Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Reason to Kill Off the Legacy Sequel
If you’re searching for proof that the legacy sequel may be on its last legs, look no further than the beginning of 2022. As the latest rendition of Scream helpfully laid out, the most pervasive trend in cinematic IP over the past 7-10 years has been the “legacyquel” — a reboot of some classic (or maybe not so classic) property in which that film’s characters join forces with a new, young, scrappy band of heroes, typically to ignore the events of any previous sequels and instead chase nostalgic dollars while ostensibly dealing with broad themes of “trauma” or, fittingly, “legacy.” You can name any popular franchise from late ‘70s to the mid-’90s and there’s a good chance they’ve probably tried this approach over the course of the last decade: Star Wars did it, Terminator did it, and — perhaps most importantly, for the purposes of the film we're discussing — Halloween did it.
David Gordon Green’s 2018 direct sequel to the John Carpenter masterpiece — featuring a grizzled Jamie Lee Curtis as the “final girl” who’s spent the entire rest of her life preparing for the bogeyman to come back — provides not only a foundation for the new Scream to mock but the model for this month’s wretched Texas Chainsaw Massacre to desperately attempt to ape. Unfortunately, the makers of this moronic monstrosity seem to neither understand the appeal of the original film nor what made Green’s reboot work.
1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre stands as a piece of horrifying magic: a grimy, shocking, and truly horrifying vision of bloody Americana made on a shoestring budget and all the better for it. Director Tobe Hooper understood he had captured lightning in a bottle, and when given the opportunity to make a sequel choose to use the narrative and thematic bones to instead refashion villain Leatherface and his maniacal family into the stars of an over-the-top black comedy. Six other films followed, with the most recent (2017’s Leatherface) premiering to poor reviews and a bastardized VOD release. But the success of the new Halloween — itself a franchise filled with questionable sequels and reboots — clearly convinced studio executives that it didn’t make sense to let Leatherface die just yet. How very wrong they were.
Written by Chris Thomas Devlin and directed by David Blue Garcia, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (“drop the ‘the,’ it’s cleaner”) introduces us to a quartet of young gentrifiers (Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, Jacob Latimore, and Nell Hudson) traveling to a rundown Texas town with plans to auction off the various homes in the area and create a performatively trendy social scene. Turns out (shocker!) that our old friend Leatherface (Mark Burnham) still lives here with his adopted mother, and when the merry band of would-be entrepreneurs attempt to evict her, the chainsaw-wielding, face-wearing murderer has no choice but to exact revenge.
There’s a world in which this film follows in the footsteps of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, heightening its absurdist premise for laughs, but instead the choice has been inexplicably made to play this baffling story completely straight, with naught but a smattering of stale “how do you do, fellow kids”-style one-liners that make an audience member wish they too could be put out of their misery through dismemberment. Most incredulously (a high bar to clear here), the tendency for so many horror films lately to half-ass a “well, actually, it’s about trauma” metaphor has led to a B-plot in which Elsie Fisher plays a character who (a) survived a school shooting, (b) becomes vaguely obsessed with Texas gun culture, and (c) has to ultimately take up the very literal Chekov’s gun — besides having no depth to this usage of real-life tragedy, the film somehow manages to not only have Leatherface act as a stand-in for a school shooter, but then also imply that he’s justified. In more capable hands you can get away with one of those, but I’m not sure even the greatest filmmakers alive could make both of those concepts mesh, and certainly not in a film as hackneyed as this one.
But the real key to understanding Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s desperate desire to be the next Halloween is in its other most misguided decision. As Leatherface is wreaking havoc on traumatized teens and meme investors, we learn that Sally Hardesty — the original film’s final girl, as played by Marilyn Burns — has become a Texas Ranger (sure) and dedicated her life to (unsuccessfully) hunting down the killer who murdered her friends nearly 50 years ago. The analog to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode couldn’t be more clear, but the idea is borderline nonsensical in how badly it misunderstands the appeal of these legacy sequels.
You see, Marilyn Burns — who popped up briefly in two of the other Texas Chainsaw reboot attempts — sadly passed away in 2014, leaving her role to be played by Olwen Fouéré. No disrespect to Fouéré (a well-regarded Irish actor), but these legacy characters simply don’t matter in a vacuum: any magic there is comes from actors returning to characters they defined, bringing with them decades of experience to contribute to a reimagining. From a character standpoint, Sally Hardesty was no Laurie Strode to begin with; pulling in a replacement and expecting us to have the same reaction we did to Curtis (or Linda Hamilton, or Harrison Ford, or…) isn’t just misguided, it hamstrings the entire project, creating a sense of narrative laziness that pervades the whole production — even the handful of interesting shots in the movie are lifted wholesale from the original in a manner that I’m sure is meant to be homage but merely comes across as patronizing and unimaginative.
This isn’t to say that characters and the stories they inhabit can’t live on throughout the years, revisited and revitalized with the changing times. But there has to be a reason, at least some inkling of creative inspiration that justifies another trip to the well. It doesn’t have to be much, but it has to exist — otherwise, you wind up with what we see here: a piece of moviemaking that insults both its audience and the progenitors that it claims to so deeply respect.