Synopsis: After nearly 50 years of hiding, Leatherface returns to terrorize a group of idealistic young friends who accidentally disrupt his carefully shielded world in a remote Texas town.
Stars: Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, Mark Burnham, Moe Dunford, Nell Hudson, Jessica Allain, Olwen Fouéré, Jacob Latimore
Director: David Blue Garcia
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Of all the horror movies I’ve watched over time, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tends to stick out. It’s not the goriest, and it’s not the best made, the budget was small, and the production shows it. Acting seems secondary to many of those appearing in the film, giving it that realistic tinge director Tobe Hooper and his co-writer Kim Henkel were after. The reactions happening on the screen for the audience to view come off as authentic, making the grisly gristle of the Lonestar State-set terror sizzle. The film has a way of sticking around, haunting you long after final girl Sally Hardesty (the late Marilyn Burns) rides off into the sunset with that terrified, wild-eyed look and scream-laughing relief that her ordeal is over.
It’s been nearly fifty years since Hooper’s drive-in feature spooked audiences enough to inspire countless rip-offs and a total of eight sequels/prequels/remakes/etc., with the newest arriving on Netflix after a strained production. Having cycled through every variation of the title imaginable, writer Chris Thomas Devlin and six primary producers, including Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe), just hack off a The and call it a day. Following a surprisingly well-liked Texas Chainsaw 3D in 2013 and the barely seen (but rather fun) origin story Leatherface in 2017, Texas Chainsaw Massacre has some ground to make up. It all started with the early bad buzz around its original directors being replaced and their entire footage being reshot, not to mention being sold to Netflix by its production company after preview audiences hated it. A trailer released in late January seemed to seal the deal that revisiting Texas after all these years wasn’t advisable.
How nice it is to report, then, that Texas Chainsaw Massacre arrives on Netflix as an efficient and often terrifically effective direct follow-up to the original film. Following the recent trend of the “requel,” Deviln goes the 2018 Halloween route, ignoring everything that came after the 1974 film and positioning his screenplay as if the next half-century had gone by with nary a peep from Leatherface or his family. A familiar voice (for hardcore TCM fans) provides the opening narration with the briefest of backstory to the events of that fateful day. All this leads us directly into the present, and to sisters Melody (Sarah Yarkin, Happy Death Day 2U) and Lila (Elsie Fisher, The Addams Family) traveling with Melody’s business partner Dante (Jacob Latimore, Like a Boss) and his fiancé Ruth (Nell Hudson) to a ghost town they plan to redevelop into a new utopia seven hours outside of Austin that’s free from the hustle, bustle, and violence of big city life.
Encountering the requisite misogynist redneck that might also be a racist and cops that might be a little bit of both but will come in handy when a body is needed down the road, they arrive in the abandoned town of Harlow to find it almost as empty as they’d expect. One house, the orphanage, is still occupied, and its proprietress (Alice Krige, She Will, chapped-lipped and excellent) is pretty sure she has the deed around there somewhere. Before she can produce it and prove she and her hulk of a final charge can stay, she suffers a medical emergency brought on by the stress of the millennials pressuring her.
This event serves as a trigger for the massive and loyal protector (Mark Burnham) that doesn’t take this slight against his mother figure lying down or without a decent-sized chainsaw in his grubby hands. As more obnoxious youths arrive in town to purchase property and party, the man returns under the cloak of a rainstorm and begins to ensure this is the last investment any of them will make. Watching this all is Lila, the survivor of a school shooting often paralyzed with fear at being put in a position of fighting to stay alive. At the same time, Melody is also trapped by the humungous madman that seemingly can’t be stopped. Also thrown into the mix is a familiar name from franchise history, the Laurie Strode of the TCM mythology: Sally Hardesty herself. Like Strode, Hardesty (now played by Olwen Fouéré, Sea Fever) has been preparing for this day for years, and tonight she gets her chance to face her fears in physical form.
For all the overzealous fans that were sharpening their knives for this one, you can put them away. Aside from the tacky schlock of a gore-gy on a bus which gives Leatherface his most kills to date, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mainly working on a level of horror that’s more entertaining than one might expect. Performances are generally solid, with Yarkin and especially Fisher making for an unusual dynamic duo and character actress Fouéré stepping in nicely for Burns. I seem always to have a little trouble with actresses taking on “tough women” roles who are filmed looking solid and robust only to be knocked around in their first face-to-face meeting with their opponent. There’s some of that here, but Fouéré doesn’t forget to keep the acting at a higher level with fewer words to support it. As ever, Krige shows she can play nearly anything, and even in a brief cameo, you spend most of the movie wondering if she’ll return. Always tasked with a bit of a thankless role, Burnham plays Leatherface with the brute force required and manages to convey some of the emotions tacked on.
Clocking in at a little over 75 minutes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes across as the right length, and there’s enough exposition for every character, so no one (of importance) feels cut off at the knees for nuance in what is otherwise a mostly standard arc for a horror film. There’s a blueprint to how to make a movie about a group of kids going into a supposedly abandoned location, finding they aren’t alone, and then working to survive. Texas Chainsaw Massacre falls on the victorious side of the argument that simple is better. Outside of the bus nonsense, it’s still gruesome and filled with broken bones and gushing veins, but on a more restrained level. No one is getting shortchanged here.
I take that back. Continuity is getting shortchanged because if Devlin wanted this to be an air-tight continuation of the original, we’d have to worry about more than just Leatherface. Fans will remember that Leatherface was always the figurehead for a highly dysfunctional family of freaks. Where did they all go? How did Leatherface wind up at the orphanage? Like Sally, he’s aged fifty years, so what’s happened all this time for him to remain dormant? That question may be answered if the power is in the chainsaw, but some of these informational gaps feel held back for future installments. You didn’t think Leatherface had been sent on his merry way, did you? Even if Texas Chainsaw Massacre feels like a contained film that wouldn’t need a sequel, anything is possible in this bizarre world that appears to thrive after all these years.