“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise is one of the few film series whose name alone could make squeamish folks ill. There’s no way to consider it without facing the blood, sinew and gore erupting from the weapon of choice of Leatherface, the cannibalistic killer who ties things together. The gnarly reputation of the series was cemented by the 1974 microbudget indie that kicked it all off, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” directed, produced and co-written by horror legend Tobe Hooper. Despite it being a box office hit, sequels were oddly paced, often retconning, reconstructing and revising details decades after the original. To celebrate the release of the newest sequel-to-the-original, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Variety is ranking the films in this rambunctious and wildly uneven franchise.
Although it’s a more stylish chapter than several of the low-budget titles above, this prequel to the original film is dreary and out-of-step with the rest of the franchise. Several patients at a mental institution hit the road in a script that feels like a smeared photocopy of 2005’s influential Rob Zombie movie “The Devil’s Rejects.” There are very few hints that this is a “TCM” chapter until the last 10 minutes, which starts a wild scramble to connect the rest of the movie to the overall saga. Despite an impassioned performance from Stephen Dorff as a Texas Ranger hell-bent on revenge and some gnarly gore, “Leatherface” plays like a fan fiction that isn’t as entertaining as the series’ most out-there work.
"Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation" (1995)
Forever known as “the one with Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey in it,” “The Next Generation” is an amateurish disaster buoyed only by a “seeing is believing” level of outrageousness. In a film where the camera and script are equally out of focus, Zellweger and her prom-bound friends are pursued by a berserk McConaughey and Leatherface, now dressed as a woman and screaming uncontrollably. Along the way are secret societies, barely any violence and stretches that can’t hold a candle to the original trilogy. But you can’t take your eyes off of McConaughey, whose acting is so broad it can be seen from other planets. “The Next Generation” will only stand the test of time as a movie star curio, a bar trivia answer better mentioned than seen.
"Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (2022)
The newest “Massacre,” designed as a different direct sequel to the 1974 original, is hobbled by having a lot of BIG IDEAS it wants to get across in less than 90 minutes. While the original had a sturdy message about industrial innovations chewing up and spitting out small town America, this sequel tries to take on gentrification, school shootings, cancel culture, social media dependency and Confederate flags, all via some of the most obnoxious characters put to celluloid this decade. In a way, the hipsters invading Leatherface’s small town do make the perfect fodder for killing, as even the most woke audience would root for their demise. In the pro column, the newest addition to the series is handsomely shot and has some wonderfully deranged setpieces, including a true chainsaw massacre on a party bus, a tense game of cat-and-mouse in an ambulance and a battle between Leatherface and an old foe that is nearly a parody of 2018’s “Halloween” sequel. But overall, Leatherface doesn’t distinguish himself from other masked slashers in this chapter, which seems destined to live on only as a popular YouTube clip named “Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) — Bus Scene,” traded among teenagers who just want to watch three minutes of hardcore and stylish mass murder.
"Texas Chainsaw 3D" (2013)
A strange film that attempts to turn Leatherface into a sympathetic anti-hero, “3D” is another direct sequel to the 1974 original. After all of the Sawyer family is killed in the film’s opening — outside of Leatherface and a baby, whose age and identity pull at the logical fabric of the timeline — years skip by to find Alexandra Daddario and a group of friends head to a small Texas town so she can square away an unknown inheritance. Twists and turns, including crooked cops and secret identities, nearly tip the plot-heavy affair over, but ultimately it’s Leatherface’s forced turn from heel to hero that drags things down. After all, didn’t anyone see the first movie? He’s a really bad guy! Yet Daddario’s strong lead performance, some squirmy gore and memorable setpieces make this a solid, if silly, watch.
"Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III" (1990)
Course correcting back to horror after 86’s gonzo sequel, this third installment is beholden to ’80s slasher norms and sacrifices originality for a back-to-basics genre approach. Although the plot and characters are rote, there are some bright points: “Dawn of the Dead” alum Ken Foree as the well-equipped Leatherface foe Benny, a young Viggo Mortensen as a member of the murderous Sawyer clan and a glorious golden chainsaw emblazoned with the words “The Saw is Family” stealing the show. Unfortunately, the film is too paint-by-numbers to elevate to classic status — and a notorious chop job of over 4 minutes of gore to keep an R-rating has rendered it too neutered for gorehounds.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" (2006)
Capitalizing on the success of the better-than-it-should-have-been 2003 remake, “The Beginning” acts as both a prequel and remix to its predecessor, bringing back key baddies such as R. Lee Ermey’s Sheriff Hoyt and Andrew Bryniarski’s Leatherface. Although this chapter falls into the “I didn’t need to know this backstory” prequel trap popularized by the 2018 “Star Wars” dud “Solo,” the main story is another solid spin on kids being abducted for meat in small town Texas. The innocent leads, including Jordana Brewster and Matt Bomer, bring great empathy to their parts, and the gore is plentiful and cringey. Unlike the 2017 prequel “Leatherface,” “The Beginning” feels right at home among the series’ best chapters.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (2003)
Many horror fans thought that even the idea of a “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” remake was disrespectful to the endlessly-influential 1974 version, but director Marcus Nispel made many clever decisions in order to reimagine the basic story as a must-watch for a new generation of horror fans. First, outside of the bones of the story, many things were changed: The pace is faster, the violence is bloodier, scenes are modified, the score is more traditional. But core elements also remain. Cinematographer Daniel Pearl returned to the series after shooting the first, lensing a clean movie while finding the darkness within — something of a photo-negative of the crusty original. The grime of the sets are just as stomach-churning and sweltering as the original’s, thanks to shooting in the Texas heat. And a group of professional actors bring a different type of elevation to the material. Franchise-best performances from R. Lee Ermey and Jessica Biel offer great tension beyond a hulking Leatherface, portrayed at his most physically menacing by Andrew Bryniarski.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" (1986)
A maximialist comedic spin on the first movie, Tobe Hooper returned to direct the sequel to his original “Massacre” twelve years later, confounding audiences until 21st century reappraisal redefined the work as a kindred spirit to other horror satire masterpieces like “Evil Dead 2.” Moving the cannibalistic Sawyer clan into an abandoned amusement park, a trio of quirky actors heighten the proceedings: Bill Moseley as sadistic hippie and Leatherface sibling Chop Top, Dennis Hopper as Lt. Boude “Lefty” Enright and Caroline Williams as expressive final girl Stretch. All have rubbery faces ready to toe the line between horror and comedy. By the time Hopper has a dual chainsaw duel against Leatherface in the freakshow third act, the film hits nirvana for audiences on its wavelength. Gross, outrageous, funny and demented, this sequel feels beamed in from another dimension and it’s all the better for that.
"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974)
Beyond the groundwork that it laid for future horror films, the original “Massacre” is a grainy, delirious dive into a nightmare. It remains a difficult watch nearly 50 years after its release. Based loosely on serial killer Ed Gein, the title alone freaked out audiences at the time, preparing them for a journey to hell that might have actually happened. Although the film itself is devoid of much gore, the cast of unknowns and real-life sets evoke a snuff film, where the killers were absolutely out of their mind and audiences were out of control. Inspiring wide swaths of scary movie lore that are still omnipresent today and traumatizing generations of fans and horror auteurs alike, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is one of the few game-changing pieces of art which hasn’t fossilized at all.