Monday, October 30, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Texas Chainsaw' (2013)

After the relative box-office failure of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in 2006, Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company relinquished the franchise rights, which eventually ended up with Lionsgate, who took a much smaller-scale approach to the production of the next movie. Also known as Texas Chainsaw 3D, the simply titled Texas Chainsaw positions itself as a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper's 1974 original, ignoring the earlier sequels (which themselves often ignored each other) and the reboot continuity of the previous two movies. By connecting itself so clearly to the classic original, Texas Chainsaw only draws more attention to its own shortcomings, which are plentiful.

The contrast is apparent from the very beginning, as this is a direct sequel in the truest sense, picking up just minutes from the end of the original movie. Instead of the customary opening narration and/or title cards, the opening credits play over three straight minutes of footage from the 1974 film, a sort of "previously on ..." recap that summarizes the horror perpetrated by the homicidal Sawyer family. Once director John Luessenhop cuts from Hooper's footage to his own, though, it's a pretty harsh transition, and the efforts to re-create the original look and feel are not very effective. After Sally's escape from the Sawyers, the local sheriff shows up at the house, demanding to arrest Leatherface (here given the name Jedidiah Sawyer, and played by Dan Yeager), and suddenly there are like twice as many family members (including one played briefly by Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface) in the house. Before the sheriff can do his job, a lynch mob of local rednecks show up and burn the place to the ground, killing all the Sawyers in the process.

Well, not all the Sawyers, of course. Obviously Leatherface somehow gets away, and a previously unseen Sawyer baby gets picked up in the confusion by a local couple, who adopt her as their own. Cut to some number of years later (the timeline is maddeningly unclear), and that baby is now Heather (Alexandra Daddario), who grew up not knowing her heritage but is drawn back in when her grandmother (whose exact connection to the slaughtered Sawyers from the beginning of the movie is also unclear) dies and leaves her a massive estate. Determined to explore her roots, she packs up a few of her easily disposable friends and heads to the Texas homestead, where Leatherface has just been chilling out in a basement for around 25 years, apparently.

The setup is at least a slightly different twist on the constantly rewritten mythology, but the first half of the movie is just standard low-budget horror fare, in the "person inherits a creepy old house" mode, as the oblivious young people stumble through the house, inadvertently setting Leatherface free. He slaughters all of Heather's friends surprisingly quickly, at which point the movie switches into its somewhat more interesting second half, with Heather learning about what really happened to her ancestors at the hands of the same redneck townspeople she's now appealing to for help. The movie changes into a twisted (and also kind of nonsensical) sort of revenge story, but it can never make Leatherface and the Sawyers into the sympathetic figures they need to be in order for the narrative pivot to work. Plus, Daddario is fine as the hot girl running from the killer (the movie goes to absurd lengths to make sure her midriff is bared at all times), but she can't quite sell Heather's gradual embrace of her psycho-killer roots.

The rest of the cast is passable at best, but the asshole mayor (who was the leader of the lynch mob that killed the Sawyers back in the indeterminate past) makes for a poor substitute villain once the sympathies ostensibly shift in Leatherface's favor. The idea of a smart, attractive, worldly young woman as the new leader of the murderous Sawyer clan (and caretaker of Leatherface) is sort of promising, but of course the changing fortunes of this franchise mean that it'll never be fully explored. And this cash-in movie is more interested in delivering the expected gruesome violence (which isn't as intense as in the remake duology, as visceral as in the original or as absurd as in the more comedic sequels) than in fully interrogating the series mythology.

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