The last audiences saw of Sally Hardesty, the sole survivor of 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she was left broken and barely alive after her narrow escape from Leatherface and his family of backwoods cannibals. Subsequent Chainsaw films revealed that Sally had been institutionalized almost immediately, slipping into catatonia inside a mental hospital. Sally wasn’t seen on-screen again until a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in 1994’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, where she was just a mute shell of a woman strapped to a gurney.
Proudly defying continuity, Sally Hardesty returns for the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the confusingly titled sequel that arrives February 18 on Netflix. By the looks of things, she’s feeling much better. Now played by the Irish theater star Olwen Fouéré—Sally’s original portrayer, Houston actress Marilyn Burns, died in 2014—she’s first glimpsed calmly gutting a pig with a Buck knife. She’s become a stony badass in a tank top, a mane of untamed white hair cascading down her back. A bit of voiceover from John Larroquette, reprising his narrator role from Tobe Hooper’s original, informs us that Sally eventually overcame her mental breakdown and joined the Texas Rangers. Trauma has hardened Sally into a survivalist, like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. To make an even more apt comparison, she’s like Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s 2018 reboot of Halloween and its sequel, having similarly devoted her life to preparing to kill the masked man who tormented her so many years ago.
Like Green’s Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is billed as a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper’s original film, which means it ignores at least seven other Chainsaw sequels, prequels, and assorted reboots. It also implicitly asserts its superiority as the real next chapter in the story. Which, fair enough: the Chainsaw timeline became convoluted to the point of incoherence ages ago; woe unto anyone tasked with making sense of that whole Illuminati subplot that The Next Generation introduced, for example. But also like those new Halloween movies—and certain other, years-later sequels to movies that have long since become cogs in the intellectual property machine—the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is grimly serious about its lore and legacy, crushing this lean, endlessly renewable tale of a maniac man-child who carves up random teens under the tedious weight of mythos.
That may be welcome news for anyone who’s yearned for closure on Leatherface and Sally’s relationship, longing to see these two nemeses locked in some sort of final showdown. It’s not a completely terrible idea. In David Gregory’s 2000 documentary Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth, Burns even suggested it herself, saying, “What I wanted to do was to come out of my mental institution and go after the family. . . . I thought that would make a good movie.”
And maybe it would have, if Burns had made it. But without Burns, Sally’s return in Texas Chainsaw Massacre feels less like cathartic payoff than uninspired fan service, concocted solely to prove the film’s “respect for the legacy of the first movie,” as producer Fede Alvarez put it—you know, as compared to all those other, less serious Chainsaw films. Say what you will about the escalating insanity of the franchise, which has lapsed increasingly into self-parody. But at least those movies tried new things, adding strange new wrinkles to Leatherface’s fractured psyche and giving us a chain saw–wielding Dennis Hopper slashing the hell out of some logs. They were wild and fun, in all the ways this dour, self-important sequel simply isn’t, because it’s too busy “respecting the legacy.”
Frankly, it shouldn’t be that hard to make a good Texas Chainsaw movie. Get some sexed-up young’uns, have them stumble into the Texas wilderness, then turn Leatherface loose to hunt them down. And to their credit, Austin-based director David Blue Garcia and first-time screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin do seem to grasp the glorious efficiency of that formula, at least initially. Texas Chainsaw Massacre follows a group of Austin-via-California “influencers” as they blow into the dying small town of Harlow, Texas (in reality, the passable look-alike of Bulgaria), angling to buy up all of its dilapidated real estate and fill it with artisanal cafes and art galleries. Among these opportunistic hipsters, only Melody (Sarah Yarkin) harbors any reservations about the gentrification—especially after it forces out a frail, elderly woman (Alice Krige) who’s discovered to be living in an abandoned orphanage.
Melody’s guilt quickly turns to terror once the woman’s adopted “son,” Leatherface (Mark Burnham), is awakened after years of peaceful dormancy. As his home rapidly fills up with other Gen Z entrepreneurs, Leatherface skins himself a fresh mask—this one makes him resemble the late actor Peter Boyle, if he’d been dredged out of a garbage disposal—then hauls out his trusty chain saw to take his revenge. Leatherface’s return calls Sally into action, as she sets out to settle their fifty-year-old score.
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (arguably the most hyperanalyzed horror film ever made) has often been interpreted as a sly anti-capitalist statement—a nightmare vision of rural America lashing out at the industrial society that rendered it obsolete. There’s definitely something equally, mordantly amusing here about seeing Leatherface mow down a bunch of Instagram-addled kids who are trying to turn his humble town into the next Marfa. In the film’s most memorable scene, Leatherface goes ripping through a crowded, neon-lit party bus while everyone just stands there, livestreaming it on their phones and threatening to “cancel” him. It’s ludicrous and, for a brief moment, fun, even if it has all the wit of a “snowflake” meme your boomer dad shares on Facebook.
The scene is also loaded with gore, something this Texas Chainsaw Massacre has in spades—and hammers, and cleavers, and other blunt objects that go slicing and smashing into people’s faces, heads, and necks, most of them via good old-fashioned practical effects. But whatever fleeting joys are to be found in the splatter and satire are frequently doused by the film’s resolutely solemn, strangely mournful tone. Melody’s younger sister, Lila (Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher), is the PTSD-suffering survivor of a school shooting, and repeatedly flashes back to a trauma that’s meant to mirror Sally’s own and reinforce the film’s narrative of empowerment, I suppose, while also commenting on America’s regrettable modern norms. Mostly, though, it just feels like a crass bid for topicality. And it continually brings the film to a screeching halt, asking the viewer to stop and reflect on our tragic, real-world violence before it gets back to the decapitations.
Meanwhile, the town locals—historically a carnivalesque delight of redneck threats in the Chainsaw franchise—are reduced here to a single pistol-packing, feral hog–shooting contractor named Richter (Moe Dunford). “I don’t like people tellin’ me what to do, especially smug, self-righteous, rich city folk,” Richter snarls, although it sounds a lot less menacing coming out of a handsome Irishman. And of course, Richter inevitably turns out to be a decent guy whose suspicions are completely justified. In this film, even Leatherface gets a sympathetic point of view, his motivation to avenge his “mother” given the same emotional weight as Sally’s own vendetta against him.
Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre derived a lot of its terror from sheer randomness—the notion that there are gleeful psychos lurking on the outskirts of civilization, indiscriminately killing anyone who blunders into their world, every human reduced to squealing “meat” on their butcher’s table. But in the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s no such thing as a senseless killing. Everyone is connected; everything is laden with meaning. The film manages a few thrills along the way, and it may please the “true fans” who demand a sort of grave earnestness that can properly validate the things they love. But it doesn’t cut nearly as deep.