A “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie made for 2022 is a low-expectation enterprise. Is it set in Texas? Is there a massacre? How about a chainsaw? Check the boxes, and off you go. The “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” series is so disjointed, comprising a delightfully gonzo pair of sequels and a handful of botched reboots, that a straightforward, satisfying slasher is all that a contemporary Leatherface film needs to be. David Blue Garcia, armed with a script by Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues, takes the straightforward route. But trends do make their demands on horror films, so Garcia dutifully factors in a few pit stops along the way for necessary topical chores.
The first is baked into the plot. It’s the present day, and hipster pals Melody (Sarah Yarkin), her sister Lila (Elsie Fisher), Dante (Jacob Lattimore), and his girlfriend Ruth (Nell Hudson), are on their way from Austin to Harlow, a beat-up, disused town hours away from anything except the middle of nowhere. Dante has scooped up deeds to Harlow’s property; he and Melody have a vision of what Harlow could be, a haven for all disaffected millennials wary of the bustle and price tag of city life. The solution to every problem facing the unluckiest generation is baked into Dante and Melody’s ambitions to remake Harlow’s battered storefronts and abandoned houses into their very own hipster oasis. Art studios. Organic restaurants. No specific mention of a brewery is made, but an independent craft brewery would fit nicely into the town concept.
Then, some rotten luck: Harlow is the deserted boondocks that Leatherface (Mark Burnham) calls home. He’s been hiding at an orphanage operated by Mrs. Mc (Alice Krige) for 50 years. By no coincidence, that’s about the same amount of time that’s passed since Tobe Hooper’s original masterpiece premiered in theaters. For “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Álvarez and Sayagues follow the example set by David Gordon Green’s 2018 sequel to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” by pretending that the previous sequels in the franchise didn’t happen; their contributions function as a direct sequel to the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” This is fine. The idea that Old Man Leatherface retired from the murderin’ business because of Mrs. Mc dovetails well with the “nature versus nurture” motif that’s central to the character.
But Álvarez and Sayagues also follow the example set by Derek Kolstad. When Dante arrives and kicks Mrs. Mc out of her home, she unceremoniously croaks, and the stopper holding Leatherface’s basest instincts in check pops. He revs up for a revenge rampage, culminating in a scene where he knocks down a wall in the orphanage and retrieves his trusty chainsaw for another round of murderin’. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” clocks in at a scant 70 or so minutes and easily maintains a high average KPM (Kills Per Minute); Garcia doesn’t screw around making us wait for the deaths to start ticking up and for the carnage quotient to rise exponentially along with them. This is a remarkably gory movie.
It’s supposed to be, of course. It’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” baby! Maybe this is just Álvarez’s influence talking, but Garcia goes to extraordinary lengths to reward viewers’ patience with the admittedly slim waiting period prior to Leatherface going sickhouse on every hapless doofus in the cast. He takes a certain glee in Burnham caving in faces with a meat mallet and ramming his favorite weapon through two nameless victims at once. It’s hard not to partake in that glee with him, especially since it makes up for the stickier writing holding the copious gore together. Here’s where Garcia makes his second pit stop, another effect of “Halloween (2018)”: Where that film brings back Jamie Lee Curtis to throw down with Michael Meyers, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” brings back Sally Hardesty, Hooper’s final girl, played by Olwen Fouéré on account of Marilyn Burns’ death in 2014.
This, too, is fine in theory. But Green made Curtis his star, while Garcia and Álvarez practically treat Fouéré’s role here as a cameo. She’s an afterthought, like the third pit stop, jumbled commentary about influencers, gentrification, and cancel culture. These each play a part in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s” narrative, but they’re simply there, and serve very little purpose other than as scaffolding and platforms for staging bugnuts violence. The most intentional and meaningful “of today” detail that Álvarez includes in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is Lila’s backstory: She survived a school shooting, struggles with survivor’s guilt as well as PTSD, and is thus uniquely primed for making it through a slasher movie as a result.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” doesn’t have a lot to say about school shootings, granted, but contemporary horror faces such broad expectations about its “stuff” – whether it’s politically or socially relevant, whether it’s scary enough or transgressive enough – that it’s refreshing watching Garcia lean into the genre’s grimy side without lecturing about man’s inhumanity to man. Horror has always been political. It has certainly always been social. But there’s no better way of sucking the fun out of a movie than with political and social allegory so overdetermined that it succeeds subtext and becomes the text. It’s one thing to tie the plot to the point. It’s another to make them one and the same, as if to say aloud that you don’t trust the audience to get it.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” bumbles and bungles along the journey from its opening, wherein Garcia recaps Hooper’s film in the form of a true-crime TV special, to its bizarre misuse of the unflappably badass Fouéré. But the movie couches menace in Burnham’s hulking physique, holds back nothing in the bloodshed department, and ends on a beat so shocking in its orchestration that it makes the movie worth watching all by itself. No one can top Hooper or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” or even match them. Garcia is smart enough not to put on airs. He just lets Leathersaw rip. [C+]
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is available now on Netflix.