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Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Trauma Industry

Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Trauma Industry

The latest incarnation of Leatherface cuts deep into the South's relationship to professional victimhood.

The original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will celebrate its 50th anniversary in a little over a year. It may not have been the first slasher movie (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho took that crown in 1960). But it was the film that brought the genre’s now cliches to the big screen for the first time: the final girl who fends off the monster, the group of teens who split up, the now-iconic killer who, against all odds and good taste, becomes the main draw for the obligatory onslaught of endless sequels and remakes. A half-century in, it remains a pioneering work and a master class in the horror of suggestion. Thanks to its near documentary aesthetic and on-location shooting in rural Texas, it's also as terrifying as it ever was, its stark realism defending it against obsolete effects and outmoded performance styles.

To truly understand why The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues to touch a nerve, it’s important to note that an original print of the movie has resided at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art since it was released in 1974. One cannot underestimate that a century after the Civil War and less than a decade after the Civil Rights Movement, Chainsaw’s cannibal family showed coastal urbanites a version of Texas that was allegorical to natives, but was not as far removed from how Northeastern and West Coast elites perceived the region. As Ben Beard wrote last year in his book The South Never Plays Itself A Film Buff’s Journey Through the South on Screen:

"The inescapable fact that the South was born in the fight to preserve slavery makes the region a convenient scapegoat for all of America’s racial sins. The rest of the country gets to feel sanctified and self-righteous, though the racial sins of the entire country are manifold and ongoing, with plenty of blame and shame to go around."

A Southerner watching Texas Chainsaw in 1974 would likely not side with the cannibal family and Leatherface, its cross-dressing, intellectually disabled, skin-wearing son. However, they would immediately recognize the film’s depiction of the Southern economy: a place where a new generation was trained to kill in Vietnam at a time when local businesses like the Sawyer family’s slaughterhouse fell victim to the natal stages of globalization. Left with no income, no purpose, and no valor from serving in combat, the family unit melded the trades of meat processing and violence to get by.

For those not in the know, the film was so terrifying that it led to its own classification as a seminal work of what Carol J. Clover refers to as urbanoia: horror films about oblivious city folk venturing into the rural landscape where they meet their demise at the hands of vicious locals who view them as oppressors. Yet, rather than perceive the urbanoia movie as directly implicating its urban audience, the culture class intentionally misreads such films as an exaggerated and terrifying depiction of the South that further others it from the Red State locales they actively repel from their spheres unless such places serve as objects of pity or fear.

Given that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is arguably the best Vietnam movie ever made thanks to its paranoid style and trailblazing imagery, it comes as little surprise that Hollywood studios have shown a propensity for rebooting the franchise during moments of political crisis. Jessica Biel took the final girl reins in 2003’s remake that used her good-girl persona from the maudlin WB dramedy 7th Heaven to negotiate post-9/11 trauma and the eerie echoes of Vietnam in the Gulf II era.

Texas Chainsaw 3-D followed in 2013, a story that featured The White Lotus’s Alexandria Daddario as an underemployed millennial who inherits the Sawyer family estate and realizes that the surrounding community’s good ole boy corruption spawned Leatherface in the first place—an Obama economy allegory if there ever were one. Each iteration begat a sequel or two before it fizzled out and went back into the vault.

To little fanfare, Netflix continued this trend when it dropped David Blue Garcia’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre on its streaming service in February 2022. Hoping to emulate the success of David Gordon Green’s recent Halloween trilogy, the movie dispensed with the baggage of these endless sequels and remakes, installing itself as a continuation of the original.

The film follows Austin-based Gen Z foodie influencers Dante (Jacob Latimore) and Melody (Sarah Yarkin) as they travel to the dilapidated rural town of Harlow, TX. The duo has brought along Dante’s girlfriend, Ruth (Nell Hudson), and Melody’s sister, Lila (Elsie Fisher), a survivor of a recent school shooting who bears the physical and emotional scars of the ordeal. Hoping to build their online brand, Dante and Melody have bought the town whole hog with the intent of auctioning it off to a mix of other twentysomething Etsy peddlers and budding Gordon Gekkos working in woke capital. But when Dante and Melody displace the elderly owner of an orphanage who has kept Leatherface docile all this time after the events of the original film, they accidentally reignite his taste for carnage to expected results. Amid the mayhem, only Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouere), the original film’s final girl turned vigilante ex-Texas ranger who has nursed her trauma since 1974 can end Leatherface’s terror with a classic western showdown.

For a film that directly addresses school shootings and gentrification, Garcia’s movie received scathing reviews—even for a Chainsaw reboot.’s Brian Tallerico mocks the film for its social commentary, sneering about its shallowness in a screed that culminates with “Believe it or not, ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is another cautionary tale about gentrification. (I’m not kidding.).”

The Atlantic’s David Sims followed suit, writing, “To what extent Leatherface actually cares about gentrification is hard to parse. He is, after all, a mute colossus wearing a human-flesh mask who’s long taken a ‘chainsaw first, ask questions later’ approach to meeting new people. But the ham-fisted explanation that the kids he’s after…are morally trespassing on his territory robs the ensuing mayhem of its power.”

Though most critics ignored the film entirely, those who didn't seem overly focused on dismissing the new Texas Chainsaw’s political bent as insubstantial and obvious while reserving their praise for thin polemical allegories that cynically cater to the aspirational viewer like horror satire The Menu, which Tallerico and Sims both gave positive notices. For legacy publication critics of this mold, political undercurrents that run counter to the dominant narrative must be belittled. The South is full of psychos that can’t have motivation for their anger. Those blue dotters living in cities like Austin are the perfect future of the Beto kind that will show the region the error of its ways. We are a threat to be neutralized, left functioning only to serve as the scapegoat Beard argues Hollywood almost uniformly presents us as.

In truth, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the definitive film of the post-COVID influencer era, unafraid to slash at the veneer of online activist personalities like Harry Sisson and Chris Mowrey to expose their posturing and antipathy toward those who don’t abide by the groupthink. The original Chainsaw Massacre may have featured innocent kids meeting their maker, but they were also the jaded townies coping with the flower power era’s failures as they lumbered toward the future.

In contrast, the Gen Zers of Garcia’s Chainsaw are blinded by their bubble of do-gooder rhetoric. “We have a vision for this place,” Dante proclaims. “All it needs is young blood. People like us. Tired of the big city. Looking for a fresh start.” Melody chimes in, “This is a chance for people to start fresh without the violence and the madness. Somewhere safe.” Whether or not the film’s detractors willfully ignore it, Garcia casts his protagonists as ironic anti-heroes who clearly aren’t in on the joke. The politics they so vehemently believe in has turned their cities into the hellscapes they think only they can fix by running and replicating.

In general, horror films featuring Gen Z characters are ideologically different from their predecessors. Where once there was a Boomer or Gen X final girl who defeated the boogeyman and made it to the next sequel (or a millennial final girl who survived with a friend or love interest), Gen Z characters are either easy prey or must rely on an elder to extinguish the threat and save them. More often than not, they are the cause of the problem in the first place (Evil Dead Rise, Bodies Bodies Bodies) or are too blinded by idealism or ideology to understand reality (the new Halloween trilogy, Barbarian). Even amid such well-reviewed company, Texas Chainsaw serves as the ultimate Gen Z horrorshow.

In a bold move, Dante is African-American, the stardom-obsessed ringleader of the group who jokes they should rename the town “Dantopia” to celebrate his vision and “the joys of late-stage capitalism.” Early in the film, Garcia includes a scene where the all-white cops pull over Dante. What the hip entrepreneur clearly hopes to exploit as driving while black ultimately becomes the Sheriff’s warning that he expects these interlopers to show respect for the town. Dante plays the victim, but the moment he needs help evicting Leatherface and his caretaker, Mrs. MC (Alice Krige), from their home, he has the local police on speed-dial.

In contrast, Melody is ambivalent about their gentrification project–a physical manifestation of the post-2016 quip that the new generations' politics will prevail when the old die off. She works herself up to histrionics when she sees a Confederate flag outside the former orphanage where Leatherface lives–more upset even than Dante. This prejudice leaves her with a vendetta against Mrs. MC that fuels her desire to evict her in the heat of the moment and leads her to make the fatal mistake of not checking the title that shows the company she and Dante run never purchased this particular property.

As Leatherface rediscovers his love of chainsaws and goes berserk (culminating in a party-bus massacre of Gen Z venture capitalists broadcasting the buffoonery of this walking Southern stereotype until they realize he actually is eviscerating them), the film reaches its logical conclusions about violence: those crushed by a system and driven to mental illness will always find a way to massacre. In a town of gun-toting libertarians, Leatherface’s weapon of choice remains his trusty chainsaw, a tool that has long symbolized working-class revolt in the horror movie. Monsters do not just appear out of the ether in a failing society; they are created by those amateur social engineers who feel their position endows them with an infallible superiority. Melody mocks a store owner who hocks Leatherface memorabilia and who promptly calls the group “gentri-fuckers" (Garcia’s brilliant jab at tourism as the South’s last resort after the war on coal and a global exodus of manufacturing thanks to union power grabs and agreements like NAFTA). She does eventually show remorse for her actions, but she must face the consequences of her hollow worldview.

Though Garcia did take critical fire for casting Lila as a final girl with a past as a school shooting survivor, his choice lays bare the manner in which the always online world deals with tragedy. As the only one of her friends not killed during the fictional Stonebrook High massacre, Lila has turned herself into a perpetual victim. The media’s obsession with her has left her listless and unable to define herself in another way. She exhibits a fascination with guns, picking up an AR-15 belonging to local contractor and 2A advocate Richter (Moe Dunford) before she gets triggered and tosses it away. Her victimhood has repressed her ability to fight back. Even when she picks up said AR-15 to put down Leatherface, she is denied her moment of redemption because she was never trained to use a firearm.  

In the world of Garcia’s Chainsaw, guns are a mere tool that are largely ineffective. Richter’s sidearm is no match for Leatherface’s hammer to the legs and face. A grizzled Sally comes to the rescue to fix her own trauma with a full arsenal, but Leatherface dispatches her anyway. Garcia doesn’t go so far as to say guns don’t kill people, but the film shows a fervent belief in the last half of that infamous maxim.

In the end, the critical vitriol against Texas Chainsaw likely stems from its lack of catharsis. Leatherface doesn’t die and reclaims his town. An arrogant Melody pats herself on the back for surviving until she doesn’t. Sally never gets her revenge as Leatherface completes the work he began decades ago. However, Sally does impart some knowledge with her dying breath that leads to Lila’s restoration: “Don’t Run.” Lila may not have made it to the firing range, but she ends the film no longer a victim. She knows tragedy may befall her again and take everything away from her. Still, she’s gotten this far. And now she will never forget the importance of living.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre is streaming on Netflix.