He’ll fuck you up, he’ll fuck you up / Yes, God will fuck you up / If you dare to disobey his stern command
If you google this song, which plays near the beginning of Texas Chainsaw 3D, you will find a few instances of it being miscredited to the John Butler Trio, an Australian group with several platinum albums to their credit. In fact, it is by John R. Butler who, as one website puts it, “has had few brushes with greatness.” Can’t imagine why.
I tuned in to this movie thinking it was the remake of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original. On Netflix, the “3D” is absent from the title. But I was egregiously uninformed. Turns out that the Chainsaw “franchise” currently consists of no less than seven films. The one I was thinking of was the fifth, from 2003. This one is the most recent. But for my purposes it was just as good, in the sense that it references nothing but the original. In no other sense is “good” a word I would use to describe it.
The premise, for example, rewrites Hooper’s film. If you’re going to do a “sequel,” you ought at least to get the original facts straight. According to this film, Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding maniac from the first film, belongs to and lives with an entirely different family. Not psychos themselves, they nevertheless protect him and cover for him. But they are no longer able to do this when Sally (from the original) escapes and tells her story to the police. The police and several townspeople converge on the house and burn it to the ground, killing all but two people: Leatherface, of course, and a little baby, whom one of the vigilantes adopts. Twenty-some-odd years later, the baby has grown into buxom Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario). A letter she receives one day informs her that a grandmother she never knew she had has died and left her her house — and all within it. It’s in Texas, baby, and that means a road trip for Heather and her friends.
At first, it’s kind of fun comparing the doppelgangers of the characters from the first film. The only one missing is Franklin, Sally’s invalid brother. He gets double-doppled, being both the odd man out (Franklin) and the hitchhiker they pick up on the way. These kids would never pick up the twitchy weirdo of the first film, of course, so this time he’s young, good-looking, and ripped. Makes sense, I suppose, but the vérité of the original is missing. There, the kids were hippies, and picking up hitchhikers was a natural thing to do. Here, the sex-crazy girls are already paired up, so what’s the point?
But it isn’t the details that kill this movie (though the complete lack of humor is striking when judged against the original). It is its moral anarchy, which begins with the wholesale overhaul of Leatherface himself. Hooper’s film hinted at the character’s retardation yet never used that as an excuse for his behavior. This movie, over the course of 90 minutes, takes him from psychotic killer to sympathetic victim. It’s a change that cascades to the cast: if Leatherface isn’t really the villain, then who is? The answer is, government and the police. One of those vigilantes, you see, has somehow gotten himself elected Mayor. Gimme a corrupt cop, gimme a crooked politician, but don’t slap me in the face with a retarded homicidal hero. Blood may be thicker than water, but Heather’s is pure sludge. She can forgive the murders of her friends because Leatherface is “family.” Really? I’d say her friends would be better off without her, but her misunderstood cousin kind of made that a moot point.
Used to be, what with the virtual guarantee of nudity in a horror film, that people worried about the conflation of sex and violence in the impressionable minds of the audience. This film has no nudity (not quite), but combining violence with its bizarre take on what is right and honorable is more insidious still. Of the original, Roger Ebert wrote, “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.” Regarding this new film, I agree completely — with everything before the first conjunction.