Note: This article was originally published in October 2020, and has been updated to include Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022).
With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
A truly successful horror movie will take an ordinary object or everyday activity you’ve never thought about and put you off of it for life. Try wearing a red and green striped sweater without thinking of Freddy Krueger, or going to the beach on the Fourth Of July immediately following a screening of Jaws. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is among the most effective of these, driving at least one viewer—The Shape Of Water director Guillermo del Toro—to vegetarianism and giving many more a lifelong suspicion of run-down gas stations in the middle of nowhere. So many films have copied it that when a horror movie opens with a group of young people in a van, you already know what’s going to happen next. But nearly 50 years on, Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s iconic proto-splatter movie is as powerful as ever.
Texas Chain Saw’s potency is intrinsically tied to its realism, which still has some viewers convinced that the events in the movie actually happened. In his book Chain Saw Confidential, original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen (who died in 2015) describes meeting fans who tell him that they know a guy who was in prison with, or that they’re distant relatives of, “the real Leatherface,” and not even Hansen can convince them that they’re wrong. The film was at least partially based on a true story—the crimes of Wisconsin grave robber, necrophiliac, and ultimate mama’s boy Ed Gein, whose macabre arts and crafts also inspired Psycho and The Silence Of The Lambs. But it’s not Gein that those fans are referring to when they tell Hansen that the Sawyers—or the Slaughters, or the Hewitts, depending on which iteration you’re talking about—really do live on the outskirts of their small Texas hometown.
Misinformation about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has flourished since its initial release at drive-ins across the American south: It’s infamous for its explicit gore scenes (that aren’t actually in the movie), rumored to be a real snuff film (it’s not), and purported to be at the center of a Mafia money-laundering operation (this one may be at least partially true). It’s been condemned as “hard-core pornography of murder” and “a film with literally nothing to recommend it,” feted by the cinephile elite at Cannes, banned in nearly a dozen countries, and cited as the best horror movie ever made. Even the spelling is contradictory: Is it “chain saw” or “chainsaw”? (The answer, however unhelpful, is both.)
Subsequent entries into the franchise haven’t helped. Even compared to something like the Halloween movies, Texas Chainsaw is a muddled franchise, continually re-writing its own backstory and reconfiguring the makeup of its core family of cannibalistic redneck freaks. Even the tone is inconsistent, ricocheting from gritty verisimilitude to over-the-top satire and back again. Over the course of eight movies, the only constants are mentally challenged chainsaw killer Leatherface—although his personality traits come and go, too—Texas, and meat. Human meat, hung on hooks and boiled into stews and ground into sausages slowly roasting on a spit. In fact, in the spirit of the pitch-black humor that lies underneath the original’s grimy surface, the building that played the gas station in the film is now a BBQ restaurant. (Coincidentally, the house from the film has also served as a succession of restaurants.)
But considering that the freewheeling band of hippie artists who made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) were basically making it up as they went along, perhaps the contradictions are just fine. It doesn’t really matter if the family has a matriarch or a patriarch in each individual installment, or if they live in a run-down mansion or an abandoned theme park. The secret to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t its mythology, or its characters. What makes it so effective is its sense of raw panic, an inescapable nightmare that short-circuits the logical parts of your brain and allows deeper, more animalistic instincts to kick in. Series creators Hooper and Henkel would go out of their way to undermine this effect in later sequels, but in the summer of 1973, for the film’s cast and crew, the fear was real.
Much of what we know about the production of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre comes from the film’s cast, who describe the experience as hot, smelly, disorienting, and occasionally heart-stoppingly dangerous. The late Marilyn Burns, who played “final girl” Sally, seems to have gotten the worst of it; she was subjected to hours upon hours of takes of the film’s most intense scenes by Hooper, who—to put it diplomatically—believed in the Hitchcock/Kubrick method of producing great horror performances by actually terrorizing his actors. Similarly, Hansen writes in Chain Saw Confidential that his costume wasn’t washed throughout the entirety of the four-week shoot, so by the time of the marathon 26-hour day spent filming the movie’s dinner scene, people were avoiding him simply because he stank.
Add Paul Partain going Method for his performance as the pitiful, whiny Franklin; a set decorated with roadkill, real human skeletons, and scraps picked up from a local slaughterhouse; and the oppressive heat of central Texas in August, and you’ve got a working environment that would drive anyone to madness. And that’s before makeup artist Dottie Pearl brought pot brownies to the set, resulting in a night of shooting Hansen barely remembered, except he was carving up a wooden door with a real, functioning chainsaw. (The effect wasn’t realistic in close-up unless you actually put the chain on, you see.) Exhausted and on the verge of heat stroke, Hansen almost killed Hooper by swinging the chainsaw toward him while filming the finale, a shot that the committed director naturally put into the film.
Every on-set story about Texas Chain Saw Massacre, like script supervisor Mary Church putting on a blonde wig and throwing herself out of a second-story window because they couldn’t afford stunt people, is horrifying. But, as callous as it sounds, it may have been worth it, simply because that sense of imminent danger and visceral disgust translates so vividly onto the screen. Many of the films that followed Texas Chain Saw—including its later sequels—introduce a moralistic element by having the van full of kids on their way to drink, do drugs, and have sex at whatever remote location is written into the script. But in Texas Chain Saw, Sally, her brother Franklin, and their friends are on their way to see if Sally’s grandfather’s body has been desecrated in a series of grave robberies, an errand both somber and dutiful.
All the bad vibes in Texas have converged onto this band of unlucky travelers, a feeling that gets more intense as each member of the party wanders off into the brush, never to return. Henkel and Hooper’s initial idea for the script was to do a modern version of the Grimm fairy tale Hansel And Gretel, and like the witch in that story Leatherface does not go out hunting for children to eat. They come to him. Looked at in this way, refracted through the lens of Texan values on trespassing on other peoples’ land—and the deadly consequences thereof—the family becomes the heroes of the story: hard working, salt-of-the-earth people who are just defending their homestead from invaders. The Cook (Jim Siedow) is even the original snout-to-tail chef—just, you know, with “long pig.”
Before Texas Chain Saw, much of the crew had worked together on Hooper’s debut feature Eggshells (1969), an experimental work described on its poster as “an American Freak Illumination: A Time and Spaced Film Fantasy.” (Henkel just calls it “a lamebrain psychedelic hippie thing.”) That film was steeped in the idealism of the ’60s, but by the time 1973 came around, the counterculture dream had curdled into a bitter cynicism that’s reflected in Texas Chain Saw’s nihilistic vision of inescapable violence and death. The only residue of the psychedelic era in Texas Chain Saw comes in the film’s surrealism, which led a London film society to play it in a double feature with Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou at one point.
One thing critics always note about Texas Chain Saw is that it’s not nearly as gory as its reputation would suggest. We don’t actually see the meat hook go through Pam’s (Teri McMinn) chest after she’s caught by Leatherface, although many remember being traumatized by the sight. Instead, we cut from a close-up of the empty hook to an establishing shot of the room to a close-up of McMinn’s face contorted in pain. There is blood on the walls, and we hear her screaming, and the audience’s imagination does the rest. The same is true for a famous shot of Leatherface gutting Franklin with his trusty chainsaw; the scene is filmed from behind and at a low angle, so we see the back of Partain’s head, and Hansen wielding the saw like he’s pushing a broom, but we never actually see blade penetrating flesh.
A fan theory that’s made its way to Wikipedia suggests that Hooper deliberately framed the gore scenes this way in hopes of getting a PG rating for the film, a claim that Hansen dismissed outright. The script was much bloodier and more graphic than what appears on screen, he writes; the workarounds were simply a matter of budget. The gruesome sound effects—including a distinctive flashbulb noise whose secrets sound man Wayne Bell will take to his grave—support the idea that Texas Chain Saw was meant to have an R-rated intensity, as does the grisly tableau of desiccated corpses that opens the film. But underneath it all, Hooper and Henkel thought their macabre parade of all-American grotesquerie was absolutely hilarious.
Hooper underlined this point in the decade-late sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), a film that can only be compared to Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) in terms of a celebrated director seeking to nuke his most famous creation from orbit. In the 12 years since Texas Chain Saw became the most controversial (and one of the highest grossing) films of 1974, Hooper had taken his talents to Hollywood, where his career trajectory hit a major pothole with the famously troubled production of Poltergeist (1982). (Fans still argue over whether Hooper or producer Steven Spielberg “really” directed that film.) From there, Hooper escaped the majors and teamed up with the notorious Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israeli producers whose Cannon Film Group was responsible for some of the most outrageous B-movies of the ’80s.
According to John Bloom (a.k.a. TV host Joe Bob Briggs), Hooper was not all that enthusiastic about going back to the backwoods anthropophagite well. But he had signed a three-picture deal with Cannon, and his first two movies for the company, 1985’s Lifeforce and 1986’s Invaders From Mars, flopped at the box office. So Hooper found himself on the phone with screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, a fellow Texan who had made a name for himself as screenwriter of the Palme D’or winner Paris, Texas (1984). Carson, in his own words, was looking for a project “that [took] me off the map” of serious screenwriters in Hollywood. So he agreed to write a sequel for Hooper, long since resigned to his fate.
Inspired by the sight of yuppies in pastel sweatsuits shopping in downtown Dallas, Carson wrote a screenplay satirizing both the Texas Chain Saw mythos and John Hughes teen comedies: An early poster for the film poses Leatherface (Bill Johnson), the Cook (Siedow), Grandpa (Ken Evert), and Chop Top (Bill Moseley) in a parody of the poster for Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. If Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers could become beloved pop-cultural figures, then why not Leatherface and the gang? From the opening scene, where Chop Top and Leatherface terrorize a pair of frat boys in polo shirts making prank calls on their car phone, Texas Chainsaw 2 is as much a reflection of its neon-drenched, cocaine-fueled decade as Texas Chain Saw was of the cynical pothead ’70s. As Simon Abrams writes on Rogerebert.com, “It’s just as much a product as a critique of the maximalist excesses that Hooper, screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, and their collaborators targeted,” an irony that must have forced a bitter chuckle out of Hooper between sips of his ever-present Dr. Pepper.
Texas Chainsaw 2 further develops Leatherface and his kin as characters, out-of-work slaughterhouse employees who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps in a perverse version of the American dream—or perhaps the ultimate one, given the dog-eat-dog nature (or human-eat-human, as the case may be) of the capitalist system. Aside from the death of the Hitchhiker from the first film—whose corpse pops up throughout the movie, used as a life-sized puppet by the similarly demented Chop Top—things are going great for the newly named Sawyer family, who run a successful catering business and whose human chili is winning prizes all over the state. They not only get away with their crimes, they’re thriving in Reagan’s America.
They’ve even upgraded their living situation, moving from the farm house to an abandoned Alamo-themed amusement park called Texas Battle Land. That set was a quarter-mile long and outfitted with whimsical tableaus of skeletons and bone furniture—all assembled from stinky cattle bones obtained from local slaughterhouses in the grand, carnivorous Texas Chain Saw tradition. It’s here that Dennis Hopper’s honorable, John Wayne-style lawman comes into conflict with the depraved Sawyers, and also where Hooper re-creates the dinner scene from his original film. Watched side by side, these scenes illuminate the stark difference in tone, both in the films themselves and their working conditions: As Caroline Williams, who plays plucky radio DJ and anti-final girl Stretch, recalls, “the whole time my head was in that bucket, I was laughing my ass off”—a contrast to Burns’ ordeal filming the first movie.
But although the film’s light tone keeps it from becoming too unsettling, Texas Chainsaw 2 does have its moments of dread and disgust. Chop Top’s habit of picking scabs off of his head with a hot metal hanger and eating them is pretty gross, for one. But the most unsettling thing in the film is its undercurrent of sexual menace. Sure, the first film had its moments of objectification—take the famous tracking shot of Teri McMinn walking toward the farmhouse in short shorts, the camera following her right at butt level. But there’s nothing in the first film like Leatherface’s “crush” on Stretch, which begins with the most blatant phallic imagery this side of The Slumber Party Massacre and ends with her wearing the face of her loyal radio engineer L.G. (Lou Perryman) as Leatherface twirls her around in a waltz. Williams calls it a “love story of sorts,” but that’s debatable.
Still, that’s positively playful next to the crude way Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) approaches Leatherface’s sexuality. (As one character says, “Junior likes them private parts.”) Everything about this uninspired sequel is crude and sloppy, turning the Texas Chainsaw mystique into just another paint-by-numbers slasher movie. Lazily written, dimly lit, underwhelming in its horror scenes, and full of unlikable characters who you secretly hope will die soon, even director Jeff Burr can’t muster up too much enthusiasm for it in his 2017 Dread Central interview about the film. It wasn’t even shot in Texas, but what’s obviously inland California. That being said, Texas Chainsaw III does have a couple of cool elements. The most prominent of them, a custom chrome chainsaw embellished with “The Saw Is Family”—a line from the Cook in Texas Chainsaw 2—appears in the film’s trailer, which tellingly does not include any footage from the actual movie.
Aside from that, this movie does have Ken Foree going for it, as well a righteous thrash-metal soundtrack featuring the likes of Death Angel and Lȧȧz Rockit. But the film, which begins with miserable California couple Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) bickering on a road trip through “Texas,” stops and starts multiple times, having Foree’s survivalist character Benny pop up every time screenwriter David J. Schow doesn’t know where the story should go next. And the Sawyers in this film—which for the first time include two female members, Mama (Miriam Byrd-Nethery) and Little Girl (Jennifer Banko)—are a bit too clean to be believable extensions of their unsanitary predecessors. (That’s especially true for Viggo Mortensen, who fills in the Hitchhiker role as Tex.) And the grime on their house looks similarly painted-on, especially compared to the macabre artistry of Texas Chain Saw and the demented eccentricity of Texas Chainsaw 2.
But the biggest problem with Leatherface is how tame it is, denying viewers even the gooey pleasures of an over-the-top gore scene in an otherwise generic early-’90s slasher. The film’s producers famously wrestled with the MPAA for quite some time after being slapped with an “X” rating, submitting the film 11 times before finally getting their “R.” This was after a series of edits made to the film by Bob Shaye, head of Texas Chainsaw’s new studio home at New Line Pictures. According to Burr, Shaye was convinced that Texas Chainsaw III would be “banned in every country” if it was released in its original form. Perhaps sensing the indifference and compromise that went into its production, Texas Chainsaw III sank like a stone both with critics and at the box office.
Texas Chainsaw didn’t stay dead for long, although franchise co-creator Kim Henkel tried even harder than Hooper did to destroy the original film’s mythos with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994). Written and directed by Henkel, the best way to describe the tone of this outrageous fourth entry is that it’s like a Texas Chainsaw movie made by Paul Bartel, director of the bitingly satirical cannibal comedy Eating Raoul (1982). The film begins conventionally enough, concocting an improbable series of circumstances that put four teenagers—virginal Jenny (Renée Zellweger), pothead Sean (John Harrison), jock Barry (Tyler Cone), and morbid true-crime fan Heather (Lisa Newmyer)—on the side of a deserted country road on prom night. Then the Slaughters, reverting to the original name painted on the sign at the 1974 gas station, show up, and all hell breaks loose.
As with the first and second films, The Next Generation is very much of its era. Tabloid TV was at its height in 1994, a phenomenon that’s reflected in Heather’s obsession with “our pictures, naked, with our hearts torn out” ending up on A Current Affair after they all get murdered. The X-Files also premiered
around the same time that Henkel started writing the script for The Next Generation, and the film catches a similar cultural wave by introducing the idea that Leatherface (Robert Jacks) and the gang are pawns of an Illuminati conspiracy to control the populace through fear—or something like that. As Henkel coyly semi-explains in a 2014 interview:
[Man in black Mr. Rothman] comes off more like the leader of some harum-scarum cult that makes a practice of bringing victims to experience horror on the pretext that it produces some sort of transcendent experience… But, could be Rothman is Illuminati, an astonishingly wealthy and powerful man given to some peculiar personal practices… And it’s possible the Chainsaw family could serve some useful purpose within the global machinations of the Illuminati.
And although Henkel does unfortunately play into anti-Semitic stereotypes by naming his Illuminati puppet master Mr. Rothman, the concept was ahead of its time, pre-dating both the sadomasochistic cult seeking transcendence through pain in Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) and the meta-textual surveillance in Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods (2011). That’s not the only element Henkel adds to the mythology, however: In this movie, Leatherface’s wardrobe of human skin is given an explicit undercurrent of gender nonconformity. Building on the “old lady” and “pretty woman” masks we see in Texas Chain Saw, in The Next Generation Leatherface dresses up in a skin suit with breasts, applies perfume and nail polish, and dons a black mesh nightgown for dinner with the family.
This interpretation is similar to that of another Ed Gein-inspired horror villain, The Silence Of The Lambs’ Buffalo Bill—a character that’s been the subject of extensive analysis by queer and trans critics since the film’s release in 1991. And indeed, while Gein is rumored to have made a “woman suit” out of the skin of corpses, he was driven by his obsession with a specific woman—his controlling mother—rather than the need to correct the gender he was assigned at birth. There is no proof that Gein’s gender influenced his crimes in real life, in other words, which means the conflation of the two in fiction is based on a fundamentally transphobic assumption. (For further discussion of the character of Leatherface specifically through the lens of transness, see the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” episode of the Girls, Guts & Giallo podcast.)
In a departure from the previous three films, Leatherface isn’t the scariest Slaughter in The New Generation. That would be Vilmer, played by Matthew McConaughey in an embryonic version of the psychopathic redneck he plays in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2011). His surroundings here are obviously more cartoonish, as is the hydraulic brace on his character’s leg that’s never explained. But McConaughey brings genuine menace to the role, evoking the prospect of a good old boy in a pickup truck whooping and chasing you through the woods of central Texas—ironically, given the film’s ham-fisted gender theme, a fear that is very real to LGBTQ+ people who are frequently the targets of hate crimes.
Suffice to say, no one really seemed to know what to make of The Next Generation. And, save for a handful of overseas videos releases and festival dates, it sat on the shelf for three years after its completion in 1994. Part of that was the desire of studio Columbia/TriStar to cash in on McConaughey’s and Zellweger’s growing fame—as executive producer Robert Kuhn told The Austin Chronicle in ’97, “Originally, they wanted to hold the film until after the release of Jerry Maguire… which didn’t seem unreasonable to us.” Then McConaughey’s agent got involved, lawsuits were filed, and the title was changed from The Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Next Generation. The film eventually opened on a mere 20 screens, largely forgotten until its release on Blu-ray in 2018.
In the wake of Henkel’s hand grenade of a sequel, there was nowhere for Texas Chainsaw to go but into the land of remakes. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) was the flagship production of newly formed production company Platinum Dunes, founded by Brad Fuller, Andrew Form, and Michael Bay. In the wake of the new Texas Chainsaw, Platinum Dunes’ slick special effects and burnished-copper color palette would come to define the look of Hollywood horror movies in the ’00s. And the box-office success of this inaugural outing would pave the way for a whole series of controversial Platinum Dunes remakes, like Friday The 13th (2009) and A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010).
Upgrading from the traditional opening crawl to grainy black-and-white “police footage” of a sheriff making a bloody discovery in the basement of a run-down farmhouse on August 20, 1973—two days after the date given in the original—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reinvents the series’ mythology from the top down. The name of the family is changed once again, and Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), previously referred to as “Bubba” or “Junior,” is given the full Christian name of Thomas Brown Hewitt. The scope of the Hewitt family’s homicidal operation is also expanded, as well as the now-standard shuffling of the character lineup.
In some ways, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the exact opposite of its 1974 counterpart: Where Chain Saw lets the audience fill in the horrific details, Chainsaw revels in explicit gore. And where you can practically smell Chain Saw even in restored editions, Chainsaw is glossy and polished. Nispel insisted on hiring original cinematographer Daniel Pearl for the remake; both of them were mostly working in music videos around that time, and Pearl had collaborated with Bay on Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” video. So the fit was a natural one, even if Pearl takes a completely different visual approach this time around. Well, mostly—he outdoes his own work on that famous tracking shot in Texas Chain Saw with a disturbing, but impressive camera movement that pulls back first through a gunshot would in a woman’s head, then the bullet hole in the bloody van window behind her.
The plot isn’t wholly loyal to the original movie, and the characters certainly aren’t, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does share one key element with its predecessor: It’s a nasty little piece of work, and an unrelenting one as Jessica Biel runs screaming through the woods as “final girl” Erin. She and her friends are even on their way to go see Lynyrd Skynyrd when they get waylaid near the Hewitt homestead—a detail in keeping with the bad vibes of the original, considering that much of that band was killed in a plane crash a few years after the events of this film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also has strong undercurrents of sexual violence and anti-police sentiment, both of which factor in to the inescapability of Erin’s plight. In another sign of the changing times, however, she’s more resourceful than the survivors who came before her, if just as tough.
But although The Texas Chainsaw Massacre rewrites the story of its band of hearty individualists—or depraved murders, same difference—it also builds on Marilyn Burns’ uncredited cameo in The Next Generation with a fair amount of fan service. Along with the explicit gore facilitated by bigger budgets and advancements in effects makeup, this trait would become a defining element of the dismal late-period franchise entries The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) and Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013). Aside from faithful, stalwart Leatherface, these two films have nothing in common with one another in terms of content: The Beginning expands on the Hewitt family mythology of the 2003 film, while Texas Chainsaw 3D is a direct sequel to the original.
One thing they do share is that neither are especially artful in the ways they deploy the gimmicks that are their raison d’etre. The Beginning, for its part, is a grim, joyless slog through the ugliest excesses of the so-called “torture porn” trend of the late ’00s, overlaid with backstory that turns Leatherface into a botched abortion abandoned in a dumpster and taken in by the outlaw Hewitts. This directly contradicts Hansen’s conception of the character of Leatherface as a spiritual and psychological nonentity, a void covered in human skin like The Shape in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Of course, the Halloween movies also couldn’t help but fiddle with Michael Myers’ origins. And the three most recent Texas Chainsaw movies all fit into the same bloodstained bucket as Rob Zombie’s take on that franchise, albeit—and this is coming from a Zombie detractor—less creatively done.
And while Chainsaw 3D eases up a little on the gore, it’s similarly fixated on fanboy name-dropping, which is pretty rich considering its plot borrows a key twist from the Nightmare On Elm Street series. (Did they think hardcore horror fans wouldn’t notice?) From a prologue featuring Hansen and Moseley—neither of whom are playing their original characters, because this is a Texas Chainsaw movie—to a wink and a nod to August 18, 1973, on a security-system keypad, the star of this film is less Alexandra Daddario and more the viewer’s expertise on the franchise. That being said, although it is a dumb, loud, generally pretty pointless movie, at least it’s more fun than its predecessor, making Leatherface (Dan Yeager) a full-on antihero fighting to save his last living relative from morally compromised townsfolk.
Both of these films deviate to different degrees from the standard slasher formula, a shift that swings too far with the most recent Texas Chainsaw film, Leatherface (2017). The film is set first in 1955 and then in 1965, with directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury treating this more like a period remake of Natural Born Killers than a proper Texas Chainsaw movie. The acting isn’t solid enough to hold up the script’s attempts at psychoanalytical character study, delving into Leatherface’s origins first as a young boy who gets a chainsaw for his seventh birthday and then as a 17-year-old boy on the run from a juvenile detention facility with a gaggle of similarly unbalanced friends. Violence ensues, leading to a twist that may have looked clever on paper, but is just confounding on screen. It’s nicely shot, anyway.
Leatherface was indeed a low point for the franchise, but worse was yet to come: Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) just barely edges out The Beginning to rank as our second-worst film in the series. And it’s a close contest. Aside from “Texas” (a.k.a., the Bulgarian sound stage where this film was actually shot) and Leatherface (who’s flattened into a generic hulking slasher), there’s nothing to distinguish David Blue Garcia’s take on the franchise but unearned smugness and boneheaded decision making.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes from Legendary Pictures, which also produced David Gordon Green’s Halloween. The signs were there early on that this Massacre would (to put it generously) “draw inspiration” from that franchise—Legendary announced that the new film would be a “direct sequel” to Texas Chain Saw back in 2019. Indeed, the character of Sally has been transformed into a gun-toting, tank top-clad survivor grappling with PTSD a lá Laurie Strode in Green’s Halloween movies. Like Halloween Kills, Texas Chainsaw sets up its aging heroine’s strength, then goes out of its way to undermine it. But it couldn’t even wait for the sequel to do so.
It’s unlikely that this film will get another sequel, frankly (although it’s Netflix, so who knows?). The script somehow has both too much and not enough plot, making it a long 81 minutes. The culture-war commentary is tired and obvious. (How many more films must we see where minor characters pull out their phones to snap photos of a killer just before they’re eviscerated?) Worse, Texas Chainsaw Massacre betrays the original characterization of its slasher. In every Texas Chainsaw film up to this point, even when he’s terrifying, Leatherface is a wounded, confused child deep down. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, those qualities are eclipsed by the superheroic speed and strength that turn him into a by-the-numbers masked killer.
Much of the team behind the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is dead: Jim Siedow died in 2003, followed by Paul Partain in 2005, Marilyn Burns in 2014, Gunnar Hansen in 2015, and Tobe Hooper in 2017. There might be another Texas Chain Saw out there, in the sense that occasionally a scrappy band of horror-movie hopefuls harness the zeitgeist in a way more moneyed productions rarely can. But if the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the last film in the official franchise, that might not be such a bad thing. Because even if you believe, as this writer does, that the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the greatest horror film ever made, the average for the series gets pulled down with each successive post-2003 entry. And if these movies have taught us anything, it’s not to play with corpses.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
5. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990)
6. Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)
7. Leatherface (2017)
8. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)