The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Franchise Still Isn’t, Nine Movies In

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<i>The Texas Chain Saw Massacre</i> Franchise Still Isn&#8217;t, Nine Movies In

The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, debuting this weekend on Netflix, is the ninth entry in the Texas Chainsaw series, but it wants you to think of it as the second. Though the math is strange, the position is not unusual. As straight-up remakes have fallen out of favor and brand names are more coveted than ever, plenty of movie series have opted for legacy sequels that wipe away years or decades of dodgy continuity and/or artistic missteps, and bring it back to the beginning—not by remaking a beloved classic, but by sequelizing it directly. Hence, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022 designed as akin to Halloween 2018: A sequel to the original horror classic, not any of those other lousy/confusing/divisive/obscure sequels/prequels/remakes that have appeared over the past however-many years. This is a particularly apt strategy for the Texas Chainsaw series, because it’s barely a series at all.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—the 1974 original about a group of counterculture types getting picked off at a remote farmhouse full of cannibals—was such a singularly grimy vision from director Tobe Hooper, from such a different era of filmmaking, that turning it into a serialized saga was never really on the table. This means that Texas Chainsaw ’22 isn’t clearing the decks of tangled continuity; it is, in fact the third movie to proceed, separately, as a direct sequel to the original, and the original only.

This, too, is not unheard-of: 20 years before Halloween ‘18, Halloween H20 tried the same trick, only to have David Gordon Green’s film reset even harder, ignoring not only H20 and its follow-up Halloween Resurrection, but Halloween II, the moderately well-regarded 1981 follow-up that was kept as canon for H20. This has resulted in a pile-up of movies that can lay claim to being Halloween III: The first, unrelated-to-Michael Myers version, subtitled Season of the Witch; H20, which follows Halloween II; and Halloween Kills, which is a sequel to the 2018 film, which makes it the third entry in that continuity.

But those movies have continuity, at least to some degree. The branching timelines of Texas Chainsaw are much more gnarled—even though, unlike Halloween, they include a sequel with the same director as the original. This doesn’t, however, mean that the original part two is a retread: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which trailed the original film by 12 years, offers a wild, gruesome and at times downright zany satire of ‘80s excesses (and sometimes itself). The movie often feels like a crazed carnival spookhouse version of its gritty, unsettling predecessor—like the type of sequel guys like Quentin Tarantino or Rob Zombie would prefer to the original.

Chainsaw 2 was obviously made to capitalize on the post-Halloween slasher craze, in the hopes that Leatherface, the silent and chainsaw-wielding centerpiece maniac from the first film, could join Michael, Freddy and Jason in the masked-killer pantheon. (He’s certainly got the creepiest mask, made out of human skin.) Even for a less-controlled sequel of 1986, however, Chainsaw 2 isn’t built to perpetuate endless sequels. When the family’s cannibalism has been mainstreamized into cookoff-winning chili, it seems possible that Hooper is poking fun at the notion of horror franchising.

Still, the notion that Leatherface and his rotating family of murderers represented a potential goldmine could not be dispelled. Subsequent sequels swerve away from Hooper’s crazier swings; they don’t explicitly ignore each other, but they make no particular effort to tie into anything but the first film. It’s worth noting that none of these sequels were hits—in fact, they all pretty much flopped, until the original was remade in 2003. After that remake got an underperforming prequel, the series lay dormant for a while—until 2013, when a decades-later legacy sequel called just Texas Chainsaw emerged.

The film was known in its original release as Texas Chainsaw 3D, participating in the series’ fine tradition of confusingly titled sequels. (Doesn’t Texas Chainsaw 3D sound like a second sequel that would have come out around 1985? And while we’re at it, actual third movie Leatherface, from 1990, has the same title as a barely-released 2017 prequel.) That’s what the movie leaned on in its marketing—not that it serves as a decades-later legacy sequel, with Heather (Alexandra Daddario) inheriting property from her long-lost grandmother, who turns out to be her link to the original Texas Chain Saw family. It’s easy to see why Texas Chainsaw doesn’t get much credit for its legacy-sequel game. It makes no effort to recapture the mood or texture of the 1974 original (a stark contrast to the Michael Bay-produced remake series, which strives for so much grime and gore that it feels like an art-direction competition), and in fact makes little effort to do much of anything. It does manage to avoid the numbing repetition of other Texas Chainsaw sequels by relocating the action away from the usual farmhouse (which burns down in its ‘70s-set prologue), and adding in the cousin-of-Leatherface twist. But in pure filmmaking terms, this is as schlocky and pointless as any brand-name cash-in.

By comparison, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks vastly more ambitious, even though it’s got the same basic idea as the previous sequel: Send a group of unsuspecting fresh-faced young people into Texas Chainsaw country, drawn in by a potential property windfall, and have them awaken the long-dormant Leatherface. The new movie loses the family connection (and, with it, a line as awkwardly immortal as Daddario’s Leatherface-enabling entreaty: “Do your thing, cuz!”) and makes the interlopers Austin-based gentrifiers, eager to facilitate a series of real estate deals in a town that’s been left for dead. (Two of them also seem to be social-media chefs? The movie and its barebones runtime are not especially clear on these matters.)

Again, the farmhouse only makes a brief appearance; most of the slaughter takes place on a sleepy main drag that looks suspiciously like a backlot. Yet unlike the filmmakers behind Texas Chainsaw 3D, which was genuinely confusing about what year it was even set in, director David Blue Garcia and writer Chris Thomas Devlin do seem to have a modicum of interest in how this material might actually adapt into 2022. The younger sister of one of the gentrifiers, played by Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher, is a school-shooting survivor, exactly the kind of possibly-exploitative ickiness that a Texas Chainsaw sequel should be trafficking in. If the movie doesn’t do enough with that connection, it at least summons a particularly American form of dread: These characters may be stumbling into horrific violence, but it’s also already found them. Remaking a ghost town in a bright, upwardly mobile image will not be their refuge. Maybe the town’s resemblance to a backlot is right for the movie: As young people try to fake their way into a new yuppie enclave, the hyperreality of an old horror-movie villain comes for them. (And boy, does he; there’s a sequence here that may have more chainsaw kills than several other of the movies combined.)

Little of this requires Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be a direct/only sequel—though the notion that Leatherface has been living a quiet, docile life in a mostly-abandoned main-street orphanage has an eerie urban-legend appeal. For the most part, the movie’s attempts to refashion itself as a fan-courting Halloween ’18 ripoff are its least convincing endeavors. It eventually trots out Sally Hardesty, the sole survivor from the first film—but because actress Marilyn Burns died back in 2014, the role is recast, which diminishes the already-skeletal thrill of seeing Leatherface’s traumatized victim take a righteous Laurie Strode turn.

That’s nothing against poor Sally, or her newfound attempts to strike back against the darkness that has haunted her all these years. It’s just that Texas Chainsaw Massacre can’t derive much juice from being a standalone legacy sequel to the original, because that legacy is a festering wound, not a clearly laid out family tree. Even in Hooper’s first sequel, the family around Leatherface shifts, the exact relationships not always clear; continuity is not really the point as the group distorts the image of the tight-knit American family. At its best, the new movie understands this us-against-them perversion: Is the woman taking care of Leatherface at the outset of the film part of the old farmhouse clan, or a woman drawn into sympathy for a beastly yet childlike man? It’s difficult to say, and it doesn’t matter. (Anyway, Leatherface can’t protect her from a capitalist home invasion—an even smarter, sadder touch.) Garcia also doesn’t make a big show of hiding his villain’s real face before he fashions a new mask. Leatherface may be a hulking, nigh-unkillable brute, but he’s not supernatural, maybe not even unknowable. He’s just been left to rot, like everything else in his town.

It doesn’t seem like a spoiler to point out that this latest direct-sequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a post-credits scene, which half-assedly sets up yet another sequel in a way that promises a return to the dutiful recreations of entries past. It underlines that there have been three different Texas Chain Saw follow-ups not necessarily because filmmakers see this series as particularly continuity-resistant, but because so many of the sequels, prequels and so on are perceived as failing to recapture something. And it’s true: None of these sequels, from the admirably demented (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) to the pretty good (Texas Chainsaw Massacre ’22) to the likably terrible (Texas Chainsaw 3D), evoke the same feelings as Hooper’s original. Nor do any of the other entries, whether starting from a clean slate or not.

No matter how embedded the original film has become in the mainstream, it’s seemingly impossible for any of its follow-ups to gain a real foothold with audiences. The truth is, nine movies in, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still not a franchise, and probably can’t ever be. All the sequels are just an extension of that first movie—a nagging discomfort that won’t go away.


Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.