So here’s a shocker for ya: It ain’t that bad.
Yeah, alright, calm down. It ain’t that good either. It’s been that kinda month, honestly. Generally, January is thought of as the all-around worst month for movies, since no studio puts out anything they are particularly proud of in the month after the holidays when everyone’s broke. Sometimes that makes things interesting, something too offbeat to be marketable will come out and surprise us all, or at least something interestingly bad. But most years, it’s just dull. Lots of middle of the road stuff with nothing much worth talking about. Gangster Squad, Broken City, The Last Stand... I tell ya, there’s nothing worse for a critic than an unremarkable movie.
Right, sorry, got off on a tangent there. Mind if we go on another one?
The evolution of the slasher genre fascinates me, becomes it seems to mostly revolve around trying to come to grips with its own utter lack of growth and creative success. When you think about it, you may notice that there are far more good movies that mock, deconstruct, invert, or put a comedic spin on slashers than there are actual good slashers. I mean, how many straightforward slasher films can you name that were genuinely, no-qualifiers great? A handful at most? There’s Psycho, assuming you really stretch the definition, there’s the original Halloween... and that’s all I can think of. Sure, there are a few more that are okay, but none that really deserve to called “great”. Let’s face it, no one goes to a slasher movie to be scared. They go for the trashiness, the sleaze, the gore. It’s a genre that just never rose to anything. It’s pure B-movie guilty pleasure, that’s its peak.
As a result, the genre tends to be at its best when it just embraces those limitations and stops taking itself seriously. If it can’t scare us, it can at least make us laugh. For my money, the Friday the 13th series, arguably the face of the genre, didn’t get good until Part VI: Jason Lives*, when they struck just the right tone: humorous enough to be enjoyable without being a complete farce.
But aside from abandoning all hope of actually being scary again and just being really graphic Bugs Bunny cartoons, there’s a more recent change in the way slasher films are being approached that I’ve noticed. Slasher filmmakers have known for a long time that for the most part, nobody gives a shit about their protagonists—it’s all about the slashers. The rest of the characters are just corpses waiting to happen at best, and annoyances waiting to be punished in spectacular fashion at worst. Sure, there’s the occasional would-be victim that manages to be memorable, but for the most part, audiences go into a slasher movie actually rooting for the killer almost by default. After all, he’s the one who’ll be providing the actual entertainment.
Slasher movies figured this out pretty quickly. Over time, they began to actively encourage this mindset, making the characters more deliberately unlikable, and ramping up the gore and body counts. Before long, the unspoken role of a slasher villain was harbinger of retribution, punishing people for their various misdeeds. Not an idea unique to slashers, to be fair. Horror stories have revolved around characters receiving horrific fates for their sins since long before film was invented. Though in slashers, those sins were usually “being annoying” and “having a sex life”.
Which brings us finally to Texas Chainsaw 3D, a film which should be notable because, if nothing else, it’s the first time I’ve seen someone take the idea of the audience rooting for the killer to its logical extreme. There’s no way to make this point without spoilers, but in my defense the film is very upfront from the beginning that the real monsters of the story aren’t the cannibalistic Sawyer clan and their chainsaw-wielding juggernaut; it’s the ignorant, reactionary townsfolk who formed a lynch mob to burn them alive without trial. They actually manage to frame the story so that the cannibals are the lesser of two evils**. Once again, the “who’s the real monster?” moral is in no way new to horror, it’s just new to slashers.
For the sake of full disclosure, I admit that to date I’ve seen a grand total of two TexChainMass*** movies: the 1974 original and this. But in comparing him to his slasher contemporaries, it’s my assessment that Leatherface can’t really be handled the same as the average blade-wielding mute giant. You can’t play him the way you would Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, because frankly, he by himself is not very intimidating. Even in his first appearance he cuts a rather comical figure. Clumsy, oafish, always grunting, his mask ill-fitting. This is not a criticism of the original, mind you, because all of that was very intentional. The horror in the first film came out of the revelation that Leatherface is just the tip of the iceberg, a sad, pitiful pawn of the Sawyer family, cowardly and abused. He’s not the unstoppable, deadly force... he’s Gollum.
Before I saw the original TexChainMass, people who described it to me would often use words like “realistic” and “subtle”. Those people are very bad liars. No film about a cannibal who wears a human face and chases people with a chainsaw can be described as “subtle”, regardless of the opening text claiming that the film is based on actual events (a massive exaggeration), or the somewhat documentary-style feel to the cinematography (which I imagine was because of the budget more than anything else). The film is very extreme with a somewhat campy edge to it, and took itself far less seriously than audiences seem too.
My point is that trying to make Leatherface actually scary is a losing battle. You can either make him a joke like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 did (I’m told), or you play up the sympathetic angle of him as the childlike victim, abused and manipulated into being essentially the Sawyers’ attack dog. The latter is the route the original took, but here, they’ve taken it a step further. Now it’s not the Sawyers that are the real monsters that won’t leave poor Leatherface alone, it’s everyone else. Leatherface is the loyal defender of the misunderstood Sawyer family. It’s a surprisingly new fresh take on the character, and one that I think has some potential.
That’s not to say this is the best possible realization of the concept. The film revolves around Heather, played by Alexandra Daddario of the Soul-Piercing Meg Foster Eyes. Her whole character arc is about discovering she’s a Sawyer, which apparently means she a born killer. All well & good, except said arc remains motionless for most of the movie then suddenly goes from 0-60 in 0.3 seconds in the third act. Contrary to what the “Doom caused Columbine” crowd will tell you, people with a slightly morbid taste in artwork are not serial killers waiting to happen. It’s about as forced a behavior change as you can get.
God damn, I feel like I could go swimming in those things.
But overall, it’s a pretty decent slasher film. It offers at least a few good practical gore scenes (some pretty bad CGI in there too, but we can ignore it), plays to its audience well, and if nothing else, getting the franchise away from Platinum Dunes can only be a good thing. I honestly believe this is a better direction for the series, and I’m curious to see where they go with it. Just so you know though, the best scene by far isn’t until after the credits, so stick around.
*Seriously, let’s not pretend the first one was anything more than derivative and uninspired from now on, shall we? It was just a lazy Halloween wannabe with some Psycho and Carrie thrown in. The Jason movies were just never very good, not even at the beginning.
**That may sound odd, but honestly it’s easier to get audiences to hate a character if their crime is more tangible to the average person. What I mean is, most of us have never in our lives been directly impacted by a serial killer or a cannibal. Some of us have, and we’ve all heard about such real-world events, but normally the kinds of things a slasher villain does, while horrific, are too extreme to resemble anything most people have experienced in their lives. It coats the actions of the Sawyers and Leatherface in a comforting layer of unreality. However, everyone has had to deal with assholes in their life. Assholes are everywhere. So it’s actually pretty easy to get someone to sympathize with the serial killer if the other guy is just an asshole, because being an asshole is a more tangible thing to audiences than serial killing.
***For such a long title, we’ve never really come up with a good abbreviation, huh? We could use the initials, but Turner Classic Movies might sue.