“Texas Chainsaw” (2013): the Failed Rehabilitation of Leatherface

Poster for TEXAS CHAINSAW (2013)
Poster for TEXAS CHAINSAW (2013) — image source: Flickering Myth

TEXAS CHAINSAW has gotten a bad reputation among horror movie fans since its 2013 release. To a Tomatometer rating of 19% and an audience rating of 42%, Rotten Tomatoes adds the comment that the film is “an ugly and cynical attempt to rebrand Leatherface as horror anti-hero.” Ironically, the rebranding is one of the aspects of this film that made it interesting for Frisco Kid. Although it is totally understandable for fans of the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and its sequel, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986), to dislike what this film did with the story, there ARE things to like about this flick. Nevertheless, it proves in the end to be an unsatisfying attempt to reboot the franchise.

spoiler alert

One plus is that the film gets right into the gore at the beginning. Opening with footage that reviews the back-story to the film’s plot, it begins with a young Leatherface (Sam McKinzie) dispatching victims in his signature style. These unfortunates have stopped for help at the worst place in Newt, Texas that they could have chosen: the Sawyer family farmhouse. One victim escapes and manages to make it to safety. Hearing her story, the town’s top lawman, Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry), goes to the Sawyer compound and tries to negotiate the release of one of the other victims.

Unfortunately, news of the standoff spreads quickly through Newt; just as Hooper convinces the Sawyers to agree to release Leatherface’s last living victim, a posse of local yokels arrives on the scene. Within a couple of minutes of runtime, they have blasted and burned the farmhouse to the ground. All the Sawyers are presumed dead.

Unbeknownst to the good citizens of Newt, however, two Sawyers survived: Leatherface (played for the remainder of the movie by Dan Yeager) and his baby cousin, who is stolen and adopted by a local childless couple. She grows up in Oklahoma as Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario). As a twenty-something young woman, she first learns she is an adopted child when she is notified that her biological grandmother has died, leaving her estate — including a mansion in Newt — to Heather.

This event sets up the classic “house in the woods” horror trope. Heather needs to go to Newt to take possession of her grandmother’s estate. Her best friend Nikki (Tania Raymonde) and their two boyfriends — Ryan (Trey Songz) and Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sánchez) — agree to go along for the ride. The classic five-victim horror ensemble is completed when they pick up a hitchhiker, Darryl (Shaun Sipos), on the way to Newt.

Being the fifth wheel, Darryl is the most expendable. He is the one who discovers the secret that is hidden in the house: Leatherface. Since Darryl does this while betraying the other four, he pays with his life. Heather’s three other companions eventually become casualties as well. Ultimately, the story boils down to a rematch of Leatherface vs. the town of Newt. The question that remains is this: which side will Heather end up on?

Leatherface and Heather have a "family reunion"
Leatherface and Heather have a “family reunion” — image source: Pics & Photos

The answer to this question is what makes this movie interesting. It reverses the standard slasher story that has been playing out and makes Leatherface into an anti-hero (and also conveniently sets up the potential for a sequel). By rehabilitating Leatherface (who clearly still retains a few stereotypical family values), writers Adam MarcusDebra Sullivan, and Kirsten Elms and director John Luessenhop have made a significant departure from the Texas Chainsaw franchise. They have made fundamental changes in Leatherface and his story, which were created by TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE writer-director Tobe Hooper and writing partner Kim Henkel.

It is true that other tropes are left intact. Just as the original Hooper film did, this movie includes a hitchhiker, the slaughterhouse, the old family home, and Leatherface’s family’s farmhouse. Leatherface still uses slaughterhouse-issue gear (e.g., a sledgehammer, meathooks), as well as his signature chainsaw, to kill his victims. As in the original, he locks one of the five young people in a freezer. His new digs in Heather’s grandmother’s house are “decorated” with the same gruesome items. In fact, the 2013 movie is so similar to the original that it amounts to a reboot.

However, the “grue factor” in this movie is much lower than in the original (although the scantily-clad female factor does not suffer). Sally, Heather’s counterpart in the original film, goes through a much more gruesome scenario with Leatherface and his family. By contrast, in TEXAS CHAINSAW Leatherface has lost his entire local family. So it does makes sense for him to ally himself with Heather, who is his sole remaining relative. Moreover, there is the precedent of Leatherface’s attration to Stretch in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2.

Unfortunately, Heather (as scripted and acted) just does not “fit the profile” in comparison to the original family members. She’s so kind and accepting of Leatherface, his history, and his homicidal behavior that it is difficult to believe. After all, Stretch’s experiences with Leatherface drove her insane. Finally, a “feel good” ending just does not fit what the audience knows about Leatherface from the previous Hooper films.

Nice try . . . .

FRISCO KID rating: two stars