TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Directed by David Blue Garcia
Eventually, every franchise stops using numbers – either because the chronology has gotten too messy, with numerous timelines, or it becomes embarrassing trying to make people see a movie with a number greater than 6 in the title. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has gotten more convoluted than even Halloween. Never mind characters coming back from the dead or multiple origin stories; for its ninth outing, we now have a film called Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To go with Hooper’s masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2013’s Texas Chainsaw. And true to Halloween, this one acts as a direct sequel to the first, making for a fourth timeline.
Incidentally, I like the way it handles the legacy of the original. The familiar voice of John Larroquette fills us in on the 48-year-old backing story, reminding viewers about the ill-fated trip Sally Hardesty and her friends took into The Lone Star State. Now a local legend and the inspiration for much tacky merch, the whereabouts of Leatherface remain unknown. However, his final girl Hardesty (Fouere), is a local ranger still intent on tracking him down. As fate would have it, some hip, young influencers have just acquired the smalltown of Harlow – clearly a backlot – where he’s been hiding in the local orphanage under the eye of an elderly woman called Mrs Mc. After an altercation between her and Melody (Yarkin) and Dante (Latimore), who claim ownership of her place, she collapses of a heart attack. It isn’t long before she dies in an ambulance, leaving Leatherface unsupervised and super pissed off. Unfortunately, Melody, her sister Lila (Fisher), Dante, and his girlfriend Ruth (Hudson) have invited a tonne of other bratty rich kids to buy up their properties. Ach well – serves them right, really.
There’s no getting around it – the leads aren’t likeable. For a slasher, this isn’t unexpected: they walk a tricky line between making the characters likeable to hang with, but not so likeable we grieve them. I want to be clear this isn’t about the acting. Yarkin and Fisher, in particular, have done excellent work elsewhere, and, even here, I found myself more invested in their sisterhood than I would have thought. Still, the film’s sneering tone about all things millennial means there’s almost no tension since we don’t care about their success, let alone their survival. Melody (Yarkin) is maybe the best of a bad bunch. She starts off looking as vain and obnoxious as the others, though she also embodies the film’s social conscience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly Jordan Peele (heck, it’s not even Jordan Peterson): you shouldn’t evict people from their homes in case they keel over and their serial killer son wants revenge. But I like that her character undergoes growth – even if her arc is limited to a couple of in-your-face scenes. It’s more than we get from Lila’s journey, which resembles an NRA wet-dream: she survived a school shooting so naturally needs to learn to use a gun for protection.
Sally’s return is wasted. Like with Laurie Strode, it seems the makers wanted to rebrand her as a badass survivalist forged by the flames of her adversary and trauma. But with a lean running time of 75 minutes, her role is limited to little more than a glorified cameo. Marilyn Burns obviously can’t play her – she died 2014. Still, even if we were to see the original actor come back I don’t think I’d feel any differently. She has very little to do beyond look intense and speak in platitudes about slaying her demons: the sort of person you can imagine referring to “the incident” in conversation, and you won’t be interested enough to ask a follow-up. Without going into specifics, the way her story ends, considering it’s been almost 50 years since we last saw her bloodied face laughing on the back of a truck, does nothing to justify bringing her back from retirement. Firearms and slashers are also not a good combination: our heroes have to feel up against the odds.
Her and Leatherface’s rivalry also seems so superficial. He has little resemblance to the character from 1974, and it’s hard to buy that he’d be her Moby Dick considering he was just one of several goons who got her first time around. Heck, he was more the guard dog than the head of the house. Still, he’s arguably nastier than ever, and one scene on a bus puts the massacre into Texas Chainsaw Massacre – arguably everything that comes before is awkward foreplay for this money-shot. Still, when stripped of his demented family and just around for the kills, Leatherface feels like a shell of his former self. The rage is there, but he doesn’t have anything approaching the psychological depth he once did. I know he’s been done to death, but 2017’s Leatherface at least showed there are different ways of interpreting the character: is he mentally ill, a man-child or a psychopath? Here, save for a couple of moments where we see him grieve, he’s just a guy in a mask with a fucking big weapon. And maybe that’s ok – the original wasn’t a slasher, but that doesn’t mean the sequels can’t be. But despite series newcomer Mark Burnham’s best efforts to embody the role’s physicality, he’s doesn’t have a lot to work with. Big and scary, yes, but not very interesting.
And yet, despite my numerous issues with the storytelling, it’s pretty entertaining. David Blue Garcia is technically adept, and this film is definitely among the most attractive entries to date – even if the rough, unpolished presentation was a big part of the first one’s charm. He gives scare scenes a visceral energy and gets the most from the Bulgarian countryside (to be fair, while I knew it wasn’t Texas, I had to Google to learn it was Europe). What’s more, there are some decent enough kills for the gorehounds among us – perhaps more than the last few films combined. This franchise has never had the fun of the Friday series, but there are litres of blood and some high impact hits. The last scene also provides an excellent little punchline to both its themes and its status as a legacy sequel. It doesn’t take too long to get there, since it’s the same length as a TV movie, so it can’t be accused of outstaying its welcome. Though almost every part of the script is underdone, this leaves us with very little fat.
Besides, by now, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise has been so inconsistent that it’d be hard not to place this in the top half: it’s not as good as the first two or the remake but is probably somewhere between Leatherface and The Beginning. We’re also at least back to something approaching the basics rather than the road trips, biker gangs, family dramas and odd men with hooks in their chest which have made this series sillier than its rivals (The Next Generation is still the low point). Nowadays it’s rare to see films stick rigorously to the slasher template without adding something extra – aside from its botched that’ll do approach to a personal revenge plot, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is almost admirably unambitious. Heck, I may even welcome a sequel to it – before the inevitable next reboot.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is available now on Netflix.