If psychotronic cinema, or, when you get down to it, any cinema, is about experience then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre must be one of the greatest movies of all time. It is an unrelenting, exhausting, almost total-body experience; be it during its moments to shocking terror, its nightmarish social observations, its frequently disjointed surrealist turns, or its nihilistic horror spectacular. Even its soundtrack, which for the final third of the movie is dominated by the constant screams of its Final Girl being dredged through a stygian hellscape, is an emotive and evocative tour de force.
Obviously, it’s not to everyone’s tastes and the bulk of its greatness comes from pushing the boundaries of genre conventions, seeking to indulge the worst excesses of exploitation cinema, budget and talent constraints, and just plain dumb luck. But it is a singular, majestic vision that few have come close to matching. Especially its sequels, which for the most part cranked up the gore they thought was in the original and pissed away the cultural commentary that they clearly thought was an irrelevancy. So, when I heard (in the same week it was being released) that Texas Chainsaw Massacre* was coming out I was filled with indifference towards it.
Then I spotted it on Netflix, draped across the front page as its big welcoming offering, and it was Friday night and it would be rude not to.
Ten minutes into the movie, I thought it was everything I had been looking for since I first saw the original and then I sought out its equally batshit crazy, but heading relentlessly towards self-parody, 80s follow-ups. It has absolutely amazing themes; touching on things like gentrification and gun control but using them to ask broader questions about the assumptive nature of people and how social conflict can be rational but based on bad faith. It had sparks of the original setup but used them to create a contemporary dynamic rather than fuel nostalgia. And it had a Leatherface that we could feel actual, honest to god sympathy for. This wasn’t a monster, this was a man driven to monstrous acts by misfortune. This was almost as cool as the Nightmare On Elm Street reboot where Freddy was innocent, until the producers clearly bottled that brave train of thought…
We have a core cast of teenagers, played by an incredible cast of Elsie Fisher, Jacob Latimore, Sarah Yarkin, and Nell Hudson. They are tight, as friends and family need to be, but individual and with the kind of butting egos that friends and family actually have. We have the locals, fronted by an impeccably manly but emotionally complex Moe Dunford and we have a meat-mountain of a villain, played perfectly by Mark Burnham. It was possibly the best cast in the series because everyone works so well together; there have clearly been talented performers in previous episodes but never with everyone so well matched.
And then the killing started.
And it was good.
Oh my, it was very good. It was big, it was bloody, it was inventive, it was cruel, and it made me laugh at the sheer audacity of it. Every moment of it was charnel house derangement; a Loony Tune writ in easily perished flesh. It started big, and it got bigger; like a ballet of physically improbable destruction. There was a beat, a tempo to its madness. Some kind of primal, inner logic that made me, the outsider, feel terror and amusement. The previous 30 minutes of plot and character and tension were about to be hoist upon a petard of spinning, rending steel. It was a worthy, timely successor.
And then, like a gazelle gracefully jumping into the blades of a stationary woodchipper, it was gone and all that was left was a dull red mist. It was back to the lump hammer over-violence, commentary in crayon, and predictable twists and turns. It was no longer a nightmare, it was a roller-coaster. I can’t quite explain when the switch happened, but it was definitely before Leatherface chainsawed a bunch of yuppies who were too busy live-streaming their own demise to run away and my eyes started rolling.
The visual style was still there, but I just felt far less engaged and excited. Leatherface was no longer any kind of cipher, he was, at best, Jaws in human form and, at worst, a slanderous misrepresentation of neurological disabilities. He was drabber, and the violence he spewed forth was contractually obligated. The rest of the cast tried their best as before, but their character traits were now survivor or victim, and there was no logic or message from how that was decided. It went from intriguing to very well executed inevitability, no longer courting with subversions of expectations but just ticking off the choicest of tropes.
Thankfully, the film clocked in under the 90-minute mark so it never outstayed its welcome, the violence stayed creative, and there were just enough plot twists to keep it just on the Treasure side. But mostly it was coasting on the first 30 minutes when it really tried to think about what it could be. It never got weak enough to be “Bad”; if you want something playfully violent and playground sadistic then it does the job quite well and people who don’t find other people getting ripped up by a range of commercial appliances an engaging pastime will get nothing from it. I can’t say I hated it, but I can’t say I’d be bothered to watch it again or check out a sequel. It just never managed to live up to its own potential, and somewhere there is a brave, exciting version of this film that could have been if the makers of this hadn’t bottled their brave train of thought.