Here’s a question for the philosophers and art critics: If an artist sets out to make something that is deliberately terrible, and they succeed… have they really succeeded?
It was 1996. I was a mere 18 years old. I was going to college in Tacoma, WA, and I was slowly becoming a movie obsessive. A nearby video store (yes it was that long ago) featured a special deal which I took advantage of on a weekly basis: Five movies, five days, five dollars. For the months I lived within walking distance of that video store — Backstage Video by name, and still in operation — I consumed a perhaps-unhealthy glut of feature films, the volume of which I have yet to match even in my later years. I wasn’t discerning — if it was off-the-wall, it was being rented. If it had even a modicum of acclaim, I bagged it.
The horror section in particular was unsafe from my probing; any and all obscure horror flicks — no matter how awful — went into my pocket. On rare occasions, my lack of discernment proved to be fruitful — I discovered Lars Von Trier’s THE KINGDOM this way — but for the most part, I was eating a lot of garbage. THE WILLIES, HEADLESS EYES, and numerous rape-revenge flicks whose titles I can no longer remember all became part of my vocabulary. Naturally, when TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION finally hit VHS in 1997, I was intrigued. I rented it, holed up in an abandoned classroom (with the TV and VCR therein still hooked up) and watched it by myself.
94 minutes later, I was depressed beyond imagination.
The fourth film in the TCM series, NEXT GENERATION is not just one of the worst horror sequels out there, but for many years, I found it to be one of the worst feature films I had ever seen. It took the deliberate filth of the original film, and bodily forced it — against its bloody will — through a fine mesh of slicing slapstick terribleness. It teetered somewhere between badly-done gut-wrenching horror, audience-mocking parody, and baffling, inappropriate comedy. The plot was incomprehensible. It also featured a truly confusing ending, wherein it was posited — and I’m not making this up — that the cannibal hillbilly family central to the TCM series was actually in league with the government, and that they were being secretly funded (?) by the CIA. Oh yes… and a vague theme of spiritual transcendence. Pile on top of that a mealy-mouthed performance by a young Renée Zellweger and a coked-out, spazzy Matthew McConaughey, and you’ve got a bona fide canister of bonkers cinematic tear gas.
A bit of backstory: Initially, the fourth TCM film — originally meant to be called THE RETURN OF THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE — had a good deal of trouble securing financing. The co-screenwriter of the original 1974 film, Kim Henkel, was set to write and direct, and no one was interesting in buying. Eventually the film was financed, written, filmed, and a distribution deal was made with Columbia-TriStar to release it in 1995. But — for reasons yet to be be revealed — the studio elected to shelve the film indefinitely.
It stayed in cold storage for two years, leaving horror fans and Fangoria readers ever-speculative. It wasn’t until Zellweger became a star in JERRY MAGUIRE, and McConaughey became a star in A TIME TO KILL, that the studio felt the need to finally unleash the flick. It went straight to video in ’97, under the title of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION.
The story — such as it is — follows a group of Texan teenagers on the way to attending their high school prom. These are bitter, sour, cheating, asshole people who bicker constantly. (You can always spot a weak screenplay when the characters constantly bicker. It’s what bad screenwriters use instead of characters or actual tension.) These four asshole teens, Zellweger among them, get into a car wreck. They’re taken in by a local cop (Tonie Perensky), who flashes her breasts and comes onto Zellweger. She calls a tow-truck driver named Vilmer Slaughter (McConaughey) who — in a long sequence — kills the teens, chases Zellweger, reveals he’s in league with Leatherface (Robert Jacks, who previously played a voice in Richard Linklater’s SLACKER), and eventually drives our heroine to the TCM murder house where she is tormented by the hillbillies therein.
McConaughey holds nothing back as Vilmer, grinning and cackling like something out of a Tex Avery short. The character also has a mechanical leg, which he operates with a hastily-constructed remote control, allowing him to lurch and limp with comic exaggeration. McConaughey has never admitted anything to this effect, but it appears he was taking his physical and facial cues from Jim Carrey — at the time, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, who had recently appeared in ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE and THE MASK.
Recall that the 1990s was a decade of increased stylization, and a lot of feature films — good and bad — were meant to play as hyper-real parodies of well-worn conventions. As such, TCM: TNG feels more like an arch parody of the original film than a straightforward sequel. The characters are, it appears, meant to be mocked and derided, and the plot is meant to seem absurd and stupid. Although it was made by one of the screenwriters of the original, it seems as if the makers had a good deal of contempt for it. On the film’s commentary track, Henkel admits he was trying to do something more cartoonish… maybe something more like 1986’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2?
The problem with this approach is that the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a filthy, filthy movie. It’s one of the most visceral, raw, challenging, gut-wrenching horror movies ever made, and you would be forgiven for thinking it was an actual snuff film. Think of it as “kitchen sink realism” — only the kitchen sink is full of human viscera. Many have tried to imitate its gory immediacy, but few managed to reach its striking levels of bodily dread. How, then, does one satirize that? By making it even gorier? By making it self-aware? By turning the victims into characters we hate? None of these approaches, it seems, would work… but the filmmakers, bless their hearts, try them all.
Zellweger’s character is whiny and obnoxious, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of initiative; the other teens are toxic and awful; and while one might expect a woods-bound hillbilly cannibal cult to be somewhat maniacal, the crazed family in TCM: TNG is played incorrectly, shooting for silliness rather than a raw naturalism.
Just when the film begins to wear you down with scene after scene of dull, badly-filmed torture, it pivots into something utterly perplexing: A character in a black suit named Rothman (James Gale) arrives at the hillbilly murder house — in a limo — to tell Vilmer and the Slaughter family their “mission has failed” in allowing Zellweger to feel “the true meaning of horror.” Rothman and Zellweger will eventually end up in the back of that limo together after Rothman has dispatched the Slaughter family. He explains there has been a dark Illuminati-like conspiracy at work for decades, the function of which was to allow people to, via secret government sponsorship (I guess), reach a level of spiritual enlightenment through extreme fear and torture.
Either this ending was meant to be a stoner-conceived, self-aware take on the way horror movies function in the minds of their audience (à la THE CABIN IN THE WOODS), or it was meant to play into the way isolated people with schizophrenia can sometimes fall victim to flights of paranoid fancy about government agencies controlling their thoughts. Neither of these theories, presented in half-baked fashion at best, make the film bearable.
Some sequels gain a lot of cultural traction by riffing on and deconstructing previous films in their franchises — this year’s THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a good example of how that can work. But, I will hasten to add, the film also has to function unto itself beyond its need to satirize. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION doesn’t function as horror. It’s not scary. It’s just shrill and unbearable. But, frustratingly enough, it doesn’t function as satire either. If it was really trying to take the piss out of the TEXAS CHAINSAW series, it would have more of a thematic thrust, more of a point, and better-thought-out arguments. As a limp half-satire, it only staggers into your eyeballs as a gross insult to fans of the original. It’s horrible to watch, demeaning to think about, and insulting to audiences. If that’s not one of the worst horror sequels, I don’t know what is.
The film was released to widespread critical scorn (it currently holds an inauspicious 16% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), was rejected by fans, and remains a blot on the filmographies of two Oscar-winning actors. Even completists like myself will find themselves squirming uncomfortably. If you find yourself in a brave mood, you’re a little bit high, and you simply must see it… well… maybe even then you should steer clear.