Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion) — ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation’

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. This time around, an original son and creator of ‘Texas’ returns to bring us Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995)!

The horror genre is full of death. But what happens when said genre dies — at least temporarily? Well, that’s precisely what we discovered in the early-mid 1990s. Following the slasher deluge of the 80s, the first half of the 90s left horror dead on its feet. While the horror community remained steadfast in its own circles, audiences en masse seemed more burned out on the genre than Freddy Krueger is burned up. 

Such exhaustion left the slasher franchises of the previous decade trying to find ways to drain once last ounce of blood from the almighty buckskin. As a result, most of these series jumped the shark. Freddy’s dream run ended, albeit prematurely, with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). As did Jason Voorhees with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). Of course, the franchise in review also made an unsuccessful return to with Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990). While the Unrated Texas Chainsaw Massacre III proved to be a modest success — grossing $5 million from a limited theatrical release on a $2 million production budget — the numbers were simply not enough to keep franchise rights holder New Line Cinema happy, electing not to retain the rights or produce a follow-up.

Thus, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) co-creator Kim Henkel and movie producers Charles and Robert J. Khun took this opportunity to acquire the sequel rights. A half-decade earlier, Henkel seemingly washed the blood of this franchise off his hands after his idea for a satirical sequel was turned down flat. See, Henkel’s pitch for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) involved a whole Texas town filled with cannibals. Specifically, he wanted that sequel to parody Motel Hell (1980), which itself was a satire of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Ultimately, the creation of Chainsaw 2 split up Henkel and his pal and series co-author, Tobe Hooper (1943–2017). In the interim, since the pair’s collaboration ceased, Hooper went on to a steady, if not wholly successful, career in the horror and sci-fi genres, while Henkel’s career seemed to run out of gas altogether. 

That is until Henkel finally got the chance to get the satire out of his system by acquiring the franchise rights in turnaround. Taking a step up from co-creator and co-screenwriter, Henkel took on the dual roles of first-time director and sole screenwriter for what he saw as the only true sequel to his 1974 collaboration. Like that original flick and its 1986 farce of a follow-up, the movie in review was also produced in the proverbial Lone Star State, specifically Pflugerville, Texas. It is one of what would prove to be a few solid instincts the director would go on to have for his only true re-visitation of this franchise. 

Speaking of Texas and its “bigger” saying, said sentiment also goes for natives of the state who went on to become massive stars. I’m, of course, referring to the fact that Texas-turned-Tinseltown residents Renée Zellweger (The Thing About Pam) and Matthew McConaughey (Sing 2) star in The Next Generation. Both had appeared in Texas-based independent filmmaker Richard Linklater‘s Dazed and Confused (1993) a mere year before returning to Texas for this fourth Massacre. While the film’s female lead was cast traditionally, her co-headliner had a more interesting origin.

McConaughey was fresh out of college when he landed an audition for this film. Prior to that, the young actor only had one role under his belt, albeit an iconic one, as Wooderson in his motion picture debut in the aforementioned Dazed and Confused. When it comes to TCM4, though, McConaughey initially read for a bit part of a (presumably unnamed) young motorcyclist who rescues Jenny (Zellweger) at the end of the flick; a role that was later eliminated from the script.

Thus, it’s lucky for McConaughey that Henkel asked if he would like to try out for the villainous Vilmer. Strangely, the actor turned that chance down flat, recommending two of his pals from acting class. But as McConaughey got in his truck, he wondered why he’d just passed such an opportunity. As a result, McConaughey turned right back around and rushed back in to ask Heinkel if he could still audition as an antagonist. The writer/director granted the young actor a chance, instructing him to scare the office secretary as much as possible. Using a wooden spoon as a stand-in for a knife, McConaughey brought the secretary to terrified tears and landed Vilmer on the spot. 

Sadly, the rest of the film’s cast only lowers whatever qualities its soon-to-be big names bring to the table. Henkel admittedly wrote all the characters to be loathed. And while he achieved his goal, loathsome characters played by a supporting cast who couldn’t act their way off a high-school theater stage make this movie a slog for the most part. But, unlike the (possibly) cannibalistic crew surrounding him, the face of this franchise, Leatherface, isn’t unlikable … it’s worse than that. Leatherface (Robert Jacks) is barely a character. 

In place of any characterization, Henkel just leans into the interpretation of the horror villain being a transvestite to an insulting degree. No longer is cross-dressing an aspect of Leatherface’s personality. Seemingly for Henkel, it’s what defines him. Thus, Jacks ends up playing the worst take on the horror villain to date as he runs around in a silk robe, simply wielding his titular chainsaw but never actually killing anyone with it. As director, Henkel seems interested in doing nothing more with Leatherface than getting gutter-level laughs from his appearance, which includes a mask that looks like it was purchased off the clearance rack of a discount store.

Frankly, the casting of Zellweger and McConaughey is the one thing that makes the film more than an odd curiosity piece for fans of the actors and/or the genre. Despite being a legitimate follow-up in the writer/director’s estimation, The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as it was initially titled, feels more like a remake than a sequel. The film follows four archetypal Texas teens on prom night who find their evening ruined after a car accident. As you might expect, the prom-goers seek help from the wrong people in Vilmer, Leatherface, and the rest of his clan! Now, their prom may go from being a high-school highlight to the untimely end of their young lives!

When it comes to what would eventually become Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, it is undoubtedly an interesting effort if you’re a fan of the genre. That doesn’t necessarily mean TCM: The Next Generation is good. On the contrary, your reception to this final installment in the franchise’s original run will depend on your taste. For example, horror icons Joe Bob Briggs (John Bloom) — who is a longtime champion of the franchise — and Darcy the Mail Girl (Diana Prince) of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs (2018-current) love this flick. As do many of my fellow members of the horror community, and I can see where they’re coming from. On the other hand, I can’t say that I really appreciate what Henkel is attempting to do. Alas, the result doesn’t cut as precisely as a Chainsaw should for me.

Henkel’s satirical take on what he created simply misses the mark. This flick isn’t scary, nor quite bizarre enough to be funny. Aside from casting the future big name stars, every other decision the writer/director made in regard to his “true sequel” doesn’t work for me. Of course, it doesn’t help that, on some level, I feel Henkel shows that he hates this franchise and the horror genre itself on some level. It is this palpable disdain that makes Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation a Franchise Implosion!

No matter how you feel about this movie, I suppose it’s lucky we got to see it. The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre premiered SXSW 1995, where it was well-received and subsequently purchased by Columbia Pictures. Upon acquisition, the studio re-titled it Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and committed to a nationwide release. But when the film was eventually released on September 22, 1995, its release was, in fact, limited. In its abbreviated theatrical window, The Next Generation only managed to gross a little over $44,000 from a scant 27 screens across the country. Before the end of ’95, the film was released theatrically and on LaserDisc in Japan, where it saw some success. 

Back in the States, Columbia chose to shelve the flick after its brief release. After Zellweger and McConaughey’s respective rises to stardom in 1996 with Jerry Maguire and A Time to Kill, the studio realized their Chainsaw sequel had newly found star power. As a result, the distributor cut the film by seven minutes, abbreviating some otherwise more extended scenes and cutting down on some gore.

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of its lead actors, Columbia Pictures re-released the film to theaters for another limited run on September 1, 1997, during which the picture only grossed another $185,000. This fourth entry in the franchise is the lowest earner of any theatrically released entry to date. Unsurprisingly, this attempt to make some extra greenbacks was almost thwarted by the agents and managers of both McConaughey and Zellweger, thinking it would tarnish their rapidly growing careers — alhough neither young star was seemingly aware of this effort at the time and both seem to look back on the film fondly. Nevertheless, the attempt to bury this Massacre was unsuccessful as the studio slapped the attractive visages of the film’s stars on just about every home video release of the movie.

Of the original four installments in the TCM franchise, I don’t care for the latter two entries. But, it’s worth noting that The Next Generation is more entertaining than Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III simply thanks to how nutty it is, for better or worse. Its strange satirical streak undoubtedly, but slowly, brought Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation to its cult status. I wish I could get into this cinematic cult, but I just can’t buy into it. And, love it or hate it, TCM: The Next Generation brought this original iteration of this franchise to an end.

 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation  is currently available on Digital, Blu-Ray & DVD. 

On our next trip to the Lone Star State, we’ll see a classic remade with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)!

 

Other Texas Attractions:

Leatherface (2017)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In lookingCOMICONRead More

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