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In 1989, just three short years after Tobe Hooper drove the serrated end of a Stihl through Bubba Sawyer’s belly during the climax of the darkly comedic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 – ostensibly ending both the franchise and Hooper’s career – New Line Cinema swooped in, bought the rights to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and set out to make the lumbering Leatherface their newest mascot. The ’80s had been good to New Line, thanks mainly in part to their resident maniac Freddy Krueger; he’d built their house – now Leatherface was going to build their toolshed.
To help hone their vision, New Line hired author David J. Schow – known for his “splatterpunk” work, a term he coined himself – to pen the script. Schow, no stranger to blood and guts, delivered on the viscera – but he also brought back the unhinged, dangerous vibe from the original film. His script was filled with the colorful characters, dire situations, and bone-shattering violence Tobe Hooper had established with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
After approaching a few potential suitors to direct the film (including Tom Savini and Peter Jackson, both of whom turned it down), New Line settled on 26-year-old Jeff Burr, a relatively new face who’d just directed the moderately-received Stepfather II. His respect for the franchise was obvious from the start as his initial suggestions to New Line made clear: he’d direct the film, but he wanted to shoot in Texas on 16 mm, just like the original, and he wanted Gunnar Hansen back as Leatherface. New Line’s response was to fire Burr, just a week into production. New Line didn’t want creative; they wanted familiar. With Leatherface, they wanted a guaranteed franchise star. Alas, with no one willing to take on the duties of what was shaping up to be a tumultuous shoot, New Line had no choice but to rehire Burr.
From the beginning, the production was fraught with setbacks – something that would haunt the shoot until the very end. Crew members dropped out, wildfires destroyed locations they had planned to use, and after the movie wrapped the MPAA slapped it with an X rating – a death knell for horror films at the time (TCM III was the last film to be given an X-rating). Even after trimming almost 5 minutes of footage, test audiences encouraged the studio to completely reshoot the ending – something Burr himself didn’t even discover until he watched the final version in a theater.
Because of the heavy editing and reshoots, the film – which was slated for a November release – was bumped to January, known as a “dump month”. One of the worst times of year for a film to open, it’s where films usually go to die. Upon release, critics tore the film to shreds. Many of the newspaper reviews were so disdainful, the critics didn’t even bother to get the plotline or character names correct in the write-up.
In the end, despite all the strikes against it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III managed to scrounge up a $3M profit. Still, it wasn’t enough to convince the fickle New Line (namely CEO Bob Shaye) to continue making more Leatherface sequels. They wouldn’t be involved in another Massacre film until almost 15 years later, when they released the remake.
They didn’t want creative; they wanted familiar.
Regardless of its initial reception, it’s now almost 30 years later, and fans of the film are still remembering it fondly and clamoring for more. Warts and all, TCM III struck a chord with the burgeoning gorehounds at the time as well as the older fans of the original. Despite its micro budget, TCM III does an incredible job with its production and design. The production was lucky to snag the KNB EFX Group (Nicotero and Berger, back when they were partners with Kurtzman) on what was one of their first projects as a group. They provided every severed arm, filleted face, and chainsawed head, much to the chagrin of the MPAA – but to the delight of fans.
And then there’s the lighting: the night lighting used throughout the film is gorgeous and used to great effect, creating not only ambiance but also setting a dreadful mood. It’s some of the best night-lighting in a horror film this side of Halloween. While our hulking killer stalks his human prey through the moonlit Texas woods, their frightened expressions are cast in a ghostly navy blue hue, as if they’re already dead and don’t even know it. And when the malicious Tink shows up in his tow truck to do some post-accident clean-up, the scene is lit solely by car headlights and flickering red flares, making Tink look like the Devil himself. At times, the lighting choices almost feel Michael Mann-esque: earlier in the film, as our victims speed off from the dusty and desolate Last Chance Gas Station aimlessly into the night, the camera cranes above the blackened landscape, the only light visible being the sickly neon green glow from a dingy fluorescent light above one of the pumps and a dying purple sunset in the distance. Altogether, its color palette makes it feel like a hillbilly giallo film.
The most important part of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is that it made Leatherface scary again. When the world was introduced to Leatherface in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he was a destructive toddler; a whirlwind of petulance, frustration, and unpredictability exacerbated by his abusive, domineering brothers. He resolved every problem by destroying it, which is innately scary. In the sequel, however, he became sort of a bumbling, horny tween, dopey and love-struck with the unobtainable and leggy Stretch. He’d become a puppy. But by TCM III, he’d entered his teenage phase, instilling again in him the short-temperedness he hadn’t experienced since the first film. He’d become self-aware, self-conscious, and aloof. He was no longer taking orders from his brothers; he was sticking their hands in the oven to retrieve his heavy metal cassette tape. He was a force once again. He was terrifying.
Burr’s TCM III is at once a love letter to the original film and an attempt to reclaim what made the original such an indelible part of horror history. And it’s evident in the final product – or, what’s left of it. It’s all water under the bridge now, but it’s hard not to try to imagine what Burr could’ve done with the franchise had New Line let him make his vision.
“So,” asks the disarming Tex, as he drives a spike through the hand of our heroine, pinning her to the chair in which she’s strapped, “how you like Texas?”
We like it just fine.