As far as horror movie franchises go, there are few as unlikely as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The original film, directed by Tobe Hooper and assembled using a mostly unqualified team of film school misfits from the University of Texas, was an unlikely smash, funded partially by a mafia-owned distribution company and seen as a drive-in oddity. Of course, that film turned into a critical darling and cult movie sensation, becoming one of the most successful independent features of all time (and prestigious to boot — a print of the film resides in New York’s Museum of Modern Art).
More than a decade after the first flick was released, a sequel was commissioned, in part to make director Hooper some money after most of his profit participation was marginalized by the shady financial structuring of the first movie. That film, tonally incompatible with the first, began a third movie, this time housed at New Line Cinema, who was consolidating horror franchises like “Friday the 13th” to sit alongside its own “Nightmare on Elm Street.” After a bizarre fourth film directed by the original film’s co-writer Kim Henkel (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation”), and a pair of successful remakes back at New Line, we get this week’s “Texas Chainsaw 3D.”
This time the property sees the killer cannibal Leatherface moving, for the first time, into the stereoscopic third dimension. To commemorate this event, we decided to run down the five best kills from the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise. As far as lists go, it’s pretty buzzy.
WARNING: Some of the videos in the slideshow are very graphic and very NSFW. Parental discretion is advised.
Kirk (William Vail) in ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974)
The original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (yes, in the original chainsaw is split into two words) remains an undeniable classic — a brutally brilliant piece of homespun American folk art and one of the greatest horror movies of all time. But re-watching the film, it’s shocking to see how little on-screen violence is actually in the movie (in one of the many subsequent documentaries about the making of the movie, director Tobe Hooper said he was originally aiming for a PG rating). The film remains disturbing due to its relentless, almost overwhelmingly gloomy tone and it’s feeling of dangerous unpredictability, enabled by an amateur cast and crew and a narrative partially inspired by grisly real-life crimes. If there’s one murder that remains the most iconic it’s that of Kirk (William Vail), a good-looking young hippie who runs afoul of Leatherface’s murderous, cannibalistic clan. Kirk is looking for some gas for his Volkswagen van (of course) and, walking calmly through the house, is greeted by Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who hits him over the head with a mallet, drags his body into a small room and slams a thick metal door shut. Its quickness (and the sound of that door crashing to a close) is what makes it so unforgettable.
Yuppie #1 (Barry Kinyon) in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2′ (1986)
After slaughtering a bunch of hippies in the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” Leatherface (this time played by Bill Johnson) chose to dispatch a couple of Reagan-era yuppies. The horror sequel, written by “Paris, Texas” scribe L.M. Kit Carson and directed once again by Hooper, is an altogether different beast, with the gritty, nightmarish realism of the first film replaced by high camp stylization and an emphasis on comedy rather than horror. In this opening sequence a pair of horndog yuppies driving a Mercedes convertible, decked out in pastel Polo shirts, run afoul of Leatherface, who quickly kills both of them. The better kill involves the driver of the sporty Mercedes — Leatherface lops off the top of his head and we get to watch fountains of blood erupting from the wound (the movie was released unrated). Like everything else in this brilliant sequel, it elicits an uncomfortable mixture of laughs and screams.
Ryan (William Butler) in ‘Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III’
The second sequel to the original classic went through a development process as tortured as any one of Leatherface’s victims, which concluded with a prolonged battle with the MPAA over the film’s rating that pushed it from its original November release date to the movie graveyard of January (where, not coincidentally, this new 3D film will be unleashed). Most of the “kills” barely register since they have either been edited to ribbons (like Toni Hudson’s vivisection against the tree trunk) or changed during post-production (where Ken Foree, originally dead, is miraculously revived). The best death, even in its compromised form, is probably Ryan (William Butler), an anonymously agreeable boyfriend who is abducted by Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff this time) and a new family of freakish weirdos (including a then-unknown Viggo Mortensen). For one, it includes a great gag where the young girl member of the family (Jennifer Banko) protests the murder because she’s the one who wants to do it (she pulls a lever and a big hammer swings down and kills Ryan); the other reason this death resonates (somewhat) is because its final grisly tableau resembles one of the actual crime scene photos from the farmhouse of Ed Gein, the infamous serial killer responsible for not only inspiring Leatherface but also Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in “Psycho.”
Hitchhiker (Lauren German) in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (2003)
When Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes production shingle partnered with New Line Cinema, it seemed dicey. While utilizing real Texas locations , along with the original film’s cinematographer Daniel Pearl and narrator John Laroquette, much of 2003’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is far glitzier and more polished than the raw-knuckle thrills provided by the original. For instance, the screwy hitchhiker in the original film is replaced by a much more beautiful model (played by “Hostel, Part II” actress Lauren German). It’s kind of a stupid decision but it makes for the single coolest shot in the movie — after the hitchhiker commits suicide (she’s squirreled a small handgun away inside her foreign parts), the camera pulls back through the Volkswagen van, into the hole in the girl’s head and out through the back of the van. The shot signaled that this was going to be a very different “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Eric (Matt Bomer) in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning’ (2006)
After the success of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake, Michael Bay and New Line Cinema decided to make a prequel, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” (its ungainly title is a weird reference to the opening crawl of “Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III”). This time, they would focus on the murderous, cannibalistic family and how Leatherface became the infamous mass murderer he is today. It was an iffy proposition for sure, but “The Beginning” manages to be a better film than the remake in a lot of ways, with a heavier emphasis on humor, a far more violent sensibility and a sharper political edge (it takes place during Vietnam and was released at the height of the Iraq War). It also reunited splatter-punk author David J. Schow with the franchise (he wrote the initial draft of “Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III”). The best kill here belongs to Eric (a young Matt Bomer), who Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) stabs with the chainsaw, while his girlfriend (Jordana Brewster) cowers underneath his body. The iconic moment comes after Eric is dead, though, as Leatherface removes his face and makes his first mask from it. Yes, it really was the beginning of the end. (You can see part of the kill in a video <a href=”http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2eafz_the-texas-chainsaw-massacre-the-beg_shortfilms#.UOW-35PjmG8″>over on Dailymotion</a>.)