Friday, December 30, 2022

You Don't Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre...But Why Wouldn't You Want To?

2022 was an especially excellent year for horror and as the year comes to a close, best of lists have been flooding the internet, with writers showing their love for the likes of Bones and All, Pearl, Nope, and other notable 2022 fear flicks. One movie that's absent from these year end round ups is one that I think did not get a fair shake. It came out early in the year, has been mostly forgotten by now and, well, wasn't particularly well liked even when it was fresh in everyone's mind. In fact, it was mostly trashed. But since when has being trashed kept a horror movie down? Horror thrives on being disreputable! And few horror films in 2022 were more disreputable than the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Filmed in Bulgaria rather than the Lone Star State, Texas Chainsaw Massacre '22 was the ninth installment in the series, the first since 2017's Leatherface, and yet another Chainsaw sequel that positioned itself as a direct follow up to the original, discounting (or at least not directly incorporating) the continuity of the previous films. Directed by David Blue Garcia, with Evil Dead 2013 director Fede Alvarez on board as one of the producers (with Alvarez having also conceived the story along with his Evil Dead and Don't Breathe co-writer Robo Sayagues), Texas Chainsaw Massacre premiered on Netflix on February 18th and was immediately piled on by many fans and critics who were appalled that this was just a slasher sequel looking to deliver some gnarly kills. I say some people had the bar set way too high on this one. 

Of course this is a far cry from Tobe Hooper's original but if your metric of success here is that this had to be on par with one of the greatest horror movies ever made in order to earn a passing grade, then come on - just admit you weren't even trying to give this a shot. The original TCM is one of the great instances of catching lightning in a bottle. Even Hooper himself couldn't do it again when he did Part 2 in 1986 so why would anyone think that David Blue Garcia, on the ninth (!!) Chainsaw film, could possibly fare any better? Let's cut this movie some slack, shall we? 

The only fair way to view this is with what I would call reasonable expectations. That means you can hope that it's better than the worst entries in the series but that's it. What TCM '22 is realistically competing against is Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Texas Chainsaw 3D and all the other shit shows. And let me tell you, by those standards, Texas Chainsaw '22 is fucking good! 

You can make a solid, perhaps even airtight, case for TCM '22 being the best non-Hooper entry in the series. The only one that might block it from occupying that slot is Marcus Nispel's 2003 remake but I give TCM '22 a slight edge in that match up. Either way, if you're looking at the Chainsaw franchise as a whole, TCM '22 deserves to be recognizes as a top tier entry. Yes, you can say that none of the sequels and remakes and reboots and so on have measured up to Hooper's first two Chainsaws but if that's your position, then it's not worth discussing the relative merits of the rest of the franchise. I mean, why even waste your time watching this movie that has no chance of giving you what you're looking for? You have to be willing to appreciate these movies on their own terms if you're going to appreciate them at all. 

If nothing else, TCM '22 can lay claim to being the first film in the entire series to feature an actual Chainsaw Massacre. Unbelievable as it may seem, never until this movie has our boy Leatherface been responsible for an actual massacre. But you get one here as he rips his way through an entire busload of people and, oh boy, it's incredible. 2022 was a banner year for gore and TCM '22 was second only to the unrated Terrifier 2 in delivering hardcore splatter. For an R rated movie, it's outrageously bloody. Besides serving up an actual massacre, which on its own would be more than enough, there are enough other graphic kills here to make for a healthy Joe Bob Briggs' Drive In Totals tally. Of course, this is where someone will interject with "but the original wasn't even gory!" to which I will simply have to sigh and say "I know." As with Halloween, whose first sequel immediately ditched the subtle, virtually bloodless approach of the original to go whole hog into the splatter era, so too did Hooper himself usher the series into the splatter age with Tom Savini's FX in Part 2. Once that happened, gore was officially a part of the Chainsaw mix and every entry since has been duty bound to get in on that action. No one who's still keeping up on new Chainsaw movies wants to see any of them skimp on the splatter. And on that count, TCM '22 might be the nastiest of the bunch. 

As someone who remembers when the MPAA at its most unreasonable forced nearly every frame of gore to be cut from 1990's TCM III before granting it a R rating, I have to say I found TCM '22 be a satisfying case of delayed gratification. For old school gore hounds, TCM '22 is exactly the movie we wished for back in the late '80s and early '90s when the MPAA was neutering genre films on a regular basis and Tony Timpone's editorials in FANGORIA and GoreZone were often tirades about how the puritanical whims of the MPAA were keeping gore off the nation's theater screens and video shelves. If you were a horror fan back then, when the future of splatter was in doubt, TCM '22 plays like the dream version of a Chainsaw sequel. 

Obviously not everyone shared that enthusiasm for TCM '22 but the bottom line for me is that if you're not a gorehound, Chainsaw sequels aren't going to be your thing. The stories aren't going to get any better, the characters aren't going to get any deeper, the formula isn't going to get any fresher. The only place you can look to for actual improvement from film to film is in the body count and the gore factor. If you're coming into these movies looking for more, forget it. That said, TCM '22 actually does just fine in most departments. The cast is solid (I thought Elsie Fisher as Lila made for a fine Final Girl), the story - with Gen Z entrepreneurs looking to sell property in an abandoned Texas town - is serviceable (it recalls the culture clash of not just the original but of many other '70s horror films where city dwellers and rural folk collide), and it's beautifully shot with some of the most striking imagery in the entire series. And Leatherface himself comes off great. From the stills that were released prior to the film, I wasn't feeling the look of the mask but seen in context it looks terrific. To my eyes, it's the first Chainsaw since the original where Leatherface's mask looks like actual skin rather than prosthetics, with it benefiting from frequently garish, stylized lighting. Played by Mark Burnham, Leatherface is also a little more spry than he's usually been depicted (which is funny given the character's advanced age here but whatever) with him displaying some surprisingly fast moves. When he charges out of a dark alley at top speed at one point, I couldn't help but exclaim "oh shit!" 

Two specific aspects of TCM '22 that rubbed some fans the wrong way were the lack of the family element and also its treatment of the Sally Hardesty character (played here by Olwen Fouere, taking the place of the late Marilyn Burns). I understand the complaints but in regards to the family, while that is a key feature of most of the previous films, I was ok with it being a non-factor here. This is Leatherface's show, reestablishing him as a slasher heavyweight, and the post credit scene sets up a return of the family so it's not like that aspect was forgotten, just temporarily set aside. As for the curt treatment of Sally, bringing the character back just to have her fall to Leatherface, I would just say, hey, it's a slasher movie. Previous survivors of slasher films come back to get killed in sequels all the time. Some might think that Sally qualifies as slasher royalty and should have gotten better treatment but I disagree. That she should get jacked up with a chainsaw through the gut only to then be hurled twenty feet onto a pile of trash feels very Chainsaw to me. This movie is equal opportunity in its brutality, it doesn't truck with any sentiment, and as bad as Sally gets it, Sarah Yarkin as almost co-Final Girl Melody gets it soooo much worse. 

I was already loving TCM '22 by the time it arrived at its final moments but when Yarkin and Elsie Fisher are preparing to drive off, these two sisters believing that they've survived the horror and dispatched Leatherface, only to have Leatherface smash in Yarkin's window, haul her out of the car and decapitate her on the spot as the car in autopilot mode drives a hysterical Lila away, oh man. I was already giving TCM '22 a thumbs up without this last bit of savagery but that they choose to toss in one last gratuitous kill, and a freaking mean one at that (Melody's a legitimately good person!), compelled me to say bravo. As a slasher fan, I felt well taken care of by this movie.  

TCM '22 wasn't trying to win over the kind of viewers who automatically roll their eyes at yet another Chainsaw sequel. It was for the diehards who stick with these waning franchises through thick and thin. I'd love to see more TCM entries from this creative team but sadly I have a feeling this is going to be another would be rebirth of the franchise that stalls out. But at least we got this one and even if very few dug it, I sure as hell did. Other 2022 horror releases were more artful and ambitious and I love that we got those but I believe there's also something to be said for a slasher movie that knows its audience and, my God, Texas Chainsaw Massacre '22 absolutely did. 

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