The 2022 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may not be the worst film in the franchise – that title probably belongs to Leatherface, the previous release – but in many ways it is the most depressing. Together, the two films suggest that the franchise has reached its end point, and that only a radical reimagination can bring it back to life now. To its credit, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does try to do something different, in line with the last two releases, Leatherface and Texas Chainsaw 3D, all of which moved away from the narrative formula of the series, which found its last classical expression in 2006’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. The 2022 version is a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper’s original and is one of the very few films in the franchise that is conspicuously contemporaneous with the period in which it was filmed. In Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues’ screenplay, Leatherface was never caught and has been living off the grid for forty years, while his home town of Harlow sinks into poverty that is only slightly offset by the Leatherface tourism industry that has emerged.
However, the biggest innovation here is that we’re presented with a distinct new victim pool – hipsters, rather than hippies, a cabal of influencers who are planning to make over Harlow as a hip new urban exclave to combat the rising price of living in the big city. The two main entrepreneurs are Melody, played by Sarah Yarkin, and Dante, played by Jacob Latimore, who arrive in Harlow at the start of the film, where they prepare it for a busload of influencer-investors who are arriving later in the day. Declaiming “behold the joys of late-stage capitalism,” they introduce themselves to the wary townsfolk as “idealistic individuals who want to build a better world” and blithely outline their plans for funky restaurants, conceptual art galleries, and comic book stores, all while clad in twee vintage clothes that could be hand-me-downs from these impoverished Harlow locals, who see them as little more than “smug, self-righteous, rich city folk.” The stage is set for an influencer apocalypse along the lines of the Fyre Festival, especially when Melody and Dante find that their prospective home is still occupied by its former tenant, forcing them to kick her out, and reclaim the foreclosed property, unaware of the fact that her younger carer is Leatherface, played by Mark Burnham.
As that might suggest, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes with a bit of a sulky, snarky vibe, and sometimes reads as if it was written by a Twitter Film committee, especially in the early encounters between the hipsters and Leatherface: “Try anything and you’re canceled bro.” Yet the film acutely evokes the experience, unique to millennials, of being squeezed between unbearably precarious digital and physical public spheres. On the one hand, the main characters are minutely attuned to micro-aggressions and anything that remotely betokens violence, greeting an ancient Confederate flag as every bit as visually traumatic as the ultra-gore of the original film. On the other hand, these characters also live in a world in which physical violence is a continual possibility – in fact Lila, Melody’s sister, played by Elsie Fisher, is one of the sole survivors of a school shooting, condensed to a few harrowing flashbacks.
This convergence of impossibly precarious physical and digital public spheres produces the most powerful set piece in the film. As Leatherface starts his spree, a massive storm hits, forcing the influencers onto the bus that brought them to Harlow, which they transform into an ersatz nightclub. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Leatherface also enters the bus, and slaughters the influencers one by one, in what would be a pretty bald allegory for mass shootings on public transport (it prompts a flashback to the school shooting) if director David Blue Garcia weren’t so deft at capturing the volatile affect of American public space. With thirty people on board, there are more than enough resources to attack Leatherface in a coordinated manner, but everyone is too stunned and disoriented to overpower him, ushering in the dream-like dissociation of mass shooting as it is happening in real time. There are hints here of the grim fatalism of the Final Destination franchise, and its futile obsession with pre-empting disaster before it occurs, as well as its gnawing suspicion any survival is fleeting: “You know I was supposed to die in the school that day, so Death followed me here.”
Ironically, the only weapon these millennials have at their disposal is the fact that they have survived this new public sphere. Even then, they need a Boomer supplement in the form of Sally Hardesty, the sole survivor of Tobe Hooper’s original, played now by Olwen Fouere, who draws on Jamie Lee Curtis’ vigilante grandma turn in David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy with a touch of Linda Hamilton’s butch intensity in Terminator: Dark Fate. Yet even her charisma – “fifty years I been waiting for this night” – is over before it’s begun, leaving the film without much to go on as its third act becomes flatter and flatter. In this final third, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre starts to devolve into the depressing emptiness of a certain kind of made-for-streaming film – the lack of any metaphysics of presence, as the film itself tacitly acknowledges by starting with DVD footage, and ending in an abandoned movie theatre, but never quite allowing itself to engage with contemporary media, apart from a half-hearted live-streaming sequence. Perhaps that’s why there’s more stabbing and cutting than any other film in the franchise, as if Garcia is trying against all the odds to recreate the plosive impact of the 1974 original – or simply attempting to summon the audience’s attention in a modern streaming ecology and attention economy where there’s always something else on.