Netflix’s revival of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise has arrived, bringing Leatherface to the present day – Here’s our review.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre occupies a strange place in the pantheon of iconic slasher franchises. Tobe Hooper’s sweaty masterpiece of an original came out in 1974, pre-dating the genre’s other household names by a good few years. As such, Leatherface doesn’t have quite the same cachey as Freddy, Jason or Michael. He doesn’t even have a first name for starters.
When Hooper finally made a sequel at the height of the mid-80s slasher boom, it was a weird, idiosyncratic quasi-comedy rather than another standard dose of teens-in-peril brutality. Multiple studios have since owned the rights to the character of Leatherface, and each have taken a stab at rebooting the character, which is now a mess of convoluted and contradictory canon. The ludicrous Texas Chainsaw 3D in 2013 brought back original killer Gunnar Hansen and his final girl Marilyn Burns – both have since passed away – while the messy origin tale Leatherface went straight to DVD in the UK back in 2017.
A year later, Legendary Pictures snapped up the rights and hired Fede Álvarez, who did a stellar job with the 2013 Evil Dead remake, to direct a new take on the character. Álvarez ultimately ceded the director’s chair to David Blue Garcia, but retains a “story by” credit alongside his regular writing partner Rodo Sayagues, and the movie migrated to Netflix.
Waving its severed hand at all of the tangled and unnecessary backstory of the Sawyer clan, this new film instead casts Leatherface (Mark Burnham) as the adult final resident of an orphanage in the Texas ghost town of Harlow. When a group of privileged city folk arrive with the aim of transforming the town into a modern, sustainable utopia – one local refers to them as “gentri-fuckers” – a tragic event causes the enraged Leatherface to snap and reach for the power tools.
The concept at the core of the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an interesting one, and there’s certainly a degree of nuance to how the Gen-Z gentrifiers are portrayed. They’re clearly clueless and ignorant to the struggles of communities outside their metropolitan bubble, but their decisions are driven by a genuine desire to help make things better. “We’re idealistic individuals who want to build a better world,” says Melody (Sarah Yarkin) as she butts heads with gun-toting local handyman Richter (Moe Dunford). It’s not an empty platitude either – they’re likeable young people who genuinely believe what they say.
Indeed, it’s an innocent mistake from the group which triggers Leatherface’s rampage – and Melody is mortified when she discovers her and her pals might have been in the wrong with some of their actions. Morality and reason don’t apply to Leatherface, though, who is wisely portrayed here as the silent killing machine of the original movie rather than anything more complex. Notably, when he eventually crosses paths with the returning final girl Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, replacing Burns and doing her best karaoke of Jamie Lee Curtis from the recent Halloween revival), he doesn’t even remember who she is.
There’s no attempt here to twist and revamp the slasher formula or to say something substantial beyond the broad, muddled points about gentrification and privilege. A subplot about the characters’ attitude to gun control – Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher plays Melody’s sister Lila, a school shooting survivor – is particularly ill-served by the plot and would arguably come across as NRA propaganda were it not in service of third-act slasher silliness rather than a serious argument. It would be a mistake to read too much into Garcia’s film given Chris Thomas Devlin’s script has about as much depth as a baking tray.
The interest here lies in the violent set pieces, which Garcia helms with grubby aplomb. Much of the gore effects are visibly practical rather than rendered via drab crimson pixels and there’s a perverse delight to the bludgeoning, stabbing and hacking Leatherface is able to carry out. The film’s decision to introduce a bus of unengaged, hedonistic rich folks seems solely motivated by the desire to give Leatherface some bodies to slice through in a truly nasty sequence halfway through. Our core group of characters are given a bit more in the way of personality, with Fisher doing solid work in a mercurial role that positions her alongside Sally as a survivor of trauma.
Wisely, there’s no baggage here for those who aren’t familiar with the franchise. Sally’s survival in 1974 is outlined via an opening news report – voiced by the original film’s terrifying narrator John Larroquette in a nice nod for fans – and her involvement is not as substantial as it might seem from the trailers. In fact, the only other significant wink to Hooper’s horror classic is in a smart reworking of the iconic, chainsaw-swinging ending, which comes as a genuinely shocking surprise.
The slasher is coming roaring back on screens both big and small, whether it’s the aforementioned Halloween trilogy, the recent return of Scream or Netflix’s own Fear Street triptych. And in many ways, a film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre is ideally suited for a streaming platform – an undemanding and entertaining gore-fest which clocks in at a group-watch-friendly 85 minutes. It’s a “legacyquel” made for an audience which isn’t that bothered by legacy. If they just want to watch a gargantuan man in a skin mask wave a Black & Decker around like he’s a murderous majorette, they’re in luck.
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