Back in 2017, someone attempted to write a preamble to the greatest horror film of ALL TIME, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Making prequels is fraught with peril. To begin, the producers must deal with a concrete bookend that starts at the beginning of the original film. Continuity comes at a premium to maintaining favor with the fan base. Most importantly, one risks spoiling the mystique of the original film when answering questions that might be better left to mystery. 2017’s Leatherface ran afoul of many of these challenges, and Malevolent Dark called it the “Prequel that NOBODY asked for.”
In 2022, Malevolent Dark came across a production called The Sawyer Massacre (2022), an unofficial prequel to the events of 1974. Fully aware of the missed opportunity, Malevolent Dark threw into to support the effort in hopes of redeeming the sins of the past. Through their hard work, fundraising and marketing outreach, director Steven Merlo and his team pulled together enough to make this noble effort a reality. We at Malevolent Dark are ecstatic to be in the position to review the full feature release of The Sawyer Massacre prior to its official release.
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The Sawyer Massacre – 1965
The story begins with a band of friends making their way through the dusty plains of Texas to help a their friend deal with the loss of a loved one. It’s June 30th, 1965, nine years prior to the events that befell Sally Hardesty and her friends. A young man name Jimmy (Jordan O’Neal) needs to escape his mundane life in the city in response to a tragedy. Through several encounters, the group meets others stuck in the same dustbowl. Namely, Jimmy meets a girl named Alison (Nika Louw) that might be just the girl to help him break out of his depression.
All of these people have one thing in common, they all descend upon the same non-descript gas station and meet a welcoming man named Rex. According to Rex, everything they need can be found at his Grandpa’s house. You’ll not be surprised, grandpa makes the best Barbecue in the state of Texas. And yeah, grandpa lives in the foreboding old white farmhouse decaying down the road. What they find would go down as one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Sawyer Massacre.
The Challenge and the Beauty of Independent Horror
It takes balls the size of Texas tumbleweeds to make a fan film in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre universe. First of all, these films must be made on the most miniscule of budgets when compared to the studio driven feature films from Hollywood. To put in in perspective, this team created a full-length feature film for less money that Tobe Hooper did in 1974. Granted, some advances in technology make that more possible that it would have been back then, but still, these guys are making magic out of thin air.
Steve Merlo, and the rest of the production team do a fantastic job on this film.
Having reviewed a few fan films, and independents, the techniques by which burgeoning filmmakers user to make their vision a reality fascinate Malevolent Dark. Certainly, going to the till to get top-tier Hollywood acting talent stands out of reach. Also, putting together a special effects extravaganza would prove incredibly challenging. In a brief email exchange with Steve Merlo, he gave a clue to how he would approach these challenges. According to Steve, he strove to assemble a character driven story providing depth in his narrative. In short, he makes his biggest investments in places where he can get the biggest bang for his buck.
No of this says that the production team skimped in other areas. Quite honestly, the opening credit scenes look extremely polished and on par with modern cinematic standards. From the opening frames, the sound department (Solo-X, Merlo, Gory Rory, Benjamin Marchi-Hilton, Denali Parachini, Kiel Hames) harken back to the mysterious sounds of distant sounds of clanging metal and evil ambient air that made the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre so foreboding. With the eruption of a chainsaw Steven Merlo takes no time making the audience fully aware of the brutality to come.
Fantastic Technical Work
Charlie Brady (Director of Photography) does an extremely effective job managing the camera. He conceives and frames the shots extremely well and makes very good use of dynamic camera movement to make sure that things are interesting. One the things we often notice with these independent features is a lack of depth in the frame. He makes artistic use of focal length to appropriately draw the viewers eyes to where he wants them.
Modern digital technology can easily lead to stark and uninteresting backdrops. Charlie Brady seems to understand this and avoids these pitfalls.
Make no mistake, while a character driven affair, The Sawyer Massacre makes significant investments in the red stuff. Leatherface’s masks, especially the one he dons late in the film are graphically unsettling. One of the most brutal kills in the film happens completely off camera. Even off screen, the combination of Leatherface’s movements and the sound effects will make even the most hardened horror fan wince.
Clearly, Steven Merlo intends to forge his own ground in The Sawyer Massacre. However, he also knows that he owes some allegiance to the past. He makes good on that responsibility by making sure that certain bit of continuity line up. We did not expect the broadcast news report on KOKLA radio, the home of none other than Vanita “Stretch” Brock. Considering how many of the sequels/prequels in existence dance around the existence of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Merlo and team explicitly make a call-out to Hooper’s awesome follow-up.
The team also makes sure to reference critical characters created by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper. We get a glimpse of an adolescent Hitchhiker (Vitor Parachini credited as “Schizo”) clashing with a younger more vibrant Drayton Sawyer (Bill Housekeeper). “You ain’t the BOSS of ME!!!” Both performances admirably replicate the important aspects of their personalities. Once again nodding to Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a newly introduced character explains the secret, “It’s the meat, he only uses PRIME meat!”.
We think we can say this without spoiling anything, a character named Leatherface makes an appearance (Scotty Parkin). Leatherface’s portrayal possesses all of the behemoth brutishness of past depictions. Parkin excels at portraying the confused chainsaw wielding bull in a china shop. If there were an omission, we felt like the performance would have been bolstered by Gunnar Hansen’s animalistic howls when performing his macabre work.
Serving Up the Barbecue
As far as independent horror films are concerned, The Sawyer Massacre achieves a level of professionalism that should be a model for prospective directors. Taking on a franchise with the gravity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre requires a conviction not often found. On its own, The Sawyer Massacre is a fine tribute to great legacy… but it also presents an innovative film that charts its own territory. When one considers this accomplishment with its meager budget, its quality boggles the mind.
Fantastic performances by Nika Louw and William Instone (Rex) elevate the film beyond the realm of simple fan fiction.
Make sure you track this one down, We’ll update this post when we have details on where to watch when released on 10/21/22!