Monday, January 12, 2015

Newsploitation: Leatherface turns 25!

Okay, these box office birthdays are going to start to get weird for me now that we are celebrating 25th anniversaries of movies released in 1990.  I started getting interested in box office figures in the mid-80s and would love to see figures in the Variety issues my theater teacher had.  But 1990 is different because that is when I can first remember seeing box office figures printed in the newspaper.  Personally, I’ve always felt the reason for this was the success of BATMAN (1989) the previous year.  Anyway, being able to see what landed in the top ten would soon be a lesson for me that not all films are created equal.  Today’s study in that: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III.

It goes without saying that Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is one of the greatest horror films of all-time.  In fact, it is one of my favorites and was responsible for a formative memory as my mom forced us to shut off the VHS when we watched it.  (Yes, she rented a film with that title, but then somehow got offended by the content.)  My sister and I snuck it out later to watch it.  Hooper’s sequel THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 (1986) also provided another memory as a theater manager refused to sell my mom tickets for us to see it.  (Yes, apparently mom forgot all about the VHS incident.)  I eventually saw that one on video and loved the ever loving hell out of it, with its wit and general insanity only improving over time.  So when New Line announced they were doing a third entry in the TCM series, I was revved up.  Ah, boo yourself.

“New Line releases the ELM STREET series, so they must really care about their films,” thought my 14-year-old brain.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  New Line Cinema had acquired the rights to the CHAINSAW series in 1988.  The company had a history with the franchise as they purchased the rights from Bryanston and re-released the original in the early 1980s.  Before officially announcing the film, they briefly flirted with the idea of using a Hooper and Kim Henkel idea for the sequel. However, that was not to be and New Line announced the new project as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3: LEATHERFACE at the American Film Market in February 1989 (see the AFM ad to the right; also note HEART CONDITION [1990] originally having a man and woman in it and a very early ad for IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which would arrive six years later).  Limited details had splatterpunk author David Schow listed as the writer and a spring start for a fall release date.  Execs described it as “a total rebirth” of the characters.  I believe today we call that a reboot.

Also at the same convention was a young filmmaker pimping another sequel, THE STEPFATHER II (1989).  The director was Jeff Burr and by June 1989 he would be signing on to find himself in the director’s chair for the Sawyer clan’s third go-round. This was great news for me as I had seen (and loved) Burr’s anthology THE OFFSPRING (1987).  I figured if he could make a great movie with minimal funds that given millions he would make a fantastic movie.  Ah, so na├»ve of studio/film world politics in my youth.  (Sadly, Burr also saw his STEPFATHER sequel get into the hands of the Weinsteins, who proceeded to mangle it.)  Thankfully, after Burr was signed, New Line gave him plenty of time to develop the LEATHERFACE project.  Haha, just kidding, he was literally given a few weeks.  As evidenced by their super-rushed production of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, New Line had adopted a “release date first, filming very fast later” policy and had already penciled in the third CHAINSAW film for a fall release date.  Filming took place in July 1989 and by most accounts it was a stressful shoot.  I’d highly recommend Schow’s articles on the film (and un-making of his script) in Fangoria issues 88 & 89.

Things were going smoothly (well, as smoothly as possible for a four month filming-to-release) until New Line hit a snag in the form of an acronym feared by horror filmmakers worldwide at the time – M.P.A.A.! In early October a headline that made the front page of Variety screamed: “X Prompts Cuts in CHAINSAW III.”  Yes, the dreaded censorship board had struck again.  On October 18 an article stated that New Line requested an appeal, but that went about as good as a grand jury investigating a cop who killed someone.  October 25 brought the news that the draconian ratings board was like Tom Petty and they won’t back down (Variety: “the X-rating given to New Line Cinema’s LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III was sustained again Oct. 19 at a hearing before the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s Classification & Ratings Appeals Board.”)  This played havoc with a scheduled November 3, 1989 release date. Naturally, this date was missed and on November 8 it was reported that after several attempts to recut the film, New Line was finally given an R-rating.  The ultimate irony here is that New Line later released the film unrated on VHS and DVD and the gore wasn’t bad at all. I’d argue kids see worse today on basic cable with THE WALKING DEAD.  Ah, the ‘80s.

The film was finally scheduled for a nationwide release on January 12, 1990.  Now here is where we get back to my original point about box office numbers.  When I finally got a chance to see the top ten for that weekend, TCM3 was nowhere to be seen.  “Did they cancel/delay the release?” thought my little brain.  Nope.  The film bombed hard, opening in 11th place with a gross of $2,692,087 on 1,107 screens.  Unbeknownst to New Line while they were shooting this in July 1989, the horror franchise market was going to bottom out the next month with the latest ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13th entries dying a quick death at the box office.  By the time CHAINSAW roared into theaters, the deck was stacked against it and January was already a bad month for movies.  The highly touted return of Leatherface saw the madman’s titular weapon running out of gas quickly as the film left theaters with a small sum of $5,765,562.  (New Line looked like it was going to have a rough year until it was saved by some TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES [1990] in March.)

While the film didn’t perform up to expectations, some good did come from it.  It gave genre icon Ken Foree another theatrical feature and it helped launch the career of Viggo Mortensen. Perhaps the best thing from it though was an amazing teaser trailer attached to ELM STREET 5.  One has to think this came about as a response to Paramount’s JASON TAKES MANHATTAN trailer (hell, both of them unfold in nearly the exact same manner), this clever trailer shocked me when I first saw it due to the surprise factor alone.  Remember, kids, this was the ‘80s before every frame of a trailer was spread worldwide on the computer.  Dammit, where did I put my Geritol?

4 Reactions:

  1. Great article. I remember when Leatherface was coming out. I was already a fan of the first two when I saw that teaser in front of Dream Child, I read and re-read those issues of Fangoria, I wanted to see Leatherface in the theatre, as I had seen NOES 5 and Jason Takes Manhattan in '89. But I was still very young, and Leatherface was called "controversial". That word was enough to stop my mom from taking me to it.

    - Cody

  2. What's even funnier is the fact that no one under 35 will get the Geritol joke.

  3. Wow, he doesn't look a day over 50.


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