The day after it came out, I saw the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Netflix (about 2 weeks ago).
Yes, I know that it has been utterly pilloried. A dismal 32% critic rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and an even worse 30% audience score.
That 70% is wrong. It was a good horror film and a much better than average entry into this very uneven franchise.
I’m going to sound like what George Romero called a troll (not an internet troll, but rather the types of guys who prefer Day of the Dead over Dawn)…I liked that Sally was killed by Leatherface at the end of the new film.
What sets TCM apart from other slasher franchises is the utter bleakness. It’s not the goriest. In some ways it’s not even the scariest (although the first one certainly is scary, and number 2 has that extended scene at the radio studio that is quite intense). But it is, to me, the bleakest franchise (there are *one-off slashers which come close or even surpass in bleakness, but never a whole franchise).
What’s going on in the first film is simply incredible. Let me illustrate by encapsulating it this way:
There is a family of insane cannibals who can’t interact normally with other humans in the middle of Texas, that sell humans as barbecue, and have done so for generations, and by the time of the first film, no one even knows they exist. They talk about how grampa was “the best” at killing. The murder count over the decades could be in the hundreds, possibly the thousands. Talk about bleak. It’s an incredibly inventive and dark horror film.
At the end of the first film, the sense I get from Leatherface’s famous flailing is NOT (as most people suppose) that he’s angrily thrashing because she got away. No, it’s because now their secret will be known! Leatherface isn’t smart, but he’s clever like a spider with a trap. He knows enough to know that no one can ever know what his family does. And indeed, the premise of most of the other films in the franchise includes the idea that this terrible event happened in 1974, but no one discovered where it happened so no one found the killer. Yes, the implication is that no one had EVER gotten away from the family before. Talk about bleak…
Flash back to the new film, it makes the bleakness complete, in my mind that Sally spent her life seeking to kill Leatherface and she still failed after all that time!
I don’t want all horror films to have such bleak endings, but I think this was the right one for TCM. I would not want this to be set up as another Halloween (2018) where Sally is like Laurie Strode in the new films as the constant protagonist and so as the audience we know she’s safe (at least until the last film). By killing Sally it retains the grimness that TCM needs for a good film (this is why, for example, TCM Next Gen. and TCM 2013 were the biggest failures – they lacked this crucial element).
The new entry to the franchise wasn’t perfect, though. I had an interesting conversation about the franchise with a few folks. I told them I thought it was pretty good, but I had two major issues with it:
- No cannibalism. Just killing. And the cannibal angle is really critical to TCM.
- No family! It’s just Leatherface. While I love him as a great horror icon, I always loved the family aspect. In fact, in the first film, I think I like the dad and brother even more than Leatherface. Same with the first sequel, where the craziness of the family together is what makes the whole film (and the first sequel remains my second favorite after the original).
To be fair, as my father replied to these criticisms I had, family is crucial to the story of the new film. Without the relationship between Leatherface and his mother there is no story. But that’s it – just two of them, and one is gone before the halfway point.
In any case, setting those two issues aside, as a horror film it’s great.
I also liked that the Texas rednecks were all good guys and not portrayed as stupid (contrary to their common depictions from Hollywood). Before watching it I had read some folks’ reactions that it was too “woke” for them, but I don’t think so. I think it was pretty apolitical, and while the main characters were the types of folks who might be characterized as “woke”, it wasn’t in your face, nor preachy. I think the characters were accurately portrayed modern young folks, and it worked for me to create real characters I could imagine. The cultural clashes worked for me, is what I’m saying.
When I was younger, I was often far more smug and pretentious regarding horror films (i.e., I generally disdained sequels and franchises preferring original films). But perhaps due to the fact that I’ve now seen SO much horror, and at a certain point you need to watch the endless sequels and reboots since you’ve seen all the others……….long story short…I really hope Netflix (or someone) makes another TCM entry to follow this one!
*Examples of very bleak one-off slashers:
Headless (2015) which was harder to watch than Cannibal Ferox
Black Christmas (1974) which is just chilling, especially given that you never know who the killer is, and he’s never caught. It just ends.