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Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
In 1974, Tobe Hooper created what would prove to be one of the most memorable and enduring horror films of the late 20th century: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Like so many memorable and enduring horror films, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre spawned a franchise of sequels, most of them worse than the one preceding it. The worst of the bunch, however, has got to be Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. A sad, anemic parody of the original film, TCM:TNG is an awe-inspiring confluence of bad dialog, absurd storytelling and epileptic pacing that is almost painful to watch. But, like any good train wreck, it's hard to look away.
It's difficult to describe the plot of TCM:TNG because, really, there isn't one. The gist of the story is that four teenagers drive into the woods on prom night, as a result of circumstances that don't bear repeating, and then inexplicably get into a broadside collision with another car that just happened to be speeding down the deserted dirt road. Why any of these people are in the woods, I really couldn't tell you, but there they are and now they're stranded. So, of course, our four young protagonists go looking for help and instead encounter a psychopathic family living in backwoods Texas, known as the Slaughters, who like to torture and kill people. Most of the film focuses on Jenny (Renee Zellweger), who is playing our stereotypical Final Girl, as she struggles to survive and escape from the sadistic rednecks. Oh, and there are aliens. But we'll get to that later.
If the story sounds familiar, it should. It closely mirrors Hooper's original film in plot design. In fact, in places, it mirrors the original so closely that the only conclusion I can draw is that writer Kim Henkel (who worked on the original TCSM) had run out of new ideas and decided to start back at the beginning. Heather (the other female protagonist, played by Lisa Newmyer) ends up on the meat hook just like Pam, Jenny scrambles across and escapes off the roof, just like Sally Hardesty did in TCSM, and, at the end of the film, Leatherface waves his chainsaw above his head in frustration as Sally finally escapes his grasp. These are obviously meant to inspire a sense of nostalgia, and in a sense they do; they make the viewer wish they were watching the original 1974 film, instead of this inane drivel. Unfortunately, that's all these little contrived touches manage to accomplish. And it doesn't get any better from there.
Despite the frequent callback to Hooper's film, TCM:TNG deviates in some pretty significant and ridiculous ways, none of them for the better. First, the only familiar face in the "Slaughter" family (subtle, no?) is Leatherface. And, while Leatherface is his usual cross-dressing, worrisome and easily excitable self, the rest of the family is brand new. We have the half-cyborg half-megalomaniac Vilmer Slaughter (Matthew McConaughey), his narcissist girlfriend Darla (Tonie Perensky), and W.E. Slaughter (Joe Stevens), who likes to quote historical figures and wave his gun around. If you think this family sounds comical, you'd be right. It is impossible to take them, or the horror they are trying to inflict, seriously. Each of them is nothing more than a caricature, never once doing anything surprising or even really interesting. It's as if the writers drew up a list of attributes a serial killer family should have, and then assigned each attribute to an individual character. The result is abrasive and predictable. I suppose, it's possible, that these stereotypes are meant to be comedic, their absolute ridiculousness meant to add levity to the film. Unfortunately, they aren't funny either.
This is compounded by the fact that, about an hour into the film, a Man in Black shows up. Yeah. You heard me. A Man in Black. Now, it's hard to figure out exactly what this guy is supposed to be here for, but he stops Vilmer mid-temper tantrum and reminds him that is only here "to show these people the meaning of horror". The character is credited as Rothman, but no information is given about who he is, how he got here, or what power he holds over Vilmer. He reappears once more, at the very end of the film. He's riding in the car Jenny is trying to use to make her "escape." Without any information about where or how he keeps appearing, or how he is controlling Vilmer, or why he's dressed in all black, I am forced to draw the only conclusion I can: Rothman is an alien, and the Slaughters are his alien minions. It's probably inaccurate, but it's the best I've got and probably more interesting than anything anyone else can come up anyway. Near as I can tell, the entire thing is a really bad joke, and someone forgot to deliver the punchline.
Finally, there is the problem of Jenny, our Final Girl. I have no problem with the idea of the Final Girl. I mean, someone has to survive the movie, right? But TCM:TNG takes it way too literally. The early film is littered with innuendoes about Jenny's virginity, about how she hides her amazing body to avoid unwanted advances, and how she is a bastion of virtue in a family of loose morals. I mean, they could have just given her a neon sign that said "VIRGIN"; it might have been simpler. However, while the film hits on what is recognized as one of the more common attributes of the Final Girl - her sexual unavailability - it ignores everything else that makes the Final Girl work as a film trope. Our heroine is not courageous or intelligent, nor does she grow during or as a result of her terrifying experiences. What is so unfortunate about Jenny's "Final Girl-ness" is that it becomes the entirety of her character. There is nothing else beyond her drive to escape, no character depth for the audience to care about. In fact, her constant whining just makes you wish she'd hurry up and die already. Of course, being the Final Girl, she never does.
In fact, there is only one positive thing I can say about TCM:TNG: Matthew McConaughey is a brilliant actor, and he didn't even have to take off his shirt. While the concept of Vilmer, a sociopathic wrecker with a mechanical leg, is laughable, McConaughey's performance is anything but. He doesn't hold back, playing Vilmer with an almost gleeful and reckless abandon. Vilmer is scary, even though he shouldn't be, because the joy McConaughey brings to the screen in connection with torture and murder is so believable. Even though the acts themselves aren't scary, Vilmer's pleasure in doing them is. McConaughey steals every scene he's in. While I would normally say that an actor should know when to fade to the background, Vilmer is the only thing this movie has going for it. So, in this one case, good on McConaughey. He's a welcome distraction from an otherwise abominable film.
I really wish I had more good to say about Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Unfortunately, there isn't any more good to be found in the film. The plot, the characters, the recall to the original film - it's all terrible. Nothing works well, nothing can be taken seriously, and with the exception of one performance, absolutely nothing in the film is even remotely enjoyable. If given the chance to watch this film, run away. Don't walk, run.