The premise of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, even by the short yardstick of the horror genre, quite simple. Some youths traveling through rural Texas come across a ramshackle house where a family of cannibals live. Leatherface, a brutish, childlike member of the clan wearing a mask made of human skin, attacks them with a chainsaw (among other weapons). That’s pretty much it. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film is as brutal today as it was decades ago because of its vérité style, which makes the viewing experience feel uncomfortably close to reality: sweaty and panic-inducing.
Of course, if a horror film is even a mild success, it cannot be left to stand alone; eventually a sequel will follow, even if it’s direct-to-video schlock. If it makes the kind of unforgettable impact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre did, the follow-ups will never end. Since the first film’s release, eight more Texas Chainsaw films have appeared: three sequels that played to diminishing returns; then a remake that spawned its own prequel; then a 3-D sequel to the original, which led to another prequel; and now Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the latest attempt to connect to the first film’s appeal.
Spoiler alert: It does not succeed. Almost every cheaply made horror masterpiece that generated a whole cinematic universe (think Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and even Saw) had a lightning-in-a-bottle quality that proved impossible to imitate. Those series have had plenty of nerdy fun trying to world-build around a masked murderer, but elaborating on the villain’s motivations typically steals the thunder from his fearsome mystery. Now, with so many decades of Texas Chainsaw lore to sift through, every new entry must pick and choose what to keep and what to forget from prior films, rather than vying for narrative consistency.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (there’s no The this time), directed by David Blue Garcia and written by Chris Thomas Devlin, makes a similar choice to David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween. It’s a “legacy sequel” to the original film that ignores every other version, trying to wipe the slate clean, reboot the series, and pay homage to its forebear. While Green’s film largely succeeded on all those fronts, becoming a smash hit, Garcia’s feels unnecessary and anonymous, leaning on crass visual shocks while failing to match the unsparing brutality of its lodestar.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of 1974 is a surprisingly bloodless film. (Hilariously, Hooper hoped it might get a PG rating by limiting the onscreen gore; the Motion Picture Association justly rated it R.) But it’s relentless and intense; why Sally Hardesty (played by Marilyn Burns) and her friends are under violent siege by Leatherface’s family is never really explained, and the home they blunder into looks like a dank slaughterhouse, its nastiness practically wafting off the screen. In contrast, Garcia’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes a baffling effort to cast its victims as (somewhat unwitting) antagonists. They’re Austin transplants traveling to a small town in Texas to claim a derelict property as part of some gentrification scheme. When they thoughtlessly evict the home’s owner, Leatherface shows up and revs his chainsaw in revenge.
To what extent Leatherface actually cares about gentrification is hard to parse. He is, after all, a mute colossus wearing a human-flesh mask who’s long taken a “chainsaw first, ask questions later” approach to meeting new people. But the ham-fisted explanation that the kids he’s after (played by Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, Jacob Latimore, Jessica Allain, and Nell Hudson) are morally trespassing on his territory robs the ensuing mayhem of its power. Garcia is also unwilling to ease off the gore. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is full of elaborate, digitally created saw wounds far more shocking and anatomically bizarre than anything that could be achieved through makeup. These impressive-looking kills, however, have no heft; the CGI blood spurts are too artificial.
The “legacy” aspects of this sequel also fall embarrassingly flat. Leatherface, played by Mark Burnham here, is supposed to be the same character as in the first film, only decades older. The original actor, Gunnar Hansen, died in 2015, and this new performance adds nothing to suggest much inner depth; other Texas Chainsaw entries made slightly more effort to explain why Leatherface became such a monster. The new film also features Sally, the lone survivor of the 1974 film; Burns died in 2014, so the role is recast with Olwen Fouéré, who appears in only a few scenes and gets little to do.
The film is half-heartedly trying to duplicate the success of Jamie Lee Curtis’s return in the new Halloween films, but it can’t do more than nod at the idea. Of course, the franchise’s legacy will remain basically unchanged by this latest flop; soon enough, surely, some other attempt will spring up to bring back Leatherface. But each effort only adds to the original’s mystique: As simple as its thrills might seem, they can’t be replicated.