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Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Studio: Netflix

Feb 23, 2022 Web Exclusive
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Prior to the release of Netflix’s reboot attempt, every entry of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise possessed some artistic significance. Director Tobe Hooper’s 1974-released original remains an exemplary American movie, one of the greatest and most terrifying ever made, while 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 stands as a solid and grotesque comic horror classic, Dennis Hopper offering one of the most maniacally brilliant performances of his career. 1990’s eccentric and ultraviolent Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III features plenty of backwoods depravity, with genre icon Ken Foree and a young Viggo Mortensen stealing the show as they slice and dice their way through the film’s blazing climax, while the consistently over-the-top, so-bad-it’s-actually-brilliant 1995-released Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (the camp reinterpretation which Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey still seem less than interested in discussing) may not be the cinematic trainwreck it was initially declared as. 2003’s highly stylish but middling remake, as well as its gritty 2006 prequel, still offer plenty of thrills, especially if one grew up with them. Both are highly atmospheric with memorable performances by the late R. Lee Ermey. 2013’s messy yet engaging Texas Chainsaw 3D, despite its inconsistencies and undeniable air of pulpy sleaze, still provides a sufficiently intense horror experience. Finally, even 2017’s second prequel Leatherface—ultimately rescued from the vacuous snare of utter banality by the always luminous Lili Taylor—cannot be dismissed in its entirety.

Now enter director David Blue Garcia’s most recent installation, which has, through its aimlessly disengaging plot and vapid characters, managed to break the franchise’s nearly five-decade streak by possessing virtually no merit. Perhaps the ultimate travesty of this failure is its blatant waste of enviable resources—a demonstrably able director in Garcia, a story by Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues, who triumphantly heralded one of the greatest horror franchise reboots in the genre’s expansive history with 2013’s Evil Dead, a largely skilled cast, and access to top of the line sets and special effects—all of which Garcia and company, for whatever their reasons, managed to squander. The film’s plot, if one could indeed call it a “plot,” is almost entirely surface—four hip young people travel to the depressed small town of Harlow with plans to revitalize it as a sort of generational utopia, only to encounter an elderly Leatherface, who has been hiding out there since 1973. Madness ensues, somebody is stabbed to death with their own broken bone. To make matters worse, the storyline is riddled with shallow references to the decade’s most pressing sociopolitical issues: gun violence and school shootings (sort of addressed), the Confederate flag (touched upon very briefly), gentrification (loosely depicted, but we do become acquainted with the term “gentrifuck”), and environmental consciousness vs. unconsciousness, all embodied within the escalating culture clash between the film’s smugly idealistic urbanites and sweatily brutish forgotten folk—again, loosely portrayed, and inconsistently so.

The problem here is not the attempted study of such cultural shifts, which are, in and of themselves, both timely and topical, but the reduction of these figures to the most basic of popular culture stereotypes—the fashionably progressive millennials being no more likable or insightful than their seemingly backward and condescendingly suspicious rural counterparts. In fact, the only character to elicit within the viewer even a smidgen of sympathy is gruff local mechanic Richter (Moe Dunford), who is introduced as an antagonist, before ultimately, in the film’s single surprising turn of events, revealing himself as more noble and compassionate than expected, eventually redeeming himself through an act of selfless heroism—but not without having his head pounded to hamburger meat by Leatherface in one of the film’s numerous excessive kill scenes. It may have been the director and writers’ intent to gradually uncover some common ground between the film’s warring demographics, which is admirable if true, but Garcia’s sloppy handling and generally stunted character development manage to muddle even this potential message. All in all, an air of sensationalism permeates Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its fragmentary political references feeling far more obligatory than imperative, defeating the purpose entirely.

As for Leatherface himself, Garcia makes the detrimental mistake of uncovering his actual face early on—a misguided attempt to humanize this legendary midnight monster?—obliterating much of the character’s “scare” factor. Leatherface, unlike Michael Meyers, Daniel “Candyman” Robitaille, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, and Freddy Krueger, lacks the otherworldly connection that lend many of his contemporaries their respective abilities, relying instead upon his size (he is bulky and physically powerful), trade expertise (he and his family have intimate ties to the local slaughterhouse), and signature masks of human flesh (still most haunting in the original), which have, with the exception of the notorious reveal in the 2003-released remake and some partial glimpses in its prequel and Texas Chainsaw 3D, consistently obscured his own features throughout the franchise. The ominous mystique surrounding that which lurks behind the mask provides a great deal of Leatherface’s appeal as an iconic villain, his physical consumption and eventual “becoming” of his victims making for a chilling modus operandi.

As though adding insult to injury, a seemingly pointless subplot concerning the original film’s sole survivor Sally Hardesty (a so-so portrayal by Olwen Fouéré, as original actress Marilyn Burns died in 2014), now a hardened former Texas Ranger hellbent on avenging the deaths of her brother and friends nearly 50 years prior, seems to ape David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fadley’s phenomenal 2018-released Halloween reboot—and its far less commendable 2021-released sequel—in which a traumatized Laurie Strode, having spent the past four decades militantly preparing herself to execute Michael Meyers—who, like Leatherface, is now a grizzled senior citizen—reemerges to exact bloody vengeance upon her former tormentor. The difference is that Green, McBride, and Fadley’s Halloween script feels comfortable, devoid of any triteness or pretension, while playing upon the viewer’s most primal fears of evil incarnate and the havoc it inevitably wreaks through strong characters and a fresh approach. Leatherface, however, is almost entirely drowned out by the film’s ensuing racket, the heavy-handed attempts to thrust the killer into modernity (in one non sequitur attempt at dark comedic relief, Leatherface, mid-rampage, enters a busful of partying youths, only to have the crowd whip out their smartphones, one partygoer threatening him with “cancellation,” before the entire scene erupts into a tangled bloodbath) for the most part failing to land.

In the end, it is difficult to justify the existence of Netflix’s Chainsaw reboot, despite John Larroquette’s reprisal of his role as its narrator, an evocative score by Colin Stetson, and the indisputable promise to be found within some of its cast and crew. The film’s sloppy concept, unsympathetic characters, and lack of direction, discernible message, or even fright are highlighted by the anarchic brutality presumably intended to distract from its creative shortcomings. As for its potential to be a legitimate “issues”-oriented film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply fails to hit the mark. Despite the current industry trend, convincingly integrating imperative political messages with art—especially horror reboots—is no easy feat. What modern genre visionaries such as Jordan Peele accomplish, seemingly without strain, suggests an intrinsic creative genius that cannot be feigned.

We are living through a crucial era in history, and these critical issues need to be interpreted through our art, but they ought to be done so with eloquence and passion, as Peele so brilliantly demonstrates in his inimitable output. Chainsaw, most unfortunately, seems regressive in this sense, albeit succeeding, however unintentionally, at mirroring another disconcerting epidemic plaguing American society—the shameless perpetration of chaos and violence, often cloaked in some vague and over-simplified, but ultimately hollow and indulgent sociopolitical intent, for the sole purpose of perpetuating chaos and violence. (www.texaschainsaw.com)

Author rating: 2.5/10

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