Released in 2008, the French film Martyrs is a groundbreaking and brilliantly crafted work of horror. Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, the film drew in and appealed to viewers looking for intense gore and horror, but it also offered up a thoughtful rumination on existence and spirituality that sure made a lasting impression.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, well, it’s not as fondly remembered by horror fans. Written and directed by Kim Henkel (the original film’s co-writer) under the title The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before being immediately shelved by Columbia Pictures, it was finally released in 1997 when Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey gained fame from other projects. It was a critical failure, and it would be nine years before the franchise would release another movie.
So how is it that Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation has any connection to Martyrs? This is your SPOILER WARNING for both films.
The big revelation of Martyrs comes at the halfway point, when lead character Anna discovers that the ravings of her friend Lucie are true: a seemingly normal suburban house hides a torture chamber underneath it, and the people who lived there were part of a program designed to systematically torture innocent people in the hopes of giving them a glimpse of God or perhaps the afterlife.
In the film, the woman who leads the program explains: “It’s so easy to create a victim, young lady, so easy. You lock someone in a dark room. They begin to suffer. You feed that suffering. Methodically, systematically, and coldly. And make it last. Your subject goes through a number of states. After a while, their trauma, that small, easily opened crack, makes them see things that don’t exist.” The whole film is colored by this haunting idea, including the unforgettable final moments when the leader of the project hears the whispered revelation from a tortured girl who has seen what lies beyond; instead of sharing it with the group, the woman simply kills herself.
Martyrs was devastating and highly original back in 2008, but a strikingly similar version of the core concept was actually written fourteen years earlier and reached screens eleven years before Martyrs did.
Yes, I’m talking about Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.
Back in 2014, Bloody Disgusting’s own John Squires interviewed writer/director Kim Henkel about The Next Generation in an article for Halloween Love. In the interview, John posed questions about the last act of the film, in which a strange man in black shows up to interact with the cannibalistic family, eventually taking one of the victims from the family and leaving in an ominous-looking black vehicle.
Henkel himself confirmed Squires’ inquiries about the film’s largely unrecognized depth, saying, “It is implied that the Illuminati, or an Illuminati-like organization, was lurking in the Chainsaw family background. Vilmer calls his wrecker service Illuminati Wrecking. Darla describes the organization Vilmer works for in Illuminati-like terms. And then there’s the appearance of Rothman, a mysterious, Illuminati-like figure.”
Rothman’s appearance, and subsequent argument with Vilmer, starts to make his involvement clear: “You are here for one reason, and one reason only. Do you understand that? I want to hear you say you understand that. No? It’s very simple. I want these people to know the meaning of horror… horror…”
Rothman then turns to Zellweger’s final girl character, softly noting, “It’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincere apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.”
When Squires asked Henkel about Rothman, Henkel said, “He comes off more like the leader of some harum-scarum cult that makes a practice of bringing victims to experience horror on the pretext that it produces some sort of transcendent experience. Of course, it does produce a transcendent experience. Death is like that. But no good comes of it. You’re tortured and tormented, and get the crap scared out of you, and then you die.”
The harum-scarum cult described by Henkel is exactly the type of program shown in Martyrs, and it is a surprising and eerie coincidence that Henkel’s off-the-cuff words about death and torture sound so similar to the words of the program leader in Martyrs. Though Laugier has never gone on record citing The Next Generation as an influence (it probably was not), it is undeniable that the two films share a very specific, very disturbing story element that hasn’t cropped up in any other horror films.
If nothing more, maybe The Next Generation deserves a revisit. It’s no Martyrs, but there’s more to it than it ever seems to get credit for.