Young Leatherface: THE SAWYER MASSACRE (Steve Merlo, 2022)

This full-length feature was released on YouTube on 21 October 2022. It is a “fan film” – you’ve heard of fan fiction, where people like Fannibals extend the stories they love into new avenues (often erotic ones). Well, this team made a whole tribute movie to the cannibalism classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCSM) came out almost fifty years ago, and was named by Total Film as number one of the fifty greatest horror movies of all time, as well as being the one that began the boom in slasher movies.

The Sawyer Massacre is the brainchild of Steve Merlo, a Canadian Musician from Kelowna British Columbia, who also wrote the score. Merlo described the original TCSM as “the first film to truly give him nightmares”. He financed the production through crowd-funding site Indiegogo, and somehow produced a film at least as well made and arguably better written and acted than the other sequels and reboots that have come out in the past several decades.

Presented as a prequel to the original TCSM, the film is set during the Vietnam War, as America fed half a million young soldiers into a futile conflict, thousands of whom did not come home alive. The pointless violence of that war and the battles between young counter-culture demonstrators and Establishment law enforcement is reflected in the gore that this film so generously doles out. The original TCSM was set in the Nixon years as the “silent majority” was taking control, the hippie dream having died at Altamont, in the streets of Chicago and on the campus of Kent State. This is a prequel, so it’s set a bit earlier – LBJ is in the White House and America still thinks its invincible military can defeat the Viet Cong. The young people who blunder into the wilds of Texas are not looking for gravestones as in the original movie, they are looking for themselves, seeking enlightenment and adventure. Jimmy has gone away with his friends to seek redemption for a family tragedy for which he blames himself, another family is looking for a camping site where they can get away from it all, and they certainly do. They inevitably end up on the point of the same knives, meat-hooks, and chainsaws as in the original. Some things remain constant, regardless of politics. And of course, movies like this always start off with a decrepit, run-down gas station.

If you’re not familiar with the TCSM, there is a review at this site, but basically it involves a lot of young city folks blundering in to an inhospitable part of Texas, where a family of killers, formerly abattoir workers, now ply their trade by slaughtering passing visitors and selling their meat to other tourists. In other words, they have done what business coaches always tell us to do – they have diversified. They are still killing animals for food, but now a different species – Homo sapiens. The original film did not go much into explanations, but the characters are there – Leatherface, the hitchhiker, even grandpa, who is rather more sprightly in this version.

In fact, the characterisation is far better in this one than the original, in which few characters lived long enough to have a back-story. And this Leatherface, with his range of masks for any occasion (including, shall we say, love interest) is much more a real person, showing not just the expected psychotic rage but fear, disappointment and even lust.

I’m trying to avoid any spoilers because the film is meant to be seen – it is available on YouTube in its entirety. If you loved the original TCSM, I think you’ll love this one too – for a film made on a tiny budget, it feels well made – the cinematography, direction, scenery, special effects, even the acting (which was pretty woeful in some of the sequels) is spot on. The feeling of claustrophobia inside the house is palpable and dials up the suspense – watching the film requires some restraint to avoid yelling at the victims to get the hell out of there – in that sense, it’s like the old pantomimes. The film also works well as a prequel – it feels like you could finish it, have a strong drink, and move straight into watching the original TCSM without losing any continuity, a tribute to the esteem in which the director holds the original.

 Steve Merlo also has a YouTube session in which he comments on the making of the film and explains some of the questions you may have, but [spoiler alert] don’t watch it until you’ve seen the movie at least once.

The full movie is currently available to watch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-GssBcG5fk

“They’re not psycho killers, they’re small business owners” 100 BLOODY ACRES (Colin and Cameron Cairnes, 2012)

There just aren’t enough Aussie cannibalism films (IMHO), particularly since the earliest movie I could find showing (purported) cannibalism, The Devil’s Playground, was made in Australia, way back in 1928. What few have been made are pretty great, including movies like The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (about a cannibal convict) and more recently Two Heads Creek, which saw immigrants to the Australian outback being cooked and eaten. There was also a movie made about the so-called Snowtown murders (most of which did not take place in the town of Snowtown) but it avoids mentioning the cannibalism of the last victim, for some reason.

Presenting country folk as hicks, rednecks, hillbillies, etc is certainly not exclusive to Australian films. In the US, such plots are usually presented as slasher horror, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and their endless sequels and prequels. In Italy during the “Cannibal Boom”, the primitives were tribes of savages, eating people for revenge, but also because they were yummy. But Australians love to see the humour, even (especially?) in a rapidly mounting body count and spurting arterial blood. 100 Bloody Acres is right in that tradition, filled with colourful rural characters who mispronounce words and aren’t that smart, taking it out on city slickers who stray into their territories.

This one stars two brothers, Reg (Damon Herriman, who (fun fact) played Charles Manson in both the Netflix series Mindhunter and in the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Lindsay (Angus Sampson who was in Mad Max: Fury Road, Fargo and most recently The Lincoln Lawyer). The Morgan brothers own and operate a small blood and bone fertiliser business in South Australia, the motto of which is:

“We’ll fertilize ya!”

Their business has been booming in the area, we are told, where six Salvos (Salvation Army workers – everything in Aust. is abbrev’ed) have disappeared without trace – not hard to see where this plot is going. Reg is on his way to deliver blood and bone fertiliser when he sees a road accident, hauls out the body of a man and puts him into the back of his van, less a few fingers, due to his clumsiness in closing the doors. Meant to be shocking or hilarious? Subjective I guess. Reg then picks up a young woman and her two male companions whose car has died on the way to a music festival, because he fancies the woman. The men go in the back of the truck with the bags of fertiliser and the car crash victim, and predictably freak out when the body is revealed by the bumpy road. Reg takes the trio to the factory, where they are tied up and made to watch the car accident victim, who turns out to be alive, lowered into the meat grinder.

Reg tries to rescue him, but ends up covered in blood and holding just his legs and, perhaps the area between them that attracts his befuddled gaze. There is a theory that movies, particularly thrillers and horror stories, are aimed at 14-year-old boys, and I’m sure they would find this scene side-splitting.

Turns out that blood and bone made from humans is far better (as fertiliser) if they are alive and scared and in agony; it’s all in the hormones. This why torment is a crucial part of the dog-meat industry, and also not far from the way we treat other animals we confine and slaughter.

The older brother, Lindsay, tests the blood from the mixture and declares it “liquid gold”.

The rest of the movie is slapstick gore involving chases, more victims being killed or losing body parts, and other merriment. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 77% fresh rating, and Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com called it:

“a smartly written and acted and exceptionally well-directed movie.”

The Guardian’s Australian Editor, Lenore Taylor, was not so enthusiastic, declaring it,

“a splatterfest that abandons suspense in favour of sniggers.”

100 Bloody Acres is not nearly as shocking as it imagines itself to be (unless maybe I’ve watched too many cannibal movies) but it is entertaining, well made, stylishly directed, and the actors are top-notch. It hums along, and may even be seen as satirising the more strait-laced and dour cannibalism films from the USA and elsewhere. If you like black comedy and gore, this one may impress.

From the point of view of Cannibal Studies, it raises some interesting questions.

  • Is it still cannibalism is you kill someone not to eat, but to use, for example, as blood and bone (or for their skin and bones, like Ed Gein or Jame Gumb)? Does cannibalism require oral ingestion, or does any use of the human body count?
  • Is cannibalism of the dead less repugnant if the intended meal is already dead? In this film, the brothers collect dead bodies from road accident sites (human roadkill) and grind them up into blood and bone. While roadkill of wild animals is not a hugely popular source for food or other uses, it is actually more acceptable to some animal activists than confinement and slaughter, in that the animals may not have known what hit them, and in any case are killed without murderous intent. So why not human roadkill (maybe making sure they’re actually dead)? Is it really worse to eat (or otherwise utilise) a dead human, who can feel no pain, than a living, terrified cow or pig? Consider the outrage in Illinois when a satirical site claimed the local morgue assistant was using body parts from deceased men to help her win a spaghetti-cooking competition. It was a hoax, but there have been other cases, such as journalist William Seabrook, who purchased human flesh from a hospital and cooked it just to see what it tasted like. What exactly is the problem?
  • And most intriguingly, why do we stroll nonchalantly past the blood and bone bags in the hardware store, yet can be shocked at the thought of human blood and bone? As Shylock asked, “if you prick us, do we not bleed?”

We are all made of blood and bone.

Leatherface is back (again): TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (David Blue Garcia, 2022)

Netflix released the latest Texas Chainsaw instalment (the ninth!) on February 28th. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Easter (as in: how many ways can you tart up hot cross buns?) but there are some nice features to this one. For a start, well, it’s on Netflix, so a bit less likely to disappear into the Texan mud without trace, like some of the earlier versions. There have been eight sequels and prequels and unrelated but similar-named movies in this franchise, as well as comics (sorry, graphic novels) and a video game of the original.

The original film, in which “chain” and “saw” were two words, is still widely acknowledged as the best, despite its paltry budget and apparently impossible working conditions for the crew. It was released in 1974 by Tobe Hooper, who made a somewhat light-hearted sequel in 1986. It was a pioneer in “slasher” films and drew cannibalism out of the gothic into the sunlight, showing an alienated workforce in “flyover” states turning their (now unwanted) skills in killing steers toward killing tourists instead. It finished with Sally, the “last girl” escaping from a frustrated Leatherface, who was wearing his mask of human skin (fully biodegradable but not much use against viruses) and wielding his chainsaw in a way that buzzed of potential sequels.

This sequel takes place 48 years after the original (yep, now) and blithely ignores any plot points from the intervening movies, comics, etc. Leatherface is back, older but no wiser and still intent on killing teenagers, and so is Sally, the survivor, who is now a Texas Ranger and set on revenge.

And the cute teens, well, they’re everything that the locals hate – inter-racial, trendy, Gen Z “Influencers”, what the creepy gas-station owner (and there’s always one to set the scene) calls “gentrifuckers”.

They want to gentrify the town and set up a trendy area of gourmet cafes and authentic looking but modernised shops and galleries. Leatherface is in retirement in an abandoned orphanage, and Sally, well, she’s been looking for him for a long time apparently, although when last seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (not an episode of Star Trek), she was catatonic and strapped to a gurney. But now she’s hardass. When we first see her, she’s gutting a pig, just as Leatherface is slaughtering humans. The special effects are pretty similar for both, as are the body shapes, and, frankly, the characterisations. The original actors who portrayed Leatherface and Sally are both dead; the only original cast member is John Larroquette who does the voiceover, which half-heartedly tries to sound like a true-crime documentary, as he did in the original. The new Sally is Olwen Fouéré, the Irish actor, although this Sally seems to be more based on Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in the 2018 reboot of Halloween.

The class struggle of the original Chain Saw has been lost here. The Texas of the original was filled with pockets of people abandoned by modern capitalism and so falling into degeneracy and violence. The new movie seems to valorise the “ordinary” folks who brook no bullshit from the “me generation” and defy the dehumanising effects of capitalism. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the influencers with their real estate auctions and cutesy town planning, or to feel terror at the thought that people might chop you up, but only if you insist on being a dick.

The terror of Leatherface himself revolved not around his nasty dental problems, badly fitting masks and noisy chainsaw, but around his family, the Sawyers, a group of odd but not obviously psychotic individuals who nonetheless were more than happy to chop up and eat innocents from the outside world, which had forsaken them. It felt like this could be any of us, screaming and dying and becoming the family’s dinner, should we venture into the wrong part of the Badlands. This new version is all Leatherface. Somehow, he now has a “mother” who looks after him in an abandoned orphanage, and she dies of a heart attack when the trendies tell her she has to move out, leading to his much delayed rampage. But Leatherface was always the weapon, not the villain, sometimes killing, and sometimes donning an apron and cooking for his dominant family. He doesn’t really work as a lone psycho, particularly when we sort of sympathise with him – he’s just lost his mum, weeps as he wears her face as a mask and then applies her makeup like Norman Bates in Psycho. Who can stay mad at that?

Tobe Hooper’s classic broke new ground in cannibal films and in horror generally. It encapsulated the early 1970s as the endless war in Vietnam and the demise of the hopes of the flower power generation ran into the chainsaw that was Nixon’s silent majority. The new one seems to reflect our time, where the young and idealistic are capitalistic exploiters and Leatherface and the Texan gun-toters are just being pushed too hard into the chainsaw of QAnon. Politics and war are no longer about truth and justice but just fake news in pursuit of tribalism. The film sums this up sardonically in the climactic scene where the busload of influencers are confronted by Leatherface and his chainsaw and respond by pulling out their phones and live streaming the whole massacre.

As Marx said, great historical entities (like Leatherface) appear in history twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time (or perhaps the ninth) as farce.

But here’s my problem with this film. After 83 minutes (which seemed much longer) I looked up from the screen and screamed (internally) “where’s the cannibalism?” Yes, there was a lot of flesh on display, and broken bones, and the occasional internal organ. But none of it got eaten, which, if I had more time, would have disqualified it from this blog. The thing is, cannibalism is not just one more nasty thing that mean people might do to you and me. It is the ultimate act of dehumanisation. Sally’s friends and family in the original were turned into slaughter-animals, chopped up, eaten, and presumably ended up in the family’s outhouse. That’s what we do to those we objectify: pigs and sheep and cows, and we do it to distinguish ourselves from other animals as somehow non-animal, part-god. The slasher might kill us, but the cannibal converts us into shit. Otherwise, we are all potential wielders of the chainsaw.

Without the cannibalism, this is just another slasher with too much emphasis on special effects rather than characterisation.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022 has a 33% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one audience critic summing up:

“it isn’t very scary — and it definitely doesn’t help that the story hardly makes any sense.”

Young Leatherface: THE SAWYER MASSACRE (Steve Merlo, 2022)

Whether you loved or hated (or anything in-between) Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it is widely acknowledged to be a seminal work in the history of slasher movies generally, and specifically of cannibal films. Total Film made it number one of the fifty greatest horror movies of all time (Psycho was number 6!) and Richard Zoglin of Time said that it set “a new standard for slasher films”. Ben Woodard called it “unambiguously the greatest horror film ever made.” That makes creating a sequel (or actually a prequel) all the more fraught!

Chainsaw was based partly on the real-life (real-death?) exploits of Ed Gein, the “Butcher of Plainfield”, who decorated his house with all sorts of furniture made of human bones and skin, but Gein had dug most of them up from graveyards. The man-monster from TCSM was Leatherface who wore a mask (well before the rest of us) and even made it himself (far more sustainable than the rest of us). It was, however, made of human skin, which you can’t get readily even on Etsy, and he sourced his raw materials from those travelling through his little corner of Texas, cutting them up with a large and noisy chainsaw, often bashing them on the head with a mallet first, as the more primitive slaughterhouses used to do to the cattle in their yards.

But why did he do that? We get some hints in the movie from his brother, the Hitchhiker, who makes it clear that the family had been “in meat” and worked in the local slaughterhouses, which had closed as industry fled the “fly-over” states. But a lot of people lost their jobs in the seventies, and most of them did not go out and buy chainsaws with murderous intent. So how did Leatherface get started? And whose idea was it to eat the victims?

Such questions have clearly been on the mind of TCSM fan Steve Merlo, who recently sat down for an interview with Bloody Disgusting about his intended feature film THE SAWYER MASSACRE, intended as a prequel to the 1974 classic.

The film has been crowdfunded through Indegogo (now closed unfortunately) but should have raised enough to see it released in about August 2022.

Here’s the plot from the Director:

While recovering from the loss of someone close, Jimmy’s friends bring him to the Texas countryside to escape city life. In need of supplies for their cabin, they head to a gas station where they are directed to an isolated farmhouse. The property is not as it seems. They find themselves hunted by the cannibalistic psychopath known as Leatherface.

Clearly, it follows the formula that was also seen in The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, The Farm and loads of other slasher movies where humans are on the table instead of sitting around it. But, as Merlo says,

“It is our intent not to copy what the original did, but use it as influence in a stylistic way. Our film will have more blood and kills, but will still be very subtle in its delivery.”

The film is due for release in 2022, the date that appears in IMDB. The film also has a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram page if you wish to follow its progress.