Leatherface is back (again): TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (David Blue Garcia, 2022)

Netflix released the latest Texas Chainsaw instalment (the ninth!) on February 28th. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Easter (as in: how many ways can you tart up hot cross buns?) but there are some nice features to this one. For a start, well, it’s on Netflix, so a bit less likely to disappear into the Texan mud without trace, like some of the earlier versions. There have been eight sequels and prequels and unrelated but similar-named movies in this franchise, as well as comics (sorry, graphic novels) and a video game of the original.

The original film, in which “chain” and “saw” were two words, is still widely acknowledged as the best, despite its paltry budget and apparently impossible working conditions for the crew. It was released in 1974 by Tobe Hooper, who made a somewhat light-hearted sequel in 1986. It was a pioneer in “slasher” films and drew cannibalism out of the gothic into the sunlight, showing an alienated workforce in “flyover” states turning their (now unwanted) skills in killing steers toward killing tourists instead. It finished with Sally, the “last girl” escaping from a frustrated Leatherface, who was wearing his mask of human skin (fully biodegradable but not much use against viruses) and wielding his chainsaw in a way that buzzed of potential sequels.

This sequel takes place 48 years after the original (yep, now) and blithely ignores any plot points from the intervening movies, comics, etc. Leatherface is back, older but no wiser and still intent on killing teenagers, and so is Sally, the survivor, who is now a Texas Ranger and set on revenge.

And the cute teens, well, they’re everything that the locals hate – inter-racial, trendy, Gen Z “Influencers”, what the creepy gas-station owner (and there’s always one to set the scene) calls “gentrifuckers”.

They want to gentrify the town and set up a trendy area of gourmet cafes and authentic looking but modernised shops and galleries. Leatherface is in retirement in an abandoned orphanage, and Sally, well, she’s been looking for him for a long time apparently, although when last seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (not an episode of Star Trek), she was catatonic and strapped to a gurney. But now she’s hardass. When we first see her, she’s gutting a pig, just as Leatherface is slaughtering humans. The special effects are pretty similar for both, as are the body shapes, and, frankly, the characterisations. The original actors who portrayed Leatherface and Sally are both dead; the only original cast member is John Larroquette who does the voiceover, which half-heartedly tries to sound like a true-crime documentary, as he did in the original. The new Sally is Olwen Fouéré, the Irish actor, although this Sally seems to be more based on Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in the 2018 reboot of Halloween.

The class struggle of the original Chain Saw has been lost here. The Texas of the original was filled with pockets of people abandoned by modern capitalism and so falling into degeneracy and violence. The new movie seems to valorise the “ordinary” folks who brook no bullshit from the “me generation” and defy the dehumanising effects of capitalism. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the influencers with their real estate auctions and cutesy town planning, or to feel terror at the thought that people might chop you up, but only if you insist on being a dick.

The terror of Leatherface himself revolved not around his nasty dental problems, badly fitting masks and noisy chainsaw, but around his family, the Sawyers, a group of odd but not obviously psychotic individuals who nonetheless were more than happy to chop up and eat innocents from the outside world, which had forsaken them. It felt like this could be any of us, screaming and dying and becoming the family’s dinner, should we venture into the wrong part of the Badlands. This new version is all Leatherface. Somehow, he now has a “mother” who looks after him in an abandoned orphanage, and she dies of a heart attack when the trendies tell her she has to move out, leading to his much delayed rampage. But Leatherface was always the weapon, not the villain, sometimes killing, and sometimes donning an apron and cooking for his dominant family. He doesn’t really work as a lone psycho, particularly when we sort of sympathise with him – he’s just lost his mum, weeps as he wears her face as a mask and then applies her makeup like Norman Bates in Psycho. Who can stay mad at that?

Tobe Hooper’s classic broke new ground in cannibal films and in horror generally. It encapsulated the early 1970s as the endless war in Vietnam and the demise of the hopes of the flower power generation ran into the chainsaw that was Nixon’s silent majority. The new one seems to reflect our time, where the young and idealistic are capitalistic exploiters and Leatherface and the Texan gun-toters are just being pushed too hard into the chainsaw of QAnon. Politics and war are no longer about truth and justice but just fake news in pursuit of tribalism. The film sums this up sardonically in the climactic scene where the busload of influencers are confronted by Leatherface and his chainsaw and respond by pulling out their phones and live streaming the whole massacre.

As Marx said, great historical entities (like Leatherface) appear in history twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time (or perhaps the ninth) as farce.

But here’s my problem with this film. After 83 minutes (which seemed much longer) I looked up from the screen and screamed (internally) “where’s the cannibalism?” Yes, there was a lot of flesh on display, and broken bones, and the occasional internal organ. But none of it got eaten, which, if I had more time, would have disqualified it from this blog. The thing is, cannibalism is not just one more nasty thing that mean people might do to you and me. It is the ultimate act of dehumanisation. Sally’s friends and family in the original were turned into slaughter-animals, chopped up, eaten, and presumably ended up in the family’s outhouse. That’s what we do to those we objectify: pigs and sheep and cows, and we do it to distinguish ourselves from other animals as somehow non-animal, part-god. The slasher might kill us, but the cannibal converts us into shit. Otherwise, we are all potential wielders of the chainsaw.

Without the cannibalism, this is just another slasher with too much emphasis on special effects rather than characterisation.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022 has a 33% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one audience critic summing up:

“it isn’t very scary — and it definitely doesn’t help that the story hardly makes any sense.”

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