Over the past four decades, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise has served up three sequels, a remake and a prequel, not to mention comic books, and even a video game adaptation for the Atari 2600, of all things.
The horror series follows the chainsaw-wielding maniac, Leatherface, and his family the Sawyers, a murderous clan of redneck cannibals, loosely inspired by real-life serial murderer Ed Gein. Now, almost 40 years after the original film debuted, Lionsgate and director John Luessenhop (Takers) have continued the saga of the Sawyers, embellishing it with 3D technology for a new generation in Texas Chainsaw 3D.
Luessenhop recently sat down with Spinoff Online in Beverly Hills to discuss how he carved out his own niche in the franchise while still remaining faithful to Tobe Hooper’s classic horror masterpiece.
After screening and dissecting the history of Texas Chainsaw, Luessenhop quickly realized he was most taken with the movie that started it all, so instead of making a reboot, he deliberately chose to pick up where Hooper notoriously left off in 1974.
“I was so inspired by it, that that was where I wanted to depart from,” he explained. “Plus, I love the images. If you really look at Tobe’s film, it’s a lot of poetry juxtaposed against unabashed violence. That, I think, makes it as special as it is, that’s why it’s in the horror pantheon.”
Acknowledging how well fans know and love Hooper’s movie, Luessenhop shared that he wasn’t ready to do a complete reboot. “In truth, it’s probably been a very mismanaged franchise because the films have been so inconsistent and so uneven and the rules for one aren’t the rules for the next one,” he explained about his decision to make a continuation. “I felt, ‘I’m going to serve it up, but I want to stay faithful.’”
Indeed, fans of the series will notice several respectful nods to the original film. “I did pick out the handful of things that I really liked and made sure that they made it into the new movie,” he said.
The producers even went so far as to include original cast members Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty) and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface). “Here’s this movie that’s made its way into the upper echelon, the elites of horror and yet, they didn’t participate in any of that,” Luessenhop noted. “They were left out of every single follow-up.”
Wishing to make up for that in some way, the director spoke with obvious pleasure about the moment when Hansen first walked down the driveway and saw the old Sawyer house from the original movie, completely reconstructed. “He stopped. I’m sure the rush of thoughts and stuff. I mean, he was frozen with it,” Luessenhop recalled. “It was like a grown man going back and looking at his teenaged room. It was that moment for him.”
“And Marilyn has such energy,” he continued. “It was a history connection too, you know, what did you do? How did you feel when that happened? She remembered it all. And I thought she was terrific, too.”
With the use of cutting-edge 3D camera technology, Texas Chainsaw 3D does make a notable, and some might say radical, departure from Hooper’s movie, which was shot on 16 mm film. Luessenhop spoke about this approach and the challenge involved in designing horror in 3D. “I wanted to create a cool 3D world that was interesting and easy to watch and not throw the whole movie on the audience’s lap — like a drive-in, where everything is flying at you all times,” he said. “You can’t have sudden until you’ve had slow. You can’t have these things. You can’t have heightened 3D until you’ve had it where you can passively watch it and be engaged.”
Using shorter lenses, Luessenhop composed each shot so that there would be no “edge violations,” and nothing on the sides of the shot that would break the stereoscopic window for the audience. “I did not ‘quick cut’ it, unlike Takers, a movie I did where I cut every two and a half seconds,” he laughed. “Here I was saying, you know if we hold five, six, seven seconds, it’s okay because the eye can do things. They can move — and it’s a different film vocabulary than what I had done before, which also made it fun as a filmmaker.”
When asked about Dan Yeager, the unknown actor cast as Leatherface, one of the most enduring boogeymen in cinema history, Luessenhop revealed he discovered him in an unlikely place: producer Carl Mazzacone’s Christmas party. “He’s got a forehead that looks like Frankenstein. He’s got deep-set eyes, he has no emotion and he’s looking out with this sort of natural sort of a scowl,” Luessenhop recalled. “I was mesmerized by him and finally I asked, ‘Who is that?’ He was the carpenter at Carl’s house — and that is how he went from unknown to icon.”
Together, Yeager and the director spent a great deal of time thinking about how Leatherface would have evolved. “I kept saying: ‘OK, what is he now, decades later?” Luessenhop said. “I don’t think he’s changed. He’s grown as a man, but has not evolved that much mentally. He’s still that thing, but he’s gotten probably a little more stubborn about what he likes and doesn’t like, like we all get.”
Although it was left out of the movie, Luessenhop even put a scar on Yeager’s leg where Leatherface would have accidentally cut himself with his own chainsaw during the climactic final moments of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “I put the scar there from it and had him limp and that was the leg that we always had him limp with,” he said, before deadpanning: ‘I hope.”
When asked about the pervasive theme of family and blood ties that permeates this new film and is personified by both the murderous Sawyer clan as well as the townspeople united against them, Luessenhop smiles and shared that it was not accidental.
“I thought about what it was like to go home to Thanksgiving and your family’s dysfunctional and these things happen, and at one point, you want to just go: ‘I don’t even want these people to be a part of my family,” he explained. “It was that thing where, it may be dysfunctional, it may be this, it may be that, but it’s my family. I’m still more comfortable around that than anything else.”
Texas Chainsaw 3D opens Friday, Jan. 4.