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“This Was Supposed to Be a Spiritual Experience”: The Mid-Nineties Ennui of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation”…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

I’ve never been able to watch it with any kind of perspective. To me it just looks like some crude backyard movie a bunch of kids slapped together. There seems to me to be, on one hand, a group of people who were strictly horror fans who venerated it. Only over time has it come to occupy a very peculiar position, and I still don’t have any concept of what that is. I think we just wanted to hang a bunch of people on meat hooks, chop ’em up, and sell tickets at the theatre.

– Kim Henkel discusses The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is a very nineties film, speaking to a very unique set of nineties anxieties.

There is something very revealing and candid about certain kinds of bad movies. Of course, many bad movies are just bad, hacky executions of well-worn concepts without any insight or skill to anchor them. However, there are some bad movies that seem driven by a strange source of passion and energy, which makes them bizarre snapshots of a particular time and place. It is almost a sort of candour, an unguarded bluntness, that allows them to articulate their perspective without any of the consideration or care of a better film.

The Next Generation is one of those films. It is, to be entirely clear, a terrible film. It is sloppily constructed. It is terribly framed. It is incoherently plotted. Its characters are drawn in the crudest of terms. Most damningly, it combines two particularly awful subgenres of the “bad movie” archetype. It is both a horror movie that is not scary and a black comedy that is not funny. It is, by all accounts, a disaster. Watching the film, the question isn’t how the release was delayed for three years. Instead, the question becomes how the film was ever released at all.

However, whether in spite of because of all of this, The Next Generation feels like a weird snapshot of a particular mid-nineties mood. Somehow, while groping around in the darkness, it accidentally puts its finger on the pulse.

One thing that is almost immediately clear about The Next Generation is that writer and director Kim Henkel doesn’t appear to have a great deal of affection for the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is interesting, because Henkel co-wrote The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Of course, Henkel’s contributions to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are somewhat overshadowed by director Tobe Hooper. The pair had come up together as young film makers, developing the short film Eggshells together. However, they seemed to have very different visions of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Notably, although both would take producing credits on the reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they never collaborated directly on another film in the franchise. Hooper moved straight on to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, working from a script by L.M. Kit Carson. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II turned up the gore and absurdity from the original film, but also turned up the star wattage and budget. Shot on a budget over two million dollars – more than ten times the budget of the original Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre II featured a chainsaw sword fight between Dennis Hopper and Leatherface.

After Hooper bowed out for Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, leaving it to director Jeff Burr and writer David Schow, Henkel returned to the franchise for the fourth film in the series. The Next Generation ostensibly pitched itself as a soft reboot of the series. The opening text made allusions to the original film and the two “minor” incidents that had followed. However, there were enough familiar elements that it felt like a straight-up remake in places. Several of the key sequences and beats were lifted wholesale from the iconic original, down to the car driving the survivor away from the scene as Leatherface wails in frustration.

However, as much as The Next Generation lifted entire set-ups and gags from the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre – the teens being chased over rural America, the big family meal sequence, the seemingly dead elderly relative who turns out to be still alive – it was very clear that The Next Generation was a very different sort of film than the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There was a significant gulf between the original film and its third sequel, reflected in a number of bizarre and intriguing way.

It is hard to argue that all of these differences were intention. However complicated Henkel’s relationship to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might be, it seems fair to concede that Hooper was a phenomenal director. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might seem quaint by the standards of some more modern horror movies, especially given its reputation, but it remains a visceral and haunting experience. Like so many of the “slasher” movies that have endured – Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, even Scream and Saw – it is staggeringly well made and effective at what it wants to do.

Watching The Next Generation, it is immediately clear that Henkel is nowhere near as effective a director as Hooper. This isn’t a particularly cruel piece of criticism, as very few directors are as skilled as Hooper, even allowing for the debate and discussion around Hooper’s later career. To this day, The Next Generation remains Henkel’s only credit as a film director. Directing horror is tough. Like comedy, horror relies on timing and rhythm. Horror and comedy cannot simply rely on the cast or the premise; the film itself needs to frame the scares and the gags, to make sure the jump moments and punchlines arrive on cue.

The Next Generation is a disaster on these terms. The film isn’t scary. The moments of horror feel clumsy and ill-judged. While Henkel repeats a lot of the familiar elements of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he cannot make them scary. At various points in the film, Heather is placed in the freezer and thrown on a meathook, but none of these sequences are especially tense or unnerving. Instead, they are presented as matter-of-fact. The closing sequence finds Leatherface whirling around his chainsaw, wailing as Blue Moon At Dawn by The Coffee Sergeants plays on the soundtrack. It looks more like an indie music video than a horror film.

However, there is also a sense that at least some of this is intentional. Henkel seems openly disdainful of these elements, even as he folds them into his narrative. The film consciously and overtly plays down the more salacious elements of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The family are no longer cannibals, instead feasting on takeout pizza. There is surprisingly little blood or chainsawing in the film itself; Leatherface never manages to chainsaw a person, instead settling for attacking a chimney and an antenna. A lot of the violence is kept consciously and explicitly off-screen.

Characters like Barry and “W” are dispatched with bloodless hammer blows to the head. In fact, it’s entirely possible to watch The Next Generation and come out unsure of whether Barry and “W” are actually dead. At the very least, they would have severe brain damage, but the biology of horror movies is not always consistent with the biology of the real world. The Next Generation declines to offer the sort of vivid no-ambiguity gore-riddled spectacle that audiences had come to expect from low-rent slashers, let alone those including the word “Chainsaw” in the title.

Again, it is tempting to read too much into this. It is entirely possible that the film lacked the budget for massive amounts of blood and guts. Chainsaw murders may well have been cost-prohibitive for a movie shooting on a shoestring in rural Texas. Similarly, it is possible that this lack of clarity was entirely unintentional, that Henkel intended to clearly communicate that Barry and “W” were both dead, but lacked the skill to make that point in a concise and unambiguous manner. Certainly, there is relatively little in The Next Generation to earn the benefit of the doubt.

This carries over the portrayal of Leatherface himself, played by musician Robert Jacks. It seems highly likely that no small part of the hatred of The Next Generation is rooted in the fact that its portrayal of Leatherface is ridiculous and absurd. The film takes one of the most iconic horror monsters of the twentieth century, and has no real idea what to do with him. Leatherface never gets to use his chainsaw on anybody. The family is not engaged in cannibalism. He clearly wants Jenny’s face, but he’s repeatedly presented as pathetic and impotent. He is bullied by “W” and largely ignored by Vilmer.

Again, Occam’s Razor suggests that a significant portion of this is down to simple incompetence. Jacks lacks the sort of physical presence that is necessary for a character like Leatherface to work. The film has no idea what to do with the character, and so he just seems to wander around, while the film is more invested in characters like Darla or Vilmer or “W.” However, there is also a sense in which Henkel seems to be doing at least some of this deliberately, consciously trying to undercut the character. Some of the more frustrating elements of the character are down to poor execution, but some are intentional.

After all, there is a sense in which The Next Generation seems to grapple with Henkel’s frustration with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The character of Rothman seems to exist primarily to voice his frustration with the mundanity of it all, wandering into the creepy rural shack primarily to talk dismissively about the family. “I want these people to know the meaning of horror,” he states. “Horror. Is that clear?” Later, it is implied that Rothman brutally murders Vilmer out of frustration, going so far as to apologise to Jenny for the ordeal that she just endured – a gigantic homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

“It’s been an abomination,” Rothman confesses in his limousine. “You really must accept my sincere apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. I suppose it’s something we all live with. People like us who strive for something; a sense of harmony. Perhaps it’s disappointment that keeps us going. Unfortunately, it’s never been easy for me. One of my many failings.” To a certain extent, Rothman seems to be playing the role of author, the man who pulled the strings to set in motion this whole grim spectacle, but who has ultimately become disillusioned with it all.

Very few movies wrap up with an authorial insert directly apologising to the audience. However, it is unclear whether Rothman is apologising for the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its influence on the horror genre, or whether he is demonstrating a canny sense of self-awareness. There is a strong sense that Henkel is effectively trying to dismantle the myth of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, arguing aggressively that its sadistic delights were never the point of the exercise at all. It’s a bold statement, one that borders on hubris. After all, Henkel appears to be critiquing a film far superior to his own.

At the same time, it does suggest that Henkel intends for The Next Generation to exist as a corrective of – or at least a commentary upon – the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The mere presence of Rothman and the conscious efforts to pick apart the original film suggest that The Next Generation has something to say. The Next Generation is not a good film in any tangible sense, but it is at the very least about something. Henkel has some grand commentary to make about the state of the world, even if he seems to view the trappings of the franchise as impediments rather than instruments.

The Next Generation doesn’t do many things well, but it does a lot of things interestingly. Most obviously, Henkel is very interested in themes and ideas. There’s a strong sense of performativity running through The Next Generation, of characters pretending to be something that they are not. Barry pretends to be the son of a doctor or a lawyer. Heather pretends to be dumb and demanding. Jenny pretends to be frumpy, even though Heather knows that she “has a body to die for.” Characters are frequently presenting manufactured facets of themselves.

This is obviously reflected in the family at the heart of the story. Leatherface obviously presents a falsified version of himself, literally wearing the skins of his victims as a mask. Darla and Vilmer are similarly manufactured; Darla is very proud of her breast implants while Vilmer’s defining feature is a remote-controlled cybernetic leg. This goes even beyond the movie’s insane central conceit that this murderous family of rural Texans are actually just a front for a sinister cabal that has controlled the world for millennia.

Similarly, there is a recurring sense that Henkel wants to say something about family and femininity. It is notable that the two male students – Barry and Shawn – are dispatched quickly while Heather and Jenny suffer. Similarly, the most significant sequence trimmed from Henkel’s original cut finds Jenny being abused by her stepfather, clarifying that her own home may not be that much healthier than that inhabited by Vilmer and Darla. The Next Generation posits the heteronormative family unit as a trap, not only through the grim mirror of the monstrous family at the heart of the film, but in the lives of its victims.

At the start of the theatrical cut, Jenny’s parents argue as the news plays; the chaos outside the home has breached the household. Walking with Barry, Heather confesses that her own family situation is similarly toxic. “I’m just like my mother. She can’t stand my father. But she stays with him because she wants a certain kind of life. I don’t care what anybody thinks. That’s still the best way to get it.” This is a materialist parody of family life, like the one in which Darla and Vilmer live. Rothman goads Darla, “Why a woman like you has anything to do with this cripple is a mystery to me.” She responds, “Bastard, you know exactly why I’m here.”

There is even some indication that Vilmer himself is trapped within this system, although this may be the luxury of having a performer as good as McConaughey in a part that is otherwise rather thankless. Vilmer is presented as a man who is deeply frustrated by his lot in life. Repeatedly, he tries to crush women literally under his foot; he attacks Darla in this way as Jenny watches, and he murders Heather this way at the climax. However, each of these acts is mirrored with some measure of pain from Vilmer.

Vilmer aggressively and repeatedly cuts himself with a knife in the sequence where he attacks Darla, an act of self-harm that probably involves more blood than any other scene in the film. After Vilmer has used his remote-control leg to murder Heather, he has a genuine physical and emotional breakdown, collapsing into a wreck as his manly bravado implodes. Appropriately enough, this is when Rothman shows up, to immasculate him further. There is a sense in which Vilmer is just as trapped in this grotesque parody of domestic existence as much as Heather’s mother.

Of course, having an idea is not enough. The idea has to be developed and executed. However, to give The Next Generation some credit, its issues often seem to have less to do with a lack of ideas than with any real sense of how best to explore those ideas. There’s a strange appealing nineties-ness to The Next Generation, right down to the title which is itself an allusion to Star Trek: The Next Generation. (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would not be the last pop culture franchise to appropriate that subtitle; Degrassi: The Next Generation comes to mind.)

One of the more interesting aspects of The Next Generation is the manner in which Henkel consciously modernises the murderous family at the heart of The Next Generation. Although they are recognisably horror movie villains, they are quite far removed from the family in the original film. Most obviously, they only live one mile away from civilisation. The teens manage to walk from their car crash into town, from town to the house, and from the house back to the town, all within a short period of time. The family do not hunt their victims out of a rundown gas station or any such thing; Darla works from an office.

Of course, it is intentionally vague what exactly Darla is selling; like Chandler on Friends or Wally in Dilbert, it is unclear what exactly her job is. All that matters is that she has an office. It has a couch, a watercooler, a selection of magazines. Darla wears a purple power suit. Indeed, The Next Generation even seems to imply that Darla is the breadwinner of the family. She works a job with regular office hours and directs the men around her. Vilmer seems resentful of this, complaining about the batteries that she doesn’t have time to charge. Darla eschew’s the old-fashioned idea of gender norms. She doesn’t cook dinner, she orders it.

The monsters in The Next Generation are modernising. Vilmer has a bionic leg and Darla has breast implants, as if hinting as some form of transhumanism. “W” might look and sound like a hick, but he is at least passingly familiar with the work of great minds. He might live in the middle of nowhere in the Deep South, but he quotes Union generals, renaissance philosophers and great British writers. Even Leatherface (his name shortened to “Leather”) is more openly modern, more comfortable in drag and more accepted by his family. The ritualised family dinner has given way to takeout pizza.

This is even apparent on the film’s soundtrack, drawn largely from Austin-based artists to provide a bit of local flavour. The Next Generation eschews the traditional aesthetic of horror movie soundtracks in favour of something a bit more representative of the time. Crushing Shawn with his truck, Vilmer sticks on a cassette of the rap-based “I Got It Made” by Skatenigs. Driving home with the takeout pizza, Darla blares the trippy dance song “Aphrodite” by Cecilia Saint from her car windows. (The lyrics are particularly heavy-handed; “Aphrodite’s in my car” as Darla drives in her car.)

One of the film’s more interesting sequences involves Darla picking up takeaway pizza with Jenny tied up in her boot. The guy working at the takeout counter hears some muffled screaming from the boot, and mentions it to Darla. When she suggests that he come out and take a look, he sighs, “I better not. I might get in trouble or something.” Similarly, a police office engages with Darla just after she adjusted Jenny in the boot, but he is more interested in flirting than actively investigating. (Similarly, a troupe of children march past while Darla threatens Jenny.) There is an obliviousness here, an anomie. There is a disconnect.

This is interesting, capturing something of the anxieties of the nineties. The nineties found America becoming increasingly globalised and modernised and networked. There was a palpable anxiety about the erosion of eccentric spaces on the wide-open American frontier, as improved road networks and increased airline traffic and even the rollout of the internet made the whole country seem much smaller and much more intimate. The shadows were shrinking, and so the monsters had nowhere to hide.

It seems fair to ask if a story like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seems as plausible today as it did on release, if the audience could be convinced that there are still places haunted by creatures and oddities as surreal and monstrous as those depicted in the film. It should be noted that the number of serial killers operating within the United States has actively declined since the eighties, reflecting advances in record-keeping and forensic science. Similarly, American popular consciousness seems to have lost interest in those sorts of monsters, perhaps acknowledging this reality.

This was a broader theme in nineties horror. The X-Files returned that idea again and again, most notably in episodes like Home or Detour. There was a strong sense of the American continent as a place populated by wondrous grotesques, but that the forces of modernisation were pushing those monsters out of their comfort zone. Some monsters adapted like the creature stalking suburbia in Arcadia. Others haunted new frontiers like the artificial intelligence in Kill Switch. However, The X-Files repeatedly suggested that the world was becoming too small and too interconnected to really support old-fashioned monsters.

This ties into the other palpable nineties anxiety running through The Next Generation, the fear of encroaching globalisation. This was an anxiety that ran through a lot of nineties popular culture, and probably fed into the xenophobia that defines so much of contemporary politics. (This understanding is part of what makes the nineties nostalgia at the heart of Captain Marvel so effective.) It was certainly a recurring motif on The X-Files, not only in its recurring motif of alien colonisation, but also in the international flavour of its conspiracy.

One of the most prevalent conspiracy theories of the nineties speculated that a sinister “new world order” controlled the world. The phrase itself was drawn from a speech given by President George H.W. Bush, but given a sinister literal spin. The central thesis was that the lives of ordinary citizens were no longer in their own control, and instead dictated by shadowy figures working without their awareness or consent. These forces were planning a coup to take control of the United States, or building a bunker under Denver Airport.

Oliver Stone drew heavily on this in films like JFK and Nixon. Given how much the portrayal of Jenny’s home life in the director’s cut owes to Natural Born Killers, it seems safe to cite Stone as an influence on Henkel. To a certain extent, this paranoia would be literalised later in the decade in the premise of movies like The Truman Show or The Matrix or Dark City. However, The Next Generation is very much attuned these nineties anxieties about the way in which the world works, and the sinister forces at play.

It has been argued that the sinister Rothman in The Next Generation serves as a commentary on the horror genre as a whole, positioning The Next Generation as something of a thematic precursor to movies like Hostel, Vacancy, Martyrs or Cabin in the Woods. It seems like Rothman is trying to build a horror movie, whether for his own sinister purposes or for the benefit of Jenny. “You don’t think the FBI has this place under twenty-four-hour surveillance?” Vilmer taunts Jenny. “You don’t think there’s transmitters in all these walls?”

When Rothman states that he wants “these people to know the meaning of horror”, to whom is he referring? Has he designed the situation as a trial by ordeal for Jenny? Is he broadcasting coverage of it around the world? Is he talking about the audience at home watching the film? To be fair, this is something of a cliché in modern horror cinema, to the point that even a relatively mundane early year horror like Escape Room hinges on the idea of horror as a spectator sport. However, there is an interesting meta-textual element to The Next Generation that is sorely underdeveloped.

Again, a better version of The Next Generation would draw a connection between that and the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the family treated their victims as meat; they ran an abattoir, consuming (and packaging for consumption) their victims. In keeping with the shift from the seventies to the nineties, perhaps The Next Generation is offering a more abstract and metaphorical form of cannibalism; the family are preparing their victims for another sort of consumption, selling on not their meat but their suffering. There is something very primal and existential in that idea.

In its own way, this ties back into those nineties fears about “the new world order.” These conspiracy theories served as an expression of deeper fears about a world that appeared to be moving out of control. The Soviet Union had collapsed. The “evil empire” was defeated. There was no opposite ideology against which the United States might define itself, no war left to win. It was the “end of history”, only without an actual ending. It was “the unipolar moment”, but how can one chart a course when there is only one direction. The world was no longer building to anything, it was just hurtling through the void.

In that context, the belief in conspiracy theory was almost comforting. The world was not arbitrary and chaotic if somebody was running the world. Even if the design of the world is senseless and arbitrary to Vilmer and Jenny, the mere existence of Rothman suggests that there is some larger plan. Of course, The Next Generation is not especially nuanced or careful in expressing its anxiety. Darla boasts of these men that “nobody, I mean nobody, knows their names”, and the script avoids naming the character in dialogue. However, the opening credits helpfully identify the family’s mysterious benefactor as “Rothman.”

This is a rather unfortunate expression of some of the ugliness nestled at the heart of these sorts of conspiracy theories, most notably the antisemitism that permeates belief in a “new world order.” Rothman is an explicitly Jewish surname, even beyond its obvious similarity to “Rothschild.” Before George Soros became a figurehead for reactionary fears about globalisation, there was speculation that the Rothschild family were secretly pulling the strings from behind the scenes. As such, branding the mysterious villain of the piece with a Jewish surname feels like a very ugly expression of some underlying fears.

This is perhaps why bad movies like The Next Generation are so revealing, because they seem so unguarded in their expression. Indeed, Rothman is a collection of unflattering stereotypes drawn from nineties anxieties about globalisation, unfiltered and unrefined. Rothman is unambiguously foreign and explicitly European, seemingly French. More than that, he takes a moment to unbutton his shirt to show Jenny some strange piercings on his belly. Like a lot of scenes in The Next Generation, the scene has no purpose except existing unto itself. It demonstrates that his body has been transformed, but also explicitly feminised.

Again, these fears are not unique to The Next Generation. They are common to a lot of the media exploring these anxieties about globalisation during the nineties. Notably, The X-Files occasionally stumbled awkwardly into this sort of xenophobia in episodes like Teliko or El Mundo Gira or Badlaa. At the same time, the show was also capable of deconstructing or interrogating this, openly mocking the antisemetic aspects of conspiratorial thought in episodes like Kaddish or Drive. The issue with The Next Generation is that the film seems to have no real guard, no real filter. There is nothing between impulse and content.

In that way, The Next Generation feels like a fascinating snapshot of the nineties, a moment captured in time for better and for worse, in a manner that is perhaps more revealing than anybody involved would have expected.

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