Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is beautiful in its singularity. While it’s often lumped among its grindhouse peers and slasher brethren, very little of it is actually comparable to the rest of its genre. To this day, it remains sun-scorched madness: A few young adults fall into a rabbit hole to hell, where they discover a face-wearing behemoth and his deranged family in a dilapidated farmhouse.
The movie doesn’t have much plot structure, and you can divide it into the half where the lead, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), isn’t screaming a lot, and the half where she is. The cackling cannibals who commit the titular slayings complain about gas prices, gentrification, and their own displacement in a society that’s leaving them behind, rendering them as ultimately human, but nonetheless ghoulish. And by the end of it, audiences are left thinking exactly what Sally does as she laughs hysterically in the back of a fleeing truck while Leatherface, stymied, swings his chainsaw in the middle of the road: “What the hell just happened?”
Because the original film is so singular, making a sequel seems like an inherently misguided idea. Any look into not just the film, but its behind-the-scenes chaos, seems to indicate that no one can replicate it, even though duplication and returns to form are often horror’s gory ethos. That hasn’t stopped filmmakers from trying, with the most recent attempt, Netflix’s direct sequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre, serving as the latest example. But unlike the usual horror sequels, which usually just ratchet up the body count and confuse the canon, 1974’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre is special. The sequels to this horror standout don’t just feel like attempts to copy the original’s success, they feel like fumbling efforts to figure out why it worked in the first place — duplication by means of psychoanalyzation. As each sequel has pulled out a thread of the original and tried to make that the entire fabric of the piece, they’ve each made a different argument for what’s important in the first film.
Hooper returned to direct the 1986 sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. By that point, he had graduated from the miniscule budget of the original film into a much grander allowance from Cannon Films, purveyors of the violent, the camp, and the explosive. Hooper’s aim with the film was pure black comedy and buckets of blood, as if even he knew he wouldn’t be able to top himself. He felt that audiences at the time didn’t really get the humor of the original film, so Part 2 wields it like a sledgehammer to the skull, amping up the political commentary so it becomes a full Reagan-era parody.
1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was distributed by New Line Cinema, at that point famous for being the studio behind A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dubbed “The House that Freddy Built,” New Line was intent on reversing the tone of Hooper’s 1986 sequel and finding the most reproducible and audience-friendly elements from the original film. The clear purpose was finding the streamlined heart of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in order to make it into a franchisable horror staple, this time with journeyman director Jeff Burr at the helm. But squabbles with the MPAA over the 1990 film’s violence and its rating ended up neutering its potential, and not even a leering performance by a young Viggo Mortensen and a hilariously goofy trailer based off Excalibur could save it. In the original film, Hooper relished his uncontrollable energy. This watered-down Chainsaw proved there was no mold for that, no matter how hard Burr distilled the story down to its base slasher elements.
1995’s The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the closest the series has gotten to reigniting the original film’s unpredictability. It has a truly wild third-act twist, and it features a sweaty, manic “Oh my God, he’s in this?” performance by Matthew McConaughey. Its closeness to the original is understandable — it was written and directed by the first film’s co-writer, Kim Henkel, and his film is full of Illuminati experiments and borderline self-parody, as victims “experience horror on the pretext that it produces some kind of transcendent experience.” Return dissects the first film’s chaos by providing conspiracy structure, lacing cabal-esque reason into delirium, and ignoring the way the fear in the original film was birthed from the fact that it seemingly came from nowhere.
2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins not just with voiceover from the narrator of the original film’s opening scrawl, John Larroquette, but with copious faux documentary footage. It takes the original’s lurid “What happened is true.” tagline to its logical extent and uses it to give the project something more like a true-crime vibe. It filters the original’s cinéma vérité style through a series of biographical checkpoints, figuring that if the original seemed real to people, what would happen if it was real? What if you learned how Leatherface made his masks? What if you found out that he was bullied as a kid? What if director Marcus Nispel and screenwriter Scott Kosar acknowledged his entire family, rather than focusing on four weird dudes in a house with a disintegrating grandmother corpse?
2006’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning serves as a prequel to the 2003 remake, which feels like destiny, given the 2003 version’s massive box office. (And the way it ends with Leatherface losing an arm, leaving him hard-pressed to operate wood-cutting tools in a sequel.) This movie continues to answer questions no one was asking about the original, to the point that it opens with Leatherface being born in a meat factory, and has him collecting his chainsaw as if guided by a moment of Divine Providence. It drops the dull green and brown color palette of the 2003 version in favor of a bleached, dusty yellow-and-orange look that’s more friendly to the original film, as if it was the look of the 1974 movie that made it a hit. But it’s still a history-book approach to a series best left without one, another attempt to lean on the “truth” behind the characters.
2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D was the second attempt at a direct sequel to the original movie, released 40 years after it, and filled with nostalgia for it: The opening scene recreates moments from the original movie, and is set in its soon-to-be burned farmhouse. The whole thing hinges on reverence for the 1974 film, without adding anything scary to it. At the end, the heroine and Leatherface are even revealed to be cousins, and they team up, retooling the masked killer’s vicious tendencies as a neighborly quirk. It misjudges Leatherface as a bit of American iconography rather than an object of terror — the cinematic equivalent of Charles Manson T-shirt.
2017’s Leatherface is a prequel to the timeline that includes the original movie and Texas Chainsaw 3D, with Leatherface now imagined as one of a handful of escapees from a mental institution. Like the filmmakers behind the 2003 remake and its prequel, the team behind this one decided the beating heart of the narrative was the explanation of how Leatherface came to be. But instead of providing sweeping answers, they focus on the specific trauma and injury required to create a psychopath. Once again, it’s an approach that plumbs the depths of what it would take for the story to be “real,” boiling the nightmare of the original into true-crime-esque cause-and-effect.
With Netflix’s 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director David Blue Garcia and the writers are obviously enamored with the original movie’s political themes, particularly the early-’70s economic recession that forced Leatherface’s family into destitution. The family choosing to feast on some New Age hippies is recalibrated for the 2020s in the newest version, which has a bunch of young social influencers looking to gentrify the ghost town where Leatherface now lives. But the film mixes its messages by turning some of the survivors into heroes, just after turning Leatherface into a victim of pure circumstance. Its attempts at grasping at the power of the original are scattershot. Even though it’s more indebted to the original film than any movie in the franchise has been for almost 30 years, the creators don’t trust in the original’s efficacy.
So what does make The Texas Chain Saw Massacre work? Is it some unsolvable formula, or does its troubled production make it impossible to truly remake? Hollywood will likely never really find out. The endless horror-movie process of rebooting and and trying to re-create success is almost always doomed, because it’s trying to attribute complicated chemistry to something very simple. It’s impossible to reproduce originality while remaining original. So this franchise, like so many others, keeps crashing against the rocks of a movie that’s become horror legend precisely because it wasn’t slavishly copying a specific past film. The impact of the 1974 movie impact is clear in the way every single one of these films try to pull out its guts, study them, and use them as a framework for a new creature. For better or for worse, the chainsaw will never stop buzzing.
Which Texas Chainsaw Massacre films are worth watching?
MUST WATCH: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is both a classic and an eternally refreshing piece of cinema, and every horror and questionable barbecue enthusiast out there should watch it. It’s available on Shudder.
MUST WATCH: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is the second-best in the series, over-the-top and darkly funny. It introduces the character of Chop Top, played by future Rob Zombie movie staple Bill Moseley, and he’s likely the most quotable thing to ever come out of the series. Also, Dennis Hopper has a chainsaw duel with Leatherface. Rad. Check it out on Apple iTunes.
MAYBE: Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III isn’t as unforgiving or bizarre as the first two, but if you’re open to a Chainsaw film that feels a bit more like the other horror flicks of the era, give it a watch. Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree stars. Rent it on Amazon Video.
MAYBE: Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, aka Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is widely regarded as “the bad one,” and it’s far from perfect. That said, watching Matthew McConaughey shout over a poorly lit kitchen table while Leatherface sobs and screams is entertaining at times, and its last act must be seen to be believed. It’s on HBO Max.
MAYBE: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 remake is like many remakes from the ’00s — overproduced, with an over-reliance on the monster’s backstory. But it’s generally well-directed, and R. Lee Ermey (the abusive gunnery sergeant from Full Metal Jacket) plays a perverse sheriff in a role that’s the most hauntingly effective thing in any modern Chainsaw film. It’s on Netflix.
MAYBE: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is good if you liked the remake, but wish it had more bloodshed and more instances of unrestrained cruelty. It delivers those. Once again, Ermey is a standout, providing a nauseating backbone to the frequently unnecessary origin story. It’s also on Netflix.
SKIP: Texas Chainsaw 3D can’t really be recommended in good conscience. If you’re morbidly curious to see a Leatherface film where the triumphant line is “Do your thing, cuz!” it’s available on Peacock.
MAYBE: Leatherface doesn’t really need to exist, but out of all of the Chainsaw films outside of the first two, its narrative concept is the one that seems particularly daring. The most stripped down of the films outside of the first, it’s on Pluto TV.
MAYBE: The 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre tries to implement some of the tools used to reinvent the last few Halloween films, including the survivor of the first film coming back as a grizzled hunter obsessed with vengeance. It doesn’t really succeed, but it’s gory enough to be satisfying in spite of all of the missed throws it makes. And the ending is worth the wait. It’s on Netflix.