According to movie nerd legend, it all began with a long line in a department store. Way back in the early 70s when the late great Tobe Hooper was still an amateur filmmaker and occasional college lecturer, he was waiting at the checkout in a crowded store letting the imagination run wild while picturing ways to cut through the crowd. His eyes wandered over to a chainsaw and one of the most gruelling shoots in film history later, a legend was born. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was an indie film made by Austin outsiders that instantly captured the public imagination with one of the most memorable exploitation movie titles of all time. Fortunately, the film attached to that title was a genuine masterpiece of relentless horror that took grindhouses and drive-ins by storm. It played for years and broke records for indie film success. We’ll never know how much it made since a mob-run company was in charge of distribution and fudged the numbers. But the impact was undeniable.
Leatherface became an instant horror icon, paving the way for masked killers long before the term “slasher” was even invented. Yet even amongst the titans of the slasher subgenre, Leatherface remains unique. He’s a family man rather than a lone stalker and a very human monster that occasionally even draws pangs of empathy for being trapped in a brutal life that he never quite understands. Sequels were inevitable, yet Hooper’s masterpiece came so early that it was over a decade before one arrived. After that, the franchise was picked up by a variety of opportunistic sleaze merchants and we’ve been treated to at least two Chainsaw flicks per decade ever since. Remakes, sequels, prequels, video games, comics, and toys, Leatherface and his rotating family of cannibalistic butchers have been spun off into almost everything. Sadly most of it hasn’t been very good.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is such a specific, raw, real, and vicious horror experience that it’s never really been equalled in all the rip-offs and spin-offs to come in the nasty horror flick’s wake. Matter of fact, most have them have been godawful. Yet is speaks highly of the power of the original classic and concept that filmmakers keep going back to the well and audiences continue to embrace Leatherface’s further adventures no matter how deeply they fail. This week, we’re all being treated to yet another Texas Chainsaw entry. It’s the second film of the franchise to be called Leatherface and also the second attempt at spinning Leatherface’s origin story into a movie. So, it comes as no surprise to reveal that it is not great, but there is a silver lining in that it’s not even the worst entry in this series released in the last five years.
We here at CGM thought we’d take this opportunity to rank every film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, from the flaming crap heaps to the gruelling classics. There have been eight of these movies now. You probably don’t even remember half of them. So, why not join us for a trip down memory lane through all the masterful highs and painful lows of Leatherface and his family, who live by the saw and die by the saw—typically both within 90 minutes.
8) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
The movie that abruptly killed off the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise is every bit as bad as it’s reputation. Written and directed by Tobe Hooper’s original screenwriting partner Kim Henkel, the film was likely conceived as some sort of macabre comedy that never registered. Instead we’re treated to a bunch of gags that don’t land, pointless gore that looks cheap, attempts at scares that feel pitiful, and a misconceived subplot about Leatherface becoming trans that was in bad taste at the time and looks even worse today. The flick was such a disaster that it sat on an embarrassed studio’s shelf for years and only got a release when two of the unknown stars—Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey—got famous. Sure, there’s some campy comedy to be found in watching McConaughey overact outrageously next to Leatherface but otherwise, this misconceived wallowing in horrible taste and cartoony excess is best left forgotten. It’s a shame the producers didn’t burn the negative and wipe this garbage out of existence when they had the chance.
7) Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)
Here’s another rough one. The folks behind this tasteless trash decided to cockily ret-con the franchise and create a direct sequel to the original Chainsaw made in 2013. That meant that the story was sent in the 70s and for some reason was about a distant relative coming home to Leatherface. It’s quite a dumb and exploitative bit of trash nowhere near as clever or reverent to the original chainsaw as it thinks it is.
Another disposable sequel memorable only for an unnecessarily incestuous finale that seems like it’s whole reason d’etre. However it was amusingly tasteless to see in the theatre as it was crafted with the most gimmicky possible 3D, shoving chainsaws and entrails into the camera in many giggle-inducing ways. Of course, the only way to appreciate that now is to own a 3D television and have an interest in watching a crappy Texas Chainsaw sequel from 2013. Both of you out there who qualify should check it out. Everyone else should just pretend that Texas Chainsaw 3D never happened.
6) Leatherface (2017)
The best thing that can be said about Leatherface is that it’s not the worst movie in this franchise, only the newest. For some reason, it was decided that this would be an unofficial prequel to the original movie. There’s one clever concept in that you are never quite sure which youngster in the Sawyer clan will grow up to be Leatherface and the most likely suspects keep dying. Other than that, the trashy flick barely even qualifies as a horror movie. Instead it turns the franchise into a “serial killers on the run” dark chase movie that rarely feels like it fits into the series.
On the plus side the wonderfully sick French directorial duo behind Inside—Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury—were hired to helm the flick as their English language debut. They fill the screen with gorgeously depraved imagery and some of the nastiest gore to show up in an American genre movie in years. So, if you’re looking for genre sleaze there’s at least some of that here. Too bad it all has to awkwardly shoehorn into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by the end, because without the franchise expectations that demands this could have been a decent trashy n’ gory thrill ride. Instead, it’s merely one of the weaker TCM movies and a rather forgettable one at that.
5) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
Now we come to the first attempt at giving Leatherface an origin story. This film was a prequel to a remake and based on that pedigree was better than it had any right to be. That doesn’t mean it was a particularly good movie. In fact, it’s often a bit of a mess. However, there are some clever ideas and good gruelling scares in play. R. Lee Ermey—Full Metal Jacket—gets some scenery to chew, the screenwriters get to lay on the Vietnam allegory really damn thick, and the birth of Leatherface is actually fairly well handled even if it’s completely unnecessary.
The Michael Bay supervised Texas Chainsaw movies may have been woefully unnecessary, but they were at least executed with a sense of style and intensity that was true to the brand. We never needed to know Leatherface’s origin even though greedy distributors decided to tell it twice, but at least The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning did so fairly well. It certainly looks a whole lot better compared to the new origin. That’s for sure. But it still ain’t great. Leatherface was always better with a little mystery. You know, like all movie monsters.
4) Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990)
First off, how bout that trailer? Honestly, that insane n’ cocky bit of horror icon advertising showmanship justifies the entire existence of this gratuitous sequel. It goes without saying that the movie does not live up to the trailer, but Leatherface 1.0 has actually aged rather well. Sure, it’s an empty exorcize in VHS horror sleaze without the artistry of the original or the wacko gallows humour and genre satire of the sequel. But as a blatantly commercial attempt to turn the franchise into a repeatable slasher formula, it’s actually kind of fun.
Horror fanboy filmmaker Jeff Burr delivers a few delightfully goopy set pieces and there are some amusing supporting performances for genre icon Ken Foree and a young n’ talented Viggo Mortenson as the pretty face who charms innocents into visiting the psychotic Sawyer family. This is good sleazy fun for folks who enjoy the trash of the slasher boom. It was loathed at the time, but only because it paled in comparison to the two Texas Chainsaw pictures that preceded it. Now that there is a mountain of crap battling for the bottom of the franchise, Leatherface doesn’t look so bad. In fact, it’s good sleazy fun for the most part.
3) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
When Michael Bay announced that he would produce and develop a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, horror fans everywhere vomited in disgust. After all, how could a glossy remake produced by the most needlessly glossy of all filmmakers compare to the down n’ dirty original. Well, it can’t. However, what director Marcus Nispel—who also made the underrated, if stupid, Friday The 13th remake—clearly approached the material with reverence. The 70s setting, sweaty atmosphere, and relentless harsh atmosphere were certainly true to form.
The new family was quite well cast—especially the great R. Lee Ermey—the world was designed with a disgusting attention to detail, and most importantly the film was harsh and terrifying once it took off, never letting up or taking prisoners. Sure, it was glossy in ways that felt inappropriate for a franchise rooted in handmade horror naturalism, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake delivered the goods and against the odds ended up being the best entry in the series since Tobe Hooper’s sequel. You can’t say that about most remakes of iconic horror flicks. It’s a shame this started the 70s horror remake trend that lasted a decade and delivered endless crap, but hey! The original Chainsaw inspired horrible knock offs as well. It’s baked into the legacy.
2) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Tobe Hooper never wanted to make a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He was forced into it out of contractual obligation and had a release date in place before a story. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was pulled together in a rush in 1986, hoping to capitalize on the slasher sequel trend. Somehow, Hooper made a great movie under ridiculous circumstances. Knowing he could never match the raw intensity of first movie, he went in another direction.
Chainsaw 2 is a vibrant and goofy horror comedy filled with disgusting gore gags and sly mockeries of the slasher genre. It’s filled with hilariously grotesque characters like Bill Mosley’s cannibalistic hippie burnout and Dennis Hopper’s screeching Texas sheriff out for revenge with his own chainsaws. It’s a gloriously excessive romp that gleefully spits out perverse twists on the typically conservative sexual politics of 80s horror. In 1986, critics and audiences were confused by the sequel’s radical departures and disgusted by the deep tastelessness humour and gore. Now it feels like a genre classic that was ahead of its time even if all of Hooper’s blood-soaked satirical targets were rooted in 80s attitudes and pop culture. Oh well. At least the sequel is loved now. For a movie this sick, irreverent, and twisted, that’s a bit of a miracle.
1) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Finally we come to the only movie that could possibly have topped this list. One of the greatest, most terrifying, and most influential horror movies ever produced. When Tobe Hooper set out to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his goal was to pull all of the gothic excess out of the horror genre and deliver something truly horrifying. No one had attempted to show a rendezvous with serial killers with this level realism and intensity before. No one since has delivered that material with such nightmarish efficiency. Once the goofy hippy kids find themselves caught by the Sawyer family, this film never lets up. Every second is tense and unsettling.
Every moment pushes you into a primal level of fear and discomfort. The film stock and situations are cheap and grainy enough for documentary realism, but Hooper’s masterful directing and editing are carefully calculated for maximum impact. Even over 40 years later, few horror films have come close to matching the relentless intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a perfect horror film, a masterpiece and a milestone that will never be topped.