Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, as a Halloween special, we tell the strange tale of the fourth film in one of horror’s favorite franchises, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.
The rough brilliance of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so specific, so tricky to attain and sustain, it’s not surprising no one’s managed to replicate it – though certainly not for lack of trying. Tobe Hooper, who helmed the original, took the first shot himself with Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2; released 12 years later, it was Hooper’s attempt to spotlight the dark humor that had been mostly overwhelmed by the sheer terror of the original. Leatherface, four years later, tried to recalibrate again, framing its title character as a Jason/Freddy-style sequel-spawning supervillian, but it didn’t land, though years later there was another cycle of remakes, prequels, and sequels, all far slicker and more formulaic than the sui generis original. But in between those trilogies came Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, a film remembered less for its contribution to the franchise than for the skill of its casting director.
You see, the low-budget, Austin-made fourth installment in the series featured, in its leading roles of the final girl and the villain, a pair of then-obscure local actors: Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey. Shot after Dazed and Confused (in which they had, respectively, a walk-on and a breakout role) but before its release, it played a few regional and horror festivals under its original title The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre – a considerably goofier title which makes it sound like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is the name of a monster or killer – and then sat on the shelf for a good long while. But then in 1996, Jerry Maguire and A Time to Kill happened, and its makers had a hot commodity on their hands; they planned a big theatrical roll-out, until the forces of studios and agents allegedly put the kibosh on that. So it got a limited theatrical release at the end of summer 1997 and a VHS release in time for Halloween the following year, where many a video store consumer wondered why they hadn’t heard of this movie starring America’s new sweethearts. They quickly found out.
TCM: TNG was written and directed by Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the original film and takes something of an “okay, my turn” approach to the material. This flavor is particularly strong in the picture’s aping of the first film’s opening crawl, which connects us to the original while winkingly acknowledging “two minor, yet apparently related incidents” in the years since. Zellweger stars as Jenny, her considerable beauty inextricably marred by the fact that she wears GLASSES, ON HER FACE, LIKE ALL THE TIME. “You’ve never had a date in your life, you’re so ugly!” insists another character, though it’s immediately clear that Henkel doesn’t agree, opening the film as he does with an uncomfortably long close-up of Zellweger applying and reapplying lipstick to her famously bee-stung lips. She’s on her way to the high school prom, and it’s sort of amazing how quickly the picture settles into the rhythms of every other generic horror movie, with prom-night shenanigans for its painfully stock characters: Zellweger’s bookworm, her stoner buddy (John Harrison), her vapid but popular gal-pal (Lisa Newmyer), and the bloviating douchebag (Tyler Cone), who hates everyone and everything. (“There is never any place to turn around! These assholes don’t know how to make roads!”)
McConaughey co-stars as Vilmer, the ring-leader of this version of the backroads killers-n-cannibals family, making his first appearance behind the wheel of a tow truck, which he dismounts with the help of some sort of cyborg leg situation. He sets about killing the minor characters and abducting Zellweger, then letting her slip away, then chasing and abducting her again; the picture collapses into an annoying loop of near-escapes and recaptures, while McConaughey’s performance starts at 11 with nowhere to go. He overacts wildly, bellowing and cackling and sweating up a storm, and if you think a slasher movie sequel is the one place where he won’t find an excuse to say “All right, all right, all right,” well, I have some surprising news for you.
Between the horror of the first installment and the absurdity of the second, the Chainsaw Massacre series didn’t know whether it was coming or going by this point, and that confusion is all over TCM: TNG. It wants to capture the series’ occasional bleak humor, but the “jokes” are either nonsensical (the real estate agent who starts telling Zellweger about her fake boobs within ten seconds of their introduction) or fall into the realm of pandering hillbilly-mocking. Trouble is, it’s not scary either; the sound of that chainsaw firing up still raises gooseflesh, but their Leatherface is weirdly small and simpering and unthreatening, and too many of his pursuits are accompanied by bad ‘90s metal music. And though Henkel’s script broadly apes memorable moments from the first film – dragging a screaming girl into a freezer and onto a meat hook, a window leap, a “family dinner,” flagging down motorists at the end – the echoes only serve to underscore how short he’s coming up here.
Viewed now, the strangest angle of The Next Generation is the introduction of a never-really-explained conspiracy-and-paranoia angle, which is served via some odd talk about people watching and observing the family’s abandoned farmhouse, and the third act appearance of a mysterious, Alex Jones-ish figure who tells McConaughey, “I want these people to know the meaning of horror,” before he heads over to lick Zellweger’s face. He shows up again at the end, and tells her of the previous night’s events, “You really must accept my sincere apologies… It’s been an abomination.” It’s the most truthful moment in the movie.