If you want to know what’s going on in modern horror, watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2002). This ninth film in the franchise (and the fourth with almost exactly the same title) is a vague collection of modern horror tropes thrown together in a blender. A returning character from the original, defined by grief, wanting to take on the franchise’s boogeyman? Check. A gentrification narrative that could serve as a meta-commentary on reboots? Check. Speaking of reboots, what about another movie that falls into the ‘requel’ category (the direct sequel to the first film in a franchise that also functions as a reboot)? Check. References to how true crime obsession is damaging, or just acknowledgement of it? Check. Maybe something about online influencers? Check. What about gestures towards heavy social issues? Check, this time it’s school shootings. Of course, all of this is handled terribly. Though, the film also copies the upswing in brutality found in a lot of modern horror, the one aspect it gets right.
Surprising probably nobody, this Netflix distributed and barely eighty-minute long (a good chunk of which is credits) random Texas Chainsaw sequel is terrible. It is, as hinted at above, the most perfunctory repetition of wider tropes and ideas, deploying them all with no internal reason. It is also terrible because so many of these tropes and setups vaguely conflict: it is a film of several premises or directions, several things that should be the central thrust, that instead shuffles through half formed gestures. We start promisingly enough, some young adults descend on a town in Texas, one linked to the Leatherface murders, which are held as canonical from the original film (with the time gap between that release and this preserved in the film). Our characters are here to gentrify. They’ve literally bought a supposedly run-down Texan town (one that’s incredibly isolated) and are selling the properties, in an auction, to a group of aspiring small business owners who they have bussed down especially. Really, it’s a way to get a large group of mostly millennials into a contained place so that they can be chainsaw massacred. It should work, and the narrative potential of young-upstarts trying to, perhaps exploitively, gloss up a decaying old franchise (I mean town) before the past bites back, that’s very promising.
Our first warning sign, or warning flag, is a throwaway scene about a Confederate flag that needs to be taken down (understandably). It is clearly the film trying to align itself with socially conscious horror, but the film has no idea how to articulate this. The flag routine is a way to get our characters into a building which still happens to be occupied, surprising them (they thought they’d bought it all). A frail woman, whose Leatherface shaped (but silhouetted) son is standing behind her (on the staircase), is vaguely defending her flag, but mostly the ownership of her home. She functions both as flag defender and as defender or land that is, by rights, hers. It’s a crude and messy conflation that clumsily plays into suspect, but thoughtless messaging. Her being the mother of a Leatherface shaped son (again, still silhouetted, he could be anybody) also cuts against her sympathetic portrayal, and the things she supposedly represents at this point. Though, this is just a vague symptom of the film’s main issue: it has no idea what it wants to be or what its more potent parts mean. This is not a film about gentrification, this is not a film about legacies of violence. This is a film about a large man (who is sometimes silhouetted) who Texas chainsaw massacres lots of people. Which would be fine, if it wasn’t bogged down by distracting pieces. The characters are worthy of our judgement because they force out a community and are the definite cause of a tragic thing that happens to the frail, old lady; yet, they are also the helpless victims of an upcoming atrocity. And that frail, old lady may also have been Leatherface’s mum who has been harbouring him for fifty years.
But, forget about that, let’s get to the Texas massacring, most of it being chainsaw focused. An early scene of extreme violence is a real highlight, where the Leatherface shaped son is pushed into rage by a tragic event (which was caused by the new arrivals so… Are they the problem or not? Make your mind up, movie. Or, just pick a lane) and begins their first murder spree. One particular moment of gore, involving the weaponising of an exposed bone, is really excellent. It is a moment that saves the film from being utter dross, as do some later more spirited moments involving chainsaws. This register, of the gentrifiers heading down South and causing their own demise, is an appealing one, one that’s inherently diminished by this having to conform to being a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie. And this idea is completely forgotten when the filmmakers realise that Halloween (2018) was popular. Texas Chainsaw Massacre instead becomes a nonsensical repetition of the premise of that film, refiguring the surviving protagonist of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Sally (Marilyn Burns) as a Laurie Strode figure (which doesn’t really fit her original characterisation) and Leatherface as a Michael Myers boogeyman. This especially doesn’t work for Leatherface: what was just personified manic-energy, is now this pseudo-mythic figure, one forged in vengeance and focus (and one that gains the ability to withstand multiple gunshot wounds). This transition of the framework of one franchise to another falls flat. The pieces that are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre just don’t fit the puzzle that is Halloween (2018), at best, this film aspires towards Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998).
This shoddy echoing of a more popular franchise is made more uncomfortable by casting. Halloween could bring back Jamie Lee Curtis, and thus make the premise make sense. Marilyn Burns has, sadly, passed away; but, her character apparently lives on. This feels wrong and definitely indicates the premise being a bad idea to begin with. The filmmakers thinking they can just drop in a new actor (Olwen Fouéré), and it won’t make a difference, tells us a lot about the film and its relationship with the audience. This discomfort is only further compounded by other plot points, like how Elsie Fisher (famously from Eighth Grade (2018)) plays the survivor of a school shooting, because that’s another dynamic that this film needs. For stretches, the film pretends to be a commentary on a country’s relationship with weaponry and violence, before remembering that it’s a Texas Chainsaw sequel and that weaponry and violence are the things that will save the day and the main forces of entertainment here. Occasionally, her reaction to the ensuing chainsaw massacre is cut against her recollection of surviving a school shooting, which is beyond tasteless, and positions the audience in a beguiling manner. It is all there to vaguely bring import and weight and, actually, does the opposite. Especially as the film is only ever close to good when it allows itself to be a full blown gorefest; dragging it back from this, and commenting nonsensically on violence, just doesn’t work.
Charitably, you can see how we got here. The original film was a reaction to violent imagery in the media, and its normalisation. But that was only ever background. This film not only foregrounds what should be merely implied, it tries to be everything even when it understands nothing. There is a fun slasher at the centre of this film, with ludicrous kills and even moments that defy expectation. But, by constantly trying to be something more than this (or something other than this) the core is overwhelmed and ruined. Texas Chainsaw but modern, and even more violent? That works. The thirty-five things this film gestures at do not work together. Once again, this is everything thrown in a blender: a Texas Blender Massacre where the victims are our assorted hopes and expectations for an iconic franchise.