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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

A Socially Conscious 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' Can’t Quite Hack It

The Netflix requel grafts gentrification and school shooting onto the franchise's decaying face.

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Image: Netflix

Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is such a viscerally repugnant movie, you can practically smell it. Before the chains buzz and slice in the 1974 drive-in classic, there’s grave robbing, an extended conversation about slaughterhouses and headcheese, feathers and bones as home decor, and an overall pukey ‘70s visual aesthetic. (Reports from the non-air conditioned set suggest it indeed stunk.) People scream and flail as a matter of course, not just when they’re being chased by murderous backwoods cannibals. It’s situated in America’s heartland, and yet there’s an alienness to the way people communicate in that movie—none of it smells right.

Well, you can’t rebottle stink, and that’s been proven time and time again in the mostly failed attempts to make a viable franchise out of such a singular vision. Aside from the serviceable 2003 remake (which ditched the space between the Chain and Saw) and the bonkers 1986 sequel, which Hooper directed into a horror-comedy left turn, little of note has come out of the endeavor to continue the story of Leatherface and his feral family in the past five decades and eight movies. Some day trips through hell are meant to stay day trips.

But since the requel machine demands content that is the same but different (with no designating numerals at the end of titles), we now have for our, er, enjoyment Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Directed by David Blue Garcia and produced by Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues (the director-writer team responsible for 2013’s hilariously disgusting Evil Dead remake), this new Chainsaw is moderately more socially conscious and decidedly gorier than the original, to which it purports being a direct sequel. This one is better than most of the franchise’s other entries in the way that getting a hand sawn off is better than losing a leg. So barely, but the bar is so low that those looking to have a dumb good time watching dismemberment could do far worse. Progress comes in increments.

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Chris Thomas Devlin’s screenplay follows a group of Zoomers traveling from Austin to Harlow, a town in the middle of nowhere, Texas, that one or more of them apparently acquired. The just-go-with-it demands of this Chainsaw’s premise are in service of making a bigger statement about gentrification, which is that it’s bad. Once in town, the group notices a confederate flag hanging on an old orphanage and a few of them barge in to take it down. In there, they meet a racist (but not overtly hateful, per se) old woman who’s seemingly squatting in a building that these out-of-towners believe they have purchased. They tell her to leave, she doesn’t, they return with cops, and the stress of being forcibly ejected from her home causes her to collapse and then die en route to the hospital.

But she will be missed—or something! Her orphanage-mate is a silent, hulking presence that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of this franchise knows as Leatherface. And now that she’s gone, he’s pissed. This setup gives the antagonist something that has long eluded him: a motive. Not that he needed one to start hacking away at tourists—as the original movie, as well as 1978’s Halloween proved, psychopaths are at their scariest when their reasons for murder aren’t so spelled out. Without a reason, our horror antagonist is evil incarnate—a force in human shape. The alteration here is certainly conversant with Hooper’s original vision (as is Leatherface’s only ostensible family member being a woman—the movies typically depict him situated in a patriarchy with no maternal presence), but this is change for change’s sake. It’s about as cosmetic of a decision as cutting off someone’s face and wearing it, which Leatherface does to the corpse of his caretaker…in tribute, I guess? Who knows what this maniac is thinking!

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The hunting begins and the saving grace of this latest Chainsaw is a one-two punch centerpiece of sequences. The first depicts Melody (Sarah Yarkin) attempting to sneak out of the orphanage after Leatherface has returned—she lies silently then creeps and jumps and crawls, squeezing tension out of every frame. I didn’t realize I cared about this character’s survival (she’s a gentrifier who contributed to the death of an old woman…who I also am not sure I should care about since she was a racist) until Yarkin sold it. Soon after is a neon-lit sequence on the party bus that the investors arrived in. Leatherface steps aboard and commences to cutting through them, person by person in a slow-mo, hallucinatory sequence that plays like Euphoria on the ultimate bad trip.

Image for article titled A Socially Conscious 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' Can’t Quite Hack It
Image: Netflix
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Those scenes are sheer terror staged extremely well. The remaining elements of the script are not nearly as savvy. The aforementioned moral ambiguity of the characters is an admirable attempt at depth that isn’t quite practical—it’s really hard to know who to root for if you put any thought into this movie (and I’m not so sure you’re supposed to put thought into it). Worse, Melody’s sister Lila (Elsie Fisher, who starred in Eighth Grade—if you think junior high is tough, try visiting Texas!) plays a school-shooting survivor, replete with a bullet wound on her upper chest. As she chats with a surly but well-meaning local, Richter (Moe Dunford), she becomes entranced by his semi-automatic gun and then during the film’s climax, she wields a shotgun to battle Leatherface. “See, guns can be good!,” the movie seems to suggest in tracing Lila’s journey from target to shooter. Did the NRA have a hand in producing this?

If Lila has any trauma—the topical cornerstone of the modern horror movie that desperately wants to have something to say—she hides it well. So too does Sally Hardesty, the prototypical final girl of the original film who’s back to settle the score with Leatherface after attempting to find him for 50 years, in a premise ripped right out of the 2018 Halloween requel. What does it say about Sally that she searched in vain for half a century when a bunch of wannabe influencer kids roll into town and stumble upon the guy almost immediately? Nothing kind! Sally, played by Olwen Fouéré (Marilyn Burns who portrayed her in the first and fourth movies, died in 2014), is accordingly treated as little more than a device to pad a brief movie and put a shotgun in Lila’s hands. The character was threadbare to begin with (she’s little more than a screaming girl throughout the first one), so perhaps it’s just as well that she remains barely there at all.

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If the two centerpiece scenes are worth the price of admission (free with a Netflix subscription!), the movie’s final shot is a delicious bonus. I won’t spoil it but it involves an incredibly slow-moving, self-driving car, a sun roof, and a decapitation. Leave it to a depraved franchise as Texas Chainsaw Massacre to wring a laugh out of those ingredients.