Time to kill

McConaughey and Zellweger take a Chainsaw to their careers

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation--a goofy remake of the 1974 scare, uh, classic--is a film so worthless that the admission ought to come with a $7.50 rebate coupon. In retrospect, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems kind of quaint, its blood-red faded with the passage of time. When it was released in 1974, Tobe Hooper's slasher picture shocked with its bald-faced gore--it wore it like a mask and stuck it on Gunnar Hansen's enormous mug, a sloppy patchwork of flesh and blood. The original Massacre wasn't one of those easily repeatable horror franchises whose sequels in some cases are approaching the double digits--Halloween and Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Rather, it was a genuine low-budget sickfest along the lines of Last House on the Left, with a bogeyman named Leatherface who swung a chainsaw the way Ted Williams handled a bat, and a dysfunctional family who sold disemboweled hitchhikers as barbecue. Non-Texans mistook the film as documentary and were justly terrified.

Two sequels followed--one starring Dennis Hopper (as the good guy more terrifying than the bad guy), another featuring G.I. Jane's Viggo Mortensen. Yet as Wes Craven was making big blood money by resurrecting Freddy Krueger, Kim Henkel--the man who created Leatherface, having co-written the 1974 film with Hooper--couldn't get his franchise off the ground; he was like Fanta to Craven's Coca-Cola. So in 1994, he recruited a pair of University of Texas graduates to remake Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this time without the blood and guts. This one would be more spoof than spook. That might have been the end of the story had not the two actors' names been Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger.

In 1995, Henkel debuted his new movie, then titled Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, at the South by Southwest Film and Media Conference in Austin. Emboldened by glowing reviews from critics who apparently haven't seen a movie since 1974, Henkel thought he had a franchise on his hands after all. But then he encountered legal problems. Columbia/TriStar Home Video was supposed to put the thing out on video, but Henkel and producer Bob Kuhn sued to get the film back when it seemed Columbia wasn't going to release the film at all.

To make matters worse, Charles Grigson, the man who had obtained the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sued Columbia and Henkel and Kuhn, claiming they couldn't remake or release a film based on a property he owned. In the end, Henkel got his franchise back--after paying Grigson nearly $250,000 and giving him points on the rechristened Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. In the meantime, McConaughey and Zellweger became Vanity Fair cover material, and Henkel could now exploit their fame.

So, after so little ado, TCM:TNG is back from the dead to haunt its stars, shorn of about 15 minutes (including a scene showing Zellweger's character being abused by her stepfather), and featuring a Texas-centric soundtrack to, well, die for (with no less than Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, and Santiago Jimenez, Jr.). TCM:TNG begins at the prom and quickly moves to the woods of Central Texas, where four high school students--including a very pre-Jerry Maguire Zellweger as Jenny, our audience surrogate--get lost, stumble across a bizarre family in the woods, get killed, blah blah blah. Would that TCM:TNG were funny or frightening, but Henkel isn't up to the task. He's essentially Xeroxed the original, thrown in a government conspiracy angle (Leatherface's family is controlled by a man named Rothman, who may or may not have killed John Kennedy), and played it for cheap, feeble laughs instead of unfeigned screams.

The film does have one thing going for it: Against the odds, it contains McConaughey's finest performance. Deliriously bug-eyed and berserk as Vilmer, the older brother of Leatherface, he's so exaggerated he can barely fit into his skin. Outfitted with a mechanical leg that can be operated by TV remote controls--"Why are my batteries not charged?" he shouts at one point--and a grin as wide as the Red River, McConaughey acts as though he thinks this movie actually means something.

TCM:TNG, like Dazed, proves McConaughey doesn't belong in self-serious crap like A Time to Kill and Contact, Important Films that dress him up in custom-made khakis and tone him down with self-righteousness. It's gotten so bad that he's already repeating himself, reprising the white-lawyer-defends-black-client thing in Spielberg's upcoming slave-ship epic, Amistad. This is a guy who bought his acting lessons at Wal-Mart, who's all Texas accent and shit-eating grin, yet Hollywood insists on emasculating his crazy-ass charms.

Vilmer is basically the same role as Wooderson, his character in Richard Linklater's high-school flashback Dazed and Confused--the guy who graduated and never left the smoking porch, the aw-riiiiight, aw-riiiiight, aw-riiiiight dude workin' for the city and still cruising for 16-year-old chicks in his souped-up Cutlass. The only difference is here he drives a tow truck and kills for grins--this is what Wooderson turned into after he quit his government job (surely some industrial accident, hence the bum leg), got tired of getting rejected by women much younger than he, and started taking care of his homicidal brother out in the woods.

If McConaughey gets the best role, Zellweger--bespectacled and frumpy at the beginning, dolled up and hoarse by the end--gets the most thankless: Her script must have read, "Scream. Run. Scream." The 1974 original was creepy mostly because of its set pieces, the house strewn with odd skeletal sculptures and human pelts; and Leatherface was a genuinely horrifying dude, a monster with the world's biggest carving knife. But The Next Generation turns Leatherface (here played by Robbie Jacks, an Austin songwriter who used to host a smacked-up radio show with Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes) into a cross-dressing nancy boy who screams more than he saws.

The only creepout comes when Rothman (James Gale), sporting a natty suit and a bad hairpiece and a chest plate made of someone else's flesh, shows up near the end and licks Zellweger's face. But by then, the whole damned thing has become just a little monotonous--everybody yells and fights and fights and yells and yells some more. Hey, shut up and die already.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.
Renee Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, Robbie Jacks, Tonie Perenski, Joe Stevens. Written and directed by Kim Henkel. Opens Friday.

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