The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise is a sad one, mostly because anything past the first movie (some might argue the second) is of questionable quality. The thing is that this questionable quality comes with some caveats, as each movie typically has something that stands out or at least sets it apart from the rest. It makes them fun to talk about despite how bad most of them are, and with the second attempt at a decades-later sequel having just dropped on Netflix, I thought that now would be a good time to rank each entry and discuss their place in the franchise.
If you’re looking for our staff’s thoughts in TCM ’22, make sure to check out Bronson West’s review.
Lastly, I will be discussing full spoilers for most of these entries, so reader beware.
9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
A prequel to the 2003 remake, TCM: The Beginning is miserable and cynical from start to finish, and not just from a storytelling/tone perspective. I think it’s incorrect to say that good prequels don’t exist; from the past storyline of The Godfather 2 to the tragedy-laden Kings of Cool by Don Winslow, there have been some good prequels in the history of art. The problem they have to overcome, though, is that most of the time, the viewer already knows how the story ends. The appeal of most prequels is to theoretically add more back story to a cast of characters or maybe give new context to the events of a previously created piece of media.
So one would guess that TCM: The Beginning might dive into how the Hewitt family from the 2003 remake got to be so homicidal. Maybe it would show how Leatherface became a murderer. Nope. Leatherface casually murders someone well before the first act is halfway over, and R. Lee Ermey’s performance is just as unhinged in this one as it was in the first installment. Granted, seeing him chewing the scenery is a good time, but the movie simply doesn’t offer any insight into the Hewitts. The most “backstory” we get is a particularly gruesome kill involving Leatherface taking his first life with a chainsaw. But their house is just as grimy as before, and the narrative as a whole is a simple retread of the original, but worse. A bunch of teens stumble into the Hewitt’s territory and it’s gruesome lights out for them all. This includes the film’s final girl, who is killed in a way that would make most people roll their eyes.
When I say this movie is cynical, I mean that it’s abundantly clear this is a product first a foremost, designed to generate a profit rather than out of any artistic desire to tell a story. Sure, that’s exactly what most of the franchise is, but it’s the most obvious and gross in this one.
8. Texas Chainsaw (3D)
I remember 3D really being a big deal back in the early aughts, but it mostly went away after Avatar took the world by storm. It’s just one of many reasons that this entry is so baffling. Granted, the producers probably thought it needed a gimmick to draw people in since the story sure as hell wasn’t going to do it. The first attempt at wiping the slate clean, Texas Chainsaw (3D) ignores all the sequels up to that point and serves as a direct follow-up to the beloved original. It follows Heather Miller, who is told she has inherited an estate in the middle of nowhere in Texas, and *gasp*, it turns out she’s the sole surviving member of the slaughter of the Sawyer family from the first film, who were all killed by the townsfolk once Sally escaped Leatherface’s clutches. In fact, the opening shows this slaughter and it’s filled with people who weren’t in the first movie at all. Apparently, there was a pregnant woman in the mix, even though she is never once mentioned or shown in the original.
Then there’s the infamous confusing age of the protagonist, who is played by Alexandra Daddario. She does what she can with the awful script, but she’s the wrong age entirely. If the movie’s opening took place in ’73, and the rest of it takes place in 2013, she should be forty, not the 27 that Daddario was at the time. With a few simple rewrites, like maybe having the movie take place in the 90s and have it be something of a period piece, this plot hole could have been avoided entirely. That does leave all the other plot holes, of which there are a ton. Too many to list here.
Perhaps the worst part of the movie, aside from that line, is that it asks us to sympathize with the murderous Sawyers because…reasons? The town’s mayor is corrupt and covered up the fact that they didn’t get a trial? It’s an extremely flimsy excuse that falls apart fast. The Sawyers are not sympathetic or likable characters at all, in any of these movies, including this one, so the fact that the audience is asked to feel something for them is a slap in the face.
And speaking of slaps to the face, this movie also teases the audience in the worst kind of way; the trailers prominently featured Leatherface running amuck in a carnival. This could have been a neat scene of pure carnage, and instead, no one dies.
This is a bad, bad movie.
7. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022
The big problem with the most recent entry is its script. The core idea of exploring gentrification in the deep south through a horror lens is actually pretty compelling and unique, almost a middle of nowhere take on the themes of the Candyman movies. Any exploration of this very real current issue is swept aside in favor of throwing out more buzz words and plot elements ripped right from the news, but all these do is distract the viewer from the movie that could have been.
This underdevelopment that permeates the script makes everything feel kind of gross, too. The film’s final girl Lila is a mass shooting survivor, and there’s a tease of what could have been a really interesting exploration of this early on when she confides in the handyman that she feels pressure to accomplish something great with her life. After all, she’s a survivor of a horrible event, which means she has to be special. Let me go on record as saying that with this kind of subject matter, you need a delicate hand. You can put a character this tied to our own awful world in a slasher and make it work, but it never comes into play later on in the movie in any significant way. It’s mentioned a couple of times and that’s it, making everything feel honestly really disgusting.
Any other social issues it attempts to address are laughably treated as well. The script is filled with phrases like “late-stage capitalism” and the forever meme-worthy “Try anything and you’re canceled, bro,” line, but it never actually does anything with any of this. If the screenwriters had kept the same basic premise, but cut out all of this “modernized” crap, you could have had an interesting reflection on the economic themes of the original. Instead, the movie comes across as being very eager to pander, but it doesn’t even know who it’s pandering to.
This is all a shame, too, because the movie is well shot and the main actors do what they can with the material. Again, though, like many other entries in this franchise, the material simply isn’t good in any way.
This is to say nothing of how it brings back Sally Hardesty in a laughable and comically underwritten way solely for marketing purposes. Sally in the original was an every-person protagonist. There wasn’t anything special about her, which is what made her plight so relatable. She could be anybody, and that is absolutely terrifying. Here she’s turned into the most obvious, stupid cliché you can imagine. Every single one of her lines is something straight out of the thriller handbook (“I’ve waited 50 years for this” “This is Hardesty”). It’s just so obviously done to generate some sort of profit that you feel tricked after seeing how she’s handled in this storyline.
The movie’s one saving grace is that it does feature the most onscreen Leatherface carnage in the series with its bus scene, but you can likely look that up on Youtube and save yourself the hassle of the rest of it.
6. Leatherface 2017
This movie gets big points for me for being a different angle for the franchise. Every single other entry is content to rip off the original’s great, simple premise, but rather than going for a grim slasher set in the middle of nowhere, Leatherface is, for most of its run time, a really brutal road movie. Unfortunately, like most of the others, the execution falls flat on its face thanks to, once again, an insultingly stupid script.
The movie follows a group of troubled youths who escape from an insane asylum, and one of them is actually a Sawyer. There’s an attempt to turn it into a kind of reverse whodunit (whogonnabeit?), but it’s not nearly smart or clever enough for the final reveal of who Leatherface is to leave any sort of impact. This also takes place in the same timeline as Texas Chainsaw (3D), and we see the Sawyer family commit even more pointlessly brutal and violent crimes for no real reason, which retroactively robs that movie of any sympathy the screenwriters thought they were able to generate in viewers.
Much like the 2022 entry, though, this movie frustrates because it’s not poorly made. The young cast is solid (again, not much to work with), the locations change frequently to keep the pace up, and the cinematography is nice. It’s not a bad movie to look at and out of context might be mistaken for something better. Alas, the movie can’t get out of its own way. It screams of a movie that was put into production after just one script draft, and considering the script is often one of the cheapest parts of the movie, that’s a very frustrating thing.
5. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III
The third entry in the franchise throws the events of the first two movies out the window in favor of just being a watered-down, heavily censored version of the original (not that the ’74 movie is particularly violent). There’s a couple driving through Texas and they run afoul of Leatherface and his family due to car troubles. Mayhem ensues.
Throwing continuity out the window, Leatherface has a new family in this one, and none of them make an impression aside from young, rugged Viggo Mortenson’s Tex. And even then, his performance isn’t particularly memorable and he largely only stays with the viewer because it’s novel seeing such a famous actor so young in a crappy movie (and this wouldn’t be the last time this happened, either). Thankfully, the movie managed to get Ken Foree as Benny, a survivalist who helps the protagonists get even with Leatherface. He’s extremely charming and charismatic as always, and that saves this third entry from being in the bottom third of this list.
Even Ken Foree can’t change the fact that this is nothing more than a worse version of the original, though.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003
Free from the shackles of continuity (not that the movies before this one cared much for it), the remake of TCM makes the bold move of being a generic, if well-produced, early 2000s slasher movie. It has a couple of okay moments (including a particularly shocking scene early on where a woman pulls a gun out from a very intimate part of her body), and it benefits greatly from R. Lee Ermey absolutely chewing through every single scene he’s in. And it’s a good thing he’s there because without him this would be indistinguishable from the slew of other early 2000s nihilistic slashers.
Leatherface is relegated to being “big guy with weapon,” which, to me, is a fundamental misreading of his character from the ’74 movie. Then again, almost all of the sequels play him up as an unstoppable killing machine. And he’s suitably intimidating in this entry, at least. There are plenty of gruesome kills and he pops up whenever the movie is slowing down.
I don’t know what it says about this franchise that one of the best entries is competent but forgettable, but here we are. But it gets points simply because the script isn’t quite as stupid as some of the newer entries and because of R. Lee Ermey.
3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
I’ve seen a lot of people say that this is one of the worst movies they’ve ever seen, and I can’t for the life of me understand why. Is it good? Tough to say because I don’t really know what Kim Henkel’s intentions were when making it. But it is unabashedly entertaining for just how off the rails it goes. Basically, it turns out that Leatherface is a part of a group of people run by the Illuminati whose job is to make others feel real fear. Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey are both very young in this, and while the former is wooden for most of the run time, the latter is a lot of fun to watch thanks to his zany performance that borders on cartoonish at times.
There are so many creative decisions made in this film that the mind boggles how it could have possibly gotten made. For one, Leatherface kills exactly no one in this fourth installment. He does dress up as a drag queen in an extreme caricature of his gender fluidity in the first movie, though, and seeing him act like a sex worker is a bizarre spectacle. The whole Illuminati thing is just so outlandish that I almost wonder if this was a practical joke played on the studio by Kim Henkel.
Regardless of intent, I find The Next Generation to be a fairly underappreciated movie. Whether or not it’s good is beside the point, instead, it gets by for sheer curiosity and entertainment value. If you haven’t seen it because you’ve heard bad things, I’d encourage you to give it another shot. It might surprise you.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
The decade-later follow up to the first movie went in a completely different direction—rather than being a survival horror-slasher with disturbing realism, it’s a full-blown comedy, with over-the-top performances by everyone involved. The standout is, of course, Bill Mosely as Chop Top, who steals every scene he’s in for how ridiculous and obnoxious he is. But even Leatherface is treated as a joke here, with one scene in particular directly addressing the fact that the chainsaw is basically his d*ck.
It’s not subtle in the slightest, nor is it extremely well made (I think the movie’s biggest flaw is that it’s 101 minutes, there was some serious editing that needed to be done). It is everything that people love about 80s movies: loud, kind of obnoxious, excessive, but filled with creative sets and practical effects. If nothing else, the movie has Dennis Hopper run around with two chainsaws screaming his head off, and really, I shouldn’t need to tell you anything more. It’s not the best horror-comedy around, but as a follow-up to the original, it’s unique and fun.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
What? I said that number one might surprise you, not that it would surprise you.