Tuesday, February 18, 2014

All In The Family: Mending Texas Chainsaw 3D

I want to start off with a quote from the end of the film. In this piece of dialogue, and throughout the story, we are told the main theme.
“Farnsworth has instructed to give you a set of keys to the manor. The largest key opens the fortified door to the wine cellar. There, you will discover a metal door. Behind it lives your cousin: Jedediah Sawyer, your only remaining blood relative. He is family-bound, and will protect you. He simply requires your care in return. Edith, you are the last of my line of Sawyer. My blood runs through you. The decision to stay is yours. Just remember: you are a Sawyer… and this is home.”
Texas Chainsaw 3D wants you to believe that it’s a movie about family, and while I’m completely on board with that, it not only throws this wonderful idea out the window, it substitutes it for meaningless plot devices and uninspired characters that could have furthered the story’s integrity. This is not going to be a review but rather a breakdown of its problems and my attempt at fixing them. I will not include any criticism of the bland acting, the appalling CGI or its cliché-ridden script. 

Before I get into the bulk of this article, I must explain the idea of family throughout all the Texas Chainsaw incarcerations except for Next Generation because I refuse to watch it a second time. In the 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I always felt like the Sawyers (their surname was not introduced until the second film) were a bastardization of the humble Midwest family, and thus a grim, ugly satire of the American Dream. In the film’s final moments, we are introduced to the relatives in full. Like a distortion of the infamous ‘Thanksgiving” by Norman Rockwell, the Sawyers are seated together at the table, laughing, mocking and ready to kill our heroine. However, the element of family is present. Just like Rockwell’s vision of an ideal 1950’s household coming together for a grand feast, the Sawyers have gathered together to kill their last victim. It’s ugly, twisted and darkly comedic.  

In 1986, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II, we are introduced to Lieutenant Boude “Lefty” Enright whose sole mission in the entirely of the film is to seek vengeance on the Sawyer family for killing his niece and nephew. Already, there is the concept of family rivalry and retribution. (Think of a Hatfield and McCoy type rivalry). In the last third of the film, when Lefty invades ‘Nam Land, the Sawyers are seated together at their table, echoing the final moments of the first film. I will even argue that the dynamic between Drayton Sawyer and his two sons, Chop Top and Leatherface, is much more expressed. Their squabbling banter and slapstick antics seem inspired by those dysfunctional family reunions that we all experience. Drayton also seems adamant with preserving the family name by winning the local chili contest, and mentions the family skill of knowing good meat. There, we are introduced to hereditary pride.

Finally, we have Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Here, we are introduced to a whole new family but if anything we get a more intimate understanding of how they function and interact peacefully despite their cannibalistic nature. Some of the best moments are when our heroine, Michelle, is tied in the kitchen where the family prepares to cook her friend. Tex, one of the older brothers, hangs Michelle’s friend upside down while his kid sister kills him with a hammer-swimming device that her other older brother made.  This entire sequence serves as a furthering of previously established themes from the first movie, albeit cartoony and ham-fisted. There is a beautiful moment, as pictured above, where Leatherface embraces his kid sister. Norman Rockwell would be rolling his grave. Even the chainsaw has The Saw Is Family engraved on it, furthering the notion that family is all the Sawyers have.  

As for the 2003 remake and the 2006 prequel, I will not touch on them too heavily. With that said, the family in these incarnations are extended to aunts, uncles and a nephew. Like the ’86 film, though not as loony, there are squabbles between Sheriff Hoyt, the patriarch, and Leatherface. In fact, it seems like we are treated to a whole community of Hewitts that live within walking distance of each other. If anything, this franchise is built on family relations, so it seems only natural for Texas Chainsaw 3D to take this notion and run with it. I was all for it, too. I wanted this film to explore the family dynamic further, but I suppose it was all wishful thinking.

Texas Chainsaw 3D picks up right after the events following the 1974 film, where the sheriff and a posse attempt to arrest and enact vigilante justice one the Sawyers. However, the posse ends up shooting everyone, and then burns the house down. One of the posse members finds a young Sawyer woman with a newborn, kills her, and steals the baby to raise it with his wife. Decades later, the baby is now our heroine, Heather. We come to our first problem. We are never given enough time to understand Heather’s character or motivation! All we know is this: she has a boyfriend, and two other friends. She works as a supermarket butcher, and her relationship with her ‘parents’ is cold. We never get to see her feel isolated, lonely or detached. She seems relatively happy, but maybe if we extended some shots or added a few scenes, we could see that it was all a put-on to conceal her loneliness. She never has that “I feel like I am missing something” discussion with her boyfriend, and we hardly get any insight into her relationship with her seemingly unsupportive parents. If we spent just a little more time understanding her interactions with them, it would accomplish A) Heather’s feeling that she doesn’t belong with this family, providing leeway into the adoption conversation, B) it would portray her parents as crucial plot elements to juxtapose with her relationship with Leatherface later in the film, as opposed to stock clichéd rednecks, and C) a more extensive argument in which her parents prohibit her endeavor to Texas would make us understand Heather’s plight and little more clearly. If the writers took their time in fleshing out their character, rather than giving her jet-black hair and eyeliner, then perhaps we would have felt some sympathy towards her. What we get instead is a broad, uninspired final-girl.

Let’s get into the two pointless sub-plots. Our first plot-device is presented as a handsome drifter who, after charming his way into our heroes’ adventure, proceeds to pillage the house that Heather’s real grandmother willed her. Of course, Heather and her friends are blissfully unaware as they are in town gathering food for a barbeque. The idea of a robber could have worked and here’s how: as our thief makes his way throughout the house, pocketing jewelry and stashing silverware in his duffle bags, we follow him with the point of view of Leatherface (the killer’s POV). This adds voyeuristic tension. Seeing a stranger steal the possessions of his departed Aunt angers him, thus he kills him before he could reach the basement. This accomplishes two things: 1) it uses the robber as a means to convey Leatherface’s motivation rather than a cheap ploy to reveal our villain and provide a first victim, and 2) it sets up, early on, the concept that Leatherface is the protector of the Sawyer family lineage, and thus a guardian for our main heroine. None of these concepts would be realized until the very end. Instead, we get a dull sequence of the burglar pocketing valuables only to get his head shattered when he opens the door to Leatherface’s basement den, rendering his entire character pointless. We sacrificed thrill and character for dull, by-the-numbers storytelling.

Our final sub-plot: Heather’s boyfriend Ryan is having an affair with her best friend Nikki. In the film, this plot-point leads nowhere; Heather never finds out about the affair. It’s added to the story as an excuse for nudity and implied sexual conduct. Since the writers killed off Nikki’s boyfriend early on, they needed to find a way to get her naked. Thus, we get detoured away from time that could have been spent furthering Heather’s character. Here is what could have happened if the writers needed this plot-point: Perhaps Leatherface knew all along that Heather was his lost relative (her grandmother, his aunt, told him). He would then feel the need to protect her. When he witnesses the affair, he understands that Ryan, through his dishonesty, is hurting Heather, which prompts him to attack the couple but only kills Nikki. Chronologically, it must happen before Heather discovers Leatherface for the first time. Then, the film plays out normally where Heather is brought down to his lair. In this gruesome but possibly touching moment, we discover that Leatherface actually cares for her. Maybe he shows her his masks. As per the film, Heather escapes and hides in the graveyard. Leatherface finds her, she meets up with Ryan, they attempt to escape, Ryan dies, Heather is chased through the carnival, etc. Once more, this useless plot-point could have furthered Leatherface’s intentions of protecting his only relative, and may have possibly yield a devastating final moment between Ryan, the adulterer, and Heather our victim.

Finally, we have two moments near the end that could have been hauntingly symbolic. As I said before, if we provided a little more hostile interactions between Heather and her parents, it would juxtapose the scene where Leatherface finds her tied up by the town deputy. In that evocative and eerie moment, he lowers his chainsaw (possibly symbolic of a hostile life now passed) we see the love and affection he has for her, and conversely we see Heather feel as though she’s “at home.” When he cuts her down from the ropes, it serves as an allegory for Leatherface releasing her from her wrongful inherited bonds. It’s a shame because this scene comes so close to fruition but is tarnished by the deus ex machina birthmark element. Leatherface, just seconds before sawing Heather in half, sees her birthmark in the shape of the Sawyer family crest. Was this concept ever mentioned or alluded to in the film? If so, it was much more subtle then it needed to be.

The scene just before the final montage in which Heather’s grandmother posthumously narrates her letter, we find Heather and Leatherface together in the kitchen. This scene is played out as one final setup to a cheap jump-scare when it should have been the heart of the entire story. Heather, a little scared and slowly overcoming her shock, should embrace Leatherface as he is the only remaining relative of her true family. Also, this is supposed to be same Leatherface from the original 1974 film. He was already somewhat childish in his actions, despite wielding a chainsaw and a skin mask, and to see him embrace Heather as if she was his mother would have been an eerily touching moment. It would be bold but memorable. Leatherface, now in his fifties or sixties, should be tired and showing signs of age, making him much more sympathetic. He is no longer his youthful self anymore. Maybe, much like Heather, he too feels lonely and detached. That would mean that their unity is even greater as they fill each other’s voids. The film would have ended on an ambitiously high note.

Family is the main theme in the entire Texas Chainsaw oeuvre. It may be portrayed subtly or blatantly, but it’s always there. I wanted Texas Chainsaw 3D to set new grounds and turn our beloved horror movie icon into an anti-hero. I wanted it to take that bold new step in a completely wild direction. Sadly, what is given to us is a bland, inferior sequel to an iconic masterpiece. Texas Chainsaw 3D did not need to live up to its predecessor’s reputation, but it should have taken the franchise to its inevitable destination. When you have characters spout off lines like, “family is family,” or “no one loves you like your family,” it serves as a grim reminder of what could have been. The entire story was one enormous block of marble waiting to be sculpted into a striking figure. All it needed was careful molding, precise engraving, and delicate smoothing. Instead, the writers and producers fired up their chainsaws and reduced it to a haphazard abominable mess. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.


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