Years before Michael Myers (“Halloween”), Jason Voorhees (“Friday the 13th”) and Freddy Krueger (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) began slashing innocents, Leatherface terrorized teens (as well as filmgoers) in a little picture called “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which kick-started the modern horror villain subgenre.
The movie spawned a number of gruesome sequels, remakes and offshoots, including “Leatherface,” which opens in limited release Friday (Alamo Drafthouse-Richardson and DirecTV). The chainsaw-wielding maniac of the title, shown during his teenage years, kidnaps a young nurse, escapes from a mental hospital (with three other inmates) and is pursued by authorities on a grueling and violent road trip.
To help you prepare for the new movie, here’s a primer on the other films in the series.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
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Directed by Austin native Tobe Hooper (“Lifeforce,” Poltergeist”), who died earlier this year, the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was filmed in Central Texas on a shoestring budget, but its nightmarish story, unrelenting pace and iconic villain make it one of the scariest, most famous horror movies ever made.
A vanload of teens wanders off the main road, picks up a creepy hitchhiker (Ed Neal) and stops at a decrepit farmhouse occupied by sadistic cannibals. Much mayhem ensues, including a long, harrowing scene in which Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a hulking brute wearing a human skin mask and wielding a chainsaw, chases Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), a beautiful blonde dressed in a pair of white hip huggers “straight outta” the ’70s.
This hot, sweaty, claustrophobic film, which was narrated by an uncredited John Larroquette (of “Night Court” fame), isn’t as graphically violent as you might remember, but it holds up remarkably well. Grade: A
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Perhaps sensing that he couldn’t match the intensity and sheer excellence of the first film, Hooper went a different direction with the sequel, opting for comedy, star power and, most notably, gore, courtesy of makeup maestro Tom Savini.
Sporting a large cowboy hat, Dennis Hopper plays Texas Marshall “Lefty” Enright, the uncle of Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin, who were victims of Leatherface and his family in the first movie. Enright, who wields a mean chainsaw himself, has spent the past 13 years investigating the disappearance of his family members, and of the various chainsaw murders. Amusingly, the chainsaw family now lives under a Wild West amusement park and is a popular Houston caterer.
Despite improved special effects and a multimillion-dollar budget, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” is hardly the “Empire Strikes Back” or “Godfather II” of horror sequels, but fans of over-the-top cinema may enjoy it. Grade: C+
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)
More of a remake of the first film than a true sequel, “Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III” was written by splatterpunk novelist David J. Schow, whose script was heavily tampered with by producer Robert Engelman and director Jeff Burr. Further, more than four minutes of the film’s running time — mostly gore — was cut to give it an R rating (as opposed to an X).
What’s left is a darkly humorous, semi-coherent movie in which Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff), now brandishing a shiny new chainsaw and living with a new family of cannibals, terrorizes young couple Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler), who are traveling across Texas.
New Line Cinema, which bought the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise to capitalize on the popularity of Freddy Krueger in its “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, succeeded in its aim to make Leatherface the star of the film. Grade: C
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
Unlike “Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III,” this movie, which was originally titled “The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” relegates Leatherface (Robert Jacks) mostly to the background. It unwisely places the spotlight on Vilmer, played by a pre-famous Matthew McConaughey, whose over-the-top performance is more annoying than endearing.
Also early in her career, Renee Zellweger fares better as the smart (relatively speaking) and capable Jenny, one of four prom girls terrorized in the woods by Vilmer and Leatherface. The plot is derivative of the first and third films, but movie buffs may get a kick out of seeing the two future stars.
Said film buffs should keep an eye out for cameos by Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain and John Dugan, who played Sally, Franklin and Grandpa (respectively) in the first movie. Grade: C-
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Unlike the pointless, shot-for-shot copy of “Psycho” from 1998, 2003’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” does what a good remake should: it keeps faithful to the spirit of the original while adding flourishes of its own, such as the disturbing realization that Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) is wearing the face of one of the key characters as a mask.
Brutal, cynical, gruesome and humorless (the only “bright spot" is Jessica Biel, looking terrific in tight jeans and a bare-midriff top), the movie won’t appeal to everyone — it was widely panned upon release, and it currently holds an audience score of 57% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, its darkness and ferocity can’t be denied as a vanload of teenagers, headed to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Dallas, die off one by one at the hands of the chainsaw-wielding psychopath and his equally demented family. Grade: B
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
Set in 1969, this depressing, nihilistic, repetitious film purports to be a prequel to the 2003 remake, but viewers learn very little about the origins of Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), beyond the fact that his mother died a horrible death giving birth to him in a slaughterhouse. Why is he disfigured and largely mute? Why does he torture innocents? Why does he wear human flesh? The filmmakers missed a great opportunity to answers these questions, instead dishing out more of the same.
Before leaving for Vietnam, two brothers we don’t care much about take a road trip through Texas with their pretty, but dull girlfriends we care even less about. They have an accident and end up in a secluded house occupied by Leatherface, leading to hacking, slashing, cannibalism, dismemberment, rape and murder. As in the equally sadistic, but superior film that precedes it, R. Lee Ermey, known for his military roles, chews up the scenery as Sheriff Hoyt. Grade: D+
Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)
“Texas Chainsaw 3D” ignores the other follow-ups to the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” clearing the board for a fresh (or should that be rotten?) sequel. The citizens of Newt, Texas, exact revenge on Leatherface (Dan Yeager) and his cannibal clan by torching their house. Years later, Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario) and her pals travel to the small town to collect the inheritance left behind by her grandmother. Unfortunately, Leatherface is part of the bargain.
The film attempts (and fails) to humanize the murderous Leatherface and make him semi-sympathetic, but Frankenstein’s monster he ain’t. When the film was new in theaters, viewers squealed as the chainsaw was shoved into their face and blood spattered on the camera, but this hardly made up for the films many flaws, including characters who make the type of dumb decisions you only see in ridiculous horror movies. Recommended for fans of bad cinema only. Grade: C-
Brett Weiss is the author of “Retro Pop Culture A to Z: From Atari 2600 to Zombie Films.”
Take a ‘Chainsaw’ road trip
If merely watching the movies isn’t enough to quench your thirst for “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” mania, plan a road trip to The Gas Station, a filming location from the original movie. It’s in Bastrop, about 40 minutes southeast of Austin. There you can rent a cabin, eat barbecue and check out horror movie swag in the gift shop. Just don’t pick up any hitchhikers along the way.
- The Gas Station
- 1073 Texas 304, Bastrop
- To rent a cabin: firstname.lastname@example.org