If ever there were a sure thing in Hollywood, The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would seem to be it. It has bankable talent: Uvalde’s Matthew McConaughey (whose much-ballyhooed A Time to Kill pulled in $152 million at the box office) and Katy’s Renée Zellweger (whose Jerry Maguire had logged more than $110 million as of February 1). It has the right genre: Horror is hot again, as evidenced by the teens-in-peril pic Scream’s $71 million take in only seven weeks. It has raves from the few critics who have seen it: Joe Bob Briggs, the Julia Child of B-movie gourmands, calls it “the best horror film of the nineties.” Best of all, Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video paid so little for the distribution rights—$1.5 million—that it’s scary, meaning Return would turn a profit in about ten seconds. So why isn’t it coming soon to a theater near you?
Shot in 1993 and 1994 in Bastrop and Pflugerville, Return was the brainchild of Austin attorney Robert Kuhn, who invested $9,000 in the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. Disappointed with two schlocky sequels, Kuhn convinced Port Aransan Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the original, to write a new script and direct it himself. McConaughey and Zellweger, then virtual unknowns, were paid about $3,500 each to play Leatherface’s homicidal brother and a wallflower-in-distress, respectively. When the film was completed, it was screened in select cities, after which time Columbia/Tri-Star bought the rights and promised to spend at least $500,000 on marketing and promotion. Yet the movie never got released. Two intended dates—fall 1996, to capitalize on McConaughey’s sudden star turn, and January 1997, with an eye to Zellweger’s—came and went. Now the word is summer—or maybe never.
The reason the truth is so elusive is that the one person who knows what’s what—Clint Culpepper, Columbia/Tri-Star’s vice president of production—has apparently been telling different people different things. Fritz Friedman, the distributor’s head of worldwide publicity, says Culpepper told him in late January that the film’s release has merely been pushed up to a more B-movie-friendly summer date. But the same week, Culpepper told Zellweger’s agent, John Carabino, that it wasn’t going to be released at all. And a source connected to the film says Culpepper told him—the same week!—that the distribution rights might be resold to rival studios Miramax or New Line.
Complicating things is rampant speculation from Austin to Los Angeles that the film is being buried at Zellweger’s insistence—that she doesn’t want to tarnish her newly upmarket image with a downmarket horror flick, and that Columbia/Tri-Star, which also distributed Jerry Maguire, is willing to eat the $1.5 million to keep her happy. McConaughey told Texas Monthly contributor Jason Cohen last year that he was a fan of the film but that Zellweger was embarrassed by it. And Kuhn says Culpepper told him that “Renée’s agent did not want them to release it.”
Carabino denies that he or Zellweger has any problem with Return. So if everyone’s happy and there’s money to be made, what’s the holdup? Hey, Columbia/Tri-Star: Let ’er rip.