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Of all the modern horror movie franchises, from Saw to Paranormal Activity and back to Wrong Turn, Adam Green’s Hatchet series is easily the most ’80s-oriented of the bunch. When the original Hatchet (2006) was unleashed upon the world, it would’ve been hard not to draw parallels to that classic “slasher in the woods” franchise, Friday the 13th: Hatchet featured hulking Kane Hodder in the role of the villain, was top-loaded with just about as much ultra-gore as could be crammed into one film (whatever didn’t fit into the first was handily saved, like excess chicken stock, for the sequels), featured violent death by as many different, inventive sources as possible and stuck a group of people (or “cannon fodder,” if you prefer) into an isolated location (a New Orleans swamp versus a summer camp in the woods) so that they could be summarily wiped from the face of the earth.

After Hatchet was a surprise hit amongst genre fans, Green followed it up with an even more over-the-top sequel, Hatchet II (2010), which managed to ramp the carnage up several notches (how that was humanly possible, I’ll never know) while simultaneously toning down the more explicitly humorous elements. While the sequel wasn’t quite as dynamic as the original film, it was still an awful lot of fun (for very strong stomachs, obviously, but that pretty much goes without saying) and actually served as a direct continuation of the first film, picking up right where Hatchet ended and using many of the same actors (the ones who actually survived, at least). When the sequel became another fan favorite, the future seemed clear: Hatchet was well on its way to entering franchise territory.

This, of course, brings us to the third film in the series, the cleverly titled Hatchet III (2013). For the first time in the relatively short-lived franchise, creator Green steps away from the director’s chair, although he did write the script and “present” the film. Turning the bullhorn over to BJ McDonnell, Green finds himself at that most formative stage of a young franchise’s life: that pivotal moment where the series must shake off its original progenitor (F13 did it with Cunningham, NOES did it with Craven), sprout it own set of moldy, mutated wings and fly away for parts unknown. Does it work? Does Green’s Hatchet really have what it takes to stick around in the world of franchise horror and hang with the big boys? Or is this strictly going to be direct-to-video fodder like the Wrong Turn series?

Picking up immediately where the second film ended, with series heroine Marybeth (Danielle Harris) blasting franchise villain Victor Crowley’s (Kane Hodder) face into red pulp with a shotgun, we hit the ground running. As Marybeth rests in the foreground, Victor rises in the background, leading to a short chase, a rather jaw-dropping moment where Marybeth does something extremely rude to Victor’s face-hole, followed by the equally eyebrow raising bit where Victor falls backwards onto an enormous chainsaw (used for cutting down 1000 ft tall oaks, I would imagine), where he’s split asunder, vertically, showering Marybeth in more blood than could possibly be contained in five Victors, all while Gwar’s “Hail Genocide” blasts on the soundtrack. The scene ends with Marybeth stumbling into town, a shotgun in one hand, Victor’s bloody scalp in the other. Roll credits, strap on your seatbelt, folks.

It bears mentioning, at this point, that Hatchet III is not for very sensitive sensibilities. This is, for lack of a better word, an ultra-gore epic, a film that not only revels in the depiction of inventive bloodshed on-screen but positively wallows in it. While the first two films in the franchise were gore-drenched, Hatchet III takes things into heretofore unheard of arenas: as someone who’s been watching these kinds of things for the better part of two decades, I was still surprised by some of the things I saw. Again, I only feel that it’s necessary to drive this home because I’d hate for a curious neophyte to think, “How bad could it get?,” assuming this was a more commercial type of horror confection: if the opening sounds stomach-churning, understand that it’s probably the least intense “kill” in the film and let your conscience (and your gut) be your guide.

Back in the “real world,” Marybeth stumbles into the local police station, setting off a bit of a panic (shotguns and bloody scalps have a tendency to do that, after all) and is promptly arrested and thrown into lockup by the tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed Sheriff Fowler (Zach Galligan). He sends his deputies out to investigate Marybeth’s claims of a huge swamp massacre, which they end up finding more than abundant evidence of (mostly numerous small pieces of former living folks). Back at the jail, Marybeth is being harassed by Sheriff Fowler’s ex-wife, the tenacious local reporter Amanda (Caroline Williams), who wants vindication for the entire town thinking her belief in Crowley is a load of zombie-shit. Seems that Amanda has been doing her research and knows a thing or two about Crowley that Marybeth doesn’t: namely, the hulking, unstoppable monster is also a “Repeater,” a cursed individual doomed to be reborn each night so as to continue its cursed killing streak again and again, ad infinitum. Uh oh. As the night creeps in, Sheriff Fowler and his deputies are going to learn one thing the hard way: you just can’t keep an enormous, undead, hatchet-wielding maniac down. It’s now up to Marybeth and Amanda to delve deep into Victor’s disturbed childhood, find the source of his “returning” and put an end to the curse once and for all.

As the third film in a growing franchise, Hatchet III occupies a rather interesting position: at this point, can the film ever stand on its own or it only valuable as a part of a greater whole? Personally, I feel that it’s possible to watch individual franchise entries in any horror series on their own, without the benefit of the “bigger picture,” as it were. That being said, however, Hatchet III is a true sequel, picking up, as it does, from the end of the previous film and actually manages to expand on the original mythos. As such, we’re actually left with a situation a little closer to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (bear with me here), where the overall feel is of one, long film hacked into three separate pieces. It’s certainly possible to watch Hatchet III on its own but I think the experience is actually made richer by mainlining all three at the same time: talk about your bloody weekends, though!

As a film, Hatchet III is a bit closer in tone to the second film than the first: there’s less obvious humor and more of a reliance on jaw-dropping practical fx and ultra-violence. There are also quite a few appearances from genre vets, including the hilarious performance by Galligan (Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990), Waxwork (1988)) as the ridiculously tough lawman, Williams (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), The Stepfather II (1988)) as the pushy reporter and an amusing cameo from all-around badass Sid Haig as a cranky old descendent of Crowley’s. Galligan, in particular, is pretty great, even if he’s never once convincing: there’s something awfully funny about watching young Billy all grown up and test-driving cuss words like he just learned them the other day.

Despite a slightly “direct-to-video” aesthetic, Hatchet III actual looks pretty good, certainly no worse than the previous sequel, at least. The swamp setting is used to good effect, once again, and the stuff about Repeaters is a really intelligent way to “explain” that old slasher movie conceit about the “unkillable killer.” The film is stuffed to the gills with some genuinely tense moments, although the emphasis is always squarely on the completely over-the-top gore sequences. To this end, we see limbs ripped off, heads power-sanded into oblivion, people hacked into bits, et al: it really is like a “greatest hits” of slasher-movie pandemonium and fans of the subgenre should be in hog heaven here. More sensitive stomachs, however, should certainly bolt for the hills.

Ultimately, what can I say? I genuinely enjoyed the first two films in the franchise, finding them to be fairly clever, well-made and fun throwbacks to ’80s gore films, perfect for a booze-soaked party or a little rainy-day weekend marathon. Marybeth is a suitably great “final girl,” Crowley has a nicely sketched in backstory and the supporting acting is always decent, bordering on quite good. At first, I was a little worried that handing the reins to another director might result in a lesser product but I needn’t have feared: Adam Green seems like he’s got the franchise pretty well under control, at this point. Here’s to hoping that he keeps finding inventive new ways to continue the misadventures of everyone’s favorite bayou baddie. Victor goes to Manhattan? Victor in Space? I’m ready for it, Green: bring it on!