The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is completely whack. Or, rather, the series as a whole is a confusing mess. For the purposes of this article, I went through and watched the whole series from the 1974 original up to the 2017 prequel Leatherface, in an attempt to make sense of just what the hell was going on. This has been a revelatory experience; I have to say. I learned something about horror franchises, and how to milk one good idea into oblivion. I hope you, whoever you are, appreciate this. I sacrificed so much time so that you don’t have to. Checks can be made out in my name. Email me if you want my shipping address.
Anyways, join me on this journey into grime and power tools as we go through each Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie and try to make sense of the series timeline.
Movie 1: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)
An absolute masterpiece of visceral terror that stands tall above its competitors. Time and pointless sequels have done nothing to diminish its horrific power.
The continuity it establishes:
The setup is as simple as horror gets, and I’m going to assume that if you clicked on this article, you’ve seen it. It establishes that Sally Hardesty is the lone survivor amongst her group of friends who run afoul of a sadistic and perverse family of cannibals. There’s a hitchhiker who is the son of the old man that serves as the family’s father figure, a borderline mummified grandfather they all practically worship, and the big man himself, Leatherface, a hulking man with the emotional state of a child who wears peoples’ faces. In addition to Sally’s friends being killed, the hitchhiker is also run over by a truck. Only one person is actually killed with a chainsaw in this movie.
That’s about it, but the movie’s brilliance lies in its simplicity. It’s worth noting that absolutely none of the antagonists are given names — that kind of adds to their mystery, making them all the scarier.
Movie 2: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, dir. Tobe Hooper)
A surprisingly funny and very excessive horror-comedy that manages to entertain, although its run time is longer than it needs to be, with some scenes dragging. Entertaining as hell.
What it adds to the continuity:
Firstly, this movie gives the cannibalistic family a name in the form of Sawyer. The father gets a name. It’s Drayton. Leatherface is referred to as Bubba, and Bill Moseley joins the cast in the form of Chop Top, the equally deranged twin brother of the hitchhiker from the first movie. He has an iron plate in his head he is constantly scratching at.
This also introduces us to Stretch, a late-night DJ who hears the Sawyers murder someone on the air. She joins forces with a cop played by Dennis Hopper named “Lefty” Enright, and he’s the uncle of the Hardesty siblings Sally and Franklin from the first movie. He has been seeking vengeance lo these many years, but the family has never been found or brought to justice. It’s unclear if they’re nomads, but in the events of the movie, they’re hiding out in an abandoned fun park called “Texas Battle Park.”
As far as the series goes, the plot/ additions to the continuity are simple and easy to understand. Chop Top, it can be assumed, was in Vietnam during the first movie, so it makes sense that he’s here with a plate in his head. The movie is mostly shenanigans, with one scene in particularly embracing the phallic nature of the chainsaw Leatherface wields. It implies that he really can’t get off without it, which is now something you can’t un-know.
The movie ends with “Lefty” ramming a chainsaw through Leatherface’s gut, Drayton Sawyer blowing himself up with a grenade, along with “Lefty,” Leatherface, and the mummified grandfather from the first. Stretch is able to fight off Chop Top, chainsawing his torso and sending him down a mountainside. It’s unclear if he survives or not. Stretch is the sole survivor and dances with a chainsaw. Roll credits.
The sequel is silly as hell, and a lot of people don’t like that, but as we’re about to see, it at least stays within the confines of the continuity up to that point. This is apparently too much to ask for the rest of the series.
Which leads us to…
Movie 3: Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990, dir. Jeff Burr)
A rather bland retread of the plot from the first movie, but it’s serviceable, and Ken Foree is a joy to watch in it. Not great but far from the worst horror sequel ever made.
What it adds to the continuity:
Following the exact same formula as the first, it follows a couple on a cross country trip as they run afoul of Leatherface and his backwoods family of deranged cannibals.
I can hear you now. “But Collin, you handsome bastard, didn’t you just copy/ paste the plot summary from the first movie? And I thought his family was all blown up in the second movie? And didn’t Leatherface get a chainsaw to the stomach?” The answers are: no, yes, yes. Thanks for the compliment, by the way.
Leatherface’s iconic design in this one is better than the second, but, like all the others, worse than the first. But it’s worth noting he is using a leg brace in this one, most likely because, at the end of the first movie, he injured himself with his chainsaw running after Sally. I guess he did it again sometime between the second and third movie? No mention of his guts being poured out his abdomen, though.
One thing in this movie’s favor is that it does explain a little bit how the cannibalistic family was able to avoid being found all these years. It states in its opening title crawl that Sally died in a private care facility in 1977, a few years after the original. She was most likely unable to cope with the trauma of what she and her friends went through and was most likely unable to help the police. So there’s that.
However, in that same title crawl, we see that only one supposed family member was ever found — someone named W.E. Sawyer. Leatherface was thought to be an alternate personality of this individual. W.E. was killed in the gas chamber at some point. The movie then states that Sally can rest in peace if this man was Leatherface. If he wasn’t, this whole thing wasn’t over.
I have absolutely no idea who W.E. Sawyer is. The movie never brings him up again, even in the scenes with the new family. Speaking of, let’s go through the new family. There’s a dude named Fredo who kind of plays a more handsome version of the hitchhiker from the original, complete with a bizarre disposition, a penchant for pictures, and a very odd Boomhauer impersonation. There’s Tex, a genuinely charming and handsome, but also terrifying brother of Leatherface’s played by an absolutely rugged Viggo Mortenson. There’s some guy named Ryan who drives a tow truck and also seems to be a brother. There’s a little girl who I think is supposed to be Leatherface’s sister. The mummy grandpa is still around even though he got blown up in the second movie. And lastly, there’s not a dad now, but a mom, who has to talk through one of those throat vibrator things that smokers frequently have to use (I’m way too lazy to look up what they’re called, and also my brain is shot at this point).
At no point does the movie even attempt to explain how Leatherface is even alive, or where any of these people came from. There was never a little girl before, or more than one brother of Leatherface’s, and they mention in the first movie that the matriarch of the family is long dead. This leads me to one of two conclusions. Either this is a brand new Leatherface (but then why does he have the leg brace?), and this is another cannibalistic family in the backwoods of Texas who just so happen to have the last name of Sawyer. Or Leatherface somehow survived the previous movie, injured his leg, which was totally fine before, and stumbled across a new family who decided to call themselves Sawyer after seeing Leatherface do what he does. Your guess is as good as mine, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the screenwriters didn’t think things through very much.
Special mention should go to Ken Foree, who steals the show by playing a character named Benny, a guy who mostly acts like Ken Foree being awesome. He is a survivalist on the side and is armed to the teeth. He pretty much wipes out most of the Sawyers in this movie, machine-gunning the mother, the Ryan guy, the mummy grandfather, and partially Leatherface as well. He sets Tex on fire, and spouts perhaps the best one-liner in history by shouting, “Toast, fuck!” I’m not making this up. Fredo is shotgunned out of the back of a moving truck by the female lead at the end, as well. So by my count, the only surviving Sawyers are Leatherface and the little girl, the latter of whom is never brought up again. Also, Ken Foree is so awesome that he goes toe to toe with Leatherface, is very explicitly chainsawed underwater, complete with blood splatter, and shows up at the end anyways completely fine.
As I said, he’s awesome.
To recap so far, Leatherface has now died once, his whole family has been killed once, his mummy grandfather has been killed twice, and he has gotten a new family of people we haven’t seen before once.
Movie 4: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994, dir. Kim Henkel)
It’s much-maligned by everyone, but totally worth watching at least once to see a young Matthew McConaughey chew the hell out of the scenery, and for its gigantic WTF factor, which I’m about to layout for you.
What it adds to the continuity:
When I rented this from Amazon, it was classified as a remake of the first. Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the original’s script, wanted to make a more humorous version of the story. So, it’s unclear if this is a sequel or if it’s its own thing, but unlike 3, which seemingly ignored the events of the second movie but still called itself the third movie, this one does not have a numeral in its title. However, for our purposes, and because you can’t always trust Amazon descriptions, let’s assume this is in the original continuity.
Some prom kids run into Leatherface and his deranged family. This time they aren’t cannibals, though. Oh, ho ho, no. That would be far too simple for this movie. Now, Leatherface’s family consists of Vilmer (the aforementioned Matthew), a sadistic and probably coked out lunatic, Darla, his lover (I think), and a dude named W.E. Huh. That name did come up in the previous movie. Only, according to the ever wonderful IMDb, Leatherface and W.E.’s last name is now Slaughter. W.E. is another good reason to think that this is somehow in the original continuity, as is the fact that the opening title crawl mentions that there were some “relatively minor” incidents similar to the one in the ’70s.
You might be thinking that it’s business as usual, that the kids are murdered for the amusement of the family. You’d be half right. One of them is killed near the end, but the jock character actually just… disappears from the movie. Renee Zellweger’s character is the final girl (BTW, she SUCKS in this movie) and makes it out alive. But that’s because she is let go by the Illuminati.
I am not joking, and that was not a typo.
We are told late in the movie that Vilmer works for people who pull the strings behind the scenes of everything. Like puppeteers. His truck also just has the word Illuminati on the side. In a weirdly meta twist, it’s revealed that he is supposed to help people experience real, genuine fear as a spiritual experience, and if he fails in this, he implies he has something in his body that will kill him. One Illuminati guy shows up later on, to lick Renee in her face, and to express disappointment at Vilmer because Renee is no longer scared (I can’t be bothered to remember her character’s name). She escapes the house the family is in (I think W.E. just kind of goes off in a corner because he isn’t involved in the final chase) and Vilmer is run down by the blades of an airplane propeller that flies super low to the ground. Don’t ask me why or who is flying the plane. It’s never explained. Eventually, she is picked up by the Illuminati and brought to a hospital, where she sees Marilyn Burns playing an anonymous person on a stretcher. Oh yeah, Leatherface kills exactly no one in this movie, he dresses like a hooker, complete with fake breasts, no one is killed with a chainsaw. There’s also a scene where Vilmer’s mechanical leg brace is used against him by Renee when she grabs the remote for it, in a scene that practically had me in tears because I had no idea what I was watching.
It’s safe to say this entry jumped the shark in a huge way, but despite its complete insanity, the Illuminati thing could potentially be used to explain away the errors between the first three movies. If someone is pulling the strings, maybe Leatherface actually was brought from family to family between movies, solely for their amusement.
Either way, this movie is completely lunatic, and as I mentioned above, should be watched by everyone at least once.
Movie 5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003, dir. Marcus Nispel)
Kind of a pointless remake that exists in its own continuity, but if you want a decent enough, good brutal slasher to pass the time, you could do much worse.
What it adds to the continuity:
It does change a few small details here and there. The cannibals are now the Hewitts, Leatherface is referred to as Thomas, and in a brilliant casting decision, R. Lee Emery was put in the shoes of the family’s patriarch. He is really the star here, chewing the scenery in a perversely watchable way and spouting just hilariously bad and vulgar dialogue.
The only thing it establishes within this continuity is that Leatherface’s left arm is cut off, and R. Lee Emery’s character is run over twice. He’s pretty damn dead. Leatherface kills some cops at the end.
Movie 6: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006, dir. Johnathan Liebesman)
There are some pretty stupid movies in this franchise, but this is the absolute bottom of the barrel. It’s abysmal in every way, and it doesn’t even succeed in being a prequel, an exercise which is largely pointless to begin with. The only reason it exists (aside from making a buck off a semi-popular franchise name) is because the producers realized they made a huge mistake killing of R. Lee Emery in the 2003 remake and needed a way to get him back.
What it adds to the continuity:
If you were simply dying to know how R. Lee Emery’s front teeth were knocked out (leading him to sport the fake teeth he shows off in the 2003 movie), or how the paraplegic guy got that way, you should probably watch this. Apart from that, all it does is show the family kill another group of teenagers (there is no final girl in this movie…they all die). Nothing is added to the story aside from seeing Leatherface kill someone with a chainsaw for the first time.
The gore is okay. The rest is complete garbage. In case you can’t tell, I do not like this movie one bit. Unlike other bad prequels (including another one we will discuss shortly), this doesn’t even attempt to inform the events of its predecessor in any way. It doesn’t show the origins of the cannibalistic Hewitts, which would have been stupid anyway, but could have at least half justified its existence if they’d gone that route. Instead, we have a simply miserable, pointlessly cynical movie that tries to use its gore to be intense and just comes across as cruel and pointless in the worst possible way.
Movie 7: Texas Chainsaw (3D) (2013, dir. John Luessenhop)
Doing the whole “slasher sequel that ignores the original sequels” thing before Halloween did it, this is a kind of admirable but hopelessly stupid attempt to actually expand on the story of the first. One point in its favor is that it does feature plenty of chainsaw action, something that is oddly missing from a lot of the movies considering chainsaw is in every title. There’s a scene that could have been amazing where Leatherface chases Heather into a carnival, but we sadly do not see any carnage. It had so much potential, and we got nothing.
What it adds to the continuity:
It starts right at the end of the first movie in 1973, with a cop and a bunch of townspeople confronting the Sawyers for their crimes against Sally and her friends. The catch is that the film shows a whole bunch more people than those in the original. There are some cool cameos by the likes of Gunnar Hansen himself and Bill Moseley, but there are a whole bunch of dudes who just show up. It doesn’t explain who they are or where they came from, but they’re apparently a part of the Sawyer family even though we never once saw any of them in the original (the aforementioned Moseley portrays the patriarch from the original…apart from that, none of the characters are named or explained). In a curious turn, even though this movie ignores the second, third, and fourth films, they keep the last name Sawyer for the family. Anyways, they’re all shot, and the house is burned down with only one of the Sawyer woman’s baby-making it out via a spur of the moment adoption (again, I don’t remember any woman with a baby in the first- because there wasn’t one).
Anyways, jump forward to the present day, and our heroine Heather finds out that she’s adopted and inherited a mansion from a woman named Verna who just passed away. After a bunch of shenanigans that involve picking up yet another hitchhiker and partying, Heather finds out that she is that baby from the opening, in a twist that absolutely no one was surprised by. She has also inherited Leatherface, who lives in the basement behind a giant locked metal door. It turns out they’re cousins. She discovers the slaughter that happened to the Sawyers that the town tried to cover up and gets vengeance against the corrupt mayor and several of the townspeople.
A lot of that should have turned on your “what the hell?” sensors. Let’s start with the chronology. At first, it was unclear when the movie took place, as cell phones are conspicuously absent from the movie and Heather looks like she’s 25, maybe as old as 28, tops. I remember seeing a bunch of people online pointing out how she should be much older, but I thought that perhaps the movie was smarter than that and we were watching stuff go down in the ’90s. Then, about midway through the movie, a cop pulls out a smartphone and starts filming his trek into the Sawyer house (it never does explain if the mansion in the present day is a new one that was rebuilt or if it was supposed to be the old one even though it was burned down in the movie’s opening). It’s never explained how Heather is able to defy time like this, but I’m sure if Kim Henkel has any say, we will eventually find out that the Illuminati put her in some kind of cryostasis for a few years as a baby.
Verna also had a lawyer named Farnsworth who knew about everything the family did and the town covering up their slaughter (this name will come back in the next movie). Heather works with him and eventually Leatherface to kill the town’s mayor and some of the cops responsible for the Sawyer’s slaughter. In the climactic scene, we are let down twice. The mayor is poised on the precipice of a meat grinder, hanging on for dear life. Heather throws the chainsaw to Leatherface and says, “Do your thing, cous.” I almost vomited at that line. Then Leatherface saws the hands off of the mayor, and he falls into the grinder’s blades. Rather than being an awesome, gory explosion of practical effects (which were actually decent up to this point in the movie), we are treated to some of the absolute worst CGI blood splatter I’ve ever had the displeasure of seeing.
So not only did this movie magically give the Sawyers a whole bunch of extra family members in the few hours between the ending of the original and this movie’s opening, but it attempts to retcon them as tragic antiheroes despite the fact they ate people and desecrated graves. And, as we will see in our discussion of the next movie in this messy franchise, they have a long, long history of violent acts that we’re supposed to just forget about according to this movie. Then there’s the one-liner as mentioned above, which is just…just the worst.
What I’m trying to say is, this movie is kind of a mess, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the screenwriters didn’t think things through.
Movie 8: Leatherface (2017, dir. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo)
A prequel that tries to do a whole lot but is sadly hampered by a script that is in many ways dumber than the previous entry. And while it’s disappointing to see the directors of the incredibly disturbing 2006 film Inside make such a hollow movie, this is an entry that mixes things up. Rather than being yet another slasher, it’s instead a hyper-violent and cruel road movie that has some surprisingly okay performances and moments of stunning visuals. It doesn’t change how stupid the writing is, though.
What it adds to the continuity:
The Sawyers kill the daughter of a sheriff in 1945 for no real reason other than that she wandered on their property, and the sheriff responds by taking their son Jed (no longer Bubba) and putting him in a mental hospital. Jump forward to 1955, and Verna Sawyer and her lawyer (Farnsworth as a much younger man, who appeared in the 2013 installment) inadvertently cause a prison break from the hospital, and five of the inmates make it out. There are three guys and two women, one of whom is a nurse named Lizzie in what is the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist. It tries to keep the viewer guessing about who Leatherface will turn out to be between the psychopathic Ike, the enormous and emotionally stunted Bud, and the relative straight man Jackson. The problem is that the movie’s cover shows Leatherface with a very slight frame, so it’s easy to guess who it turns out to be.
Anyway, Ike and his equally psychopathic girlfriend Clarice go on a murder spree across Texas with Bud, Lizzie, and Jackson in tow. They’re pursued by the same sheriff from the opening (Stephen Dorff, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as he does set fire to it…it’s pretty entertaining) along the way. The sheriff has long gone homicidal, employing brutal methods to get to the runaways. The point the movie was trying to make is that he is just as bad, but we know from the beginning that the Sawyers are still violent monsters, as are Ike and Clarice, so the viewer doesn’t feel the animosity towards him that the script hopes we will.
After more very violent road shenanigans that end with just Jackson and Lizzie alive (gee, which one is Leatherface?) the two are taken hostage by the sheriff, and a bullet disfigures Jackson. He is also broken by Bud’s murder by a cop. Verna and her family (which still only consists of her, Drayton, the grandfather, and the guy who would go on to be the hitchhiker in the first one, for some inexplicable reason named Nubbins in this movie), meet the sheriff and knock him out. Then she puts Jackson’s face back together. Yep, to the surprise of no one, Jackson is actually Jed, which means he is Leatherface. He is given a chainsaw and kills the sheriff (the gore in this one is pretty good; it should be mentioned). He eventually chases down and decapitates Lizzie, then uses her face to make a mask (which is probably a nod to his fluid gender roles in the original). Cut to credits.
The Farnsworth and Verna connection means that they’re clearly trying to connect this movie, the original, and the 2013 installment. However, the little issue of aging rears its ugly head again. Assuming Leatherface is about 18 when he breaks out of the mental hospital (although it is fairly unclear) in 1955, that would put him at about 36 in the original movie. Then, jumping forward again, that would put him at about 76 in the 2013 installment, assuming that’s the year that entry takes place, which means he would, in all likelihood, be nowhere near as limber as he used to be, which makes the chase scenes laughably implausible. Leatherface has been living for 40 years mostly underground, away from the light and raised on a diet primarily of human meat (although in this new continuity, we don’t know if there are any more incidents between 1973 and 2013). It also shows the family still behaving like total psychopaths, with Verna egging Leatherface on for no real reason besides “They messed with our family.” The same family that killed the sheriff’s daughter for no apparent reason. Granted, Leatherface does make mention of Verna paying at least one of the cops off to look the other way, but that still doesn’t change the fact that this movie’s stupid script totally undoes what little sympathy there was for the Sawyers in the previous entry. Call me crazy, but I find it tough to root for a group of people who kill indiscriminately and then proceed to eat people.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say… screw it. The joke wasn’t funny the first time.
What I Learned From All of This
You might be wondering, “Collin, you absolutely stunning man, you, why did you do this to yourself?” Thanks again for the compliment. But the answer is that I did it for you. For everyone. For the world. This franchise’s timeline is so shot to hell that it’s practically a scientific experiment. Who knows? Maybe the Illuminati are behind its very existence.
I did learn that money is a powerful, powerful thing and that producers will throw logic and any sense of time away for the sake of keeping a recognizable brand alive.
That’s about it.
If you smell smoke, it’s just my brain’s last attempt to try and make sense out of all of this. Sending help would be appreciated.