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'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is barely a movie

Yana Blajeva/Yana Blajeva / Legendary, Courtesy of Netflix

There’s a scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre when one of our heroes (?) is crawling underneath the floorboards to escape the wrath of Leatherface, and the killer’s chainsaw tears through the wood and severs a pipe above the young woman’s head, spilling sewage all over her face. It’s a moment that might seem juvenile in nearly any other movie, but you need to know that in this one, something juvenile would be a relief. Because that, at least, would indicate some level of inspiration, some sort of thought or intention, some small hint that there might be human beings who made this movie. As it is, this is merely something that happens, and barely that—the movie doesn’t even commit enough to this moment to make it gross, it’s just some brown sludge that spills out quickly and that we’ve forgotten about within seconds, like one single tweet among the hundreds or thousands that flash through our feed each day.

Walter Sobchak decried the nihilists for believing in nothing, but had he seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie that’s billed as a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper’s magically, manically horrifying 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he would have realized he was selling the nihilists short. To paraphrase Walter in a way he would not have approved of: say what you will about nihilism, Dude, at least it’s a viewpoint. This movie has no viewpoint, no awareness, no life, no anything. It pervasively can’t even commit to its own bit.

The title of the movie drops the definite article from the original, rendering this simply a Texas chainsaw massacre, in keeping with every other part of the film that’s brought up and immediately discarded. As we open, a group of 20-somethings, and one teenager, are entering the ghost town of Harlow. We learn two of them run a food truck and have an Instagram account, which apparently makes them influencers, or at least rich enough that they’ve bought the entire town of Harlow and plan to revitalize it by selling it off to a busload of investors who are coming that day. It’s not clear if any of these people have been to Harlow, they all seem as if they’re seeing for the first time, but that’s not what really matters, what matters is that the movie has now said “food truck” and “Instagram,” checking those items off the list of things that people have heard of these days, as that is more or less the sole purpose of the wreck that remains of whatever this screenplay once was (there is also a cancel culture “joke,” and someone mentions “late-stage capitalism,” among dozens of other hot topics). They run into a “real” Texan who carries a gun, which is surprisingly surprising to our young people, given they are also Texans, although they are Texans from Austin, which is like a whole other country, and also another thing people have heard of. But, then, maybe guns are a sensitive subject, given the teenager in the group has a scar on her chest from surviving a school shooting.

Yes, that’s right, a school shooting. But don’t worry, the movie doesn’t say anything one way or another about school shootings. It’s just one of her character traits.

One of our heroes (?) is Black, so of course we see a Confederate flag hanging on one of the buildings (another thing people talk about these days, and not without good reason, though this movie doesn’t know that, because it’s just another of its social markers), and when they go to take it down, they find an old woman living in the house, at which point they tell her she can’t live there, they own the place, and so she has a heart attack and dies, but not before tipping us off that she has an enormous, lumbering son who turns out to be Leatherface, who then goes on a killing spree. And so it goes.

It hardly seems worth it to say that this film has no concept of what made the original movie what it was, we generally expect that from horror sequels (not that we should settle, but here we are), and besides, it would be nearly impossible to recapture that kind of bizarre mayhem. But even at that, this movie works to be as generic as it possibly can. Even more than that. This isn’t even your Kroger Private Selection brand. This is the can of food in Repo Man labeled “Food.” There’s not a single, solitary reason this huge, slow (but sometimes fast!) killer should be Leatherface, it could be anyone—Jason, Michael Myers, someone we’ve never heard of. And there’s not a single moment we’ve never seen before—someone hides in a closet, someone tries to be a hero and fails, most people get murdered. No one does anything for any discernible reason, again par for the course in horror sequels, but even more so here: the bus driver stops the bus and gets off while Leatherface is chasing them, because that’s what he does. They don’t even bother to come up with an excuse for him to do it. And of course, his head comes flying back in through the bus door, although from an angle that would be physically impossible given Leatherface then walks up from quite a few feet behind the bus. No, that detail doesn’t matter, but we have to pay attention to something, and I’ll take what I can get.

What I haven’t mentioned is that while all of this is going on, the one surviving member of the original massacre (“The” Massacre) is now a grizzled old woman hellbent on finding and killing Leatherface, and all this murder on the police scanner has perked up her ears. But the fact that I’m saying this now, seven paragraphs and 900 words in, should, I hope, be an indication of the level of importance the movie also places on this character, or any character, or any thing that happens. She’s not exactly an afterthought, because that would suggest there had been a thought.

But even with all of this, had the movie just been oppressively generic, had it simply just checked the horror sequel boxes and been a lazy rundown of current social media trends, it would have been only forgettably bad. Lucky for us, it also throws in some moral repugnance. I’ve already mentioned the school shooting, which is the worst of it, probably—I would have thought we might all agree this would be the sort of thing we would avoid in drawing up a character (really, it’s her only definable trait, not that anyone else has even one of those), but no, it’s a thing in the news, so it shows up here. And yes, she runs in at one point with a gun, an assault rifle, presumably the kind of weapon that wounded her and killed her classmates. Is this cathartic? We have no idea, that’s beyond our scope here. Something else that’s important in the news is racial tension, so we touch on that just briefly, too, but fortunately as our one main Black character dies there’s an important closeup on the hand of the white “real” Texan holding the Black man’s hand, so racial unity or something.

It does all culminate in Leatherface spinning around and waving his chainsaw in the air like he did at the end of the original film, although in this case he looks a lot more like a murderous Wario celebrating victory at the Mushroom Cup, and it really only lasts a second anyway, but hey, another box checked. I could keep going, if you can believe it, but you’ve made it this far, and anyway you’ve been asking yourself this entire time why I would spend so much effort and precious digital ink on this. And it’s because of this, which I really believe: Texas Chainsaw Massacre spits in the face of everyone who’s ever worked hard on a movie, and I include the people who I’m sure worked very hard on this movie before it had whatever life it once had sucked and focus grouped out of it. This is not the kind of bad that happens when human beings make a movie, this is the kind of bad that happens when we decide robots are a replacement for human passion and thought and feeling, and even human mistakes. This is what happens when all we are looking for is “content.” And, so, to use my own cliché: that’s the thing that should really scare us.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre is on Netflix

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.