Texas Chainsaw, Massacred

The Netflix reboot and other recent horror revivals misunderstand their source material

Yana Blajeva/Netflix
Nicholas Russell

The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre — so close (in name only) to 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that it seems like a taunt rather than a reverent nod — opens with a pulpy television documentary detailing the events of the first movie. Of course, superficially, this is in keeping with the original's opening scroll, which framed the movie as a true story: “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin.”

Almost 50 years after the fact, the infamous serial killer Leatherface is still on the loose, whereabouts unknown. Meanwhile, Sally, the most famous final girl in cinematic history, lives a quiet life somewhere in rural Texas. Because the new Massacre takes place now, the filmmakers have any number of opportunities to pull textual cheap shots at hot button talking points. In this case, mass shootings, gun ownership, racism, electric cars, millennial wimpiness, and gentrification. And because the mainstream arm of the horror genre has, since the 2010s at least, firmly cemented certain narrative quirks, trauma is a prominent throughline here. One character, Lila, is a survivor of a school shooting, which isn’t even clumsily dealt with so much as brought up a few times and then ignored until the very end when Lila decides to wield a semi-automatic rifle against Leatherface, which looks even more ridiculous than it sounds.

As the film opens, the abandoned Texas town of Harlow is about to get a facelift from some enterprising young people, including Lila’s older sister Melody, who hope to auction off its buildings in order to grow a new, inclusive community of entrepreneurs in the middle of nowhere. The locals are grumbly in that movie way where rural white folks chew tobacco, spit, and say “boy” a lot, but they can’t do much about it — the region needs money. The main genius behind this operation, Dante, finds that one of the buildings, a former orphanage, isn’t vacant. Instead, the proprietor of the orphanage, now an elderly woman, lives there with one of her wards, Leatherface, who kind of just looks like a guy. Dante asks to see her papers, calls the cops, gets the woman thrown out, the shock of which causes her to die and this prompts Leatherface’s return to rampant butchery.

The filmmakers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who join those of the newest Scream movie and the rebooted Halloween franchise as people who were never involved with the source material, believe Easter eggs to be sufficient replacements for a single interesting idea, and hope that more violence will offer an experience approximating excitement. In the case of Massacre, they even got John Larroquette, narrator of the original movie’s opening titles, to narrate the fake television show. It’s disconcerting, and hilarious, to watch footage taken from the first half of Tobe Hooper’s opus turned into badly Photoshopped evidence supposedly lifted from the police files on Leatherface’s first killing spree. One Polaroid, of Sally and her friends alive and laughing in their van, looks like a stock image from an influencer’s Instagram.

Even back in 1996, horror movies were becoming self-reflexive enough to have characters say things like “These days, you gotta have a sequel.” The film that quote comes from, Scream, delivered with gleeful insanity by Matthew Lillard, joined postmodern ’90s films like Pulp Fiction and Clerks where meta-commentary on genre, form, and style were folded into the dialogue and narrative structure of the story. Audiences were well aware of the conventions and restrictions of horror movies. Why not the characters too? Or, as Adam Nayman at The Ringer recently summarized, “The 90s are when postmodernism went mainstream.” Instead of sequels, continuations or thinly-veiled reboots are more the ticket these days. These are supposedly playful, clever reimaginings of seminal works for younger audiences where the characters are not only aware of the tropes of the movies they unwittingly find themselves in, but actively work to subvert them, with more relevant, diverse, and/or hard-hitting elements thrown in for good measure. In this sense, Texas Chainsaw Massacre does stand apart somewhat because the characters 1) have clearly never seen a single horror movie and 2) seem to have been born from an algorithm of “millennials.”

The filmmakers believe Easter eggs to be sufficient replacements for a single interesting idea, and hope that more violence will offer an experience approximating excitement.

Ironically, as studios have tried and failed to bring back revamped classics like House of Wax, Child’s Play, Poltergeist, The Thing, and Pet Sematary, the Scream franchise has continued on into the present, its fifth installment still in theaters, but with none of the surprise, craft, or intelligence of its originator. Those characters that have managed to survive, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott and Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers and David Arquette’s Dewey Riley are older, presumably wiser, but mostly transformed into glorified bits of nostalgia. The joke Lillard spit out in 1996 has come back to bite the franchise in the ass. Meanwhile, Halloween has spawned a new, brutal trilogy helmed by David Gordon Green and once again starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode that do nothing for the franchise except highlight how good the first film is, and, if you really want to go out on a limb, how fun and wacky some of the first few sequels are.

With all that in mind, it appears depressingly inevitable, after the bewildering success of this new Halloween series, which has been alternately hailed and rebuked for its unrelenting violence and staggeringly high body count (factoring in all of the extant films including the new ones, Michael Meyers has killed something like 200 people, which seems exhausting), that the next victim to be dragged into the garish light of day would the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies.

Fede Alvarez, one of the new film’s producers but better known as the director of Don’t Breathe and the remake of Evil Dead, emphasized the “old school” nature of this new installment. “Everything is classic,” he said to Bloody Disgusting. To him, this means vintage lenses and “no VFX,” which is one of the more popular lies that filmmakers have been telling about their films recently. Alas, the movie still looks like it was shot on a DSLR and the numerous visual effects are shit. In some ways, this new Massacre is old school in that its characters are so consistently stupid and unlikable that they cease to be anything but meat ready for carving. To be fair, when talking about the original film, Tobe Hooper did say he was making a movie about meat, but he was talking about slaughterhouses and the general disillusionment citizens were experiencing with the American project after Vietnam and Watergate, plus the sensationalism of violence and fear found on local news.

What’s revealing about Massacre and its rebooted peers is how, despite the repeated praise and claims of fealty to the source material by their creators, it’s obvious that the writers and directors actually have no idea why the originals worked. At the very least, their takeaways lean solely on the superficially lurid, the kills and the gore. A large part of 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s enduring appeal, and why it feels so graphic even though nearly all of the violence isn’t actually shown, is its look: grainy and grimy, with an unpolished, viscerally unsettling texture that touches everything from its production design and makeup to its audio. There’s real blood in the frame, some of it from the actors, who suffered through a shoot so disorganized, cheap, and hot that most of the cast was injured by the end. A pitch is reached by the time Sally Hardesty climbs into the back of that pickup truck covered in blood, one that is so weirdly scary and feverish because the quality of the acting and the realism of the setting leave you almost believing that what you watched really happened.

Often, studios work backwards from the success of these movies, thinking that the Halloweens and Evil Deads of the world were always destined to be well-received, influential icons made by committee when really they were small projects helmed by nerds who wanted to try their hand at something different. It’s not that Sam Raimi or John Carpenter didn’t have a clear vision. They just didn’t approach their work in an overdetermined or, God forbid, self-serious way. That’s another revelation, after so many sequels and remakes: the really good filmmakers know how to balance multiple moods and tones, how to allow comedy to flourish without defanging the horror, and how to make the audience laugh without adding jokes. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reaches such a pinnacle because even its unintentionally funny moments only underscore how extreme, odd, and ultimately horrifying the story is. Leatherface swinging his chainsaw in the sunlight in a dance of frustration and insanity is a surprisingly beautiful image , an iconic scene that can never be replicated. I say “dance” even though, in the context of the story, Leatherface actually isn’t. In the new film, created by people who only know that image is famous but do not understand why, a different final girl gets away (in a Tesla set to autopilot), Leatherface literally dances, skipping and twirling, this time with his chainsaw and a decapitated head.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.