Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion) — ‘Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
You know the adage, “Everything’s bigger in Texas?” Well, there’s one big, twisted franchise that — for better or worse — is synonymous with that sprawling state. I’m, of course, referring to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise; a series of films that spans nearly fifty years, nine entries, and a myriad of tonal shifts. Does it all work, or is it messier than a big plate of TX BBQ? We’ll find out by taking a strange, sun-roasted journey though the series. The purpose of this particular trip to The Lone Star State is a return to this franchise’s roots with Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)!
In the current era of movies, the ultimate trends are nostalgia and reboots. For me, the first example of rebooting a franchise was the soft-reboot that is Batman Forever (1995). However, the movie in review — Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) — might have beat Bats to the punch. Sure, this film’s predecessor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), is a cult favorite among horror fans these days. But upon that satirical sequel’s release, and for many years afterward, Chainsaw 2 was not well regarded. Thus, when New Line Cinema bought the franchise rights to TCM, they wanted to bring the series back to something more akin to the 1974 original film. More to the point: New Line wanted to make Leatherface into the next horror icon, right up there with Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees (the latter of which the studio acquired beginning with 1991’s Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday). Such an approach makes absolute sense, considering New Line’s bread-and-butter was the horror genre after becoming known in the film industry as “The house that Freddy built.”
Such ambition resulted in this third entry, which was to be titled “Leatherface“ in hopes that the titular character could ascend to become the next slasher star. It was only later that the subtitle of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was tacked on in hopes of attracting a wider audience who might remember the infamous original from back in the day. And perhaps this addendum to indicate the movie’s sequel status was a good idea. After all, the name “Leatherface” isn’t uttered in the film at all. On the contrary, the titular character and face of this franchise is merely referred to as “Junior.” Rest assured, though, no idea — no matter how tired it may be — goes to waste in this series. Hence, nearly thirty years after the release of this particular film, a third iteration of the series simply dubbed Leatherface would be unceremoniously dumped on to DirecTV and then streaming services.
For now, though, back to the movie at hand. To bring this reboot of sorts back to the darker roots of the 1974 classic, New Line chose to keep the creativity in-house as they often did back in the day. Thus, horror novelist and screenwriter David J. Schow was brought on to write this film’s screenplay, having just penned A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) for the studio. As expected, Schow delivered a screenplay that retained the simplicity of the ‘74 flick while being ultra-violent. So much so, in fact, that certain scenes were scrapped from the script by producers before they could even be shot — including a scene revealing Leatherface’s unmasked visage. Curiously enough, a similar scene eventually played out in the 2003 remake of the original film.
Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is as basic as (you might think) a soft reboot of this series should be. It finds an estranged couple, Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler), making a road trip from California to Texas to deliver Michelle’s father’s Mercedes-Benz to him. (Now, why the hell the couple on the rocks would choose to make such a journey is beyond me. If anything, such a long trip will further disintegrate a relationship.) Shortly after the wounded love birds hit the Lone Star State line, the classic automobile breaks down. Soon enough, though, Southern hospitality in the form of Tex (Viggo Mortensen) offers to take the pair in until their vehicle can be repaired. Surprise, surprise, though, Tex is a part of Leatherface’s (R.A. Mihailoff) cannibalistic clan! Now, Michelle and Ryan’s only hope for survival, albeit unlikely, is a gun-toting survivalist named Benny (Ken Foree)!
Much like with Chainsaw 2, the studio had trouble attracting someone to take the helm with the sole exception of director Jeff Burr (American Resurrection). Despite the his lack of experience, Burr had already wet his beak in not just the horror genre, but also sequels as he had previously directed From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) and Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy (1989). Burr came into Leatherface full of ideas and an overall creative direction in mind. The young filmmaker wanted to shoot the film much in the vein of the ‘74 original; on location in Texas and on 16mm film. Unsurprisingly, though, New Line would not allow this desired direction to be pursued. On the contrary, the studio mandated a more standard production. Due to these creative differences and/or Burr’s lack of experience, the director was ultimately let go as the studio wanted to offer Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III to other burgeoning in-house talent: Peter Jackson (The Beatles: Get Back).
Long before he made The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003) for New Line Cinema, Jackson was the first choice to direct this third Chainsaw film. As it happens, the writer/director was much more interested in working in the dream world of Freddy Krueger. Before Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) got the green light, Jackson had been hired by the studio to pen his take on a sixth Nightmare. It’s a shame A Nightmare on Elm Street 6: The Dream Lover was rejected by the studio too, because it sounds incredibly interesting. The Dream Lover would have found Freddy Krueger aged into impotence as the town of Springwood medicates its youth with an anti-dream drug. The teens find that when they do skimp on the meds to dream, they encounter a Freddy whom they can taunt and make sport of. That is until Freddy manages to kill one of the teenagers and begins to regain his reputation and abilities as The Springwood Slasher!
After sleeping on The Dream Lover in favor of making Freddy’s Dead, Jackson decided to step outside the genre in favor of making a true-horror tale: Heavenly Creatures (1994). Thus, New Line went back to Burr and rehired him. Granted, the studio brought him back on board with two parameters which were non-negotiable. Firstly, the film would have to be shot in California as the studio already had the land and a house set they wanted to utilize for the production. Therefore, it was shot just minutes away from Six Flags Magic Mountain. In his director’s commentary for the film, Burr claims you can hear a rollercoaster from the amusement park. Second (and quite understandably), the film had be shot on 35mm film stock as New Line was becoming a major player and the film format expected in theatrical releases at the time. For better or worse, Burr acquiesced to the studio’s demands as he was so excited to make a Texas Chainsaw movie.
Despite all the troubles the director would encounter while making this movie, I think Burr’s vision is still evident; even though this third entry isn’t nearly as gritty as the classic that inspired it. At the same time, it does have a certain grit to it, even when put through an early 90s filter and a generic death metal soundtrack. Nevertheless, this film has a reputation of falling short of Burr’s intentions, which many of my fellow horror fans blame on the studio and the MPA ratings board. And in all fairness, such an opinion is not completely unwarranted.
The film was submitted to The Ratings Board eleven times and never was bestowed with the filmmakers and studio’s desired R-rating. Instead, the flick was slapped with the dreaded “X” on each submission. New Line Cinema chose to not accept the rating and simply released the film to theaters unrated. Of course, most theaters will not play unrated releases, nor can they be widely advertised. (Mind you, this was before the age of the freewheeling world wide web.) So, essentially, unrated films are just as suppressed as NC-17-rated releases. Speaking of which, this was the last movie the MPA slapped with an X before the introduction of NC-17.
Due to the unrated release, though, I don’t agree with the argument that New Line softened the violence and neutered what Burr envisioned. I can appreciate what he is attempting to do here and I think this flick is plenty violent. Moreover, the movie features violence wherein one can almost see the seeds of the torture porn horror subgenre being sewn. The fact Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III ultimately doesn’t work should not be attributed to any of the usual scapegoats, in my humble opinion. Instead, Schow’s screenplay and the finished film resulting from it is one of the dullest horror movies, much less sequels, I have ever seen! Heck, it’s only the few set pieces of gruesome violence that could wake me from the near coma this movie seems to insist on inducing.
Of course, the flat narrative isn’t helped by the paper thin characters; most of which are played by actors who shouldn’t’ve made it off the high-school drama stage. Even genre veteran Ken Foree (The Devil’s Rejects) is playing it to the rafters in a completely obnoxious way as a swamp-dwelling survivalist. (Swamps in Texas, really?) Worse yet, the acrimonious set of protagonists are painful to watch. Yet, they don’t embitter that kind of hate that made we want to see them die. On the contrary, I simply didn’t care what happened to them at all. That feeling of apathy only increased in the third act of this film, which plays like a lackluster and low-rent version of another Texas tale, Killer Joe (2011).
I don’t want to trash the whole cast, though, as there are two real standouts in this film. Viggo Mortensen (2022’s Crimes of the Future) outshines everyone around him with his on-screen psychopathic charisma. It’s no wonder the guy went on to have such a career; one which was, ironically enough, propelled by his work with the aforementioned Peter Jackson. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the titular Leatherface, played by R.A. Mihailoff this time around. Mihailoff cuts quite the terrifying figure as a mentally impaired, chainsaw-wielding psychopath in a similar way to Hansen before him — even if the surrogate family surrounding Mihailoff’s Leatherface largely fails to enhance his character. Furthermore, it helps that the film’s chainsaw is perhaps the most bad-ass power tool in the whole franchise.
When it comes down to it, I can respect Jeff Burr’s attempt to revive this series for the 1990s. But the fact of the matter is that Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is a Franchise Implosion that’s duller than a worn-out version of the tool that inspired it. In fact, this third installment may be one of the lesser installments when it comes to all horror sequels. Then again, I may be in the minority as the movie went on to become a cult classic, albeit to a lesser degree than any of the first four TCM films. It was also quite successful upon its initial release (Editor’s note: its awesome, Excalibur-inspired trailer might’ve helped). Despite being unrated, the film still managed to gross $5 million, making more than double its $2 million production budget, which was more than enough to justify another sequel!
Leatherface:The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is currently available on Digital, Blu-ray & DVD.
On the next Texas trip, we’ll end this franchise’s initial run with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)!
Other Texas Attractions:
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)