There’s a certain perception that the horror genre declined in the very late 80’s and very early 90’s. Whether you agree or not is irrelevant, the perception is there, and can arguably be attributed to the oversaturation of the genre by the endless sequelization of its highest-profile franchises. By the early 90’s Freddy had swung from the stuff of nightmares into full-blown comedy, Jason had been to Manhattan, and Michael Myers had veered into psychic chicanery. These were slashers that went from some of the most frightening material the genre had ever seen to cartoonish caricatures of themselves. And there’s no better example of this leap from profound art to laughable trash than the Texas Chainsaw series, which went from the heart-stopping original film to—well, to whatever Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation was.
Something has never quite lined up with these two movies, which were written by the same man, Kim Henkel, though to watch them you’d never guess. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a seminal classic, while The Next Generation is almost universally derived. So what happened? Let it be submitted that Henkel – a film professor – deliberately wrote and directed an inferior sequel in order to say something about the perceived state of the horror.
For starters, the film begins with what would be considered a very traditional cast of Teenager Murder Victims-to-Be, headlined by Renee Zellweger as Jenny, AKA The Final Girl. Aside from Jenny, these characters were born to be murdered in the woods, and we’re made especially aware of it by the fact that one of them never shuts up about it. From the moment they end up on the side of a Texas back road, Heather forecasts their imminent demises because she’s obviously seen one of these movies before and she knows what’s up. This is the first of Henkel’s wink-wink-nod-nods to the audience letting them know that he’s in on the joke.
But the real journey into the back-pocket of self-parody begins with the new family themselves. The original family name of ‘Sawyer’ wasn’t on-the-nose enough, so now they’re the ‘Slaughter’ family. That’s right; in this movie, the iconic chainsaw-wielding maniac is straight-up named Leatherface Slaughter. And while much ado has been made (rightfully so) about Matthew McConaughey’s over-the-top turn as Vilmer, what is less-often discussed is the desperation pervading it. Vilmer is what the kids call a ‘try-hard,’ someone so eager to please his master (who we’ll get into in due time) he gives the game away at every turn. Where Cook and Hitchhiker toyed with their prey before veering into off-putting lunacy, Vilmer has no time for such subterfuge. When he encounters Sean, he immediately kills a man in front of him and then runs him down in a truck. He gives Jenny barely a moment after picking her up before he launches into a deranged rant and shows her the grisly cargo in the back of his pickup. Gone is any nuance or the slow burn of the original, replaced with the instant escalation more-often seen in cheaper slasher fare.
Then there’s Darla, Vilmer’s girlfriend, a participant in the night’s proceedings out of sheer obligation. She’s not exactly into what’s taking place around her, at one point recreating one of Chain Saw’s most unnerving scenes in the most half-assed way imaginable, awkwardly poking at Heather with a stick once or twice with all the force of a gentle breeze. Which leads into the way the movie haphazardly recreates many of the original movie’s aspects in ways that seem intentionally inferior.
Leatherface, once efficient, methodical and near-silent, now struggles to competently capture or kill his victims, all the while screaming like a petulant child.
The family, no longer backwater cannibals, dines on pizza instead of the fresh meat of their victims.
The dinner sequence, originally one of the most effective and horrifying scenes ever committed to film, goes so far off the rails it climaxes with Jenny turning the tables on her captors and scolding Leatherface into sitting down and shutting up.
The ineffectiveness of it all of this is intentional, and we know this because a man in a limo pulls up and openly acknowledges it.
Mr. Rothman, ostensibly part of the Illuminati and the mastermind behind the massacre, is undoubtedly the most controversial and debated aspect of Next Generation, which is understandable. This new element flies in the face of everything the series has ever stood for. So why is it there?
Twenty years before The Cabin in the Woods presented us with a shadow organization that created Horror for the sake of an ever-watchful audience, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation did the same. And like in Cabin, this particular event has gone completely sideways and the big boss is forced to intervene. Mr. Rothman, the literal producer pulling the strings, shows up to scold the antagonists.
“This is appalling,” he says, echoing what we’ve all been thinking for the past hour and ten minutes. “I want these people to know the meaning of horror. Horror.” The script could have put a number of words in his mouth there. Terror. Dread. ‘Horror’ was a specific choice, a pointed observation that what we’ve witnessed so far is a subpar attempt at recreating one of the genre’s best works. And while his admonition spurs the movie into one last attempt at a go-for-broke climax that includes an homage to Chainsaw 2’s Leatherface-on-a-truck sequence and an out-of-nowhere airplane, it’s still a piss-poor attempt at creating anything worthy of Hooper’s legacy. As Leatherface swings his chainsaw around in another flimsy callback to a better movie, Rothman sighs, declares the whole thing an abomination and apologizes to the audience by way of Jenny.
It’s this final sequence that best reads as a summation of Henkel’s view of the then-current state of the horror genre, or more specifically the slasher subgenre, or more specifically still, the Chainsaw series. Mr. Rothman’s grumblings sum it up well; All this effort to recreate a spiritual experience, only for it to end in disappointment and ennui.
So if Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation let you down, it’s possible that was the entire point, and would, therefore, make it more effective – and more cynical – a work than it’s ever been given credit for.
Mr. Rothman would be proud.