time. Tinker arrives with an unconscious Ryan, and they’re just waiting for Leatherface to arrive with Benny. We see Grandpa’s mummified corpse in the kitchen, while Michelle is being tied to a chair with nails driven through her hands. And then we meet the matriarch of the family; Mama (Miriam Byrd-Nethery).
Except for Alfredo being a near perfect stand-in for The Hitchhiker, this version of the family is a stark contrast to the Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow) led clan. In the first two films, the family is essentially the same, except The Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) is missing and has been replaced with Chop Top (Bill Moseley). The quartet of men is loud, wild, unhinged. Emotions are turned way up bordering on cartoonish — or at least oafish. In the original film they seem almost completely detached from the world. In Part II, they’ve learned how to make their family secret (eating folks) into a little family business (turning folks into a beloved, award-winning chilli). The family unit of Leatherface, Mama, Tinker, Tex, Alfredo, and the little girl are far more reserved, more tactical, and perhaps even a little more sophisticated. Is it the presence of a woman that helps subdue Leatherface and the boys? Maybe her love and care gave him the confidence he clearly lacked in the first two films, under the scornful eye of an emotionally abusive father?
Something else has changed, though, as it’s revealed that Ryan will provide more than enough meat and there will be no need to kill Michelle right away. They tell Leatherface he’ll get to have some fun with her for a while and then comes the worst part. Mama tells Michelle that Leatherface makes the prettiest babies and there are hints that the little girl may be his daughter from some previous victim. Leatherface eyes Michelle calmly at this news. This is a far cry from the Leatherface we saw in Part II, as sexually confused as frustrated. Stretch (Caroline Williams) had tricked him into believing he had sexually satisfied her with his chainsaw and he let her live, clearly smitten with her. Later, when he discovers that she has followed him and Chop Top back to their hideout, he tries to make her his girlfriend, while at the same time treating her like a stray pet he’s trying to sneak into the house. To me, this gives Leatherface a whole new level of danger and makes this is the most disturbing part of the film. Tex and Tinker are far more capable and level-headed than their previous counterparts. Tinker, true to his name, is an inventor of sorts and Tex is as handsome and charming as he is cruelly violent. The pair are never shrill or out of control. They go about the business of murder as two men getting ready to harvest a garden or slaughter a pig. While they wait for Leatherface to appear with Benny, Tinker brings out a massive, shiny, chrome-plated chainsaw; a gift to their brother. Earlier, we’d already seen Leatherface with a walkman in his work shed and now this extravagant gift might be some insight into Leatherface’s evolution and maturity. This new family dynamic uses positive re-enforcement to bring the stunted man-child into his own.
There’s not much to Michelle and Ryan, at first. It’s not until Benny tracks them back to the house and starts shooting up the place, giving Michelle a chance to escape (watching her pull her hands free from the nails is brutally awesome). Once Michelle is on her feet, she becomes a storm of rage, taunting Leatherface to chase her into the woods. With a bloody face and wild eyes, she screams at him, “You sick…fucker!” She’s bordering on insanity herself, but she’s not backing down and she’s more than ready to fight. Kate Hodge shines at this point — she seriously becomes exciting to watch, not to say there was anything wrong with her performance overall, but at this point she’s in the zone. There’s a tense moment in the chase where she becomes snared in one of the family’s booby traps as Leatherface closes in. She’s rescued by Benny who seemingly gets taken out by Leatherface, who then quickly returns his attention to Michelle and gets his head smashed in for his trouble with a big rock.
I think it’s fair to say Leatherface is far better than it deserves to be. Director Jeff Burr was brought on after Peter Jackson passed on the project and he had an incredibly tight shooting schedule (although I don’t think it was nearly as tight as Hooper had on the previous instalment). In addition, Schow’s script was gory and the film had to be submitted to the MPAA 11 times to avoid an X rating (after Leatherface, the NC-17 rating was invented as a more appropriate rating). The result was a nearly bloodless Chainsaw film with none of the gore Part II had. While the R rating keeps the story intact, it’s easy to feel cheated knowing that a chunk of the film wound up on the cutting room floor. Burr was unhappy with the finished product and wanted his name removed from the film, but it was too late as the prints were already produced. Though it made a pretty decent profit, it’s the third lowest rated film in the series, beating out The Next Generation and Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013).
North Star Comics, who published the original few issues of David Quinn and Tim Vigil’s Faust: Love of The Damned, as well as work from James O’Barr (The Crow) and Kelley Jones (Batman), published a three-issue adaptation of the film based on Schow’s uncut script. An unrated DVD is out there, but Warner Bros. Archives just announced a Blu-Ray release and it will be uncut! Hopefully with this latest release the film will finally get its due. As of now, with the release of yet another prequel also titled Leatherface, the franchise is eight films strong. Texas Chainsaw Massacre III may well be the last great Leatherface film and for the fans and critics who have dogged on it for all these years, I hope 2018 is a year of rediscovery for this diamond in the rough.