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.”

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