Bridging the gap between pure psychological horror with a touch of humor and gore into something polarly opposite isn't an easy task. And there is no better example of that in the realm of scary movies than New Line Cinema's maligned 1990 slasher sequel, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Though technically an '80s flick, Jeff Burr's 1990 contribution to the famous film franchise ‒ which still exists today via an occasional, unnecessary reboot every couple of years ‒ became an instant target for fans and foes alike.
Several years before, the Cannon Group released Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 to theaters. The vastly different approach abandoned the original independent film's claustrophobically grim tone and surprisingly light traces of on-screen violence, replacing it with a deliriously outrageous and campy alternative best classified as "splatstick". Warned by the MPAA that it would receive an "X" rating due to the excessive everything, producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus made the controversial decision to release the movie to theaters without a rating. When it came time for New Line to submit their first entry of their own newly-acquired property, they discovered the MPAA had not forgotten.
Thus, Leatherface met another infamous movie killer ‒ The Editing Room Floor Slasher ‒ not once or twice, but eleven times over, until fuddy duddies at the MPAA finally gave the (ironically) eviscerated horror film a passing grade. This pushed New Line's initial November '89 release date to the beginning of 1990, irking just about everyone involved. But that was hardly the first catastrophe to strike the production. New Line executives ‒ hoping to create another series in the vein of their most successful horror property, A Nightmare on Elm Street ‒ rejected many of the more gruesome ideas from screenwriter David J. Schow (The Crow) and the gore gurus from KNB Effects Group.
New Line even fired director Jeff Burr at one point when he failed to keep up with their increasingly frustrating demands and schedules, holding up the production as they frantically searched for someone to take over before re-hiring Burr to finish up because nobody else would take the job. Eventually, after almost every single problem that could have taken place during the making of a low-budget horror movie did in fact take place, a rushed, heavily edited, and re-shot version of Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III premiered ‒ only to prove a failure at the box office (faring slightly better than Ski School, which should tell you something) and a massive disappointment to everyone. Even to the very people who made it.
The only Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie to be filmed in California (a factoid which feels less insulting towards when you take into consideration the last one was shot in Bulgaria), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III wastes precious little screen time introducing us to the Sawyer Family's most infamous member, even if they show very little of him total. Taking an early shot at what we would later dub "torture-porn," the story takes place after the shocking discovery of an open mass grave, complete with lots of unsettlingly realistic gore effects. The parties responsible for the atrocity are nowhere to be found, alerting everyone possessing slightly more than half-a-brain in the immediate vicinity to be on their guard.
Fortunately for the now-relocated Sawyer clan, their latest targets ‒ a disillusioned, bickering yuppie couple in a classic Benz ‒ fall just below the "possessing slightly more than half-a-brain" criteria: they're from California. Seemingly oblivious to practically everything but their own drama, Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) ignore all possible red flags ‒ even after driving by the aforementioned scene of the crime and receiving a stern warning from a local lawman ‒ and get caught up in the elaborate games of rural America's least hospitable family. And what a family it is: whereas previous Massacres kept the household small, Leatherface presents us with an even larger number of cannibalistic kooks.
Following several Sawyer Family tactics, including a teaser run-in with the titular terror himself (this time portrayed by R.A. Mihailoff, as nobody was ever willing to pay poor Gunnar Hansen what he wanted), the strong-willed Michelle and the as-Southern-Californian-as-can-be Ryan literally run into one of the film's saving graces: Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree as a surprisingly stable survivalist named Benny (of course, in an environment like this, even survivalists seem sane and normal). The movie also tosses in Toni Hudson (Just One of the Guys) as another survivor ‒ the sole remnant of a previous slaying ‒ whom the Sawyers have been on the hunt for. She shows up just long enough to get brutally sawed in half.
Granted, as we soon learn, anyone who clearly dies in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is likely to inexplicable return to life thanks to New Line's sloppy re-editing job. But that's just one of many things people like to laugh about now (hopefully), just like the appearance of some young buck named Viggo Mortensen, who plays the Sawyer's most normal-looking boy, "Tex". Joe Unger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) plays a hook-handed Sawyer sibling named Tinker, and Tom Everett plays the outwardly nutty ex-slaughterhouse employee brother. Betweem the two of them, they get the best lines. Miriam Byrd-Nethery is the mum, while Jennifer Banko plays the nameless Little Girl in the house of horrors.
Also popping up for brief cameos here are Michael Shamus Wiles (Breaking Bad, Fight Club), Duane Whitaker (Pulp Fiction, Hobgoblins), and a fleeting glimpse of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 star/survivor Caroline Williams, who ‒ depending on who you ask ‒ may or may not be reprising her role of rock radio DJ Stretch from the previous film. Originally released to home video in 1990, many of the MPAA's cuts were restored for the 2003 DVD debut, which marked the first time the movie became commercially available in its Unrated form. Prior to that, many die-hard purists and perfectionists managed to track down a lengthier, gorier workprint through various sources over the years.
Said print never saw an official release, as MPAA edits were excised upon the original camera negative; the discarded fractions of which were lost forever shortly afterward. Presumably culled from original film elements, the Warner Archive Collection's out-of-left-field unveiling of Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III in its Unrated Edition form is the very thing even horror haters can get behind. Framed at 1.78:1 and presented in as crisp and clean of an MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encode as you could hope for, Jeff Burr's still-controversial contribution to one of pop culture's most frightening creations looks positively stunning. The included DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack also cuts things up, and optional English (SDH) subtitles are available.
Special features (all or which are in SD) have been ported over from New Line's 2003 DVD, beginning with a great group audio commentary from director Jeff Burr, F/X guru Gregory Nicotero, writer David J. Schow, New Line exec (and Lord of the Rings producer) Mark Odesky, and actors R.A. Mihailoff and William Butler. A behind-the-scenes/making-of featurette clocks in at close to 28-minutes, and features many cast/crew interviews and memories, along with some graphic shots of real-life serial killer Ed Gein's grisly doings, which (thankfully) come with a warning beforehand. Next up is a ten-minute stretch of deleted scenes presented by Jeff Burr, followed by the original ending, wherein certain characters actually stay dead this time.
Lastly here is the tongue-in-cheek theatrical teaser trailer, which I can vividly recall seeing on late-night TV as a young man and being ridiculously terrified of for some reason (it was that quick zoom-in at the end which got to me, and right before bed, at that). It is worth noting the teaser was produced before production of the film had even started or New Line had found a director (interestingly, Peter Jackson was once considered for the job, thus giving Leatherface yet another Lord of the Rings connection). If the Leatherface in the trailer looks vastly different from the one in the film, it's because they are: the man behind the mask here is four-time Jason Voorhees portrayer Kane Hodder, who also served as stunt coordinator.
Although Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III seemed as if it was doomed from the start, the movie itself has become a cult item in its own right. Sure, the troubled production may have inadvertently given birth to the unwanted trend of casting big dumb unkempt wrasslers as huge, lumbering, childlike slashers amid dark and gory settings accompanied by shitty heavy metal music. (Likewise, it may have brought us a legion of annoying horror trolls who pretty much fit the same bill.) But when you compare this Leatherface to all of the terrible sequels, prequels, reboots and pre-boots which have since followed, it kind of feels like meeting up with a long lost family member who is quite literally a cut above the rest.
Recommended one way or the other.