A prom worth remembering: A critical review of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” (1994)

There’s always the threat of less-than-savory elements emerging at a family Thanksgiving. Sparks fly when Uncle Jojo doesn’t approve of who cousin Steve voted for, or Aunt Minerva doesn’t approve of Blake’s new boyfriend, and some people start to wonder whether that says more about Aunt Minerva or Blake. But as you tuck into your turkey or plow into your mashed potatoes this Thursday, it’s important to remember one thing: No matter how bad your family seems, it could always be worse.

Take Leatherface’s kin, for example. The members of the Sawyer family seem to change every film, but no matter what year you’re watching them, they’re always up to no good. For example, in 1995 or thereabouts, Kim Henkel, writer of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” decided to steer the family in a different direction than they’d been going since 1986. Not a more peaceful direction. Just different. Whether it was a good direction is one of the bigger conundrums of slasher cinema.

Jenny (Renee Zellweger) and a bunch of her disposable high school chums are trying to do the whole prom night thing–which includes leaving the dance early to go off and fiddle around. Unfortunately, when they wreck their car in the middle of some spooky woods and call for help from a real estate ready model home, they find themselves engaging in another high school tradition: assault by a family of psycho killers.

The Sawyers include some of the usual unusual characters, including Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey), a conspiracy theorist enthusiast with a fondness for gadgetry, and W. E. (Joe Stevens), who quotes American politicians and Renaissance thinkers from behind a shotgun. There’s Leatherface as well (the late and large Robert Jacks), and a few other surprises. The night will get far deadlier, and much weirder, before Jenny and her remaining friends have an opportunity to get back to civilization.

For a slasher reboot made about 20 years after the original, “The Next Generation” does OK. That Henkel is at the helm is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because he adds legitimacy to the proceeds, but it’s a curse because there becomes a certain expectation of what this film will be, and it ain’t that. “The Next Generation” cannot recapture the compact paranoia of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In fact, it actually works in the reverse. While the original was one half atmospheric slow burn and one half screaming chainsaw nightmare, this film is one half competent high school thriller, one half kinda wacky hillbilly horror.

And the high school thriller parts are just competent almost to the point of boredom. There’s some nice photography–good moving camera, atmospheric fog floating through the trees–but nothing you couldn’t see in a well executed Syfy original flick. It’s the second half where the really interesting stuff starts to happen, and the film shifts from focusing on the clueless teens to the psycho family.

It’s in that wacky half that the film becomes paranoia by way of the modern mundane–the updated horror of government conspiracies and being on the FBI’s surveillance list, sure, but also of clap-on lights in the model home and the very presence of a model home for real estate purposes. Horror, as always, is in our midst. Even the cannibalistic Sawyer family orders take-out pizza for dinner. It’s fascinating drudgery, if you have a talented enough cast to sell it. And luckily this film does.

McConaughey, unsurprisingly, shines as Vilmer. He’s playing stock crazy–stock crazy character type 17, to be precise, the paranoid showman–but he builds his crazy over the course of the film in an enjoyable way. Tonie Perensky also stands out as the sleazy real estate agent, as well as James Gale as a quietly contrasting (maybe) Man in Black.

There’s also some smart scripting. After their inevitable capture, one of the city kids (Tyler Cone) tells hillbilly baddie W. E. that his father’s a lawyer. W. E. counters by quoting Machiavelli and forcing him inside the murder house. “I had to use your bathroom anyone,” the kid mumbles in response. Funny. There’s even some meta-commentary, maybe. A bumbling brunette (Lisa Marie Newmyer) shouts that there’s a killer in the woods, and later reveals she made it up just to be interesting. Nice. But that’s the film you have to want to see. Atmosphere and intrigue rather than cool killings and gross outs.

The real point of interest is Jenny, whose introduction in the film suggests that she, like the Sawyers, knows the horror of the commonplace. Her abuse at the hands of her stepfather is something that she apparently has to deal with regularly, and it’s something that she attempts to overcome–to varying degrees of efficacy–using the proxy of the Sawyers. Sometimes she gets the upper hand on them. Sometimes she gets tied to a chair.

It’s a cycle of abuse and autonomy and back again–perhaps symbolized throughout by Jenny’s loss of glasses and loss of self-sufficiency, and illustrated by the art-film ending–that punctuates the movie, whether the force that’s really in control is a shadowy Illuminati or the unsettling convenience of the modern era.

Is “Texas Chain Massacre: The Next Generation” a good slasher film? Maybe not. But it is an interesting one, and it should be acknowledged as such. Sometimes a flawed-but-interesting film is more valuable than a technically good film that has nothing to say, and Henkel obviously has a lot to say, even if he’s a little scattered in his saying of it. Also, Zellweger hasn’t ultimately badmouthed it. Maybe that’s because she’s a good sport. Or maybe it’s because she recognizes her character is reasonably deep and her acting is appropriate. Maybe one’s memory of a schlocky horror film is colored by how capable one is of looking back at it and saying: “Not bad. Not bad at all.”

My name is Vorhees…Jason Vorhees: A critical review of “Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives” (1986)

So when your slasher film series hits a brick wall, there are only so many things you can do. You can keep making the same movie over and over again, but critics already accuse you of doing that; you can start taking unrelated scripts that are floating around and cannibalize them by putting your franchise name on them, but you don’t feel you’re quite there yet; you can try to re-group and release something more cerebral and psychological, but you just tried that and it didn’t work so well. Nossir, you are Friday the 13th, it’s 1986, and there’s only one thing to do: get funny.

“Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” was the first film in the series to introduce comedic elements, as well as blatantly supernatural ones. For those of us who came of age in the “Jason Takes Manhattan” to “Jason X” era, this is, no doubt, a more familiar hockey mask. Of course, Jason was never the most talkative fellow, so it doesn’t change his character an awful lot to make him a reanimated slasher. He wasn’t very animated to begin with.

Additionally, the comedic, even metafictional, elements were taken as a boon at the time. This was still years away from the Scream franchise. This was cutting edge stuff (insert machete joke here). The film reportedly did better with fans and critics than its predecessor, and for once, this blog agrees with fans and critics.

Tommy Jarvis, hero of the previous couple of pictures (now played by horror actor Thom Matthews), apparently has nothing better to do than dig up the corpse of Jason (you’d think he’d know better, given how the last film turned out). When he does so, Jason gets zapped by lightning, wakes up and starts murdering again. Tommy tries to tell the local sheriff, but he fails to convince anyone and gets locked in jail for his efforts. In the meantime, Jason, free to wander around with strawberry jam dripping from his machete, starts heading back to Camp Crystal Lake, which has been renamed Lake Forest Green for PR purposes, and is loaded with clueless counselors and campers…

Right from the start, with a quick nod to the James Bond films of all things, “Jason Lives” wants to tell you it’s not going to take itself too seriously. It’s not going to pull any punches either. Since the genre has shifted back to horror from mystery, the focus is allowed to return to fun killings, and they’re all handled quite well. The most memorable sequence might be Jason dispatching a group of executives playing paintball in the woods as part of a corporate retreat, although there’s nothing wrong with Jason vs. a Volkswagen or Jason stalking a camp full of middle school children either.

Except the film is actually pretty series about its metafictional elements. The dialogue drips with clever comments. When Tommy bursts into the sheriff’s station, panting and proclaiming that Jason, well, lives, the sheriff notes his performance and asks him: “You in show business?” Elsewhere, a woman begs her passenger not to get out of the car, telling him that she’s seen enough horror movies to know that anyone in a mask wandering the woods in the middle of night is not good news. These are little moments, not laid on too thick, but intelligently and organically inserted into the script.

Even the simple act of renaming the camp begs the question: Is it possible to escape the past by changing something cosmetically? In terms of franchise cinema, is it possible to escape past missteps by just putting a new name on what is basically the same film? Of course not. Real change must come from within.

Also, due to the film’s black comedic nature, I honestly wasn’t sure who would survive until the end. If any movie wasn’t going to be shy about eliminating main characters, it was this one.

The film was well acted, well shot and well blocked by thriller director Tom McLoughlin, and well scored, but that’s to be expected. Series vet Harry Manfredini returned to compose the soundtrack, and the score is appropriately spritely and dynamic to fit the film’s character, as compared to the ungainly bombast of the previous entry.

Kids in the camp act less like horror movie victims and more like horror movie fans, cheering and cracking jokes while hiding from Jason under their bunk beds. As one character on screen puts it: “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” Maybe so, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Go back to bed: A critical review of “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning” (1985)

In ancient Greece, Plato reasoned that outside of our dynamic and unreliable reality was another layer, one where perfect versions of everything we encountered here was represented in higher, more abstract or idealistic forms, which existed forever. This had a profound impact on how we perceive Truth–the big truths with capital Ts–in the Western world.

Part of Plato’s theory was the concept that anything created or observed on Earth, no matter how perfect it appeared, was only a shadow of its ideal form. However, it is our duty as human beings to strive to create or perceive or communicate as close to those forms as possible, whether through instruction or intuition.

That grossly reduced philosophy lesson is to introduce one point. This blog cannot guarantee that “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning” is the worst slasher thriller that has ever been made–that is, the ideal form of bad slasher movie–but it’s probably comes as close to that as humanity deserves, or at least deserves to see.

The sixth film in the series is actually an interesting “Friday the 13th” movie for someone like me, who is not a frequent watcher of the series, to start with because it opens on two men digging up Jason Vorhees’s corpse, so it’s obvious they haven’t seen a “Friday the 13th” movie in a while either.

Of course Jason awakens and murders them, of course a child is watching and of course it’s all just a dream–digging up the monster and “it was all a dream”: two cliches for one–by one Tommy Jarvis from the last film, now a young adult portrayed by John Shepherd, who is heading to a psychiatric retreat for teens.

It seems Tommy is plagued by recurring nightmares of Jason, who is presumed dead. But when people start disappearing, Tommy starts to wonder where his nightmares end and reality begins.

The idea of a psychiatric retreat being the location of the murders is actually kind of cool, but the film wastes it by populating the retreat with cliched stereotypes. There’s a too-cool black dude, random biker kids from down the road, a grumpy retreat employee and his hot girlfriend, and a fat kid with chocolate running down his chin, all of whom are at the retreat for no better reason than to be killed by Jason as soon as he shows up.

The murders weren’t even entertaining for the most part. There’s a murder in an outhouse that’s kind of fun, and there’s a murder with a belt at a picnic gone quite wrong that packs a graphic punch, but those were countered an ax attack on a car and a “can’t hear the killer” killing, along with that sleepy climax involving Jason, a barn and people who have apparently forgotten how ladders work.

The climax is clumsy and confusing, with young people flailing away uselessly at Jason, who does not use their clumsiness to his advantage. Then it’s all capped off with an unnecessary twist that felt divorced from the plot, and I found myself wishing for a stereotypical sheriff in a hospital to explain the whole thing. That’s when the scene shifted to a hospital, where a stereotypical sheriff explained the whole thing. I had been kidding, but thanks anyway movie.

The film is largely professional otherwise. There’s some fine horror photography, some decent thriller editing and was directed by Danny Steinmann, who rarely took credit for his films. The score, by series veteran Harry Manfredinin, is almost too professional, creating a sense of bombast that’s not mirrored by the goofy action on screen.

And therein lies the problem, folks, the reason why this is an idealistically, Platonically bad movie. It’s not bad enough to be funny. It’s a purely professional example of a bad thriller. In other words, the film is not a train wreck. Far from it. But it is a bus ride, and over the course of its 92 minutes, that bus hits every cliche on bad slasher thriller lane.

Tasty: A critical review of “The Midnight Meat Train” (2007)

“The Midnight Meat Train” is one of those films that gives you exactly what it says on the label. There will be a train, it will have meat on it and it’s going to hit its stops at midnight. So that should wrap that up. As for what the hell any of that means, and why we should care, the film has mixed results in providing answers. Nevertheless, it does manage to pull off the neat trick of satisfying gore hounds and film aesthetes alike.

As an art photographer, Leon (Bradley Cooper) is not being taken seriously by the community. His photos are good, but they’re not great, and they definitely aren’t original. He’s told he’s just re-treading the same territory every other “edgy” photographer in the city (is it supposed to be New York?) already has. In an effort to produce something singular, Leon starts haunting the subway at night, where he starts following another rider, a silent and imposing man (Vinne Jones) who appears to be murdering riders for some larger terrible purpose.

“Meat Train” has genuinely earned a quiet cult status, and it seems to have done so on three strengths. The first is visual. The movie was directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, who rose to fame with the film “Versus,” a stylish Japanese swordplay fantasy that I’ve never seen but sounds totally up my alley. He carried his gift for slick, exciting images over to “Meat Train,” and the result is a film that’s very aware of itself in a good way. Fights are photographed at odd angles, and tense chase scenes are littered with portals and mirrors, as if the city itself were studying the characters on screen.

The second reason is literary. The movie is a Clive Barker adaptation, which gives it literary horror cred. And it’s a pretty solid adaptation at that, keeping Barker’s flair for the occult and carnivalesque. The result is a narrative that evolves from a straight serial killer movie to one with supernatural suggestions in a surprisingly organic way.

The final reason is a certain cast member. That’s right, it might be hard to believe, but that is Ted Raimi, the brother of director Sam Raimi, as one of the nameless victims.

Oh, also, there’s Bradley Cooper I guess. Long before producing “Joker” or acting in “American Sniper,” Cooper was hacking up meat people on a train. At midnight, no less. And two years before “The Hangover” too.

Most of the cast is decent or thereabouts, but at least they all seem to be having fun, particularly Brooke Shields as the owner of an art gallery. The big standout is Jones as the butcher and suspected serial killer Mahogany. It’s a necessarily physical performance, but Jones–with his background as both a heavy in various thrillers and a footballer in old Blighty–is more than up for the challenge, handling fights and conveying silent subtleties with ease.

The film does not have any problems doing anything. Its problems occur when it does too much. A few of the actors look like they’re having too much fun, for example. There’s a little goofy scenery chewing, which is acceptable when its source is some nameless subway thugs but harder to take from the two leads. And sometimes the gore, which the film relies on quite heavily, is delightfully queasy, while other times it’s eyeballs-popping-out ridiculous. For a film that built its mystery so well, that’s disappointingly jarring. Also, the ending could have been about three endings shorter than it was. “Meat Train” is not a long movie, but it feels curiously padded in its final act.

So “Midnight Meat Train” is not steak, but it is a quality horror hamburger, maybe even one of those nice hamburgers at a sit-down place. Perhaps there is something more to it. If one were clever, one could make an argument that Leon and Mahogany mirror each other in their seemingly ceaseless quest to produce something grand for a fickle audience–art in one case and ritualistic murder in the other; in fact, one could suggest both characters mirror the directors of so-called “smart horror” movies, those who try desperately to prove to critics and fans that their work deserves to be called art and not exploitation, and that the film’s constant look back on itself is a literal reflection of that symbiotic relationship. If one were clever. But, in the meantime, here’s more squished eyeballs.

Fires, family and freaky anthologies: November 2019 news

We don’t know if anyone out there in bloggo-land has heard of (or has had any reason to follow) the fires in the Los Angeles area, but this blog definitely has. It’s caused some property damage and a dip in air quality, but it’s also been quite convenient, as it gives us a great excuse for why we fell out of our brave new blogging schedule almost immediately.

But never fear, for we’re on track this time, we promise. Probably.

Halloween has ended, and we’re now in November, a time when thoughts turn from ghouls to turkey, gratitude and relatives, so we’ll be looking at a couple of slasher cinema’s most famous families this month. First up on the chopping block is the Vorhees family–mostly its most famous son–as well as another that ties into our year-end theme of “before they got famous.”

Speaking of family get-togethers, if you’re looking for an early Christmas present for anyone who’s into reading horror, I am happy to recommend “Crypt Gnats,” a short story anthology themed around graves and graveyards that was recently released by Jersey Pines Ink. A quick glance down the table of contents might reveal why. I wrote one of the stories.

Which is not to say I’m pushing the book simply because my story is in it. Pretty much every story is a readable piece pulp horror. Standouts include the opener, Tim Decker’s darkly fantastic “Gator’s Song,” as well as Andrew Punzo’s man vs. nature “Who Owns the Earth? Who Sells the Sky?” And those are just two of dozens of stories in the anthology. Eager readers are sure to stumble upon other fun bits, like David Perlmutter’s “Ghoulfriend,” a perhaps predictable but quick and satisfying horror punchline, not unlike ones penned by Robert Bloch back in the day.

If you’re more of a procrastinator as far as holiday shopping goes, stay tuned for a review of a meaty movies that featured one of Hollywood’s tenderest hamburgers before he got seasoned. Is all that an overly extended pun or is it just ground chuck? You’ll have to wait and see.