The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is now streaming on Netflix.
By Palmer Rubin
I can’t believe I’m hearing myself type this about a remake of a 1970s classic updated to have the original slasher villain take on Tiktokers and influencers (seriously): I…I kinda like this. Hold on, let me finish, I promise you this is going somewhere. This is by no means a good film, or even a well-made one, or one that comes anywhere close to coherent. But it is, perhaps, the most unintentionally honest horror remake we’ve had in quite some time. It barely works as a horror movie (for all its gore, it’s not even remotely scary), but it does work very well as a morbidly dark comedy of errors, albeit one that’s almost completely braindead.
Then again, this hasn’t had an easy production even for horror remakes. Its original directors were fired a week into production, to be replaced with David Blue Garcia, who had previously directed a film called Tejano. Garcia is a strange choice, but then again, Fede Alvarez (of the Evil Dead remake) is producer and had a similar sudden jump to prominence. I would argue (maybe controversially) that this is a better overall film than the Evil Dead remake in a lot of ways.
The original: a bunch of kids venture into the heart of Texas and encounter the death of industrialization in the U.S. via a family of cannibals that wear faces and now consumes people in place of cows. We were never meant to be so spread out and insulated at the same time, and so Leatherface is that inherent violence driven right back inwards. It’s a film I watched once and probably won’t watch again, but I’m not about to deny its influence from here on out. The issue in trying to keep making sequels is that it was barely a slasher to begin with. Most of the frights come very near at the end, and it’s mostly just out-of-town kids preyed upon by this distortion of a southern family of Good Old Boys. Throw in some bits inspired by Ed Gein and you have a cultural touchstone. To remake it, then, largely has never worked because Leatherface doesn’t operate by the rules of horror movies as filmmakers like Craven and Sean Cunningham (of Friday the 13th) decided on them. He’s a lot closer to Michael Myers (and why that one has struggled too, though recent films have been better received), less a judgement of people’s supposed morals but just an inevitability. Leatherface and Myers kill because they do. They don’t kill you for having premarital sex, they just kill anyone. That’s what makes them a bit scarier than the Freddy Kruegers and the Jason Voorhees: anyone could be their victim, and they’re just ordinary people who kill because they do.
All this to say that the other ones, minus a meta sequel Hooper tried making in the 80s, functionally don’t work as films because they try to give Leatherface the tragic backstory and the supernatural elements. It just makes him generic, another in the deluge of films that uses trauma in place of character development. So it’s already a point in this film’s favor (minus the weird social media references, which we’ll get to) that this Leatherface is just a big scary man who do a stab. The Leatherface of the original mostly participated in a distorted sitcom version of a family dinner and swung his blade around, this one feels like a different character entirely. The movies work a lot better when you conclude that they all take place in the same reality, with multiple guys doing the stab wearing other people’s faces.
So now we have to get to the damn Tiktokers, in what brings the film from horror movie into unintentional comedy masterpiece. Our Tiktokers are from what I guess would be called Realtortok or whatever the hell, gentrifying young adult investors looking to turn Leatherface’s hometown of Harlow into the kind of gross yuppie place with minimalist designs that everyone complains about. They arrive in a self-driving car straight out of Elon Musk’s most libertarian dreams, in what is obviously a studio backlot and not actually Texas. They get on everyone’s bad side immediately, especially as they discover that the abandoned ghost town they somehow bought is the scene of one of the most popular true crime series in the world: Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yes, this is a meta film, where Leatherface is himself held up with the likes of Ted Bundy, and they’re not happy to realize their investment is associated with a vicious (and famous) crime spree. It’s even to the point that when Leatherface hits social media (we’ll get to that), most of the responses are from their fans thinking they’re faking his return to capitalize off of what made it so infamous. Now, how the Tiktokers didn’t know this walking in is not a question the movie answers. This is very much a movie where people do just unbelievably dumb shit (someone does walk around a dark room with a flashlight yelling out “hello?” in multiple scenes), and it is so, so…goofy. They hit the Texans they encounter with talk straight out of LA’s finest ad copy, give condescending speeches about “bringing together community,” they’re just like every Boomer’s worst nightmares realized. This is a film where humans are categorized in one of three categories:
- Tiktokers, who are spoiled rich trust fund brats who brag about everything and disrespect the “natural order” of things.
- Texans, who are all unhygienic and aggressively bigoted people too stupid to tie their own shoes and play at having “heritage” they don’t actually possess.
- Human beings, who don’t act like the other two categories, some of whom are even from Texas. Ironically, Leatherface is in this category by a technicality.
In essence, most everyone in this film is just delightfully dumb and stuck-up for one reason or another. To be fair, the film does not say any of these people deserve to die the way other movies would. They’re just going to be parodies that feel like characters from Saturday Night Live getting offed in increasingly silly ways. You will ultimately find yourself not really taking a “side” in this film’s attempt at addressing anything related to whatever our current discourse is. You’ll either be mad it portrays all human beings under the age of 40 as stuck-up virtue signalling hypocrites or everyone over the age of 40 as a near braindead white supremacist. Largely, it’s taking the exaggerated ways in which Americans of all stripes see each other and pass it off as fact. We can’t seem to stop doing that in media. My own personal politics aside, the best way to address all of it is to fully let go and embrace the great equalizer of Harlow: Leatherface, who kills everyone regardless of their affiliation. In essence, this could be read as a film about the pandemic, filmed during the pandemic: it doesn’t matter what you believe, if you’re not careful, this primal, unthinking, unfeeling thing will try to kill you and everyone you love. Act accordingly. That’s a huge stretch and obviously not what the film is about, but I love creating subtext for films that don’t have any to begin with. That’s the Harlow I want to live in.
Now granted, the Harlow of 2022 has only two residents now: a curmudgeonly racist contractor and a curmudgeonly racist orphanage owner. It is unclear whether the film wants us to sympathize with them or the Tiktokers, since everyone (save a couple of exceptions) are just such overtly irritating people. The Tiktokers forcibly evict the racist orphanage owner after they find a Confederate flag and she starts screaming racial slurs, and the other racist resident is sort of the Hollywood archetype of a Trump voter: loves guns, speaks with a heavy drawl, makes lots of references to his dick. He shifts between making condescending references to how easy “city folk” have it, talking about his gun, and threatening to kill people with his gun. I’m not clear if the guy is actually a contractor or if he’s like the orphanage owner’s caretaker or something, but either way, I doubt any cis white guy from Texas will like the way he’s portrayed. As for the racist orphanage owner, she makes the aforementioned slurs and throws a fit about having to lose her precious Confederate flag, and makes it impossible to sympathize with anybody in this fight. On the one hand, she’s racist and gross (and that’s the text of the film and this actor being clothed in rags and dirt), on the other, she’s being evicted from property she still owns. Now, was she actually evicted, was she squatting on what used to be her property? What is the stance it’s trying to take? Are the young people bad, are the old people bad? The film sure as hell doesn’t know, and doesn’t bother answering this question. In its obsessive moral neutrality, everyone is rendered an asshole in some way.
But that racist orphanage owner was the surrogate mom of Leatherface (this isn’t really a spoiler), and his response to the fight that breaks out is to go full nuclear and target everyone. The film’s first act is definitely its clumsiest, where it alternates between whose side in the Culture Wars it takes in any given moment. We both have the aggrieved local residents trying to claim they want the Confederate flag because it’s a family heirloom, and then the racist orphanage owner suddenly dies as a result of two police officers escalating their standoff in the worst way. Once Leatherface is unleashed, however, the film begins to find its groove and its almost worth starting with the standoff itself so the stakes are immediately established. That’s the bits that work: that Leatherface does not have a preference, that everyone is his target. The death of his surrogate Lost Causer mom seems less out of grief and more as it serving as an excuse for what he wanted to do anyway.
Another thing this film tries to do is where it feels like three movies fighting for dominance. One of them is just a really cynical attempt at a horror remake that’s extremely predictable, one of them is this bizarro attempt at social commentary using every reference the filmmakers know to topical events, but the third film? The third one is where the film almost accidentally becomes good? Shame it’s mixed in with the other two.
See, there’s a single character who’s not a Tiktoker, but rather the little sister of the main Tiktoker. This character is played by Elsie Fisher (best known for the phenomenal Eighth Grade) who is the only one there not interested in gentrifying this abandoned ghost town with two racist caricatures as its only residents. The film does a genuinely interesting thing with her, something that I wish they did more: she’s in most every scene but lurks in the back, sort of a quiet observer, just quietly noting her own discomfort with this. The film’s misstep is a really clumsy attempt early on to reveal she’s the survivor of a school shooting, which in turn is supposed to explain why she’s so surprisingly chill about Leatherface doing a stab. It’s almost a clever point stolen from Eighth Grade itself: that violence has become so normalized for so much of Gen Z that the old villains just couldn’t freak anyone out anymore. She’s so damn numb about everything that Leatherface certainly has a tougher time getting one over on her than everyone else. I think the explicit reference to school shootings is far too much of a narrative crutch to fully work (it’s also in very poor taste for obvious reasons), but just having her shown as explicitly a different generation than Leatherface’s mostly Gen X and Millennial victims is the film accidentally being smarter than it means to be. The read of the film’s only Baby Boomer slaughtering everyone up to having some difficulty with a kid totally numb to it is…something. This goes into accidental comedy the most during a hysterical bit where Leatherface takes on an entire party bus full of influencers…who begin to livestream his kills. The line “Try something and you’re canceled, bro,” already viciously mocked all over Twitter, is pure accidental comedy gold. It’s a bit so ill-informed, so tone-deaf, that it flips back around into being some of the funniest shit I’ve seen in months. It’s the kind of dopey shit Freddy Krueger sequels did where it clumsily tried to make references to MTV and game shows and god knows what else. It’s so goddamn great.
None of this is really spoiling much, since this is, possibly the first time, a horror movie remake all about the vibes. What I will say is genuinely novel, the one thing this film does that I really appreciate, is the single good subversion it makes: a character getting a gun doesn’t really up their chances at survival. To say more would go into spoiler-y bits, but multiple times, characters assume that having a gun makes them instantly invincible (which is the case in many an American horror film), and then they eat shit anyway. It’s not making any Big Statement about the worship of the gun in the American civil religion or anything like that. I just like a horror movie that doesn’t even let anyone have an advantage for even a second. I do like how Leatherface isn’t given a tragic backstory in this one, he’s just a guy who does a stab. It also makes a point to not have the Tiktokers be Leatherface’s only targets: he goes after everyone. He’s just a thing that needs to kill, and he does not discriminate towards who he kills. Ironically, all are equal in being targeted by him.
So I dunno, this thing is both a barely functioning mess and also just campy ridiculous fun in a way horror remakes haven’t been in a while. It also helps that Colin Stetson, who provided the score for Hereditary, gives the film a far better score than it deserves. In its attempts to be this weird meta-legacy-sequel, it accidentally becomes the first horror remake to justify its own existence. That might be as a dumb-as-bricks Netflix original that was bought from Warner Bros. thanks to the pandemic, but it is never boring, even when it’s derivative. I think a vastly improved version of this film does lean a bit more into its meta elements. You need less tired jokes about livestreaming and more bits of modern day kids just not being afraid of violence because it’s so normalized in America. We need more bits about true crime content and how that escalates even more. You do have to lean a bit more into dark comedy, because this is a film that is accidentally better than it deserves to be. Making the Tiktokers less overtly obnoxious, hell, making everyone less obnoxious would go a long way. Have the conflict with Leatherface’s mom take longer, where everyone is civil at first. I’m not sure any studio film would want to explicitly portray Leatherface as a Lost Causer Confederate fanboy, but having him go nuts over the flag would be…a statement, that’s for sure. Having him be white boomer aggression and entitlement instead of shying away from it would be…a statement. He already is this whether you want him to be or not. Just dipping into this territory means people will make that connection without it being the intention. Having Leatherface be a contrast to all of that, how civility isn’t possible anymore when America is in a state of extended collapse, would make this something more meaningful. Let’s face it: Americans are more afraid of each other than ever, and so many of us are afraid at how easily our neighbors could suddenly kill us. If the original was the anxious and crazed response to Vietnam, this is forced by proxy into being a response to Right Now because it was filmed Right Now.
It very badly wants to be a prestige horror film, it wants to be every horror trend at once, and it must settle for being a ridiculous fun time. You will laugh when it doesn’t want you to laugh, and you’ll laugh whenever it wants you to be scared. Isn’t that the damnedest thing?
I give Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022 a C+.