Explicitness in horror films has seemingly increased more and more as the years have progressed. Leaving little to the imagination; letting the gore department go bananas while no sense of carnage is ever really implied. The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre legacy-sequel surely falls into such a category: rendering itself into an orgy of splintered bones, lopped-off limbs, and mutilated faces while also taking the other kind of implicitness, the subtext, of Tobe Hooper’s original movie — the class tension bubbling underneath its screaming madness and murder — and grinding it into blunt text. Call it a real sign of the changing times, I guess. Every chainsaw massacre now wants to be about more than just the massacre. And this one announces its “messages” as loudly as a power tool revving and roaring in the dead of hellish night.
This time around we get, once again, a group of fresh-faced city slickers steering off the beaten path and into certain doom in the middle of nowhere. This time, though, they’re literal gentrifiers: a group of young entrepreneurs who have snatched up the vacant properties of Harlow, Texas. Their plans? To found a bohemian-hipster paradise, a new Williamsburg of the Southwest. “Behold the horrors of late-stage capitalism,” one of them literally says aloud, butchering any possibility that this trend-chasing franchise relaunch might let its themes speak for themselves. Unfortunately for the interlopers, the slim population of Harlow includes an elderly but far from decrepit Leatherface. Almost fifty years after the events of Hooper’s movie, the rest of the Sawyer clan is long gone. Its lone surviving member now lives in an abandoned orphanage, under the care of a kindly old woman (Alice Krige) the kids unwisely, unwittingly evict. What’s more improbable than a wild cannibal laying low for half a century, domesticated out of his fondness for saws and sledgehammers? How about that the madman, now in his seventies, still moves with the speed and power of an alpha predator? The big guy must be on the same vitamin regimen as the recent geriatric Michael Myers.
As written by Chris Thomas Devlin, who’s working from a story by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, this new Massacre wants to be the new Halloween so badly it might as well be wearing a mask made from Jamie Lee Curtis’ face. Like that overpraised hit, the film has been conceived as a “direct” sequel, wiping from the continuity every Texas Chainsaw Massacre since the first. Isn’t it kind of arrogant to position your movie as the only proper follow-up to an iconic original and then make the same blunders as the films you’re retconning? Netflix’s version certainly doesn’t much resemble its ’70s inspiration. Visually, director David Blue Garcia takes more cues from the 2003 remake lending a more pretty type of grunge sheen to cornfields and rustic buildings — a look that approximates how the characters themselves might frame and filter the Texas scenery on Instagram.
In the most shameless lift from the David Gordon Green reboot plan, the movie arranges a rematch between its hulking killer and the Final Girl that got away, hardened by age and trauma into a vengeful survivalist. Sally, who’s been hunting Leatherface her whole life, is played by Olwen Fouéré, filling in for the late Marilyn Burns. She’s fine enough in the role, but there’s no denying that this kind of legacy-sequel maneuver is much more affecting when the role can be reprised by the original actor — and also when it’s not so grossly underwritten. This movie sets up the reunion with a hastiness that only flatters new Halloween, which at least took the time to establish the life the older Laurie Strode was living before her masked arch-nemesis came into her crosshairs. The Old Sally stuff here feels stitched together into an obvious patchwork of underdeveloped ideas. The movie can’t settle on one talking point, so it runs down a whole list of them: urban renewal, Confederate pride, liberal guilt, cancel culture, “feral hogs.” The most confused and questionably considered of its “timely” angles is the decision to make one of the heroes (Elsie Fisher) a mass shooting survivor. If this is a commentary on gun violence in America, what are we to make of the triumphant moment when she overcomes her trauma by picking up a rifle and aiming it squarely at the new threat? The wrong question, perhaps, for a movie that wants to be topical but has no real perspective on its topics.
The original had a political conscience, of course — the extra meaning a viewer might glean from the clash between its carload of middle-class victims and a homicidal family of slaughterhouse workers put out to pasture by the progress of their industry. (The UK censors certainly sensed a subtext, banning the film because of what they feared it might stir in factory workers everywhere.) But Hooper, again, had the good sense not to foreground all that. He made a horror movie first — one that remains basically unparalleled, all these years later, in the depths of dread and derangement it reaches. So while one’s unsure if it’s fully the worst Texas Chainsaw Massacre yet (there a lot of competition there), it does, at the very least, seem clear that it might be the furthest any filmmaker has strayed from what made the original so timelessly terrifying — the way it barely seemed to function like a “normal” movie, especially in the spiraling, plotless panic of its hysterical final stretch. This time around, Leatherface is just a run-of-the-mill bogeyman, slaughtering a new generation of lambs for the sins of our age. It’s a sequel that’s an act of genre gentrification. A trend-chasing franchise relaunch, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a horrid thematic mess; a film that operates from a checklist of “topicality” as it strains to find a sense of false importance.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is available to stream on Netflix