Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

Between the 2018 version of Halloween, last year’s revision of Candyman, and this year’s update to Scream, the legacy sequel appears to be the hottest trend in mainstream horror filmmaking.  Rebooting iconic horror IP without disregarding the continuity of the original source material is the exact kind of “safe bet” investment Hollywood Money Men love. It simultaneously drags old customers back to the theater with a nostalgia magnet while luring in fresh-faced Zoomers with allowance money to burn.  Tobe Hooper’s grimy cannibal classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an absurdly ill-fitting candidate for the legacy sequel treatment, though, no matter how tempting it must be to cash in on its decades of name-recognition.  Nine films into the franchise, there’s still no clear continuity in either story or tone across the various Texas Chainsaw sequels & reboots.  Each individual entry is a chaotic outlier with no solid tether to the rest of the series beyond the chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface.  It’s also been almost a half-century since the Tobe Hooper original, which means that Leatherface and his first-one-that-got-away “final” girl would easily be pushing 70 years old in a modern-day sequel.  And that’s to say nothing of the tastelessness of dragging Sally back into Leatherface’s chow zone after the original actor who played her, Marilyn Burns, died in 2014.  The 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre recasts Olwen Fouéré (of Mandy notoriety) in the Sally role, feigning to give her the same long-awaited revenge mission Laurie Strode’s pursuing in the new Halloween cycle, only for that subplot to be treated as a callous joke with an abrupt, dismissive punchline.  That gag is poorly conceived, needlessly cruel, and ultimately just an excuse to participate in extratextual Online Discourse that has nothing to do with the movie’s central narrative – the exact three qualities that make the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a sickening hoot.

Besides the all-growed-up-final-girl revenge plot, another goofy hallmark of the legacy horror sequel is giving its youngsters in peril jobs that did not exist when the series originated.  Both the new Halloween and the new Slumber Party Massacre go the obvious route, unleashing The Shape & The Driller Killer to attack true crime podcasters who treat their heyday slayings as entertainment #content.  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre goes the long way, staging a showdown between Leatherface and wealthy social media Influencers who want to transform his small Texas town into a big-city Liberal utopia – a rural cult for terminally online Zoomers.  It’s a ludicrous premise, one the film only uses an excuse to directly comment on hot topics like cancel culture, gentrification, “late-stage Capitalism”, school shootings, and the Confederate flag.  Leatherface’s new crop of victims aren’t characters so much as they’re pre-loaded Twitter talking points (even with Eighth Grade‘s Elsie Fisher doing her damnedest to perform her Culture War discourse with a genuine pathos as the new final girl).  Worse yet, the film decidedly falls on the Right-Wing side of that cultural divide, taking the positions that the Confederate flag is more a symbol of heritage than of racism, that automatic assault rifles are necessary to survival, and that today’s socially progressive youth are inherently weaker & more superficial than the rural townies they condescend to as small-minded bigots.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre only floods its small Texas town with big-city Influencers as targets for Leatherface’s chainsaw, but every single time it’s obliged to give their presence a narrative purpose, it defaults to complaining that kids today are whiny Liberal wimps – a sentiment that only gets queasier the longer it fixates on their ritualistic disemboweling once the slaughter begins.

So, to recap: the teens are annoying, the dialogue is clumsy, the themes are reactionary, and it’s all a flimsy excuse to stage 80 minutes of for-its-own-sake hyperviolence.  By those metrics, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty faithful to slasher tradition, which has never had a functional moral compass, nor a reliable system of quality control.  I’d even go as far as to call it a great slasher, despite its atrocious politics.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre ’22 is careless when it comes to its characters, its debt to its source material’s legacy, and its broader cultural commentary, but it pours a lot of careful consideration into the craft of its kill scenes.  And since the movie is mostly kill scenes, it mostly gets away with it.  Leatherface’s chainsaw rips into a party bus packed with panicked social media addicts, tears townie challengers to chunks, and chases our new final girl through crawl space floorboards like an upside-down shark’s fin.  The violence is constant and constantly surprising, drowning the screen in so much goopy stage blood that you can hardly squint past it to see the rotten Conservative politics blurring up the background.  For better or worse, that gore-hound payoff will seal this movie’s legacy.  There will be vocal backlash against its reactionary Culture War politics for about a decade, then it’s going to be gradually reclaimed as one of the better entries in the Texas Chainsaw franchise as those talking points become 2020s kitsch.  Certainly, there are first-wave slashers from the 1980s with a more overtly bigoted, misanthropic worldview that have been reclaimed as cult classics with retrograde politics that are “of their time.”  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is of our time in the ugliest, most gruesome way possible.  It will similarly age gracefully as an adorable time capsule of our worst present-day filmmaking & cultural impulses.  All you can really do in the meantime is enjoy the novelty of the individual chainsaw kills, of which there are plenty to indulge.

-Brandon Ledet

Eighth Grade (2018)

One of my pet favorite subjects in modern cinema is The Evils of the Internet, especially as represented in gimmicky cyber-horrors like Unfriended, Truth or Dare, #horror, and Nerve. For years, I’ve been praising these shameless, gimmick-dependent genre films for documenting the mundane details of what modern life looks like online in a way that more prestigious, artsy-fartsy productions wouldn’t dare. That’s started to change with more recent releases like last year’s Ingrid Goes West & the upcoming film Searching, which sober up the Evil Internet Thriller a little with more grounded, adult tones. Even the recent sequel to Unfriended, Dark Web, lessened the absurdity of its predecessor’s premise by literally exorcising its ghosts and abandoning its supernatural bells & whistles for a much less ludicrous (and, in my opinion, less interesting) plot. And so, the coming-of-age teen drama Eighth Grade completes this transition of the Evil Internet Horror formula from high-concept gimmickry to awards-worthy art house fare. With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Movie-wise, the Internet Age as finally arrived.

Eighth Grade is, reductively speaking, an anxiety Litmus test. As the circumstances of its plot are a relatively low-stakes depiction of a teen girl’s final week of middle school, it might be tempting to group the picture in with other modern revisions of the classic coming of age formula – Lady Bird, The Edge of Seventeen, Princess Cyd, etc. For a constantly anxious person who feels immense internal anguish even in the most “low stakes” social interactions imaginable, the film is a non-stop horror show. As Elsie Fisher’s young teen protagonist attempts to assert herself in crowds, approach the early stirrings of sexuality, establish meaningful bonds with anyone who’s not her father, and develop Confidence as her personal brand, the overwhelming weight of the world around her (especially in moments when all eyes are on her) chokes the air with a non-stop panic attack. Even in my 30s I still approach every minor social interaction in public with an unhealthy overdose of dread; I remember that anxiety only being magnified a thousand-fold in the eighth grade, possibly the most awkward, unsure time in my life I can recall. As Fisher puzzles her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over, you’ll either find her awkwardness adorable or horrifyingly relatable. I was personally watching it through my fingers like a jump scare-heavy slasher.

The unconventional tension of Eighth Grade feels similar to the tactics of anxiety-inducing dramas like Krisha & The Fits, but the movie manages to carve out its own distinct tonal space in its explorations of The Internet as a visual & emotional landscape. This can be oddly beautiful & seductive, as with a sequence where the protagonist is put into a daze by overlaid social media posts set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” It can be numbing & cruel in scenes where other kids use the distraction of their smart phones as a means to avoiding direct interaction with someone they deem unworthy of attention. Most significantly, it can be heartbreaking, as with the protagonist’s YouTube tutorials on how to be a confident, well-rounded person – two things she’s anything but. As someone who broadcasts unearned, inauthentic confidence to a near-nonexistent audience on a podcasting & blogging platform on a subject I have no authority to speak on whatsoever (why are you even reading this?), I recognized so much of my own mechanized compulsion to participate in social media content production in those tutorials. She makes them with no prompt nor reward, then broadcasts them to no one in an online void, like atheistic prayers to Nothing. Her social isolation is only compounded by the one tool that’s supposed to relieve it, which is a horror shared across all age groups & anxiety levels in modern culture.

Being alive and in public is a never-ending embarrassment. With the internet, the public sphere has been extended even further into our private spaces so that there is nowhere left to hide. In Eighth Grade, first-time writer director Bo Burnham (who got his own start growing up in the public sphere on YouTube) captures a heartachingly authentic character learning to navigate & push through that embarrassment at the exact moment when anxiety is at its most potent. If that’s a struggle you’ve never fully moved past and you frequently feel the need to punctuate each social interaction with self-humbling repetitions of “Sorry, sorry, sorry” as if you’re apologizing for the audacity of your own existence, this film will likely weigh on you as an incredibly tense experience. Anyone who isn’t burdened by anxiety or the eeriness of the internet is likely to find something much more easily manageable here, maybe even something “cute.” Even the film’s warped electronic soundtrack, provided by Anna Meredith, can either be heard as a playful adoption of modern pop beat production or a horrifying perversion of those sounds into something nightmarishly sinister. Either way, the film is worth seeing as an empathetic character study & a thoughtful modernization of the coming-of-age formula, but it’s difficult to imagine someone who sees the film as a light, low-stakes drama getting as much of a rich, rewarding reaction out of it as I viewed the film: an intensely relatable Evil Internet horror about anxiety in the social media age.

-Brandon Ledet