This film has been incredibly divisive in the horror community, and that’s not surprising. Nothing is going to please everyone—even the near-flawless 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has its detractor(s). I personally enjoyed the newest installment in the franchise, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s plenty to take issue with.
I wish they’d kept with the folk horror of the rest of the series—outsiders who find themselves amidst a community of people who mean them harm. Family and community had always been such a key element to the horror in the prior films. They always function to give us glimmers of hope, only to destroy them when it turns out that this cop, neighbor, gas station attendant, or whoever is also a part of the family (or has loyalty to the family). Beyond this break with the folk-y TCM tradition, a lot of the political messaging in the film is questionable at best.
Politically, it’s unclear what they were going for. Showing anti-gun memes and making comments like, “keep your hands where they can see them,” the filmmakers imply that these markers will carry some significance, but don’t tend to follow through. A part of me thinks that when they undercut these signifiers they’re attempting to “subvert” expectations, but it just doesn’t work. Not only is there a lack of follow-through, but also an abject misunderstanding of certain concepts, like their use of “cancel culture.” (Which is just the latest moral panic.)
I was fully prepared to ignore some of the political implications, but this movie dragged me into this kind of reading.What did the filmmakers intend when Dante makes the comment about keeping your hands where they can see them? Now more than ever, people are sensitive to police practices in America, especially the way Black Americans—particularly young Black men—are treated by the police. But these cops turn out to be very helpful and even evict someone for them. So, what’s the message, other than: Don’t be so quick to judge them? And to have a young Black man be the one who delivers this line only adds to the disconnect. Is the film suggesting that Black men ought to stop judging the police without cause, or that the police aren’t actually a threat to them? While the position of the film seems to be that young people of color aren’t at any heightened risk when dealing with the police, it could be argued that because cops protect capital (not people), and these gentrifiers are capitalists—hoping to revitalize a blighted ghost town—it’s no surprise the cops help them.
Why the decision to make the gentrifiers people of color? There’s Dante, who’s a driving force behind the plan; the realtor; as well as a handful of the investors. The only people of the community that we encounter are all white, and they all have problems with their new neighbors—from the gas station attendant who calls them, “gentrifuckers,” to the elderly woman they evict. Not reading the film along the lines of race would’ve been more possible had they not included a confederate flag that leads to the conversation with and eviction of the elderly woman. She defends her pleasure in hanging such a flag, “it reminds her of her grandfather.” The movie is forcing us to think about this stuff. And the decision to depict those impacted by gentrification be white, and those who enact it be people of color, is questionable at best—given the reality of gentrification, which disproportionately affects communities of color. I can’t say definitively they knew they were making a movie where Leatherface “defends” his home from invasive POC, but that is unfortunately the movie they made.
And then there’s the massacre. You’ve got to give the movie credit for living up to its name and actually having a chainsaw massacre. However, It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to explore the town of Harlow a little more. A lot of fun could’ve been had if some people other than Mel and Lila had been able to escape the bus, and Leatherface stalked them through these buildings and alleyways. Also, how did this bus not have a back exit? Anyway, the filmmakers really could’ve gone all-in on making this the slasher movie they obviously wanted it to be.
There are two aspects of the movie that could’ve been thrown away in exchange for adding kills about town: Lila’s backstory of having survived a school shooting and Sally Hardesty turning up so that Leatherface can finish what he started 50 years ago. Both of these subplots add nothing to the movie or the lore. Why bring these into the fold?
As with so much of the other political elements of the movie, the school shooting bit is only here to show that gun control is complicated, and maybe sometimes guns are necessary. But the movie doesn’t touch on any reasonable arguments against gun control: i.e., that gun control is racist. This is less a political stance than it is cowardice on behalf of the filmmakers. They want something that will criticize caricatures of both political parties to broaden the movie’s appeal. Rather than actually delving into the nuance of any of these issues, they show us anti-gun memes and then a clear instance when using a gun is appealing and seemingly necessary. But the movie doesn’t necessarily come off as pro-gun, either, because every time anyone wields one against Leatherface, they fail to kill or escape him.
Marylin Burns is dead, leave Sally alone. I don’t understand why they’d bring her back just to kill her off. Though I did read an interesting take on this by Zoë Rose Smith about how bringing Sally back was passing the torch to a new generation of final girls, and I can appreciate this position. However, Scream 2022 did this in a much more effective and impactful manner.
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the line about being canceled: no one sincerely threatens canceling like this, because it’s primarily something that “happens,” to celebrities. Setting aside any other issues with cancel culture one may have, the idea that an average person in a small town in central Texas could be canceled is absurd. Canceled from what? This just plays into the right-wing weaponization of the phrase, where certain media outlets highlight stories of people losing their jobs because they posted some racist stuff online, or attended the capitol riots, for example. But this isn’t canceling, this is companies weighing the value of this person against the criticism they receive for standing by them, should they choose to. The inclusion of this line is meant to paint the characters as annoying and self-righteous, setting us up to laugh at them when they’re slaughtered by Leatherface. The problem with this scene is that it’s turned into a right-winger’s wet dream: violently disposing of “woke” liberals.
While the whole bus massacre set piece was a fucking blast, I can’t help but think about the politics while considering that that we’re meant to be rooting for Leatherface here. It’s true that slashers often have conservative values at their core, for example the trope of sexually promiscuous women or anyone who uses drugs getting killed. It’s also notable that as a franchise goes on, audiences are primarily interested in what the killer will do and how crazy the deaths will be. But the political “transgressions” just hit differently than those classic examples, and it just put me off a bit.
In making Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022 a standard slasher movie, this movie unfortunately fully abandons the folk horror element of the franchise. Just about all of the previous movies’ scares come from the idea that it’s not just Leatherface, but his whole community that’s involved with the murders. Without fail, we always had a scene where the protagonist thought they were going to get away, only to find that the person “helping” them was in on it the whole time. Here, we instead see Leatherface come and prevent her escape himself.
Unfortunately, much of the confused political messaging in the film makes this read like bad right-wing propaganda. If you can ignore the politics, or if you align with them, you’ll have a good time watching the movie. There’s a lot of fun kills and jokes made at the characters’ expense. And it’s definitely not the first time I’ve really enjoyed a politically conservative movie.