By Greg Maki
You just can’t keep a good slasher down. Or even one that appeared in a classic, genre-defining film nearly half a century ago and, in the decades since, has turned up in a bunch of underwhelming sequels, prequels and remakes.
Old Leatherface—emphasis on “old”—is back in the ninth installment of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise, creatively titled “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Even though he must be at least a septuagenarian by now and seems to have been keeping a low, bloodless profile in the ghost town of Harlow, Texas, he’s as efficient and brutal a killing machine as he was when Sally Hardesty and her friends wandered onto his family’s property all those years ago. (Like the latest “Halloween” pictures, this “Texas Chainsaw” ignores all the other films and plays as a direct sequel to the original … which 2013’s “Texas Chainsaw 3D” also did. Continuity has never been a strong suit of this franchise.)
The victims-to-be this time are a group of young entrepreneurs who have invested in the abandoned town with the hope of auctioning it off to create a hip and trendy—aka gentrified—new destination. (The subtext of Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film is text here.) A hiccup comes in the form of an old lady (Alice Krige) who refuses to leave the former orphanage where she’s been living. A bigger—much, much bigger—hiccup comes when the hulking man she’s been caring for there turns out to be none other than the world’s most ardent power tool enthusiast, Leatherface (Mark Burnham) himself.
Obviously, we all know where this is going: Blood will be spilled, and a chainsaw will always start on the first pull. Yet against all odds, the filmmakers—led by producer Fede Álvarez (the 2013 “Evil Dead” remake, “Don’t Breathe”) and director David Blue Garcia—succeed in creating a fair amount of tension, through both sheer brutality—the bus scene is absolutely savage—and creating a set of “protagonists” we kinda sorta care about. Strangely, I don’t count the returning Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouere, replacing the late Marilyn Burns) among their number. Maybe it’s the too strong 2018 “Halloween” vibes she gives off, or perhaps it’s that the original film was so disinterested in character development that her story fails to resonate now. There’s also the not small factor that Fouere is no Jamie Lee Curtis, though to be fair, this “Texas Chainsaw” script doesn’t provide her the opportunity to be.
We care most for Lila (Elsie Fisher), dragged seven hours from her Austin, Texas, home to the middle of nowhere by big sister Melody (Sarah Yarkin). Lila brings perfectly reasonable emotional baggage as the survivor of a school shooting, and I can’t decide whether this aspect of the character is exploitative or merely timely. Fisher plays the trauma well, though, particularly in her interactions with Richter (Moe Dunford), a gun-loving mechanic who the group has hired as a local contractor.
Visually, with its stylized, golden hues, the movie takes its cues more from the 2003 remake than the grungy original. It also ignores Hooper’s less is more approach to violence, with buckets of blood and gore spilling out onto the screen, but hey, if you want to dismember a bunch of people with a chainsaw, you’re gonna get your hands dirty. The squeamish aren’t going to show up for this one anyway, and the movie plays to its audience.
Even after all these years and multiple attempts to “explain” him, Leatherface remains an imposing, terrifying figure. It’s unlikely that anything could match what Hooper accomplished in 1974. Familiarity and the sensibilities of modern audiences simply won’t allow that. This, then, is about as strong a sequel as can be expected in 2022. When Leatherface inevitably returns, Álvarez and his team have earned a chance to sink their meat hooks into this franchise again.
Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, and language. 81 minutes. Streaming on Netflix.