Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation/The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Texas Chainsaw Massacre IV (1994/1997) *½
Well surprise, surprise… It’s another Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, with yet another studio’s production slate before the opening credits. This time around, the offenders— and I use the term deliberately— are, astonishingly, Columbia-TriStar, and the story of how they came to release their contribution to the saga of Leatherface is a convoluted one indeed. New Line still owned the rights to the series (as they do to this day), but disappointing returns on Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III had convinced them that it probably wasn’t worth it to make any more sequels. But Kim Henkel, who had co-written the original with Tobe Hooper, was interested in revisiting the franchise, and he arranged to license the property from New Line in order to produce a new Chainsaw film independently. Henkel shopped what he was calling The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre around to several different distributors, but he was holding out for theatrical release, and his various potential partners were understandably gun-shy about taking that big a risk on the picture. Scream, remember, was still some years in the future, and the 1990’s thus far had not been kind to slasher movies. Henkel eventually talked Columbia-TriStar into giving the film a short theatrical run before dumping it to home video, but so far as I’ve been able to determine, it never happened. In a remarkable turn of events, two of the movie’s then-unknown central players became fairly big stars in the three years that it took Henkel to hammer out a distribution deal, and that development had a profound impact on the fate of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (the title under which Columbia finally released the film). Renee Zellweger was to be featured in Columbia’s own Jerry Maguire, which was just about ready to go by the time all the arrangements had been made between Henkel and the studio, and the distributors wisely intended to sit on Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation until after the more mainstream Zellweger picture was safely out of the theaters. But then Matthew McConaughey’s fortunes rose as well, and his agent (who was well connected with Columbia-TriStar) began pressuring the studio to forego theatrical release for fear of the embarrassment it might cause his newly powerful client to be seen playing a maniacal serial killer. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation eventually limped into video stores in 1997, amid a welter of lawsuits and recriminations. Personally, I don’t see how so pitiful a movie could possibly have been worth all the trouble.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation starts off as the most generically slasherific entry in the series, with a group of teenagers leaving the site of their senior prom with nearly as much mutual acrimony as attended the release of the movie. Heather (The House on Todville Road’s Lisa Marie Newmyer) has just caught her boyfriend, Barry (Tyler Cone), making out with another girl, and she storms off to the parking lot to collect the car— a fully restored 1970 Lincoln Continental borrowed from Barry’s dad— with the boy trailing behind her trying desperately to placate her without actually owning up to any wrongdoing. Heather claims the driver’s seat first, and the couple are several miles down the road to home before a particularly stupid and sleazy pronouncement on Barry’s part catches the attention of Jenny (Zellweger) and Sean (John Harrison), who unbeknownst to the bickering lovers had been hunched down in the back seat the entire time. And no, this is not because Jenny and Sean were taking advantage of the Continental’s immensely wide back seat to copulate in comfort (trust me, today’s back seats don’t hold a candle to one from a 30-year-old land-yacht as a place for a teenage tryst); Jenny doesn’t do that, not with the attitude toward sex a girl develops when her skanky trollop of a mom turns her home life into one ongoing parade of lecherous, kid-touching stepfathers. Rather, the two of them had merely retreated to the car to escape from the distinctly nerd-hostile environment of the prom. (Which raises the interesting question of how they managed to score a ride with Barry and Heather in the first place…)
Anyway, what gets this bunch their run-in with the usual family of cannibal killers is Heather’s driving. Evidently she’s none too good under the best of circumstances, and when she’s as upset as she is now, she’s an outright menace to society. Heather gets into two crashes on the way home, the second of which leaves the Continental an immobile wreck by the side of a secluded country road. The other car is in even worse shape, and its driver passes out (From drunkenness? Shock? Internal injuries? Who can say?) the moment he pulls himself out of the ruined vehicle. Jenny, Barry, and Heather set out to summon an ambulance and a tow truck, leaving Sean behind to look after the unconscious boy. They eventually find the office of real estate agent Darla Slaughter (Tonie Perensky), where they prevail upon the rather eccentric owner to call a tow truck, and to point them in the direction of the nearest settlement, where they might plausibly be able to find a doctor. One look at the tow truck— to say nothing of Vilmer the driver (McConaughey, later of Contact and Reign of Fire)— should be enough to tell you that the psychos have arrived. Vilmer tells Sean that the other driver is dead, and when Sean begins arguing with him, Vilmer breaks the unconscious boy’s neck to prove his point. Then he chases Sean around for a while, ultimately running him over with his truck once he tires of the game.
Meanwhile Jenny gets separated from Heather and Barry when the latter two kids go charging off down a driveway in pursuit of a fast-moving pickup truck. Jenny finds her way to a meeting with Vilmer while the others end up paying a visit to the killer’s house. There, they meet Vilmer’s brothers, the literature-quoting W. E. (Joe Stevens) and the nameless, inarticulate, cross-dressing brute who is this installment’s version of Leatherface (Robert Jacks). Barry is killed and dismembered, while Heather is hung up on a meat hook for subsequent use.
To return now to Jenny, she narrowly escapes from Vilmer, and makes her way back to the real estate office where the whole horrible business had started. But if Jenny thinks Darla Slaughter is going to protect her from Vilmer and his brothers, she is sorely mistaken, for screenwriter Henkel didn’t give the agent that surname for nothing. Darla is Vilmer’s girlfriend, and she cold-cocks Jenny before calling in W. E. to help her get the girl trussed up in the trunk of her Cadillac.
So far, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation has been a serviceable, if unexceptional, slasher movie. Jenny’s arrival at the murder house marks the moment when that changes, and changes for the worse. Once again, we are treated to the seemingly obligatory dinner with Grandpa (Grayson Victor Shirmacher), and though Kim Henkel tries hard to differentiate this version of the Heroine’s Captivity sequence from its three predecessors, the changes he makes do more harm than good. For one thing, Jenny keeps almost escaping, but then doing something stupid that allows the killers to regain the upper hand. That’s fine once or twice, but when it happens again and again and again, it loses much of its charm as a plot device. Secondly, Henkel has what he thinks is a bright idea to give the family a bit more backstory than they’ve had in the last three movies, and this is where Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation goes completely off the rails. Jenny initially thinks it’s just one more manifestation of the woman’s madness when Darla tells her that the reason the family can kill so many people without being caught is that they’re part of some millennia-old conspiracy whereby the rich and powerful kill off people who have become inconvenient, and that a blind eye is turned to their freelance murder sprees on the grounds that the family have to keep in practice somehow. But then the house is visited by a tuxedoed man by the name of Rothman (James Gale), and we discover that Darla and her boyfriend are entirely serious. This opens the door to an ending which I frankly still haven’t figured out. Rothman leaves, but he returns the next day, and for some reason exterminates the family apart from Leatherface, then offers to take Jenny to the police station in his chauffeured limousine. Maybe the reason why just ended up on the cutting room floor…
You know, I generally appreciate it when the writers of a sequel make some effort to expand up on their predecessors and take the series into unexplored territory. But that said, I also require that such expansions make some kind of sense in terms of what we’ve already seen, and I’m not likely to be very impressed if the virgin territory they forge on into turns out to be the Marches of Unseen Stupidity. And for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie to make a bid to cash in on the success of “The X-Files” definitely violates those two guidelines. I just about got up and hit “rewind” when Rothman showed up, and I’m the kind of guy who watches a movie to the bitter end no matter what. I’m also more than tired of seeing an all-new family each and every time somebody sees fit continue the franchise. It made a certain amount of sense the way David J. Schow did it in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, but both here and in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, it just seems like the filmmakers began by asking, “Hmmm… Which hoary redneck stereotypes are we going to pull out this time?”— and in case you’re wondering, the theme of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation would seem to be “Fun with Domestic Violence.” I suppose the Wife-Beater was just about the only hick cliche left; Leatherface had already had a Violent Half-Wit, a Cantankerous Patriarch, a Crazed Vietnam Vet, a Religious Bluenose, and a K-Mart Kowboy for relatives in one film or another, so why not? It’s a shame that there’s so much wrong with this movie, because both Zellweger and McConaughey put in strong performances within the limits of what they have to work with. McConaughey is extremely effective as long as he stops short of camp excess, and Zellweger might be the best Final Girl since Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unfortunately, those two performances are nowhere near enough to save Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation from itself, and both its long years in limbo and the poor reception it received when it finally did see the light of day were mostly well-earned.