The Socially Conscious Revamp That Never Was

Allow me to preface this review but stating that, in the very peculiar case of Texas Chainsaw 3D, I’m not really interested in the film’s visual properties. I offer this disclaimer because a lot, if not all, of self-respecting horror fans will be. They will decry how something whose source material is so structurally masterful, atmospherically oppressive and downright filthy could end up looking like an extended R&B music video that happens to feature Leatherface (indeed, Trey Songz scowls and flexes his way through a starring role in the film).

And rightfully so.

Texas Chainsaw 3D’s optics are what they are – onion thick layers of gloss and all-too-neatly painted on grime. This new franchise installment from director John Luessenhop, who previously made the more fittingly glossy actioner Takers, moves efficiently, but paints by numbers, with pacing better suited for chases conducted in cars than on foot. And yet, ever since the moments immediately following my watching Texas Chainsaw 3D, I am far more pre-occupied with social issues that its narrative, however formulaic, made me realize I’ve ignored.

This “continuation” of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opens with Drayton “The Cook” Sawyer (a woefully underused cameo by Bill Moseley, paying homage to the late Jim Siedow) and the rest of the cannibal Sawyer family facing off against the vigilante citizens of Newt, Texas, in a Mexican standoff of sorts. Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry), presumably the only black man in town, warns against Burt Hartman (Paul Rae) and his ragtag gang blowing the Sawyers away to kingdom come and burning down their house. In spite of his badge, Hooper is ignored. I mention Hooper’s blackness because I am reminded of another recent southern-set, aesthetically bankrupt remake, Straw Dogs (2011), whose racial dynamic also depicts whites’ dismissal of black authority as a prime contributor to a climate of violence. Eventually, Hooper stands down, and the bloodthirsty townspeople have their day as “heroes.”

Whether the complicit Hooper is a stand-in for President Obama – whom, until 20 six-year-old children were murdered in a mass shooting in an elementary school, offered no promise of legislative action, as countless other murders on US soil were caused by un-curtailed gun possession – is unclear. Texas Chainsaw 3D is not concerned with political commentary; it’s a studio cash-in, with some affectionate but worthless winks and nods to a concept that was once made terrifying.

Texas Chainsaw 3D’s representation of Leatherface also flirts with big ideas; Dan Yeager, whose only preceding work is as “Cop 2” in a rock n’ roll comedy called Metal Heads, takes on the role made indelible by Gunnar Hansen in 1974. Texas Chainsaw 3D marks the first time Leatherface is not confined exclusively to an isolated area. Here, his chainsaw cuts through the literal and figurative fence that separates him from civil society. Once cut through, he wields his murder weapon at a crowded, family-friendly carnival, out in the open. Men, women and children by the numbers flee for their lives. This sequence almost sets the stage for a mass shooting – or sawing. But again, it’s Texas Chainsaw 3D. Everyone gets away, and we cut to the film’s final girl protagonist, Heather (Alexandra Daddario) recapping the film’s events with other disposable, 2D characters.

I point out Texas Chainsaw 3D’s potential because I really don’t think it had to be this way. But alas, what could have been a subversive American commentary masquerading as a midnight movie ends up being just a shoddy midnight movie. Heather’s boyfriend, Ryan (Tremaine Neverson, AKA Trey Songz) enters the picture as the Chain Saw franchise’s first black male love interest, and together the two of them comprise its first biracial couple. This very atypical bit of casting is, in and of itself, fascinating. But before the movie can even attempt to make a social statement about the clash between urban and rural cultures Heather and Ryan embody, Ryan is off screwing around with Nikki (Tania Raymonde), and then gets killed in a car crash. If you’re mad I just spoiled the movie, I submit to you I haven’t. What didn’t happen between Heather and Ryan is the real spoiler.

The rest of Texas Chainsaw 3D is a mixed bag of mediocrity: a watered down montage of Heather investigating evidence at police headquarters; a half-baked “transformation” of Heather from Scream Queen to Sawyer Queen Bee; and a final moment with Leatherface that reduces the character Yeagar actually plays with some earnest tenderness to a subservient pit bull. (Surprise! Leatherface is Heather’s inheritance, and she gets to keep him for herself!)

The fact that Texas Chainsaw 3D flirted with big ideas, though, touched a nerve. Since the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I have sat in completely unguarded theaters time and time again. One theater near where I live is easily penetrable, to the point of it being local common knowledge that one can stealthily walk inside and see a film without a ticket, or for that matter, a second glance from management. And yet, I still see films at this theater, despite the fleeting waves of paranoia I force myself to ride out, knowing all too well my safety in public spaces (like the one Leatherface terrorizes in this movie) is not guaranteed. If Texas Chainsaw 3D teased out its subtext, about a lawmaker who fails to stop violence until it spreads like the plague, I would have welcomed it with open arms. Hell, it may have reassured me that my paranoia in that theater hasn’t all been felt in vain.

But essentially, Texas Chainsaw 3D gets a ton of air before diving into the pool of great genre remakes, only to smash its face on the diving board. Carpenter turned The Thing into a study of male isolation. Cronenberg turned his remake of The Fly into an allegory for the ‘80s AIDS epidemic. Am I that crazy to suggest this one could have offered a critique of the social ills of today? I’m not against remakes. But will we ever get another that matters?

FOR THE RECORD: Texas Chainsaw 3D demonstrates a relatively restrained use of 3D. There’s a bit set in a coffin that offers a cheap thrill, which is more than can be said for a certain 2003 film by Marcus Nispel.

– By Max Weinstein