The return of Leatherface, the Ed Gein-inspired mass murderer who’s never happier than when he’s chainsawing nubile youngsters in half, might not be much of a return for hardcore horror fans (he’s been in at least one film every decade since the 70s, the last as recently as 2017) but in Netflix’s new franchise restarter, he’s back with a particularly modern brand of vengeance. Following in the sluggish footsteps of Michael Myers, who stabbed his way back to relevance in 2018 after we were insisted upon to ignore the mostly heinous Halloween sequels (H20 remains an underrated bright spot) and allow for a clean slate, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series is going down a similar retcon route.
Rather than expecting us to have endured the three direct sequels, the remake, the prequel to that remake and the 3D sequel to the original that had previously tried to ignore the other sequels (and the prequel that then came after), the makers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre only ask that our knowledge be as simple as the back-to-basics title. It has never been a series steeped in particularly complex mythology – a silent lug kills and cuts up outsiders while wearing a mask made of human skin – but the exhausting attempts to resurrect and retell have expanded and confused the universe to a point of exasperated weariness. There’s been a similarly messy route to the screen for this latest iteration – an early Covid shoot, a change of director after production began, rumours of unimpressed test audiences, a big screen release cancelled, a sell-off to Netflix – enough to make one wonder if it’s time to retire, disable and bury the chainsaw for good.
But against considerable odds, a very, very low bar has been met and then shuffled over with this mostly effective and incredibly nasty update, a jolting little slasher that should repulse and satisfy those with a suitably depraved idea of what they are clicking into.
It is almost 50 years since a group of teens were brutally murdered by Leatherface, a refresher provided by OG narrator John Laroquette in the opening scene, served with a reminder that the massacre was survived by Sally (now played by acclaimed Irish stage actor Olwen Fouéré after Marilyn Burns died in 2014), who has been trying to track down the killer of her friends ever since.
Melody (Sarah Yarkin) and Dante (Jacob Latimore) are bullish San Francisco-based Gen Zs, heading south for a business opportunity who have purchased the derelict town of Harlow with the idea of auctioning off retail space and turning it into a hipster haven for those bored of big city life (a local refers to them as “gentri-fuckers”). But on arrival, with Melody’s sister (Eighth Grade breakout Elsie Fisher) and Dante’s girlfriend (Nell Hudson) they encounter a resident who refuses to be turfed out, a former orphanage-runner (Alice Krige) who insists that she still retains the deed for her property and so will not be going anywhere. A stand-off ensues, albeit a short-lived one when the elderly woman collapses, being rushed to hospital with her one mysterious grown-up charge alongside. But when she dies on the journey there, all hell breaks loose.
It will not take a series expert to figure out who her grown-up charge turns out to be and what might be on his mind as he returns to the town but it’s a little foggier as to who exactly we should be rooting for as blood and guts hit the fan. The script, from up-and-coming horror writer Chris Thomas Devlin (who has two Seth Rogen-produced films in the offing) views the invading twentysomethings as thoughtlessly disrespectful rather than maliciously so, but makes it clear that theirs is a situation of their own making (they make for an incredibly hard-to-empathise with ensemble). He’s not exactly asking us to cheer Leatherface on as he dispatches them in a variety of disgusting ways but each death is backgrounded with the knowledge that this really didn’t need to happen. Never is this clearer than in a much-ridiculed trailer scene, where a party bus of potential investors decide to film Leatherface on their phone so he can get cancelled, rather than, you know, try to run away. It’s as remarkably stupid as it sounds and the ebulliently vile, shockingly staged carnage that follows feels tailor-made for eye-rolling older viewers, even if some original fans might find the brief lapse into absurdist comedy a little jarring.
The limp return of Sally, a shameless piece of post-Halloween remodelling, is mostly a dud, the character never really meaning much to us in the first place, and instead, Devlin tries to give his film heart through Fisher’s troubled sister. But her backstory – a school shooting survivor – and journey – her phobia of guns is overcome in order to take on Leatherface – is in quite astonishingly poor taste, a nasty taste in the mouth that feels closer to NRA propaganda than Texas Chainsaw sequel. It doesn’t help that Fisher is also an unlikely fit, the same out-of-place awkwardness that made her so very perfect in Eighth Grade making her feel simply miscast here.
In a breathlessly brutal 83-minute runtime, there’s little time for thinking, probably for the best, given the thinness of the material and some of the mistakes made within it, but first-time director David Blue Garcia finds ample time for suspense, making the most of his unique location and milking just about enough seat-edge frights from the reheated ingredients. It’s staggeringly gory, following on from last year’s equally sadistic Halloween Kills, but also sprightly enough for it not to feel too grim (an attention-grabbing final shock is both horrendous and hilarious).
In a franchise that has been close to death for many years, it doesn’t take much for Texas ’22 to shock it back to life.