The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise is… a mess.
In 1974, with the release of Tobe Hooper’s now-classic original entry, the series hit the ground running stronger than pretty much any of its contemporaries, save maybe John Carpenter’s OG Halloween. Yet despite this strong start, and the status of its mascot killer Leatherface as a genuine pop culture icon, the Texas Chainsaw sequels have crashed and burned more than perhaps any other similarly long-lasting horror property. Now, a slasher franchise having highs and lows isn’t exactly a rarity. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any that didn’t have at least some terrible installments (Child’s Play, the perfection that it is, notwithstanding). But there’s a difference between, say, a few bad movies here and there, and a complete and utter absence of quality altogether.
Unfortunately, that’s largely been the case with Texas Chainsaw. Although the original isn’t a film that I have an overwhelming amount of fondness for, it’s undeniably brilliant. Made on a shoestring budget, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a visceral, hauntingly unsettling take on the then-relatively infantile slasher genre. Inspired partially by the killings of serial killer Ed Gein, the film is a threadbare descent into a cannibalistic nightmare populated by an outlandishly sinister family of Texas natives. Despite its reputation as a gorefest, the original film is surprisingly bloodless (at least when compared to the post Saw world in which we find ourselves in today), with the vast majority of its violence being only implied offscreen. Which, of course, ultimately makes the film all the more terrifying.
But in the nearly fifty years since its release, and the seven films that have followed it in the timeline (or timelines, rather, as you’ll soon see), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has yet to produce anything even remotely as effective as the original installment. Again, this isn’t all that unusual, given the deluge of terrible Halloween sequels we’ve had to endure over the years, but even in the absolute worst of franchises, you’d expect there to be one or two bright spots. Texas Chainsaw gets no such saving graces. For some strange reason, it seems like no filmmaker, even Hooper himself (who died in 2017), has been able to replicate the tone and atmosphere of the original. In fact, no attempt has even gotten near it.
It’s completely and utterly bizarre. Every single Texas Chainsaw film released in the wake of the first is a completely disparate and often outright contradictory attempt to either launch the series in a new (and tonally inconsistent) direction, or to simply reboot the franchise altogether. There are, by my count, at least five different timelines and continuities, and maybe even as many as seven if you start getting really nitpicky with the chronology. To give just a brief overview of the Texas Chainsaw films and their relative place in events, we have:
- The original, released in 1974. Bold, brutal, and beautiful, with cinematography more akin to an arthouse film than a grindhouse slasher. Scary as hell, yet impossible to look away from. The gold standard to which the rest of the series is held to (and which none have met).
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which is technically a direct sequel to the original, yet completely changes tones and presents as a black comedy parody rather than a straight horror film like its predecessor. Is fairly awful, which still makes it better than everything else that follows it.
- Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, which is a complete reboot (or more accurately, “reboot-quel”), ignoring the previous film and instead stating itself to be a direct follow-up to the original. Get used to that, because it starts to happen a lot. Is mostly forgettable, save for a pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen.
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Reboot number 2, ignoring the previous two films and again intending to be a direct sequel to the 1974 original. Also stars Matthew Matthew McConaughey, which is by far the most entertaining thing about it. Is absolutely batshit crazy.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A 2003 installment that gives up on the idea of following up the original film altogether and instead just decides to remake it entirely. Actually not completely terrible, serving as a relatively faithful retelling of the first film, albeit with a complete and total abandonment of anything even resembling subtlety. Very, very bloody.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Beginning, a 2006 prequel to the 2004 remake, and so far the only film in the franchise to have a direct continuity link to the film that preceded it. Nonsensical and mostly pointless, as most prequels tend to be.
- Texas Chainsaw 3D. Released in 2013, abandons the remake timeline in favor of – you guessed it – serving as a direct sequel to the original. Doesn’t fit as a sequel at all, either in tone or in chronology. Makes Leatherface into a vigilante. Unironically features the line “Do your thing, cuz!” directed at Leatherface. Makes me physically angry to think about.
- Leatherface, released in 2017. Either a standalone prequel to the original film, or a prequel in Texas Chainsaw 3D’s timeline. Is trash in any case. Commits the cardinal sin in any horror movie: Is boring.
And finally, after all this, we have a brand new Texas Chainsaw Massacre to look forward to this month. Releasing straight to Netflix, which is always a great sign, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is – say it with me now – a direct sequel to the original, ignoring all of the other films that followed it. While I had exactly zero faith that it would be anything other than a new stain on the dingy tapestry that is this franchise’s legacy, the fact that it was produced by Fede Alvarez (who gave us the miraculously wonderful Evil Dead remake in 2013) gave me just enough pause to be curious enough to watch it.
But I knew, deep down, that the chances of it actually being good (or even mediocre, for that matter) were slim to none. Honestly, if you’re a fan of this franchise, or just familiar with it, and you honestly expected anything of quality at this point, you’re either delusional or the world’s most enduring optimist.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (following the Halloween and Scream reboots in their titles made specifically to make Googling them harder) takes place in the present day, following a group of internet influencers who move to the Texas town of Harlow, which they have essentially purchased in an attempt to gentrify it and convert it into the most obnoxious, hipster paradise that you could possibly imagine. Now, typically, with a slasher a movie, you want to have at least some likable characters in your cast. Otherwise, the audience has no one to root for. And if they have no one to root for, then why should they care about any of the carnage that’ll inevitably ensue later on in the film? Seems like pretty basic stuff, right? Well, apparently this movie never got that memo, because our cast of characters here are some of the most bland, insufferable human beings to ever bee bisected by a chainsaw.
Nearly every character is a poorly-written, thinly-veiled attempt to lampshade some kind of stereotype, for reasons that are never really made clear. Most of the main characters are cliché, baby-boomer interpretations of Millennial/Gen Z culture, with all of the cringey dialogue that goes along with it. Characters constantly say things like “lit” and “fam,” and the entire plot is more or less centered on the usage of social media. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what I’m talking about: A character confronts Leatherface, chainsaw literally dripping with blood, and tells him that he’ll be “canceled” if he does anything to him. Characters even livestream on Instagram and Tik-Tok as they’re being murdered. The whole thing feels like a bad SNL parody (one with Pete Davidson, probably), only it drags on for 90 minutes instead of a merciful five or six.
In a strange reversal of what you might expect, however, the remaining cast of the film that aren’t insufferable twenty-somethings are actually treated fairly respectfully, something that came as a huge surprise to me. The original film is built upon the pretense of a society of southern, Texas natives who adhere pretty strongly to southern stereotypes, particularly the hostility to northerners and other outsiders. However, the Texan characters here are pretty well-rounded figures, all-in-all. One in particular, Richter (played incredibly convincingly by Irish actor Moe Dunford of Vikings fame) is a refreshingly complex portrayal of what would usually be a shallow pastiche of tired, racist tropes. He’s aggressive, yes, and fairly dismissive (if not outright hostile) towards our band of trendy young protagonists, but in a satisfyingly justified way.
The only other salvageable character here is Lila, played by Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher. Lila is the younger sister of Melody, one of the main investors in the Harlow venture, and is the only person in the young cast to not buy into the facetiously utopian bullshit that her sister and her friends are peddling. She’s smart, with an edge to her, but rightfully so: She’s the sole survivor of a horrific school-shooting incident, which has understandably left her a bit traumatized. Whether or not that character detail is in bad taste, considering the real-world open-wound nature of the subject is going to be up to your own personal taste, but I personally found it to be extremely tone-deaf given the mindlessly violent nature of the film overall.
She’s a great character, but her backstory highlights one of the film’s major weaknesses: It tries way to hard to make some greater social point, to provide some kind of slick, satirical political commentary, but it falls flat on its face at every attempt. Lila’s portrayal as a shooting victim has precisely zero relevance to the plot, save for her overcoming her fear of guns to face Leatherface in the climax. So does that make this movie pro-gun, since the moment is played as a heroic overcoming of trauma? I honestly have no idea, and I doubt the movie does either. It also tries to take stabs at gentrification and… real estate inflation, I think? Again, these are things that are brought up, but have no real payoff. By the end, they reek of the same vain attempt to be modern and hip as the protagonists and their overuse of slang. One character actually says, verbatim: “Behold, the joys of late-stage capitalism.” It’s… rough.
What made the original film so effective was the largely minimalist nature of the horror. Although Tobe Hopper later claimed that the film was made in response to the political landscape of the early 70s, none of that thematic imagery comes through in an overly-preachy or apparent way. The backstory is implied by the set and the characters, not announced through ham-fisted dialogue. This movie has none of the same restraint, choosing instead to be as overt as possible with its mishmash of incomplete and disjointed subject matter.
Another reason why the original Texas Chainsaw is so unsettling is just the general atmosphere. It’s creepy without ever trying to be overtly sinister and depraved, giving an eerie stillness to all the slaughter that takes place during its brisk runtime. This new film starts off pretty strongly in that respect, with Leatherface’s early murderous warm-ups being subtle and relatively understated, while at the same time incredibly chilling and downright stomach-churning. But that second aspect, the savage, gory, explicit violence, is where this installment most distances itself from its predecessor. Gone are the tasteful cuts and implied brutality of the original. Instead, we have some of the most over-the-top, messy kills I’ve seen in a slasher in some time.
Visually, it’s a treat. That’s the one area where Texas Chainsaw 2022 really excels. The cinematography is downright masterful at times, and the action has a slick, satisfying kinetic energy to it. The kills are obscenely graphic, but fun, which is something that I think a lot of horror tends to overlook these days. and Leatherface himself looks great, too, probably the creepiest he’s appeared since the original film. He’s hulking and imposing – and scary as hell once he starts, you know, leathering his face – but there’s an air of sadness and sympathy to him as well, which I think is fairly true to the core of the character. He’s a bit too predatory, as the version that’s present in the original film is more of a lapdog for his family than a killer in his own right, but I’ll chalk that up to the Sawyer family being written out than any real misinterpretation of the character as a whole. The extended Sawyer clan is sorely missed, as they’re the true stars of the original film, but I can somewhat excuse the loss as there’s really no room for them in the story.
Speaking of unnecessary plot inclusions, the final thing I’ll nitpick here is the choice to bring back Sally Hardesty. For those of you who haven’t seen the original film, Sally is the only survivor of the Sawyer family’s butchering, driving off in hysterics as Leatherface swings his chainsaw in frustration. Here, she returns with a grudge to settle a nearly 50-year-old score with the big guy, having trained as a Texas Ranger in the decades since they last squared off. It’s pretty obvious that the film is deliberately trying to mimic what David Gordan Green did with Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in 2018’s Halloween reboot/sequel, yet doesn’t understand that Sally and Leatherface don’t have nearly the same resonance as an antagonistic duo. For one thing, they’ve only been in one movie together, so it’s not like she’s a reoccurring protagonist like Laurie was. And for another, the original actress for Sally, Marilyn Burns, sadly passed away in 2014, you fans of the ’74 don’t get the same sense of catharsis as they would from Laurie and Michael Myers. There’s no real legacy aspect here, and Sally’s storyline goes nowhere as a result. You could remove her from the film altogether and it would have no actual bearing on the plot as a whole.
I don’t outright hate this movie like I have the past few attempts at reviving the franchise, despite its many, many faults. For all its failures in terms of character and story, it still manages to showcase a stylish, quick-paced cavalcade of slasher action, and for that alone I’ll give it some due credit. But there’s nothing here that really justifies this being a Texas Chainsaw installment. It could have been its own thing entirely, without the baggage that the franchise brings with it, and probably done a lot better. But I’ve certainly seen worse.
If you want a fun, bloody little 90-minute romp to munch along with some popcorn, Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a bad choice. But I think it’s about time we seriously consider leaving Texas altogether, at least for a while.