Director: Kim Henkel
Screenplay: Kim Henkel
Cast: Renée Zellweger (as Jennifer); Matthew McConaughey (as Vilmer Slaughter); Robert Jacks (as Leatherface); Tonie Perensky (as Darla Slaughter); Lisa Marie Newmyer (as Heather); Tyler Shea Cone (as Barry); Joe Stevens (as Walter Slaughter)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #87
In the last of the original four films of the Chainsaw series, the only phrase you can think of is "what the hell were they smoking?". And yet, whisper it, it's a lot better than Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) in terms of having an actual personality to it. What was originally called The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with co-writer of the original film Kim Henkel directing and penning the script, is more compellingly memorable for all that crap I'll still throw at it. Whilst Leatherface inexplicably has had critical reappraisal, what you get here, as a group of preppy students on prom night bump into the new Leatherface family, is a slither of weird John Waters gutter culture, which is all the best parts, couple awkwardly with illogical, baffling plot twists and, unfortunately, some of the worst tropes of horror at this point in the early nineties, when Michael Myers was about to get stuck in pagan cults and Jason Voorhees was turned into a body swapping hell slug. The best parts of this film, some of them in air quotes as "best" as well as legitimately entertaining ones, make the lunacy of what took place as a sequel at least distinct.
A lot of the pain with Part IV is entirely with trying to replicate the original. It's the early half that's the real problem for me because of how bad the main characters you first follow are. Renée Zellweger, as with another future star, stands out positively and another female character, Heather (Lisa Marie Newmyer), changes from an obnoxious figure to a strangely likable and self-aware airhead who asks morbid questions out of mere curiosity, but it's a dreadful group especially with the male characters to suffer through until the villains appear to knock them off one-by-one. Neither was it particularly clever to recreate exact parts from the first film like the door gag or the entire meat hook hanging, painting a target on itself it didn't need. The music is also dreadful in large parts, a peculiar mix which establishes why post-grunge (or even just-post-grunge music since this was made in only 1994) is probably one of the worst things to have happened to horror cinema since censorship.
Beyond this, it's a compelling mess of dysfunction which entirely gets entertainment value from the Leatherface clan and how far over into the deep end it goes. I was immediately aware that Henkel from the beginning wanted to create an off-beat film that was intentionally humorous when, at the first start at the prom, a random background female character comes in frame and turns out to be talking to an imaginary person aloud in her own cloud of thought. The film is quirky to an extreme and with this in mind, the Leatherface family being entirely different even in how Leatherface himself is depicted in each film is far less an issue for me when its instead a way for screenwriters to add their own idiosyncrasies to them. There's one failure who isn't even fun in a bad way, Joe Stevens' Walter Slaughter who quotes famous figures all the time, another failed attempt at capturing lightning in a bottle that was both Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker and Bill Moseley's Chop Top. Aside from this, what redeems this film greatly is how deliciously bizarre this menagerie is. My personal favourite is Darla (Tonie Perensky), a trashy female figure who's proudly charismatic and no nonsense with a tendency to flash honking cars outside her office.
Of course there's Matthew McConaughey too, and contrary to the agent who tried to shelf this film permanently in case it damaged his reputation, it's clear like with Viggo Mortensen that he was destined for a lengthy career, even a film as shambolic like this in his early career an excuse to outshine almost everyone else onscreen. Randomly assaulting every other character, having an improvised mechanical device to allow him to walk on a permanently crippled leg, with apparently over a hundred TV remotes at hand charged to power said contraction, it's not a role for him to be embarrassed about because, like Mortensen, he's clearly a young actor giving over a hundred percent and showing a visible talent in how mad as a box of frogs he comes off as here. It's kind of sad, knowing full well that The Next Generation is understandably a disaster, that McConaughey was paid for his clear acting talent with a lot of A-list Hollywood films, for every good one, which are usually not as impressive as they could've been when, if he could salvage a film as notorious as this one with just his screen time, more horror films could've benefitted from him being cast in them.
Then there's the decision to have a transsexual Leatherface (played by singer-songwriter Robert Jacks). One the surface, there's far more of a concern for me now about it coming off as transphobic rather than caring whether its blasphemous to the original version by Gunnar Hansen or not. Take it as it is, a character who decided to dress like a woman to the point of both wearing a woman's face and breasted torso flesh, it's a fascinating direction to go with in gruesome implications. What actually happens onscreen thought is that the character turns into the most John Waters like part of the movie, a wordless drag queen-like figure who coos and holds his sat posture regally at the dinner table very nobly, beneath the makeup and Liz Taylor hairdo a songwriter whose interactions with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers should've been a sign of where the film, let along this performance, would go in terms of the weirdness stakes. It's the most inspired aspect of the film, even if it means Leatherface is no longer a threat here, with less time onscreen menacing people with chainsaws when McConaughey is foaming at the mouth and doing most of the sadism.
The film eventually stops making sense, one of those rare films that phrase can be justified for. While hyperbole is a dangerous place to go, this whiffs of the same weirdness a Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) only with a higher budget and technical quality, but the exact level of irrationality taking place when it reaches the finale, asking myself what exactly I was witnessing. The entire reveal of an Illuminati group being behind the Leatherface clan, the most notorious decision, is when this turn into nonsense starts The entirety of this plot twist is dumb but the result is that the final act is completely deranged to the point McConaughey suddenly becomes detracted from the rest of the film for maybe ten minutes or so, a suited man with body modification and giant piercings on his belly abruptly appears, random old people in a camper van take part in the escape sequence, alongside death by aeroplane and an inexplicable cameo from Marilyn Burns from the first film. The result isn't a good film in the damned slightest but when most sequels to horror films are known to be lazy and predictable, the weirdness here is at least admirable even if it feels like your eyes have been spiked with a hallucinogen.