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.”

Short cuts: WRONG TURN (Rob Schmidt, 2003)

How to make a slasher: take a group of young and pretty people, travelling and (gasp) sleeping together and therefore sinning against Gud and the Hays Code. There’s usually a gas station run by a creepy dude whose advice it might be wise to ignore (but they never do). Then there’s a freaky villain or group of villains: outsiders, possibly mutant, and always psychopathic killers. The killers slaughter all the pretty people, using sudden montage cuts and loud music, except (usually) one, known as a “last girl” who will scream a lot but ultimately survive, and probably wreak revenge.

In that sense, Wrong Turn is a fairly formulaic slasher movie and, like The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and many others, it went on to generate a slew of sequels and prequels, many of which were treated less than generously by the critics and fans. There are six so far, and 2021 promises a reboot which will no doubt be widely called number 7, so you’d have to say that this indicates a successful franchise, even if a reboot won’t add anything very new to the formula.

Slashers don’t always eat their victims, which is essential if their stories are to grace this blog, but Wrong Turn does not let us down in that area. These movies, what are sometimes called hillbilly horror, depict a clash of cultures, and attempt to show both sides through the eyes of the other. For the hillbillies, the effete city slickers are weak, spoiled and elitist, their wealth and privilege giving them an infuriating sense of entitlement. To the pretty city kids, lost in an alien land (in this case West Virginia), the locals in the flyover backwoods are inbred, amoral subhumans.

Three cannibalistic inbred mountain men are the antagonists, and their names are Three Finger, Saw Tooth and One Eye, names presumably earned by their current physical state rather than bestowed at birth. The film’s opening sequence shows examples of genetic mutants, with implications that this is due to inbreeding (although there are no females in the clan). This lot are so degenerate that they do not even speak, except for some Paleolithic grunting. And these guys definitely follow the paleo diet. Their enormous strength and ability to shrug off apparently mortal wounds may come from their diet of flesh, but seems more likely to be an unexpected benefit of their genetic reinforcement.

Not much information is given (until Wrong Turn 4, which I suppose we’ll get to sometime), as to how they got that way, or as Clarice said to Hannibal Lecter “what happened to you”. In this one, behaviourism really doesn’t matter – these are quintessential bad guys, monsters, inhumans, existing only to frighten, to kill (and eat) and then to get their comeuppance, with of course an unexpected survivor to point toward (yawn) the inevitable sequel.

There are six beautiful people, two couples, who quickly come to sticky ends, and their friend Jessie (Eliza Dushku) whom they had invited to a getaway after her messy relationship breakup. She is the only one not currently living in sin (although one of the other couples are planning their wedding as they are slaughtered) so she seems destined by the morality of slashers to be the “last girl”. They are lost on a dirt road with a flat tyre, caused by the mutants laying barbed wire across the road, when the square-jawed hero Chris (Desmond Harrington) crashes into their car, taking a wrong turn to get to a business appointment which we all know is going to seem pretty irrelevant. Four of them head off into the woods looking for a phone (they have mobile phones, but hey, it’s out in the middle of nowhere – no cell towers?) The couple who stay with the cars are slaughtered almost immediately. Now there’s a turnaround, Chris show himself to be a leader, he is going to be last boy! The intersection of the two groups, heroes and mutants, comes when the lost city folks find the house of the mutants, and have to hide under the furniture, where they have to watch the killers chop up their friends for dinner.

This is extreme slasher binary conflict: human vs inhuman, normal vs freak, civilised vs wild, prey vs predator. We follow Jessie and Chris as they watch their friends die and flee into the woods, and we barely see the ghastly faces of the antagonists, until toward the climax.

Most victims in slashers are despatched quickly, but the last girl is traditionally captured, tied up in what looks like a rape scene but usually isn’t, because the bad guys are interested in gustatory rather than sexual carnality.

Jessie is tied to a bed, about to be slaughtered – no particular reason why she has not been killed instantly like the others, but we need time for a rescue. The freaks are predators, but Chris and Jessie are warriors. Like The Hills Have Eyes, the victims have to adopt the savagery of the killers to survive, and there is plenty of gore and explosions if that’s your thang. Unlike THHE, where the victims arguably become the savages, Chris and Jessie look to have grown through their ordeal, so that’s a novel approach.

Wrong Turn earned a measly 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic writing,

“the gore is so ridiculously overdone and the script so lame, that it undermines all sense of suspense.”

But I didn’t think so. The cast is great, the plot is fast moving and certainly never dull, and the suspense is well done. There is no reason given for the murders, except that humans are their preferred quarry. But that is the question that cannibalism, as a concept, poses in every film – why eat humans? Because they’re made of meat?