The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise is… not in a great place right now.
Despite the original film, released in 1974, being one of the most influential and revered slashers of all time, not a single installment out of the eight films that followed it would even remotely live up to its legendary reputation. From bizarre, self-parody sequels to bloody, over-the-top remakes, filmmaker after filmmaker has tried their hand at resurrecting this seemingly over-drawn well in order to mine something usable out of the concept.
As recently as this year, with Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre serving as a re-quel of the Tobe Hooper original, Hollywood proves time and time again that it doesn’t have any idea what to do with the IP and its iconic figurehead, Leatherface.
The problem seems to be that, as is typical with the sequel-machine that is the horror film industry in this country, no one really seems to understand why the original worked in the first place. There’s this idea that pervades every single Texas Chainsaw film released since the 80s onward that the franchise is just another mindless slasher; That you can just squeeze out 90 minutes of teens getting eviscerated by an inbred hillbilly in a chainsaw and call it a day. Because to the studios, that’s what a Texas Chainsaw film is. Hell, that’s what a lot of people seem to think about the franchise. And given the endless stream of terrible sequels and reboots, it’s hard to really blame them.
But that’s not what the franchise was intended to be. Going back to the original installment, the concept is a far cry from what it would ultimately become. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned before in places like my Wolf Creek review, the original Texas Chainsaw is not a gory film. Violent, sure. Unsettling, definitely. But there’s a subtlety, a stillness to the brutality of the film that makes it far more terrifying than any explicit depiction of the bloody details could possibly be. There’s an air of voyeurism, due largely in part to the stark, matter-of-fact manner in which the film is shot, like the audience is witnessing a real-life series of murders happening right before their eyes. It’s one part crime documentary and one part snuff film, which is an utterly sickening combination. Despite being relatively blood-free, it feels like something you shouldn’t be watching.
And yet, that unique, sinister tone is immediately abandoned with Part 2, and hasn’t really been seen since. If the franchise is ever going to return to the heights it initially premiered with all those years ago, it’s going to take something extremely similar in mood, if not necessarily style, in order to achieve that lofty goal.
Secondly, although he’s a marketable mascot, Leatherface isn’t the sole focus of the original film; It’s his maniacal family. He’s mostly just their muscle. The film explores the idea of these little niche groups that have developed as sinister offshoots of Americana, where economic and social policies have bread new species of human behavior much like ideological natural selection. The real villain in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is cultural, rather than physical. Subsequent films have more or less abandoned this in favor of simply using Leatherface as their Jason Voorhees, a fill-in-the-blanks strong silent type wielding a power tool. It’s a dumbed-down, far less interesting take on the original concept, which was much more thematically rich.
Clearly, this series is in dire need of help.
The last thing any franchise suffering from this much creative exhaustion needs is to resort to cheap gimmicks. You know a series is on its last legs when it suddenly goes 3D, or to space, or to any similarly desperate measures to get butts in seats.
But I actually think this is exactly what Texas Chainsaw needs to breathe new life into the franchise: A new gimmick. But not one chosen at random, no; It needs to be one that works symbiotically with the tone of the original film, something that injects that same macabre realism back into this increasingly silly and over-the-top style that it’s adopted over the past few decades.
Here’s what I propose: Make the next Texas Chainsaw Massacre film a found footage film. I know, I know: Some of you are already probably rolling your eyes at the idea. But hear me out.
Think back to films like The Blair Witch Project, or even something like The Fourth Kind. These are films that use the found footage style to imply the movie you just watched was real; That it represented an actual, documented portrayal of genuine supernatural or criminal events. It’s the primary, most effective usage of this particular subgenre, one that mixes well with the mockumentary and sometimes seamlessly integrates the two together. Films like Hell House LLC and Savageland also approach their narratives in a similar fashion, each adding their own unique twist as to how exactly they present their ‘real’ footage.
In any case, since the original Chainsaw film is so adamantly focused on its hyper-real, minimalist approach to horror, the next natural evolution of that style would be to present it as, well, real. Hell, the 1974 already opens with text exactly like many found footage films, stating the events to be true and that the perpetrators are still at large. It’s already 75% there, it just needs that last little push into the new subgenre.
The beauty of this new approach, other than its tonal congruency with the original film, is that it could also open up a near-infinite number of avenues for the plot to take that don’t necessarily have to involve the now-usual ‘teens end up in backwoods Texas, get murdered’ tropes that this franchise has bafflingly made its bread and butter. A found footage film could, theoretically, follow any character able to hold a camera. In this hypothetical refreshing of the Chainsaw shooting style, a new approach to story and character archetypes would also be a wise move.
I have two proposals off the top of my head.
The first is the kind of meta, wink-at-the-audience type of franchise slasher that Scream popularized but was actually being done by Friday the 13th with Part VI about a decade earlier: A Texas Chainsaw film that follows either a group of documentary film students or a news crew as they track down and investigate the site of the killings that took place on the Sawyer farm in 1974. You could have all kinds of fun, self-aggrandizing nods to the original film, while also recontextualizing them and adding new layers to the mythology of the series. The protagonists in the first movie stumble onto Leatherface and his cannibal clan by accident, and the sole survivor leaves with little-to-no insight as to who she encountered and why they do what they do. Imagine the interesting things you could do with that story given a group of main characters who are fully armed with the knowledge of these events, and still find themselves falling prey to whoever still stalks the Sawyer homestead. Think Alien to Aliens: Sure, Ripley (and my extension, the audience) knows what she’s walking into this time around; It doesn’t make it any less scary.
A group of educated protagonists would allow the film to really delve into the subtext that made the original film so great, exploring how years of economic neglect has left areas of the country like this as barren, lawless wastelands where people keep to themselves and don’t take kindly to outsiders. A clever writer could also use this to make some poignant commentary on the state of horror as a genre as well. It would be a Texas Chainsaw film that is very aware of its own place in both its genre, as well as its legacy in greater American culture.
But I’ll admit, this approach is a bit to cliché nowadays, when every franchise seems to want to self-reflect and poke fun at itself. It could work, but it would be pretty derivative.
My other idea is a little more fun, and a little less in line with what the other major slashers have done in recent years. You follow an American Pickers-style reality show, for the Travel Channel or some such, as they drive around rural Texas looking for hidden treasure buried among the endless sea of rusty cars and dilapidated farm equipment that litter nearly every abandoned property. Again, you have plenty of room to explore the themes of the original film here as well. Of course, the hosts will eventually stumble onto the Sawyer lot, and after a tense, bizarre encounter with some of the family’s more camera-ready members, they eventually come face-to-face with Leatherface himself (or whoever has taken up the mantel in the time since; The 70s were a long time ago now). All the pieces are there to still deliver on a fairly standard Chainsaw experience, but with enough divergences in the usual character types and plot contrivances that it should offer some much-needed variety in story. And the extended Sawyer family could really get a chance to shine here, haggling with the hosts before turning murderous.
And those, again, are just two ideas that I scrawled down after about 10 minutes of thought; In the hands of a capable and motivated writer, a found footage Chainsaw film could go anywhere. Regardless of the specifics, it’s clear that the series needs new material desperately. And since a traditional narrative style doesn’t seem to be doing it any favors, a change of pace couldn’t hurt.
What do you think? Seem like a good idea to you? Have some ideas of your own? Let me know in the comments!
And Happy Halloween!