Written by: Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues (story), Chris Thomas Devlin (screenplay), Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper (characters)
Directed by: David Blue Garcia
Starring: Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, and Mark Burnham
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The Face of Madness Returns
Continuity has infamously never been a priority for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, an approach that has an obvious appeal to filmmakers, who need not feel beholden to previous sequels, giving them free reign to do their own thing with each outing (to varying degrees of success, of course). However, this devil-may-care attitude also benefits fans, who cannot reasonably have any solid expectations about what a new entry should be. When a franchise has been haphazardly stitched together like a crazy quilt, who can say with any certainty what the next patch should look like? At this point, the only mandate for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel is to be bold, even if it means taking a big, flailing swing that leaves it twirling in the void. And while I’m not sure this latest one does exactly that, it’s more inspired and impressively crafted than some of the other recent films, something I’m willing to consider a win when we’re talking about the ninth entry in a franchise with a checkered history anyway. Call it low expectations if you must, but Texas Chainsaw Massacre earns its keep as an unrepentant, black-hearted slasher movie whose utter nihilism captures the tiniest spark of the original film.
Yet another direct sequel that ignores any previous follow-ups, it returns to the scene of the original crime, where Sally Hardesty’s ordeal has become the stuff of local legend. And, like most American legends, it’s been commercialized into the stuff of tourist trap lore, as roadside gas stations peddle chintzy merchandise and play a true crime documentary (brilliantly incorporating John Laroquette’s signature narration) on a loop for visitors. The latest batch of unsuspecting passersby are a group of young entrepreneurs who are looking to gentrify the nearby ghost town of Harlow into a sort of hipster enclave. Spearheaded by Dante and Melody (Jacob Latimore and Sarah Yarkin), this extremely Gen Z group barrels into town in their automated Tesla, their noses turned up at the gun-toting, gas-guzzling locals. When a woman (Alice Krige) claims to still own her house in town, they show no mercy in kicking her out of the place, giving her a heart attack that proves to be fatal. Little do they know that the adopted son who watches her die in the ambulance is the infamous Leatherface (Mark Burnham, recapturing the feral ferocity of Gunnar Hansen), his rage now reawakened after nearly 50 years as he recovers his trusty chainsaw and embarks on another killing spree.
What follows is the sort of unrepentant splatter movie carnage this franchise has frequently turned to in the wake of Hooper’s original. It is, of course, the antithesis of that film’s more atmospheric and relatively restrained approach, something that you’d be compelled to hold against Texas Chainsaw Massacre if this ship hadn’t sailed on this franchise long ago. But at this point, it’s hard to see this as some defilement of a sacred text—in fact, this entry mostly feels like a sharper, nastier riff on Texas Chainsaw 3D in the way it delights in its splatter movie violence. For all their nihilism and his askew sensibilities, even Hooper’s entries never quite felt like their slasher contemporaries in this respect, with a sense of genuine tragedy underpinning the original film especially. These were just nice kids who stumbled upon a slaughterhouse.
This one, on the other hand, feels a little more akin to Kim Henkel’s The Next Generation in the way it seemingly holds some disdain for its protagonists, going so far as to paint them as aggressive gentrifiers who court their grisly fate. It’s an approach that immediately puts this one on a different kind of axis: we’re no longer dealing with an excursion into an inexplicable hell but rather some kind of black-hearted, karmic comeuppance. I don’t begrudge anyone who balks at this paradigm shift and considers this kind of nonsense to be beneath this franchise; however, it somehow feels like a roundabout complement to the original movie’s insistence that nothing escapes this void. Whether you’re just a group of good kids checking up on your grandfather’s grave or a bunch of disrespectful, exploitative capitalists, you’re going into that meat-grinder. Any possible escape isn’t a reflection of character so much as it is the same dumb luck that put you into this situation in the first place.
To that end, Texas Chainsaw Massacre also seems to revel in its political provocation, mostly in the way it goes out of its way to capture the zeitgeist of this era’s discourse and exploits several talking points with reckless abandon, including gentrification, school shootings, and gun control. Depending on your persuasion, you can read Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a right-wing fantasia where a school shooting victim (Elsie Fisher) has to embrace guns to survive another violent ordeal, or you can note that guns do very little to help anyone survive here, giving it more of a liberal slant. Given some of the dialogue and characterization, I’m sure some will dismiss it as yet another example of horror going “woke,” an absurd take if only because this genre has often been ahead of the curve in embracing liberal politics (in fact, you don’t have to squint at all to see the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a Vietnam parable). It’s also a take that holds no water when you consider this is basically a movie where an angry boomer mows down these Gen Z interlopers. Old Man Leatherface essentially wants these kids to stay off of his lawn.
However, it seems that sifting through the rubble to bring some kind of political order to its chaos is futile, if only because the film mostly feels guided by exploitation movie provocation. Look no further than its casting a Black man as the face of gentrification, its invocation of school shootings, and its shooting down the “good guy with a gun” argument as evidence that it’s here to piss off everyone. No matter who you are, you’re likely to find something about Texas Chainsaw Massacre distasteful, and I’m old enough to remember when this was a hallmark of horror movies. They’re supposed to be genuinely unpleasant, and, even if this one’s resorting to some low-hanging fruit to get a rise out of its audience, that’s sometimes preferable to a film with an easily digestible, pandering worldview. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t me being an old man yelling at a cloud and insisting horror has to do this, nor do I think it’s a horror fan litmus test to subject yourself to stuff you can’t stomach—I’m just saying that, every now and then, it’s refreshing when something as familiar as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can feel confrontational. This is a franchise that once had no qualms about sawing down a guy in a wheelchair, after all.
What’s more, the ambiguous, slippery politics only seem to uphold the film’s general mantra: everyone’s going into the meat-grinder. Leatherface doesn’t discriminate: while he’s specifically driven by revenge this time out, he’s the same agent of chaos he was 50 years ago, a human tornado wielding a chainsaw, cutting down anything that crosses his path. At one point, a character asks another why he’s such a nihilist, and they might as well be addressing the film itself, a pitch-black exercise in nihilism that insists nobody can escape the blade.
Consider its treatment of Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré), who we learn spent decades as a Texas Ranger trying to track down the diabolical family that tormented her and murdered her friends all those years ago to no avail. When she discovers Leatherface has resurfaced, she’s primed to inhabit the Laurie Strode role as the avenger who’s spent her entire life haunted by trauma, only this film makes a text out of Halloween’s subtext: Leatherface doesn’t even know who she is. For him, she’s just another slab of meat for the blade, and he cuts her down with impunity, reminding us again that everyone’s going into that meat-grinder. There are no sacred cows in a world haunted by the chaotic whims of a buzzing, whirring saw.
Not that Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever rises to the primal, existential dread of the original film. Where that film often feels like an otherworldly transmission that excavates 83 minutes of pure hell, this one feels much more of this Earth with its strained premise and cliché characters. The oppressive atmospherics and funereal quality that guided Hooper’s nihilism is gone, replaced here by splatter movie theatrics that emphasize the visceral horrors of falling into this void. In 1974, the void was a cacophony of genuine madness and slaughter because it feels like a film made by actual maniacs. This one feels more like the work of grindhouse provocateurs, slasher movie carnival barkers who want you to marvel at the way Leatherface mangles the cast.
To their credit, everyone involved delivers the goods in this respect. From the moment Leatherface breaks a guy’s arm and stabs him in the throat with his own shattered bone fragments, it’s obvious that this outing is out to exploit that slasher movie mentality that treats the human body as twisted sandbox, where the toys are body parts that are creatively mutilated. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most impressive gore movies in recent memory, its plethora of practical effects serving up plenty of death and dismemberment. As has been the case with many TCM follow-ups, there’s more blood spilled in one scene than in the entirety of Hooper’s film, and it’s fairly unrelenting once Leatherface revs up his chainsaw.
In what’s sure to be the film’s most infamous scene, Leatherface boards a party bus at one point and proceeds to slaughter everyone inside, marking the first time a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie has featured an actual massacre. It doesn’t disappoint: not only is the effects work absolutely gnarly, but it’s shot and cut in such a way that it becomes a neon-soaked, gore-splashed ballet of blood that speaks to the flourishes of purposeful filmmaking that flash throughout the film. Ricardo Diaz’s lensing especially brings a lucid, vivid quality to the mayhem, particularly during the rain-slicked climax, where the vast, sun-splashed "Texas" landscape (the film was shot in Bulgaria) cedes to a claustrophobic, moonlit crucible of flesh-searing horror as the survivors try to flee from a ghost town that will now be haunted by even more spirits. It might be the stuff of formulaic slasher nonsense, but Texas Chainsaw Massacre proves there’s still some gas left in both this franchise and the genre it had a hand in shaping.
Of course, this franchise has always occupied an odd space in the arc of slasher history. As forbearer to the movement, it didn’t quite set the mold, while its sequels often resisted slipping into it to varying degrees of success. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a half-measure in this regard: it seems to be obviously chasing the “legacy sequel” trend, only to vociferously discard it by having Leatherface unceremoniously carve up Sally Hardesty, treating her corpse as just another one on the pile. Its glib, snappy tone feels more in line with the silly slashers that propagated in the wake of Hooper’s original, and yet it harnesses this franchise’s almost comedic mean streak, going so far as to end on a gag that leaves you howling at the absurdity of it all. It feigns at genre commentary by insisting that its survivors do more than merely survive as Sally herself once did, even if it doesn’t see it through. It's up to you to decide if this is half-assed or simply part of its nihilistic outlook: maybe all of this stuff just doesn't matter.
I don’t know if you can easily label Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie that seems to have a lot on its mind and might be smarter than the formulaic slasher it winds up being (making a school shooting a visual match for Leatherface’s latest rampage cleverly reminds us that we’ve replaced 70s Vietnam anxiety with anxiousness over kids being gunned down in a hallway). Whether its jankiness is born out of production woes (the original directors were fired early on in the production) or hasty script rewrites (I would love to know when the Sally angle was hatched because it feels very tacked-on), this Texas Chainsaw Massacre is quite a paradox: a film that feels inspired and formulaic, reverent and irreverent all at once, as 9th entries tend to be, I suppose. There are hints of more fascinating avenues that go unexplored, like the commodification of the original massacre, while the House of Wax ‘05 inspired ghost town is rather underutilized. How cool would it have been to discover that Leatherface was once again hiding among another clan of maniacs within this hidden enclave instead of operating solo?
Anyway, maybe this is just an unnecessarily flowery way to declare that it’s hardly the worst this franchise has to offer, but it’s not really among the best. It is, however, too interesting to dismiss, which is the least we can ask for. A low bar, to be sure, but there’s the slightest glimmer of hope for this franchise yet, so long as the next outing can continue the trend of each entry distinguishing itself in some fashion or another. Just about the only certainty is that this series will endure, as the 2nd film's prologue has proved to be prophetic: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has not stopped. It haunts Texas. It seems to have no end." For as long as there's a void to be confronted and filled with the bodies of doomed youth, Leatherface's saw will the discordant symphony ushering them to their fate. All we can hope is that he at least makes it interesting.
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