Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022): Glossy Legacy

Law students have taken over Hollywood ... They know people want to see what they've seen before.

-Tobe Hooper

The most publicized part of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) is the bus scene, during which Leatherface drags his sour self (he must be getting near 80) into a group of social media do-goodies and hacks them to pieces like Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One (they're both killing rebels). They live-tweet their own deaths to unsurprised followers (“Looks so FAKE,” one tweet replies). It’s a cringy display of a human race that values cringe – despite a negative reception to this scene in the movie's marketing, it’s the closest the new film comes to making its mark on a tired series by at least attempting to return the taste of satire to it. If there’s one way TCM 2022 attempts to support a limping legacy, it’s in this willingness to send up something for the sake of a horror-comedy rather than drill it down to the self-impressed seriousness of a bad imitation. The film doesn’t earn the respect of the original, but what’s left of that, at this point? If the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a parent, it would have abandoned these children long ago.

Comparisons to the original film will always end in defeat for this series since Tobe Hooper matched the absurdity of the premise with the kind of technical adversity that has an actual flavor of the absurd. He made the struggle real, which gives it the feeling of desperation, funny and sad and dirty. In comparison, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) is lounging in luxury, with modern filmmaking equipment and a comfortable budget and a Netflix guarantee, so no matter how young its new filmmakers are or how apparently rushed the pre-production schedule was for this film, they can’t recreate a feeling of danger that doesn’t exist. At no point does any part of this film approach the quality of the original enough to even justify their co-existence.

Despite this, they get a few things right in a more general sense. As opposed to the glossy 2003 remake, which had the tone of a tragedy but the look of a car insurance ad (and the editing of a Michael Bay blockbuster), the 2022 version jacks the gloss up even further, to the point of giving it purpose (it’s just a tad closer to the decked-out excess of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, though nowhere near as self-aware). They unleash Leatherface on rooms that look like dancefloors, in fields of flowers, in orange and blue and purple; they even have a touch of film grain effect. The casually nice visuals fit in 2022 while the length is a thing of the past – at 81 minutes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) is downright breezy compared to the ones pushing 100. Brevity isn’t a great compliment, but the new film is lean enough to gain a little deniability.

The cast is a controlled trainwreck, with good little performers like Elsie Fisher and Nell Hudson in thankless roles where the most jarring aspect is a lack of reactions. If a man’s jaw is hanging off his face, you scream, you throw-up, you do something. Their underreactions are not parodies of reactions (except in the bus scene) but signposts to a creative team cautious about expressions and extremes, which is a crippling flaw for a TCM film. These unbelievably casual reactions constantly clash with the tension allegedly being built (compare this to TCM 2 where Hooper had Caroline Williams scream and scream and scream as though it was really happening, which gave the comic absurdity its unique form of icky tension). Often, characters aren't given the chance to react. What's the point of establishing one character as another's spouse, separating them, and then killing one, if the other one also dies before learning about it? An omniscient audience has to piece it together while the characters remain in the dark (imagine if Ripley never found out Dallas died in Alien). Nearly all the film's plot developments butt up against kill scenes, ending them without conflict. It feels like this should have been the setup for an original horror film but only got financed on the condition that Leatherface was stomping around in it.

The plot in this iteration is a conflict with a different tone. This time, the battle is not between monster heathens and innocent potheads but passive progressive bloggers looking for a place to set up a new hipster commune and Leatherface, whom they accidentally stir like kids chucking Coke cans at a bear. Whereas most Texas Chainsaw films satirize the rural South, the new film treats metro cultural arrogance as an equally comedic threat, one that rouses the uncultured monster to take revenge against intruders. The characters' casual cultural biases make them vulnerable to this seasoned horror icon in a way that the film seems to present as their just desserts (“These people want the wear-down, you know, the history?" the financier of the party bus says as they live-tweet their sandwiches and criticize Confederate icons). The film is unilaterally insulting and also unilaterally deadly. Everyone in the movie sucks until they die. It’s not a complicated picture.

Despite this arguable, simplistic perspective, by choosing a target for a tinge of satire, the film has a little flavor of the original two films, at least compared to other slasher series' insistence on straight-faced epic homages. The social media parody is at least a partial comment on a fanbase that thinks Leatherface is badass (any attempt to make him scary or surprising at this point is foregone – it's just what you have to do in a new TCM movie). The 2022 film does not change this trend, but it at least seems aware of it. They stop at a gas station – in past films, they might have been breathed on by aggressive backwater goons, sexualized, mortified. Here, they buy a Leatherface-branded champagne opener and make fun of another customer’s penis because he’s carrying a gun. They're the ones making people uncomfortable.

Fisher is a believable protagonist with an average look to match a situation she doesn’t deserve. She’s supposed to be a voice of reason in a world of commodities, exemplified by a tragic backstory, though the movie never develops this very far. She’s at least a step up from Jessica Biel running around in a tied t-shirt and cowgirl hat (she looked like she was on her way to a casting call for the porn version of a Nicholas Sparks movie). The film thwarts Fisher near the end (it pretty much thwarts everyone) by having her confront Leatherface like a badass, and then follow that with a moment where someone has to laboriously convince her to confront Leatherface like a badass. But at 81 minutes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) doesn’t have time to be much of anything except overly gory, underhandedly cringe, and done.

Rewind to the age when less was expected of a movie like this, and David Blue Garcia’s casual vision would fit in without much squeezing onto a lurid VHS tape. If the goal is to get Leatherface on the loose and kill teenagers with a splash of color and a lot of gore, the film accomplishes it with more grace than needed, if less than desired. It even makes passing attempts to return Leatherface to his proper character heritage as a scared monster with an animal’s strength and a baby’s moral compass, which contrasts with how the post-2003 series has been working him up as a low-rent Hannibal Lecter with the epic music cues of Megatron. The series needed a reminder that the core of the character is not the chainsaw but the naivete; he is, at heart, a scared, horny, deranged child. This nearly factors into the new film, especially in the first scene of carnage, when Leatherface’s mom dies and he terrorizes a girl in a police van, crashed in a field of sunflowers. Donning the mask isn’t a scene of triumph for him but pain. He’s doing the only thing he can think to do. Had they carried this connection to his personality, they might have had something. But when pressed, he's still a generic, hulking monster like Jason Voorhees with no unique creepiness (the cannibal aspect has even been phased out now, to make movies designed to be loved even more digestible). The ending especially, without getting too much into spoilers, cements the character as one of those hefty horror bad guys like Jason or Michael Myers, sacrificing Leatherface's unique personality in the process. It overrides his innocence with brutality because the film mistakenly thinks this is awesome. But the innocence was always the scary part.

The film's biggest obstacle may be the formula of the “legacy sequel,” not only a tiring trope but perhaps the least appropriate model for a TCM film that could be conceived. This formula requires TCM 2022 to live up to the original film in a way that it can’t. When the old protagonist (here played by Olwen Fouéré) comes in to chew the thankless legacy sequel dialogue like a woodchipper processing gravel, the new film does the original a disservice. The choice, which exists in these sequels but not in life, to either pass the torch with mythic reverence or disappoint fans by dying without meaning, shackles the original film’s ending to this final mental image. Is this what that moment of mind-shattering catharsis amounted to 50 years ago, Leatherface swinging impotently in a flashing sun, the girl screaming in happy terror behind traumatized eyes? This is why I would dissuade anyone who is as much a fan of the original TCM as I am from watching the 2022 film. Even the smallest impact on the original is infinitely more disappointing than this new film is entertaining. One change that would have made this go down so much easier is for the legacy character to be Biel and for this to be the sequel to the remake canon. Pulling in the original film into this continuity could only be groan-inducing.

The 2022 one begs to be acknowledged as a standalone movie while denying itself the luxury. But if you put in more effort than it was able to and forget about the other films, TCM 2022 should not ruin anyone’s faith in cinema. In that first scene outside the police van, the sunflower field hits the lens, they gave the girl a reason to be terrified, and the actress gives it her best when the knife goes in. On the bus, Leatherface whacks through a bunch of helpless Tweeties and it’s oddly comforting in a way that the movie almost acknowledges and uses to its advantage. They are uncomplicated scenes with an uncomplicated execution, like the whole film. In a genre of low standards and a series that exemplifies them, this is not the worst out there.

Had it ditched direct connections to the original film, focused on dramatic extremes, and used a less invasive score (it sounds like someone falling asleep on a keyboard of horror movie foley sounds during a shop class), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) would be a passable hour and change. As part of a series, it has to be interpreted as a failure on principle. But compared to other such failures, especially when viewed as an early effort from opportunistic new artists on a streaming service most of us already have access to, it shouldn’t be uniquely hated. It’s a glossy impression of a better movie by people who love that movie to the point that their awe blinds them. They can’t bring themselves to go far enough – something inside stops them from risking it in the way that Hooper did in the sequel. What they never learned is that Texas Chainsaw, as a brand, is about the risk more than the chainsaw; it’s about taking cameras where they shouldn’t be, getting dirt in the lenses, shooting through heatstroke covered in shit and guts and making horror real by experiencing some. The danger of the creation mirrored its content. People call this “lightning in a bottle” but it’s more about adversity than luck. TCM 2022 is part of a series uniquely vulnerable to the shortcomings of riskless modern filmmaking (or content creation), but it can’t be held solely accountable for the way these films come out today. Just a switch of actors and locations and this could have been the latest Star Wars or Terminator film. They're all just monsters wearing the skins of better movies.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Legendary Pictures

Cast & Crew


Leave a Reply