Not only is Texas Chainsaw 3D the best release in the franchise since the high watermark of the 2003 remake, but it’s the closest that any film in the cycle comes to a traditional slasher exercise. This version starts with a direct continuation of Tobe Hooper’s original, in which the entire Sawyer clan is murdered by a police posse with the exception of Heather, a baby, who is adopted by a local family. The film proper begins about twenty years later, when Heather, played by Alexandra Daddario returns to her home town of Newt to discover that she has inherited the Saywer property, albeit without any clear sense of its history. Along with the group of friends she has brought with her, and a hitchhiker she picks up along the way, she discovers Leatherface as her sole surviving kin, a legacy of what occurred to and in her family.
Ever since the 2003 version, directors have tried to match its unremitting austerity and have largely failed. They have attempted this in a variety of different ways – by drawing on torture horror at its height, in 2006’s The Beginning; by recruiting two of the figureheads of the New French Extremity, in 2017’s Leatherface; and by incorporating social media, in 2022’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is set in the present moment. From a distance, the 3D technology of this 2013 film might seem to be a part of that pattern – a way of amping up the shock, gore and spectacle of it all. Up to a certain point, this is indeed the project of the film, which opens with a credit sequence in which iconic scenes from the original are rendered in 3D, in a blow-by-blow precis of its most gruesome moments. Likewise, there are a few moments when weapons, extremities and viscera are projected towards the camera, such as an opening shot of meat being pushed through a grinder towards a lens in the local abattoir.
For the most part, however, director John Luessenhop uses 3D to build mood rather than as a discrete effect – specifically, by overlaying the grindhouse lexicon of the franchise with the hyperreal sense of space peculiar to the 90s neo-slasher film. This explains the strange temporality of Texas Chainsaw 3D, which unfolds in a diffuse space of second-order nostalgia for the 90s reimagination of the 70s slasher. By all accounts, Heather, our protagonist, is no more than about twenty-five, which means that the narrative should be set in the mid to late 90s, given that she was only a baby when the events of the original film transpired. Yet there are also clear trappings of the present throughout the screenplay, most notably the use of smart phones, along with small touches of fashion and body language that situate the action in the early 10s. Texas Chainsaw 3D thus occupies the dawning awareness, in the early 10s, that nostalgia is now possible for the twenty-year anniversaries of classic slasher franchises in the late 90s, such as Halloween H20, which is where this film ultimately feels most at home.
Above and beyond that diffuse temporality, Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms’ screenplay just feels like a 90s slasher film. Rather than travelling cross-country by car or by foot, as occur in most other Texas Chainsaw instalments, the characters here spend most of their time stationed in the Sawyer mansion, which is thoroughly refurbished, gentrified, gated and scrubbed of even the most residually revolting textures of the earlier films – more like a Southern mansion listed on Airbnb than a sprawling hick farmstead. Rather than the Sawyers luring the characters into the house, the characters (and camera) explore different parts of the house, resulting in a fair number of jump scares and frantic chases. Leatherface, too, feels more like a masked intruder than a real resident, and largely eschews his traditional arsenal, using his trademark hooks more like a slasher’s knife, and showing only an occasional interest in the chainsaw, much as the film as a whole is largely disinterested in torture-inflected gore.
This results in two features that are quite unusual for this horror franchise – a genuine sense of playfulness and authentic narrative intrigue. Most of the time, the Texas Chainsaw films are too grim to be truly playful, with even their campier moments largely playing as just a different kind of ugliness, most notably in the closing act of The Next Generation. Here, however, the sense of play is quite buoyant and artful, often recalling the self-referentiality of the Scream franchise in particular. At one point, Leatherface breaks out of the woods into a fairground, where he sees a kid dressed up as him, in an echo of the simulacrum of Woodsboro in Scream 3. The whole rhythm of this scene underscores another point of difference in Texas Chainsaw 3D – namely, that Leatherface periodically emerges and then recedes into the night, in the manner of a slasher, rather than embarking on a single chase.
Such dramatic changes to the architecture of the franchise also mean that there’s an uncharacteristic amount of narrative intrigue here too. While Hooper’s original presented us with a fresh story, most of the other films have followed the same blueprint, meaning the point of the franchise doesn’t tend to be narrative complication so much as a dreadful and sinking prescience of what is to come. By contrast, Texas Chainsaw 3D raises a number of interesting questions – about Heather’s parents, about the fate of the Sawyer clan, and about the twenty-year ellipsis for Leatherface himself, who has spent most of this time living in a room in the cellar of the mansion. These narrative tensions come full circle and end where they begin – with the opening standoff between the Sawyers and the police posse. Much of the film’s intrigue stems from the overlap between these two versions of white decline – inbred and ignorant hicks on one hand, good old boys on the other – and the misidentification of the two, along with the difficulty of classifying most of the film’s major characters, imbues Texas Chainsaw 3D witha freshness, relevance and originality that makes it the best since 2003.