Sunday, February 20, 2022

Buckets of Blood and Gerontological Madmen in 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre'

Horror fandom is a curious thing indeed. This week’s bemusement has been watching the horror faithful on social media extolling the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—the story of young people from out-of-town trespassing on other people's property and getting butchered by a chainsaw-wielding maniac named Leatherface—as a virtuous classic while in the same breath decrying the new TCM—a  story about young people from out-of-town trespassing on other people's property and getting butchered by a chainsaw-wielding maniac named Leatherface—as the stupidest thing they've ever seen. It's literally the same plot, just updated. It’s hard not to laugh out loud at the computer screen some days. I’m reminded of the tagline from Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie…’”

So, let’s unclutch those pearls and talk about the latest installment in the franchise that began with Tobe Hooper’s gritty 1974 slasher. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the ’22 film drops the “the” from its title) is directed by David Blue Garcia, with a screenplay by Chris Thomas Devlin, from an original story co-written by Fede Álvarez (also a producer on the film) and Rodo Sayagues. Originally, the production began with brothers Ryan and Andy Tohill (who directed 2018’s The Dig) at the helm, but the directors were replaced with Garcia after studio displeasure with the footage they shot. That’s never a good sign.

Ripping a page from the playbook David Gordon Green used for his 2018 relaunch of the Halloween franchise, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre serves as a direct sequel to the original film—however it doesn’t necessarily retcon the sequels the way Green’s film trilogy does, with Álvarez stating in interviews that it's up to audiences “to decide when and how the events of the other movies happen.” Fair enough—and who cares, anyway, right? To tackle direct sequel problem #1—the 2014 death of Marilyn Burns, who played TTCM Final Girl Sally Hardesty—the filmmakers cast Irish actress Olwen Fouéré, an especially accomplished stage actor with about a dozen movie and TV credits each to her name. It’s excellent casting and Fouéré does the best with what she’s given; unfortunately, she’s not given anything other than a watered-down version of 2018’s Laurie Strode. To tackle direct sequel problem #2—the 2015 death of Gunnar Hansen, TTCM’s original Leatherface—Mark Burnham was cast in the role of the iconic horror villain. Burnham does a most respectable job given the big shoes he has to fill, but of course his character’s agility and stamina at (at least) age 70 requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Suffice to say that 2022 Leatherface is one fast, strong-ass motherfucker.

The new film opens as San Francisco speculators Melody (Sarah Yarkin) and Dante (Jacob Latimore)—with Melody's sister Lila (Elsie Fisher) and Dante's girlfriend Ruth (Nell Hudson) along for the ride—travel to the remote, long-abandoned Texas town of Harlow. Melody and Dante plan to auction off the town’s properties to create a trendy, heavily gentrified area for hipsters of every persuasion. Why, you ask, would said trendy hipsters with ample cash to burn pick an out-of-the-way, hot-as-Satan’s-ass locale like bumfuck Texas as an investment opportunity? No one really knows—and Lila even questions it aloud at one point in the film.

Upon the foursome’s arrival, they discover that one of the buildings—the town’s orphanage—is still occupied by the elderly Mrs. Mc (a welcome cameo by the wonderful Alice Krige) and a silent, towering older man. While enjoying some sweet tea provided by the congenial Mrs. Mc, a kerfuffle over who holds the rightful deed to the orphanage breaks out—and ends with Mrs. Mc suffering a heart attack. Fearful of the bad publicity, Ruth offers to accompany the sheriff and his deputy as they transport Mrs. Mc—and the not-so-mysterious hulking man—to the hospital. En route to the hospital, things go awry—so much so that hulking mute guy goes ballistic, kills almost everyone in the emergency rig, and peels the face off one of them. Leatherface is back—and he’s pissed. Cinematographer Ricardo Diaz shines in this gorgeously shot scene that has Leatherface standing in a field of dead sunflowers, holding up the skin of his new face. Ruth, who’s injured but alive, witnesses the rebirth of Leatherface and manages to get a radio transmission off before she’s (literally) gutted by him.

As Leatherface makes his way back to Harlow, a charter bus full of potential investors arrives and the property auction ensues. As word of Mrs. Mc’s death makes it back to Melody via Ruth’s last text before Leatherface’s ambulance ambush, local contractor Richter (Moe Dunford) hears her and Lila talking about it and takes Melody and Dante to task for causing Mrs. Mc’s heart attack and subsequent death. He confiscates the keys to the bus and their sports car, demanding proof that they had the right to evict Mrs. Mc before he’ll give them back. Discovering they don't have the deed showing they own the orphanage after all (oops!), Melody and Dante return to the creaky home for wayward boys to find it. Elsewhere, Sally Hardesty—her long grey hair and tank top giving us immediate Laurie Strode vibes—takes a call from the local gas station clerk who received Ruth’s last radio transmission, and he informs her that Leatherface is back. She arms up and heads out, adding an awesome cowboy hat to her survivor ensemble to perfect effect.

It's not giving too much away to say that Leatherface makes his way back to Harlow in what seems like record time and resumes his titular massacre once again. There are some over-the-top set pieces here—one of them pushed to the point of pure camp—and gorehounds will delight in the plethora of practical special make-up effects. The film is lean (at one hour and twenty-three minutes) and meaner than a rabid dog in the midday Texas sun getting poked repeatedly with a big stick. It’s all a heck of a lot of fun, even if the creative forces miss the boat almost entirely with the Sally Hardesty character. What could have been an awesome final chapter for survivor Sally is reduced to a mere sidenote, largely wasting Fouéré’s considerable talent. If anything, Texas Chainsaw Massacre reminds us how very important—crucial even—writers are to what we see and experience onscreen.

No, none of the characters are particularly memorable nor do we care when it’s their turn to meet the end of Leatherface’s chainsaw. No, making this film’s Final Girl a school shooting survivor adds nothing of note to her character or the plot. No, Leatherface’s speed and agility don’t make a lick of sense in the context of his chronological age. But 2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a lot of fun despite its myriad flaws—in that kind of mindless Saturday matinee, popcorn movie kind of way.

How best to enjoy this latest entry in the venerable horror franchise? Let go and let Garcia. 

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