It goes without saying that Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains without compare in spite of the eventual franchise it spawned. Hooper’s original sequel has grown into a cult classic, but its satirical charms differ drastically from the original’s bleak and uncompromising 83 minutes of violence, dread and insanity. I wrote about the original after watching it for the first time for my No Sleep October column. It was one of the classic horror films that broke my aversion to the genre and remains one of the few I recommend to just about everyone. There’s no escaping the tone and texture of the original. It’s just a maddening cinematic experience.
Leatherface hasn’t been quite as strip-mined as his fellow 1970s icons, but trying to milk him as a villain has always felt like folly to me. Unlike his contemporaries, his existence is environmental. Michael Myers invades the safety of small-town life. Jason Voorhees punishes teenagers for envisioning freedom. Freddy Krueger is all about dreams and the terror of teen identity. You don’t find Leatherface unless you travel to him, and what makes him frightening is that he isn’t particularly hidden. He just lives in a house in rural America, with a family that protects him and a little plot of land to call his own. You can travel 40 miles out of any city and find spaces like that. Who might dwell within them if you decide to knock on the door?
Answering that hypothetical question with “someone who might eviscerate you with a chainsaw” might seem over the top, but Hooper’s original was very much a response to the mid-1970s feeling that things were falling apart in America, growing more violent, disorienting and misinformed. Murderers were becoming a nightly news sensation as television became more ubiquitous. The post-Vietnam and Watergate fallout had left a generation without the belief that anyone could be trusted to fix anything. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opens with the iconic lie that its story was true. Whether it actually happened is not relevant compared to the feeling that our world is one where it could. Look closer. Horror is everywhere.
David Blue Garcia’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (henceforth abbreviated as TCM) is a “legacy sequel” to the original four movies, although it really only relies on the first film as a foundation. It doesn’t hold a candle to that original, but it never really pretends like it does. As with its predecessors, it is a product of its time. The 1990s called for convolution and cashing in with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. The 2000s called for grim, psychologically tortured reboots (2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and prequels to those reboots (2006’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). The 2010s were mostly about chasing an exhibition trend with cheeky fun (2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D). The 2020s, of course, demand that we bring back our old heroes and villains to see if they still work in today’s popular-culture melting pot. The Final Girl from Hooper’s original, Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, in lieu of original actress Mary Burns, who passed away in 2014), returns to hunt the monster who haunted her almost 50 years ago. It just so happens that unlike the non-Hooper films in the ensuing franchise (i.e., everything except The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Garcia’s film actually understands, and embraces, the emotional groundwork laid by the original. This is a film about America as a violent, incomprehensible place.
Still, 2022 isn’t 1974, and the shock of seeing death on the nightly news has given way to an entire sector of popular culture devoted to recounting “real-life” instances of devastating awfulness. TCM opens with a narration by returning announcer John Larroquette but pans out to reveal that his voice is coming from an old TV in a rural Texas gas station that sells Leatherface merchandise. Sally Hardesty is just one of thousands of traumatized women whose close scrapes with death have been turned into marketable stories while the real woman lives off the grid, haunted by her losses. To some, it’s a corny invocation of contemporary entertainment, but it works for the story being told: Sally, after all, lost all of her friends to unspeakable violence, but how does that compare to the 21st century, when teenagers dread the same fate just walking into their school each day?
Lila (Elsie Fisher) is the new film’s heroine, and in a seemingly controversial move, writer Chris Thomas Devlin decided to connect the world of violence in the original film to the modern reality in which teenagers live. Lila survived a shooting at her high school, with a bullet wound in her left shoulder to show for it. She suffers from complex PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Truth be told, she’s not even sure why she’s on a trip to rural Texas with her sister, Melody (Sarah Yarkin), and a group of fellow Gen Z influencers who plan on turning the ghost town of Harlow into a gentrified paradise for the young and connected. It doesn’t really matter much to her, but not much does after what she experienced. If this were a drama about growing up in modern America, it would be easy to understand some of the criticisms leveled at the script, but the film is very clearly trying to invoke the same tone as the first film, and it mostly succeeds at capturing that while being its own very modern thing.
Modern in that, unlike the surprisingly non-violent original (seriously, most of the gore happens off-screen), TCM is bathed in gore and viscera. The kills are frequent, creative and devastating. A lot of boring people online have read the film as a condemnation of contemporary liberal kids, but it’s hardly that, except in the sense that teenagers in these films are always impetuous, annoying and self-righteous, with a sense of invincibility that inevitably splatters against the wall. TCM aims for its inspiration’s embrace of the sociopolitical climate but without the same patience and restraint. Then again … would a modern audience really want that? This is a movie from our era’s complicated relationship with cultural violence, where we spend our days glued to real-time tragedies and enter into rhetoric wars with perceived foes while sitting on the toilet. Anxiety and conflict is perpetual, We’re addicted to feeling this way. So much so that some of the best-reviewed horror movies of our time are basically about submitting to the pains we allow to define us. I guess when it comes to horror, I prefer stories where the metaphor for our depressing times arrives in the form of a chainsaw rammed through a man’s pelvis and then pushed forward into his girlfriend. Call me old-fashioned or stupid; you’re probably right either way.
Anyway, the best part of Devlin’s script is the fact that it does not attempt to make the overly common assessment that the only path to overcoming violence is more violence. In fact, TCM doesn’t possess a glimmer of hope whatsoever. It’s just mean-spirited, nihilistic stuff. David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequels, Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills, have tried to make similar points but are hampered by that franchise’s attachment to Laurie Strode as a heroine, and it’s taken that franchise two movies to rationalize why she’d return if the point of Michael Myers is that he can strike anyone and anything. She has to return, of course, because showing Strode v. Meyers is a promised catharsis. Even the ballsy, dour ending of Halloween Kills, which I loved, has been changed for home-video releases to add a little injection of hope for audiences craving horror films that tell them everything will actually be OK. That’s not the case with how Devlin approaches Sally. Final Girls have an important place in our cultural canon, but I’m glad TCM takes the idea in a different, darker direction.
After the negative response to Halloween Kills, I guess I’m not surprised by the hyperbolic negativity surrounding TCM. Of course, it isn’t the original film. None of these slasher sequels ever will be because we’re not living in the 1970s. None of these new slasher movies have decades of film critics reassessing them through the lens of nostalgia, either, putting them back into mainstream consideration. Genre films like Halloween now feel ahead of their time because films endlessly imitated and honored them. Again, this is not to say TCM is of comparable quality, but it’s maddening that legacy sequels trying to use graphic, feel-bad stories to talk about our graphic, feel-bad world are rejected so thoroughly by fans who obsess over how well old movies captured a world most of them weren’t yet born into and how modern movies can’t compare. It wasn’t until last year that many writers learned to stop worrying and love Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2.
TCM is not the original movie. It’s gorier and more overt in its social commentary. Hooper was always frustrated by the way audiences didn’t pick up his dark humor in the first, hence the much more comedic second film. Yeah, the victims are mostly entitled rich influencers, but it’s not a film about how politically shitty they are — beyond the fact that they’re image-obsessed twentysomethings, a pretty shitty demographic anyway. I jumped when I was supposed to jump and I groaned when I was supposed to groan. Leatherface murders a busload of people with his chainsaw in inventive ways that made me feel bad about our world, like all this nastiness is totally inescapable and we’re all trapped by the inevitable doom of knocking on the wrong door or pissing off the wrong stranger. We can spend all the time we want creating the world we want on social media or glued to our phones seeking meaning, but everything comes down to the physical world — with which we’re no better equipped to deal. Hopeless and fucked is precisely how it wanted me to feel, so I’d say it’s a successful film.