The maniacal Leatherface and his kin have been the subject of 9 films to date, with the most recent iteration debuting on Netflix this past weekend purporting to be a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper’s horror masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). In the days since its release, online discourse regarding the film has predominantly fallen into two camps – vile hatred, or satisfactory praise. With a tiny bit of wiggle room in between.
I was curious as to why that is, so let’s try to figure this out with a little Q&A.
Mild **SPOILERS** to follow.
First off, why the hate?
Most of the complaints I’ve read mention the lackluster story. Four idealistic youngsters, two of them are social media influencers and another is a traumatized survivor of a high school shooting, set out to gentrify an abandoned old town in the middle of nowhere in Texas. They unknowingly barge into a home where the dormant serial killer of lore has been residing for the last 50 years or so and things quickly go south. Along the way a busload of investors arrive to take part in the real estate auction and a legacy character from the original massacre shows up seeking revenge.
And that’s pretty much your set-up. It’s certainly a weak premise, but the original was light on plot as well. That tale features five idealistic youngsters, among them Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin, traveling to the middle of nowhere in Texas to visit a desiccated family estate. In need of gas, they wander into the home of a cannibalistic family and things quickly go south. From there the films diverge in different directions in terms of execution and tone. That alone shouldn’t condemn the new film’s plot, but perhaps its faults lie in the manner in which it presents its machinations.
This leads into the other main complaint of the new film, in which people note the slew unlikable characters at the center of the story. I’ll get into that in a little bit as I think it’s a loaded topic.
So on the flip side, why the love?
In a word, simplicity. It doesn’t waste much time getting to the carnage, and once it starts it doesn’t let up. Gore hounds looking for maximum decimation are served a buffet of butchery. It’s bone-breaking, head-chopping, face-ripping, torso-splitting mayhem marinating in buckets of blood. The party bus massacre (a film with that title is sure to follow) is a beautiful cacophony of severed limbs, arterial spray, and chainsaw grease bathed in purple neon.
There’s a common misconception that the original film is a notoriously gory affair, which is utterly false. I feel like this film will bear that distinction with pride. And clocking in at a swift 81 minutes, this puppy flies by. Before you know it more than a dozen people have been dismembered and discarded and it’s time for the final showdown.
But for many people, a paper-thin plot wrapped around a rip-roaring bloodbath doesn’t make a movie. In this case, it’s a matter of discerning taste. But that’s doesn’t fully explain the hate, so let’s dig a little deeper.
Is the rocky reception a matter of not meeting expectations?
Between the troubled history of this film and the iffy track record for the series as a whole, it’s hard to imagine expectations were soaring. The film was originally slated for a theatrical release until a succession of disastrous test screenings shifted it over to streaming giant Netflix. Whether you’re aware of that or not is a matter of how much attention you gave the ninth film in a horror franchise about a chainsaw-wielding, cannibal family in Texas. The series certainly has experienced highs and lows, with a decent portion of the lows coming this century. So, again, the fervor over this franchise has not been overwhelming, at least not in the way it has been for David Gordon Green’s new Halloween trilogy, which has had plenty of missteps of its own.
Now, if you couple the series’ historical peaks and valleys with fan reaction to the film’s first full trailer, in which characters livestream Leatherface and offer a warning “Try anything and you’re canceled, bro”, and you get muted groans and another level of decreased expectation.
All of these factors kept my personal eagerness in check. The one element that piqued my interest was the filmmakers’ decision to excise the sequels and position this film as a direct follow-up to Hooper’s seminal 1974 masterpiece. The ’74 film (I loathe these new movies using the same freaking title, forcing me to distinguish each film by the year of its release) stands as a towering achievement in cinematic history and still maintains a lore as an unparalleled piece of filmic art. And as such, any new iteration even tangentially attached to a film of that stature will carry a certain amount of excitement. It makes (financial) sense – don’t make a follow-up to a crappy sequel, make it explicitly connected to the best film.
But those are big shoes to fill, and the hope was that Legendary Entertainment, producer Fede Alvarez, and the creative team behind this film would work diligently to live up to the original, which is a singular horror experience that blends horror with psychotic mania. It’s a film where the blood and sweat drip off the screen and you find yourself actively rooting for the characters to escape their deranged tormentors so you, the audience, can feel that sense of escape and finally be able exhale.
Unfortunately, this film doesn’t provide a similar experience, which is the biggest disappointment of the new movie. It offers little in the way of conceptual ingenuity and eschews the psychological, manic horror of the original for visceral thrills not unlike a formulaic slasher flick. Body after body is fed through the meat grinder with no semblance of empathy for the mutilated remains. You’re not being dared to look away, as in the original, you’re being spoon-fed excitement and it wants you to revel in the glee.
Is it fair to expect, or even compare it to, the original?
Maybe not, but erasing the sequels so this film can follow in the original’s footsteps firmly places it under a more intense microscope. Even at a casual glance, it’s obvious the film doesn’t retain the essence of Tobe Hooper’s classic. It’s a marketing ploy. Legacy sequels are all the rage right now, from the aforementioned Halloween, to Scream, Ghostbusters Afterlife, and the upcoming Jurassic World Dominion. The common thread linking many of the original films to their updated counterparts is the returning actors and beloved characters. Rarely is there a continuation of the earlier work.
So, does this film successfully work as a direct sequel?
Yes and no. TCM ’22 features a few easter eggs winking at the hardcore fans (the John Larroquette narration at the start, the familiar sound of the grill lid opening, etc.) and two genuine links to the original – Leatherface, and Sally Hardesty, the only survivor of the massacre 50 years prior. The character is played by a different actress this time, Olwen Fouere, as Marilyn Burns had sadly passed away in 2014. The parallels to Jamie Lee Curtis’ “Laurie Strode” from Halloween are evident, if not blatantly derivative, which harkens back to the complaints about the script. Sally is a hardened older woman who’s “been waiting 50 years” to find Leatherface. But unlike Halloween, her arc is decidedly one note. She’s a loner who became a Texas Ranger and who’s first shown gutting a pig hanging from a meat hook in her barn, denoting her transition to willing killer, I suppose.
I hesitate to say the film is trying to do too much to feature enough plot build-up for Sally’s showdown with Leatherface, because in reality it’s just not interested in this aspect. The goal of this film isn’t related to character, it’s mayhem. And Sally’s narrative resolution falls victim to the demands of a movie titled Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This new film also abstains from another essential element from 1974, namely the identity of the villains – a psycho cannibal family with a twisted sense of humor. Consisting of Leatherface, the cook, grandpa, and the hitchhiker, this was a truly macabre household of sadistic tormentors who reveled in their victims’ misery. They don’t just rip people apart with a chainsaw, they hang characters on meat hooks like livestock or club them with a hammer to be thrown in the freezer in preparation for the ultimate evil: human consumption.
And the key aspect – they did it together, as a family. Now, I’m not one to advocate for cannibalism in film (that’s a taboo I can definitely go without seeing) but I can’t picture a TCM movie without it. And neither the family element nor the cannibalism are present in this update. There’s a mother-son connection between the owner of a dilapidated orphanage and our crazed killer that sets him on a path of revenge, but it’s apparent she’s been able to steer him clear of his old habits instead of taking part in them.
So, what DID they include to make this a sequel?
Aside from Sally’s meager revenge subplot, they kept the bare bones from the original narrative – a carful of idealistic youngsters travel into the heart of Texas and wander into the wrong house. But this time they paint a super thin line of whether the protagonists deserve their fate or not. Their actions are responsible for an outcome that sets the horror in motion, whereas Sally and her friends stroll into a home where cannibalism and murder are part and parcel of their daily life. As I’ve stated before, this Leatherface has been on good behavior for 50 years.
What does that leave us with?
Essentially, paper-thin characters and a sympathetic murderer on a rampage not unlike Jason Voorhees, just with a different sharp implement. In that sense, the film lives up to its name. We’re served a 70-something-year-old Leatherface with a revived sense of purpose, conveniently youthful vigor, and a bevy of Mortal Kombat-style moves.
So what WERE the filmmakers ultimately going for?
F-U-N. These franchise sequels are designed with boner moments. Scenes like Michael putting on the mask for the first time in Halloween 2018, the location of the climax in Scream 5, hell, the entire climax of Avengers: Endgame is comprised almost exclusively of boner moments. In TCM there are loads: Leatherface putting on the mask, grabbing his chainsaw for the first time, the party bus, replicating the dance from the original. These are all scenes designed to excite the core audience. And if you watch it knowing the goal was to live up to the title and give you a few stand-up-and-cheer moments, you’ll have a much better time.
What’s the issue with the characters?
Alright, let’s dig into this. As previously stated, there are four youths this time around, two of which are influencers and regarded food truck operators, Dante and Melody, who have purchased the deeds to a ghostly stretch of abandoned businesses in the town of Harlow, Texas. Dante is a Black man who brings along his White girlfriend, Ruth, and Melody is the protective older sister of Lila, who suffers from PTSD and survivor’s guilt in the wake of a high school shooting. On top of it all, they’re driving through the wastelands of Texas in a Tesla followed by a party bus of young investors.
In other words, these kids represent most of the trappings of gen-Z and liberal idealism. Their first interaction with a local comes in the form of a chance encounter with Richter, a gun-toting, diesel-truck-driving metal head at a gas station just outside of town. There’s simply no finesse in these characterizations. Everyone is a caricature and possesses a single layer of depth. Of course, Melody immediately antagonizes Richter in the most obnoxious way – denigrating an unknown person with a gun on his belt by speculating about his apparent insecurities just loud enough for everyone to hear. Unprovoked. Nothing screams “I’m entitled” like ripping a stranger’s way of life for no reason. By the time we get to the killing, the film has clearly pointed your allegiance square at the homicidal madman instead of the innocent youths.
This flies in the face of the original gang of kids, which featured obnoxious characters (hello, Franklin) but none of them were antagonistic to others. Franklin certainly annoyed the characters within the group, but he didn’t stir the ire of the local population with smugness. They make a friendly gesture by picking up the ill-fated hitchhiker and only sour on him after they observe his erratic behavior.
Now, I didn’t find Melody and the gang to be as insufferable as others did. They’re certainly a characterization of contemporary trends and I think the political divide in this country has drawn a thick line between representations in media. These characters can’t exist closer to the partition or even in the middle, they’re positioned squarely on the left while Richter and, to some extent, Leatherface, symbolize the far-right leaning Texas element.
Naturally, when the gang arrives in Harlow the first thing they spot is a tattered confederate flag hanging limp from one of the defunct businesses. Dante immediately acts to remove it, which is when we learn the flag is attached to the very home inhabited by Leatherface. This is a telling detail when you look closely. The quarrel that ensues pushes the political divide into the spotlight when one of the characters reveals latent bigotry and another crosses the line of entitlement that, in essence, detonates the narrative bomb. Not to mention the aforementioned “cancel” line from the trailer, which was undoubtedly inserted for humor but perfectly illustrates the in-your-face political ideologies this film portrays. It’s cancel-culture vs. a chainsaw-wielding Texas hillbilly. Again, there’s no subtlety.
What’s funny is this seems to provoke both parties of viewers. I’ve seen liberals complaining about the glee with which the film dispatches of these contemporary kids, and I’ve seen conservatives who can’t even stomach the outward liberalism on the screen. It’s a peculiar position to take about a film with a killer wearing a mask made of human flesh, but it can’t be denied that this film takes a political position whether it’s conscious of it or not.
So, what does all of this mean?
It seems like your orientation of either TCM fan boy, genre lover, cinephile, casual viewer, or some mixture of the bunch will determine your stance, if not your political affiliations. Not everyone ascribes politics to their chainsaw-wielding serial killer films. Some people can’t overlook a shaky script, and some just want to see epic bloodletting. I think the reactions are fascinating, otherwise I wouldn’t have written 2500+ words about it. Personally, I find the film to be somewhere in the middle – not great, but not awful. At the time of this writing the film sits at a 4.9 on IMDB, so it seems popular opinion has positioned it squarely in the “not so good” zone. It makes you wonder if this type of discourse will lead to the further adventures of Leatherface and whoever might be left of his clan, or if this franchise has wrung every last drop of interest out of it. Only time (and money) will tell.