Wednesday, 30 March 2022

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) - Movie Review


So there’s the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre that came out in 1974, then there was the sequel, then there was Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, then The Next Generation, then the 2003 remake of the original, then the prequel to that remake, then Texas Chainsaw 3D, then the 2017 movie also called Leatherface that was a prequel to the original (or possibly another prequel to the remake of the original), and now we have a new film that came out on Netflix last month that’s just called Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Everybody got that?

Even for how bad naming conventions can be with modern horror films, where they have to be followed by the year they came out to avoid further confusion (Scream, Candyman, The Grudge, Black Christmas, Child’s Play, Pet Sematary, Suspiria, Halloween, It, Cabin Fever, Blair Witch, Poltergeist, and those are just the ones I’ve reviewed already), the Texas Chainsaw franchise might have the most confusing nomenclature of any still-active series.

And it’s because of that that I was initially willing to give this film a chance. While the filmmakers have been a bit iffy about the exact continuity, it’s being presented much like Halloween 2018 (see what I mean?), in that it is a direct follow-up to the original original, and everything else is seemingly left out. This could’ve been a chance to streamline the series up to this point, and help get Leatherface the character away from the string of pointless and increasingly wrong-headed remakes and prequels that have threatened to destroy whatever mystique the legendary horror icon has left.

While the 1974 classic probably wouldn’t rank on my 100 Favourite Films list if I were to redo it today, it is still a masterclass in horror filmmaking. The pacing, the grungy atmosphere and visuals, the perfect editing, not to mention its position as the quintessential vegan horror flick; it has deserved better than what the franchise has turned into in the nearly fifty years since its inception. But unfortunately, this manages to go even further than Texas Chainsaw 3D did in misunderstanding the draw of that original so badly that it ends up doing the series, and its central character, a colossal disservice.

There are a lot of contributing factors to that disservice, so let’s ease into it by getting into the first big problem I had with this whole thing: How it looks. Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues of Don’t Breathe fame both produced and put forward the initial story idea for this film, and the visuals show director David Blue Garcia and cinematographer Ricardo Diaz pulling a lot of tricks out of the former’s playbook. The auditory-intensive set pieces, the colour palette, even the camera stock; it doesn’t feel like a Texas Chainsaw movie, as it’s as far removed from the original’s rustic aesthetic as it can get.

The horror cred on this thing isn’t all that great either. While it doesn’t make the mistake of wallowing in its bloodshed, as it shows enough sense to know when enough is enough in terms of framing fixation, there’s still a lot of gore and on-screen brutality to be found here. The main thing that gets brought up about the original is that it famously only used two pints of stage blood for its death scenes, and that’s definitely one of my favourite aspects of it: That it manages to be so terrifying, while not really showing the audience all that much. But here, with its numerous stabbings and cutting-opens and head-bashings, it serves as a reminder of why the newer trend of ‘elevated horror’ was so damn necessary: Because this is the kind of shit we were stuck with beforehand.

Now let’s get into the writing for this thing, which is simultaneously interesting and a potential good move for a new installment of this series, and the most-wrongheaded decision a screenwriter could possibly have made with this IP. The film centers on a group of Austin hipsters/social media influencers who decide to travel into the Sawyers’ hometown of Harlow, and gentrify it into a trendy hot spot for themselves. Said hipsters are incredibly bland from the get-go, with even Elsie Fisher struggling here, and their interactions with the residents and especially Leatherface end up revealing another big problem: We’ve effectively moved backwards in regards to how characters are treated within horror films.

One of the main reasons why I have, and likely will continue to, give Eli Roth shit as a horror filmmaker is because his own approach to characterisation resulted in a profound sense of misanthropy to come right to the forefront with modern horror. The idea that, because people die in slasher movies, that means that the audience should be given every incentive to be happy that these people are going to die, so let’s make them as disagreeable as possible. Seeing this turn up at all in a recent release is bad enough, but as a follow-up to a film that categorically did not play that way, it feels even more needlessly mean-spirited.

And indeed, ‘needlessly mean-spirited’ is a good descriptor for this film’s content, as a lot of its bloodless moments are peppered with attempts to make this new feature ‘relevant’. We have the gentrifying hipsters in tow, but then there’s the social media touches (like when Leatherface slices his way into a bus full of teenagers, who all pull out their phones and start streaming), Fisher’s Lila being the survivor of a school shooting, a minor subplot of Leatherface’s new abode having a Confederate flag out the front and his carer (played by Alice Krige)’s defences for it, and also the mesmerising idiocy where one of the hipsters on the bus tells Leatherface “Try anything and you’re cancelled, bro”.

It is astonishingly heavy-handed, but where it gets worse is that the film itself doesn’t even really seem to take a stance one way or the other. Are we supposed to side with the hipsters, who are dealing with their own traumas and are trying to find a fresh start in the neo-lib land of opportunities, or with the locals, who don’t want self-righteous and privileged “gentri-fuckers” flooding in and trying to ‘fix’ things that don’t need fixing? It feels like another Black Christmas situation, where the incessant urge to say something isn’t met with the efficacy needed to make its many, many points stick or, even more importantly, make them an integral part of the actual story being told. It's as if the only thing that the filmmakers even remembered about the original was that hippies were annoying, and so they stacked all their chips into modernising that aspect and nothing else.

They certainly didn’t put the effort into making Leatherface work, and it’s here where the film reaches its absolute nadir. It is the peak of irony that a film that wants to lambast Gen-Z-ers for gentrification would go so far to homogenise Leatherface as to make him nigh-on unrecognisable. His connection to/manipulation by his family has been reduced to just the involvement of Alice Krige’s Ginny, which ends up making Leatherface into more of a Jason Voorhees character with all the underlying mommy issues, and some of the cinematography tries to give the impression that he's also Jack Torrance for some reason?

But the worst bit comes attached to my initial expectation regarding Halloween 2018, as this film desperately wants to steal some of that thunder in how it pairs up Leatherface against a returning Sally Hardesty, the final girl from the original film (now played by Olwen Fouéré). But in trying to recreate the Laurie/Michael dynamic, it only further separates Leatherface from what makes him… well, Leatherface. As much as I disliked Texas Chainsaw 3D for its attempt to turn the Sawyers into anti-heroes, at least they committed to that stupid idea, whereas these guys seem to be grabbing for anything and everything to retrofit onto a character whose imposing anonymity is his greatest strength.

Somewhere deep in the guts of this ridiculous exercise, there are some potentially smart ideas that could have been fleshed out into a genuine contender within the Texas Chainsaw franchise. Juxtaposing the trauma of living in modern America and the attempts to escape it by white flight, with the horrors of unearthing dark secrets in the heart of the American South. But from the presentation, to the writing, to the regressively vindictive approach to slasher cinema, to the flurry of conflicting ideas that don’t end up saying much of anything when pushed together, this is just a complete dumpster fire. Maybe it’s time that the filmmakers started taking their own advice and just leave the Sawyers to their own business, as it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s nothing good to be gotten from bringing them back out for shit like this.

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