Monday, March 14, 2005

THE LACERATED LEGACY OF LEATHERFACE


It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone at this point in DVD history to find out that most “Making Of” segments, routinely attached to features as part of the DVD’s bonus materials package, are little more than documentary-style puff pieces in which the cast and crew spout platitudes and praise about their experience making the movie. This puffery serves as back-end publicity, to be sure, and maybe even convinces some viewers after the fact that the crummy movie they just sat through wasn’t really that bad after all. But it’s also valuable as an exercise in seeing just how far some of the participants will go to convince themselves that the experience was a good one, or to make enough nice-nice to ensure (or at least not completely destroy the chances of) their working in this town again, and with some of these same filmmakers.

Then what to make of the rare “making of” documentary that isn’t about propping up shaky pronouncements about the quality of the film in question, or about salvaging its reputation through a clever bit of historically revisionist video? What about the “making of” doc that comes right out and says, We tried to do something with this movie, but we were undercut at every turn by studio pressure, M.P.A.A. slashers and perhaps even our own ineptitude as filmmakers, but the movie bombed and it’s really not much good anyway. Wouldn’t seeing something like that be kind of refreshing? You’d think so.

But it turns out there’s a certain amount of hubris that comes naturally fused even to trotting out your failures. The cast and crew interviewed for The Saw is Family: Making Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (available on the Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III DVD) are a motley assembly of unpretentious exploitation filmmakers (with the exception of the slickly pretentious New Line Cinema executive Mark Ordesky, who oversaw the production). They spend the requisite amount of time grooving on the splatter-punk cool of retelling grisly stories about serial murderer Ed Gein, on whom both Leatherface and Norman Bates were based. Just so you know he’s down with that, the documentary’s director, Jeffrey Schwarz, treats us needlessly to notorious crime scene photos from the Gein capture that prefigure the movie series’ toned-down tendency to feature corpses as slaughterhouse slabs on the hook. (Ordesky even refers to the “Ed Gein myth.” Gein’s neighbors, and certainly his victims, would probably dispute that characterization. Maybe Ordesky’s the only one who didn’t see the crime photos.) And everybody from feature director Jeff Burr to screenwriter David J. Schow to producer Robert Engelman to actor William Butler makes very clear their reverence and appreciation for Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and even, to a lesser degree, Hooper’s own 1985 sequel. (Burr correctly refers to the original as a “seminal American independent film.”)

It’s when they get to talking about their own film that the enthusiasm wanes and the smiles quickly turn upside-down. Burr and Butler are remarkably up front about how the studio continually put pressure on the director and made it clear that, even though he made it to the top of a short list of potential hires, they didn’t much like him or what he was doing. And when it comes time to submit the movie to the M.P.A.A. ratings board, it becomes clear that the movie is in for a little evisceration of its own. Burr speaks with admiration at one point about the now-defunct Cannon Pictures’ decision to release Hooper’s garishly gruesome and funny The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two without a rating rather than submit it to excessive cutting. And one can hardly blame him for hoping that New Line would similarly back Part 3—after all, Ordesky himself claims that the studio was enthusiastic about the “tough, nasty” script and wanted to make “a straight-ahead terrifying horror film.” So when Ordesky starts recalling his own back-pedaling after hearing ominous words about the movie being banned in foreign countries, it’s like watching a rat in a three-piece suit tell you all about how he tried to scurry off of a sinking ship:

“The film is going to have to be released overseas. So, to the extent that you push the envelope while making the movie, you’ve got to find artful ways around it in the editing of the movie… He knew he was obligated to deliver an “R” rating, so it wasn’t like he was being dictated to.”

In other words, go ahead and shoot it as gory as you want, but just know that it’s all gonna end up on the floor rather than in the movie. In these days of restored DVD director’s cuts and deleted scenes, a filmmaker is less likely to get all tied up in knots when confronted with such nonsensical logic. And many directors nowadays, from horror schlockmeisters right on up to Martin Scorsese, deliberately shoot too much gore and violence, planning ahead on what can be pruned without dismantling the director’s vision of the movie. But Burr, knowing his lowly status within the New Line family, probably figured, and correctly, that once chopped up his movie was likely to stay that way. In fact, Burr even recognizes the folly of referring to a piece of exploitation like Leatherface as “his movie.” He laments at one point, “The film can never be yours. (Thinking that it could) was my mistake.” He comes off the most sympathetic of all the interviewees, not least for the naiveté that’s mixed in with his desire to be remembered as a scrappy independent filmmaker whose vision wasn’t allowed fruition.

What’s left, beyond this group gathering together to memorialize a film best left forgotten, is the self-inflating comments of some of the other participants. William Butler, who stars in the film as “Ryan,” starts off the documentary proclaiming that “I was in one of the most infamous horror films ever made!” A quick scan of his credits on the Internet Movie Database made me scratch my head on this claim—could he be referring to Ghoulies II? Maybe he means Friday the 13th V: The New Blood? Surely he can’t be referring to the tepid 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, or to Watchers III? So I suppose we’re to understand he means to describe Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III as “one of the most infamous horror films ever made!” I don’t have a dictionary at hand, but one of the definitions of “infamous” must be something on the order of “rapidly escaping from memory and sense as if it were passed gas.” Butler also claims to have been killed on-screen by Jason Voorheis, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger, yet there seems to be no Nightmare on Elm Street movie among his credits, so just how seriously can we take his assessment of horror film history? Speaking of film history, Butler’s just glad to be counted among its participants:

“I’m very proud to be in (Leatherface) because, no matter what people say about it, it’s still a tiny piece of movie history.”

Undeniably true. Bigger even than the piece of film history occupied by Ghoulies II, perhaps, yet dwarfed by the influential shadow of Friday the 13th V: The New Blood. My question is: what doth a man gain from spending 26 minutes cruelly assessing a movie’s shortcomings before attempting a last-minute, badly formulated salvage job on the film’s place in history just before the credits roll? Butler functions better within the doc as snarky VH1-style comic relief punctuating the sad story of the film’s production. Sincerity doesn’t suit him, at least when referring to Leatherface.

The documentary’s best joke, however, is saved for last. Producer Robert Engelman, who functioned at one point as New Line’s hatchet man, delivering their ultimatums and threats of termination to director Burr, is as honest throughout as anyone else about the trials enduring in producing this movie about a adopted nuclear family of cannibalistic killers who while away their days snatching young travelers off the dusty roads of Texas (actually, Valencia, California), torturing them and serving them up for Sunday dinner. So when he offers up his last comment, it’s time for a bit more head-scratching:

“When you’re filming it, it’s just fun and games. Everyone’s laughing and joking. You’re eating lunch next to the guy who’s dripping blood. It was like a real family, behind the camera as well as on camera.”

And then the perfect exclamation point for the entire documentary—a quick cut to a low-angle shot of William Butler (from the film) wielding a large rock, which he uses to land a death blow on someone’s head (and the camera). Roll credits. The producer makes a lame joke, or a thoughtless comparison, equating the film’s troubled (and, from his point of view, troublesome) cast and crew with the movie’s in-bred homicidal flesh-eaters, and one of those cast members gets to drop a big rock on his skull in return. Whether it’s a pointed rebuttal to Engelman’s comments, sly visual retribution on the part of the film’s talent, above and below the line, or just a nifty way to put an end to all the twisting and squirming over a 15-year-old horror film that most people probably don’t even clearly recall, it’s the perfect way to end The Saw is Family: Making Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.

5 comments:

blaaagh said...

H'mmm...wasn't that the one we saw in that tiny cinema within the wretched UA Berkeley Cinemas? I can barely remember it, and I imagine it's no fun for those involved to sit and watch it, much less comment on it for the DVD. Sad, really...but funny to read your essay on it. Reminds me of the commentary on "Joyride," wherein Lelee Sobieski rambles on and on about her character's motivations, how she had always felt so-and-so as a child, which made her behave in a certain way. Good lord! Fine, do your work, but then keep quiet about it; it's not an Ingmar Bergman film.

Bruce

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yep, that's the one. I remember how creepy and miserable that screening was, and how, in being so, it so well suited the atmosphere of this dank, crummy movie. As far as this DVD commentary package goes, I guess it's like "they" say-- any publicity is good publicity. But it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to wade through all this masochistic backpatting and listening to the filmmakers memorialize a failed movie that most who revere and/or appreciate the Tobe Hooper films probably wish didn't even exist. Ah, the magic of DVD...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yep, that's the one. I remember how creepy and miserable that screening was, and how, in being so, it so well suited the atmosphere of this dank, crummy movie. As far as this DVD commentary package goes, I guess it's like "they" say-- any publicity is good publicity. But it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to wade through all this masochistic backpatting and listening to the filmmakers memorialize a failed movie that most who revere and/or appreciate the Tobe Hooper films probably wish didn't even exist. Ah, the magic of DVD...

blaaagh said...

OK, OK! I heard you the first time...just kidding. I'm the king of double posting, as you know. Anyway, nerd comment alert: I believe that the FRIDAY THE 13TH entry known as THE NEW BLOOD is Part VII, not Part V. I only know this because Part VII is the one Liz Kaitan is in, and we actually own a copy of it on VHS! Can't find it at the moment, however. Am I not the nerd king, as well as the king of double posting??--Bruce

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Damn, damn, the dammity-damn! You are, of course, correct. I blame it all on aging, my ineptitude with roman numerals, and the presence of the word "new" in the subtitle of both films. William Butler indeed starred in Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood, not Friday the 13th V: A New Beginning. Blaaagh, you may now move ahead of me and Harry Knowles to the head of the 2005 graduating class in Applied Voorheesian Methodology and Practice. Yes, you may assume the Nerd King crown for now, but be aware that I will climb every mountain and ford every stream in my attempt to wrest that prestigious headgear away from you at the earliest opportunity. As for your claim of King of Double Posts, I see no evidence of that in this Comments section. Trying to grab a little extra glory for yourself?