The era of the horror legacy sequel chugs on with Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Netflix, the ninth installment in the franchise that’s also a direct follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic.
From 2018’s Halloween to this year’s Scream, we’ve been seeing an influx of horror icons making their way back to the big screen, with series veterans in tow to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings. Always billed as the “true” sequel to the originals we all know and love, they combine the already huge bankability of horror with modern sensibilities towards giving audiences exactly what they know and remember in shiny, new packaging. When done right, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. If that nostalgia serves a sincere thematic and narrative purpose, then sure, why not bring the original Michael Myers and Jamie Lee Curtis back?
2018’s Halloween excelled because it actually spoke to the time that had passed between those films and considered what life would be like in the aftermath of the original. On the other hand, Halloween Kills was a flat-out mess, dealing almost exclusively in nostalgia and the legend of Michael Myers. It’s a film with nothing more of note to say beyond “remember this?” and “isn’t Michael pretty cool and scary?” because it had already been covered. There was a story to tell in 2018, yet according to Halloween Kills’ utter lack of thematic and narrative urgency, there no longer is. That’s all to say that what’s so stunning about Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is from scene one, it’s immediately clear that there is nothing but the trudging out of iconography in store for us. No story, only obligation.
In 2017, Legendary acquired the rights to the franchise and Leatherface to launch a new series with Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe alum Fede Álvarez to produce. 2013’s Evil Dead is an excellent example of bringing an iconic title to the modern day. Its griminess and utter brutality would ostensibly make Álvarez perfect for a new Texas Chainsaw. What doomed this iteration from the very beginning, however, is when amid creative differences, original directors Andy and Ryan Tohill dropped out mere weeks before filming. Subsequently, David Blue Garcia entered the picture and what followed was a soft launch marketing campaign that ended as soon as it began with Legendary selling the film to Netflix. It’s impossible to know the true nature of what was reportedly a troubled production, but it’s pretty easy to guess based on the picture before us, seemingly disassembled and reassembled a few thousand times over until it lost any shape resembling an actual film with craft and vision.
Our story begins with a group of teenagers arriving in the small town of Harlow, Texas in the hopes of renovating the area for a social media influencer project with a party bus of twenty-somethings hoping to create an idyllic, perfect home. I think? It’s incredibly unclear who these people are and what exactly they’re setting out to do in Harlow aside from giving the filmmakers a Gen Z punching bag. Led by Melody (Sarah Yarkin) and her sister Lila (Eighth Grade’s terrific Elsie Fisher), both have terrific screen presence but are just utterly failed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its deeply ill-advised script. The same goes for the rest of the young cast, treated with such gleeful, bizarre contempt that makes any well-done kills ring as odd and mean-spirited in a way that lacks the thematic punch of the original film. Not every slasher needs to be laced with greater meaning, yet this is a work that is clearly, actively aspiring to some level of social commentary and provocation that veers between utterly groan-worthy and genuinely troubling.
This isn’t even breaking particularly new ground for the series, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre dove headfirst into smart and, at the time, controversial subject matter. Presenting the film as a “true story” as both a tongue-in-cheek gesture and commentary on the horrors it depicted existing not too far from our own reality. To be young and venturing naively into a world you were told is kind and neighborly, only to learn how scarily untrue that can be. A deconstruction of mid-20th century family values and the insidiousness at the heart of it updated as diverse, young people being brutalized because they’re on their phone too much or something. That’s not even intended as a reductive or bad faith reading, Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre really just is that juvenile and condescending.
If you’re also wondering why I have yet to mention the original film’s Sally making a return, given its focus in marketing material, it’s because her role is so bizarre and minuscule. What we get is a character whose connection to the plot is tenuous at best, with a meeting once more with Leatherface that is actively confusing as to what’s even going on. It’s as if midway through production someone watched Halloween (2018) and decided to sleepily write something similar for the third act, making the “legacy” aspect of this legacy sequel pretty lame. The respect and reverence paid towards Hooper’s classic begins and ends with its iconography and they can’t even get that right, with a ridiculous new Leatherface that might be the least scary the franchise has ever seen.
What would have been a relatively quiet misfire on a theatrical level will surely end up doing big business on Netflix as the kind of “what the hell is this?” viewing that we all love to hate, but it’s still truly disappointing to see a franchise with as much potential as this one continue to fall far below its ilk.
Sorry, Leatherface. Maybe someday you can chainsaw dance again in the pantheon of horror greats.