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October 18-24, 2006

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Cult Leader

Meat Is Murder: And so is every 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' spin-off

By Steve Palopoli

HORROR CINEMA needs its mythologies, and Tobe Hooper's 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre would seem to be a damned good place to start one. It is, in my opinion, the best American horror film of all time. First off, you've got that great title. If there's any massacre more American than a chain-saw massacre, I can't imagine what it would be. And setting it in Texas, where everything's bigger, that's genius. Already you've supersized your horror by 20-25 percent right there.

Then of course, let's not forget Leatherface. This is perhaps the coolest name in any movie ever. I'm actually thinking of naming my first-born child Leatherface. Only if it's a girl, of course. Anyway, cool name and he's got a chain saw—that alone would probably have been enough to make Leatherface a lasting horror icon. But Hooper and his co-writer also Kim Henkel gave him that mask of human flesh, thus providing the remote Ed Gein connection, a clever pseudo-vérité touch that has added immeasurably to the movie's mystique over the years.

All right, so let's review: great film, great name, great boogeyman. And yet, every attempt in the last three decades to build this modern horror myth with a sequel or remake or anything else has been god-awful. The new prequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, is actually a sequel to the 2003 remake produced by Michael Bay. That was terrible, but this is worse. The funny thing is, they're both pretty much the same movie. The newest film may have an origin story tacked on to the beginning, but no movie should be allowed to be called a prequel if it retreads the same story as both the remake it's a sequel to and the original film they're both based on. A bunch of kids on a road trip run into a crazy family in a crazy house in a crazy town in Texas—we got it the first time, thanks. The Beginning even has the exact same final chase scene (spoiler warning), with Leatherface running out into the road after the last surviving interloper, chain saw in hand.

But it was watching the Leatherface "birth" scene at the beginning that really made me think about how pointless and ultimately doomed any TCM spin-off is going to be. Does anyone need to watch Baby Leatherface coming out of the womb? Hell, no! It was so ridiculous it actually had me laughing. But there's a serious point to be made: The original characters created by Hooper and Henkel weren't meant to be real people with backstories. They were archetypes; symbols of something that had gone horribly wrong with post-industrial America. They have larger-than-life surface size, but no depth, and if you try to explain too much about them, they start to seem silly.

The original Texas Chainsaw is like that as a film, as well. It's more like a moving painting than a movie. And like a nightmare, it engages only your nerves and your primal emotions, cutting your intellect entirely out of the process of watching it. Why is there a chicken in a birdcage? Well, you can't ask that—it just is. In fact, it's Bob Burns' surrealist design for the house that ties this movie together; you can't find your balance as a viewer when thrown into the twisted world he laid out onscreen.

Unfortunately, the sequels and such have bought into the outrageousness of the movie's title rather than the craft of its delivery. You only see a chain saw touch flesh (barely) once in the original film—and ironically, it's when Leatherface drops the saw on his own leg. In the sequels, especially the two most recent movies, the violence is gorier, but also slicker and bland.

While it's fun as always to blame Michael Bay, it should be noted that Hooper made a terrible sequel himself (1986's Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a borefest fans try too hard to like), and Henkel even directed the worst entry, 1994's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. It's hard to bemoan any of these movies too much, knowing that Hooper and Henkel are finally seeing a financial reward for their original masterpiece, after getting famously screwed out of the profits in the '70s. But I'll tell you, only two great cultural moments have come out of the many attempts to imitate the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One is Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, and the other is that moment in the horror-comedy Idle Hands when Seth Green grabs an electric knife and yells, "Look at me, I'm Leeeeeatherface!"

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite Leatherface moment here.

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