Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. As it stands, most horror films that span 9 (!) entries or more will vastly range in quality. TCM is a distant outlier, with nearly every entry being a reboot of the exact same concept. Crazy family, at least one of whom is donned in a mask made of human flesh and known as Leatherface, stalks a group of teens in Texas. Rinse and repeat. Apart from Hellraiser and Children of the Corn, I would say Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the most inconsistent horror franchise on all counts, including mythology, filmmaking, tone, and connective tissue. Enter 2022’s answer to countless franchise reboots, appropriately titled, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This time around, Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe collaborators Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues ignore every installment other than the 1974 classic named (you guessed it!), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is the year’s second incredible horror series sequel, after 2022’s “requel,” Scream. Brutally gory and violent, get ready to experience one of Leatherface’s finest hours…

A love of the franchise, especially that classic Tobe Hooper original, is evident from early on. John Laroquette’s creepy narration reigns down in the opening scene—the story of that first TCM is now merely an “Unsolved Murders” special. Playing on a TV at a crusty-looking gas station, one of our new lead heroines, Lila (Elsie Fisher, Hulu’s Castle Rock), gets caught up on the story of massacre survivor Sally (Mandy‘s Olwen Fouéré). This meta opening already posits the film as a direct sequel to the original, and brings the audience up to speed on the only thing about that original one really needs to know: a girl named Sally survived.

Lila is on her way to the dreary ghost town of Harlow, Texas, with her older sister, Melody (Sarah Yarkin, Happy Death Day 2U), one half of a duo of social media chef influencers. Also along for the journey is the other chef, Dante (Jacob Latimore, The Maze Runner), and his blonde girlfriend, Ruth (Nell Hudson). A sign on the road tells us the town’s population is 1973, another cute throwback to the original’s year of release. Before even arriving in Harlow, they run into some shady, seemingly racist law enforcement, and a gun-obsessed mechanic named Richter (Vikings star Moe Dunford). Their mission is to help build a fresh start—somewhere safe. Dante has a vision for a restaurant, and Ruth could open an art gallery…

Shot in Bulgaria, the vibe at their destination is even more eerie. Dante and Melody hope the place is presentable for a bus full of influencers they have invited along to get the ball rolling of forming Harlow into a beautiful place. A confederate flag hangs from an old orphanage, and when Dante and Melody venture inside to hoist it down, it becomes apparent someone else is inside. They are greeted by the matronly Virginia (Sleepwalkers actress Alice Krige), a woman who still operates under the assumption that the bank has not seized the property. In the scuffle to get her out of the house, the woman falls into the throes of a heart attack. Her “son,” who we will soon know as this movie’s Leatherface (Mark Burnham), accompanies Virginia along an escort to the hospital, beside Ruth and two ill-fated officers. Melody gets more nervous by the second as she awaits news of Virginia’s safe arrival at the hospital, and the arrival of the influencers is imminent. It was never Melody’s intention to kick anyone out of their home, and it becomes clear that Melody has a sensitive, caring soul.

What happens next should not surprise series fans all that much: Leatherface reawakens, first enacting a bone-crunching comeback kill before obtaining a brand new face-mask. Next thing you know, he is smashing a hole through the wall of his fallen mother’s room to fetch the legendary chainsaw that will allow him to exact revenge. In the paraphrased words of Scream 2’s Mrs. Loomis, “good old fashioned revenge… I can’t think of anything more rational.” Naturally, Leatherface’s chainsaw is obscenely powerful, and can seemingly cut through just about everything. They use one of the real chainsaws from the first film! It becomes up to Melody and her friends to escape the horror of Harlow, whose ghosts threaten to swallow them whole.

Several “hero” characters appear in the story, but it is ultimately up to Melody and Lila to conquer their attacker. They must refuse to be just another victim in Leatherface’s death portfolio. That seems to be the message of modern TCM: do not allow oneself to be the victim. The focus (for once!) on Leatherface alone without the lingering redneck family of cannibals behind him is inspired. It turns him into a scary, relentless brute that may be lurking around any corner and ready to plunge his chainsaw into one’s chest. The body count is sky-high (possibly an all-time best for this killer?), and the effects for them are top-notch. To call them “gnarly” would be a massive understatement. They are accompanied by stunning cinematography, and interesting shot composition courtesy of director David Blue Garcia.

The downfall of many films in the series is that one simply does not care about any of the characters. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Lila channels the trauma of her past as a victim to become a strong and unconventional female lead. Sarah Yarkin brings a gravitas and gentleness to Melody, even as the character makes especially smart decisions in the face of danger. Their sisterly bond is easily the script’s greatest strength. An emphasis on character means the deaths really count, and their brutality basically speaks for itself. Leatherface is a brooding and towering killing machine, demolishing anyone in his path. Six foot six actor Mark Burnham was a perfect choice to play Leatherface. Armed with a Polaroid from the 70s, Sally is finally back as a character in a big way. For me, this part of the movie absolutely just works. It subverts the way Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode is involved in the Halloween franchise in fundamental, game-changing ways. Sally’s legacy is through avenging her slaughtered friends from over 50 years ago, and she will stop at nothing to take down Leatherface once she discovers he has returned. This does not play out exactly as one would expect; it is in this particular storyline that the movie really gained my respect. Sally is not as we remember her, but that also does not mean she is some perfect idea of a final girl either.

My favorite films in this Chainsaw series are the ones that take the horrors of the concept very seriously. The 2003 remake, 2006 prequel to the remake, and now 2022’s direct sequel have one thing in common: they relish in the demented horror and violent delights that a series inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein needs to have. The black comedy of Next Generation is also a weird kind of slam dunk, but the nastiness of this concept does not always pair well beside lazy attempts at laughter. The writers here understood the assignment. They truly work their magic in resurrecting one of the greatest horror icons of all time. If the ending is any indication, this may not be the last we see of slasher cinema’s most infamous cannibal killer. Be sure to stick around during the end credits for a potent dose of joy that will definitely keep people talking. With fast-paced chase scenes, gore galore, and an impressively-scripted take on trauma, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an early contender for one of the best horror films of the year.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre splits open audiences when it premieres exclusively on Netflix on Friday, February 18th.

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