It’s easy to see why filmmakers keep trying to build a franchise around Leatherface, the hulking masked maniac first introduced in the 1974 splatter classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Chucky — or even like Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula — Leatherface has a familiar name and a ghoulish visage, highly marketable to fright fans. If there were a Mount Rushmore of horror-movie villains, Leatherface would be on it.
Yet for nearly four decades now — from the first Chainsaw sequel in 1986 to Netflix’s new film, confusingly titled Texas Chainsaw Massacre — the idea of a Leatherface series has never really caught on. Every few years, it seems, someone takes a shot at rebooting or restarting the whole Chainsaw cinematic universe, with the intention of making multiple installments. When the whole project inevitably fizzles, another set of writers, directors, and producers comes on board and starts over again.
Netflix’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a large creative team, not all of whom were involved from start to finish. The major names to know are Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues, who co-wrote the story and are among the movie’s producers. (Newcomer Chris Thomas Devlin is the credited screenwriter, while David Blue Garcia is the director, having taken over mid-production from Andy and Ryan Tohill.) Álvarez and Sayagues previously collaborated on the well-received 2013 Evil Dead reboot, and on the first two entries in the Don’t Breathe series. If there’s a theme uniting their work — this Chainsaw included — it has to do with broken and abandoned spaces, and the sometimes shifty people who nestle deep within them.
The new film stars Elsie Fisher (best-known as the heartbreakingly optimistic eighth grader in Eighth Grade) as Lila, a moody teen who joins her sister Melody (Sarah Yarkin) and their foodie friend Dante (Jacob Latimore) on a trip to the dinky, devastated Texas town of Harlow, where these entrepreneurial young folks have purchased some run-down real estate in hopes of establishing an affordable hipster haven. When they arrive, they’re surprised to find that one of the dirt-cheap old homes they thought they bought is still occupied by an addled old lady, who really doesn’t want to leave.
The senior citizen, it turns out, is the mother of Leatherface (Marc Burnham); and when these cocky kids cause his mom’s health to go downhill, the angry lug embarks on a rampage that has him hacking his way through several of Melody and Dante’s visiting West Coast tech bros and influencers. Leatherface’s return also draws one of his old victims out of her seclusion: Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré), the lone survivor of the 1974 Massacre, who has been training herself for a rematch ever since. This Texas Chainsaw Massacre is intended as a direct sequel to the first film, set in a world where the massacre itself has become an infamous murder-mystery, covered in a TV true-crime documentary narrated by the original movie’s narrator, John Larroquette.
The 1974 Chain Saw — the only one where “chain” and “saw” are separated in the title — was directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Hooper with Kim Henkel, working with a cast of Austin-area hippies and theater kids. Hooper was looking to break into Hollywood with a cheap drive-in movie that would double as a commentary on how Vietnam-era America had become numb to violence. He and Henkel tell a simple, almost folktale-like story about Sally (played by the late Marilyn Burns) and her friends visiting the old Hardesty family estate and inadvertently stumbling across a nearby house owned by an eccentric clan of cannibals, including the savage Leatherface (the late Gunnar Hansen).
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is grubby, relentless, and genuinely shocking, thanks in part to a few good “trust nobody” twists, akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Both Psycho and Chain Saw are very loosely inspired by the real-life crimes of the rural Wisconsin grave-robber and murderer Ed Gein.) Hooper and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson took a different approach with 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, making a bigger-budget horror-comedy that amped up both the gore and the social satire. The first sequel offers a wildly imaginative vision of Texas as an anything-goes libertarian wonderland, where dangerous weirdos are largely left alone by their neighbors and allowed to build mini-empires out in the sticks.
The Chainsaw movies since then have been a motley lot. Most of them have continued Hooper and company’s cockeyed commentary on Texas culture, and all have centered Leatherface, a mute man-child wearing a mask made out of human skin. All five of the films made in the 21st century — including the new one — have also followed the modern horror franchise trend of trying to reassemble the fractured narrative pieces of the earlier pictures into something like a mythology.
In the case of the Álvarez/Sayagues Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that means bringing Sally back. That choice ultimately feels tacked-on and unoriginal — and too reminiscent of the recent Halloween movies’ attempts to turn their original Final Girl into the villain’s most formidable opponent. Sally isn’t really a full-fledged character, she’s just a symbol.
A lot about this Chainsaw is under-realized and messy — perhaps because of the project’s convoluted shoot, which saw the original directors axed one week into production in Bulgaria. The final version of the film, directed by Garcia, packs a lot of characters, subplots, and backstory into its 83 minutes, and very few are essential. Beyond Sally’s return, the movie has Lila coping with PTSD from a mass shooting she survived, Moe Dunford playing a local redneck who reluctantly helps out Dante and his team of idealistic gentrifiers, and a busload of visiting Californians who respond to their first glimpse of Leatherface by pulling out their cell phones and live-streaming. None of these ideas stick around long enough to develop into anything meaningful. The film’s social commentary — including a bit where the new kids in Harlow are offended by a prominently displayed Confederate flag — is more glancing than hard-hitting.
To be fair, the cell phone gag is pretty funny, and it’s matched elsewhere by other clever, memorable moments. For gorehounds looking for vicious kills, Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a few good ones, including a bit where Leatherface breaks a man’s arm and then stabs him in the neck with the shattered bone. The filmmakers also ape the original by throwing in a few Psycho-esque curveballs, including one that’s a real doozy.
But to what end, all this mayhem? The idea of young folks buying and renovating a ghost town feels like an extension of what Álvarez and Sayagues did with Don’t Breathe and Don’t Breathe 2, both of which are set in economically ravaged Detroit neighborhoods where even the heroes were criminals. And the idea that Leatherface would carve up these interlopers is classic Chainsaw, looping back to Hooper’s darkly ironic take on “Don’t Mess with Texas.”
That simple concept, though — blithely arrogant outsiders getting their comeuppance at the hands of lawless yokels — is muddied up by the same tedious world-building agenda that bogs down nearly every post-Hooper Chainsaw movie. Like so many filmmakers before them, the creators behind this Texas Chainsaw Massacre have come into this project intending to build something lasting, something other people can use as a foundation for more movies. And once again, they have found that Leatherface is just too freaky, vicious, and downright cussed to be any team’s franchise player.
The 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre is streaming on Netflix now.