I was surprised to be reminded that Tobe Hooper, after something of a mid-career trainwreck (the trouble with Poltergeist, and then there was Lifeforce. What the fuck was that all about?), had returned in 1986 to helm the sequel to his own seminal Texas Chain Saw Massacre - and that Dennis Hopper, in his annus mirabulus, had turned in another button-down psycho performance, unappreciated at the time, that should at least be afforded a quasi-serious re-examination. What I was most surprised to find, however, is a setpiece early on with Leatherface (Bill Johnson this time. Like Gidget, there was different actor playing “Leather” each time) menacing a pair of yuppie scum from the back of a speeding pick-up (a corpse strapped to his chest as literal body armor) that is just unspeakably cool. (Augmented of course, thanks Ian, by the freaking insane use of Oingo Boingo on the soundtrack.)
The decision, derided at the time, of Hooper’s to follow his intensely serious original with a freaked-out sideshow, is easier to appreciate now, I think, with the revisionist praise heaped upon Raimi’s Evil Dead pictures, Jackson’s own Dead films (Dead Alive, Brain Dead), as well as the ‘90s cycle of post-modern slashers – then it was in the mid-eighties when horror was, by and large, serious about its exploitation. Not to say that TCM 2 isn’t gory – it’s legendarily gory with effects work by Tom Savini that has as its highlight a skinned hillbilly, animate enough to mutter “ah, shit” before shuffling off to his great reward – just to say that the mixture of copious amounts of gore with a lot of meta-irony was of a different coin then.
I sense a lot of resignation and mordant self-deprecation in TCM 2 in Hoopers reduction of what had already become a legendary monster in the horror pantheon to a chili magnate and a hyper-sexualized, but impotent, man-child. The thrusting of hips accompanying the chainsaw’s growls the first hint – but the best when he dunks his “member” in a barrel of ice, is unable to start it again against a pretty girl’s thigh, before being “re-invigorated” by her reassurances. Yeah, there’s a tentative love story in TCM 2, and there’s also a chainsaw duel between Hopper’s psycho Texas Ranger and Leatherface himself atop that infamous banquet table.
The key to the series can be found in the quality of the bogey’s skin mask; of how as the series progresses, the excellence of craftsmanship afforded to Leatherface’s other trademark affectation works in conspicuous inverse proportion to the quality of the film. In the original TCM, Leatherface’s mask is a skin bag with eyeholes and hair. By the second film, the mask fits pretty well and sports motley coloration, and by the third, it’s form-fitted and sleek. By the time of its third sequel, Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though, the mask is a hood, including chest, that appears to have been removed without any kind of trauma from what must have been a humongous woman. It has the effect of making this demon of the id, utterly castrated by this point, into something like an unflattering caricature of a squealing, quailing transvestite.
Imagine Jason Vorhees upgrading his hockey mask, film by film, until he’s sporting one of those space-age football-helmet-y things that they wear in the crease nowadays. Now make him a pansy. Though the remake of TCM (a remake that I liked) lacks a lot of the raw brutality and nihilism of the original, it at least doesn’t make Leatherface pathetic and, more, returns his “look” to that of what a giant “developmentally arrested” cannibal with an old Singer could probably fashion out of the pelts of his victims.
Leatherface: TCM 3 (1990) is the one with Viggo Mortensen as a cannibal named “Tex”. It’s also the one with the evil little girl in the room full of children’s bones who drops a sledgehammer on one of our yuppie scum victims – the one where the scream queen is the inflection-less Kate Hodge who not only looks like Nightmare on Elm Street scream queen Heather Langenkamp, but, lamentably, acts like her, too. A legendarily troubled production, director Jeff Burr (not a good director already and fresh off the horrible Stepfather II), already not a good director, was forced to fatally trim the film down for an “R” rating (this in the middle of a “squeamish,” reactionary period in American horror) and to resurrect a hero (Ken Foree) for a “happy” ending who had clearly had this head rendered in twain by a giant, chrome chainsaw.
If not for Mortensen (a precurser to his "Joey" persona in A History of Violence) and that brief look into an evil little girl’s evil little room, TCM 3 would be a complete disaster instead of the near-complete disaster that it is. Leatherface is infantilized instead of enfant terrible, and watching the uncut version available on the DVD serves mostly to underscore just how useless and out-of-touch the MPAA has always been. There’s hardly any gore in this thing at all. Unlike Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM 4), which showcases standout performances by Matthew McConaughey as a bionic hillbilly and Renee Zellweger (and what is her superpower but that ineffable aura of "please don't hit me"?) in what might still be her best, most vulnerable performance as the requisite last-girl standing.
The first half hour is just fantastic, feeling every bit a member of the Prom Night cycle, as a quartet of promsters (including Zellweger’s geeky Jenny) get lost in the woods, accosted by psycho-tow truck driver Vilmer (McConaughey), and trapped in the Sawyer clan’s farmhouse. But then, Leatherface (Robert Jacks), finds himself easily cowed with a small prod and a harsh word, the family doesn’t appear to be cannibalistic anymore, and the whole thing is imagined as some kind of government conspiracy. Co-writer on the original, Kim Henkel, takes the blame for this bathetic turgid-piece which, while featuring some humor now and again and, I mean it, a tremendous turn by Zellweger, is submarined without hope of salvation by a final ten minute stretch so ridiculous and self-indulgent that you can feel the universe slowly turning itself inside-out.
What’s fascinating is that all four original TCM pictures sport virtuoso performances. Gunnar Hansen in the original, then Hopper, Mortensen, and Zellweger/McConaughey (and someone, not me, should do an essay on the role of technology in these pictures – especially the bionic legs of Leatherface in pt. 3 and Vilmer in pt. 4 – something going on there…). Each of the sequels (well, maybe not the third), too, has at least a scene worth a Netflix rental. In the case of two, a genuinely good film, and four – more than one scene.
TCM 2 - ***/****
TCM 3 - 1/2*/****
TCM 4 - *1/2/****
In not an entirely unrelated topic, the Hollywood Foreign Press gave out their bally-hooed Oscar bellweathers last night. The HFP, by the way, is fiftyish Danish women who write for the exact equivalent of those Penny Savers that you pick up for free at the grocery store. We're not talking here about the critics for the London Times or Cahiers du Cinema - we're talking about a fan-based group that created themselves so that celebrities would come to a party they threw to collect a prize that they conjured and, somehow, made prestigious. It's fan/junket/star symbiosis: a parasitic relationship that seems to have taken.
That in mind, the parade of winners exactly identifies the kind of mediocrity favored by the almost-6,000 member Academy: glossy, safe, political choices. The preponderance of "alternative lifestyle" wins suggests to me not the dawning of a new age of tolerance, but the idea that gay is the new favored disability. Was it someone in this blog that said that it's the new "retarded"? Whoever it was: bravo. I think you're right dead on the mark.
"I like queers; I paid cash-money to see Brokeback Mountain."
They should've passed out little stickers in the lobby like they do at the blood banks.
BEST PICTURE: DRAMA
BEST PICTURE: NOT-DRAMA
Walk the Line (indeed un-dramatic)
BEST ACTOR: DRAMA
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote
BEST ACTRESS: DRAMA
Felicity Huffman - Transamerica
BEST ACTOR: NOT-DRAMA
Joaquin Phoenix - Walk the Line
BEST ACTRESS: NOT-DRAMA
Resse Witherspoon - Walk the Line
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
George Clooney - Syriana
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Rachel Weisz - Constant Gardener
Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain
"A Love That Will Never Grow Old" - Brokeback Mountain
Memoirs of a Geisha
Also - Sandra Oh, the angriest woman on the planet, won an award. 'nuff said.
Hot off the Presses (January 19, 2006):
Here's the review of Malick's uncut The New World - haven't seen the new one, 16min shorter, I've heard. Also reviews of Albert Brooks' disappointing Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and Eugene Jarecki's similarly disappointing (but more jingoistic) Why We Fight. Travis, meanwhile, goes after Pacino in Two for the Money while we resume Mr. Hoover's quest to find comedy in the Jerry Lewis world in the Disorderly Orderly. ToynLAYbin!