I speak now not to the legions of people who dismissed Texas Chainsaw 3D out of hand. This is exactly the movie you thought it was, and my positive review (still written in a mild state of shock) should not dissuade you from your instincts. You won’t like it. Move along. Instead, I speak to the gore hounds and horror aficionados in the crowd, the ones who look at this film and think “maybe it won’t be so bad.” It’s not. In fact, it’s kind of surprising. And interesting. And even entertaining after a fashion, if your idea of entertainment involves warranty-voiding uses of the Black & Decker catalog. We set our sights pretty damn low for a horror movie sequel opening in the first weekend of January. In this case, Lionsgate hits us with a nifty little rope-a-dope.
Why? We’ll start with its respect for the Tobe Hooper original: not as a way to slap a marketable brand name on inferior product, but as a filmmaker to whom this crew legitimately paid attention. This is not a sequel to the recent spate of Michael Bay-produced remakes; instead, it opens with five minutes of flashbacks from the Hooper film, then kicks off immediately after Hooper’s final shot. You don’t need to know anything else about the franchise, and can cheerfully ignore the other legions of sequels. (And let’s face it, if we tried to figure out continuity for this entire franchise, we’d be up drawing diagrams all night.) A lynch mob shows up at The House Where All the Heinous Shit Happened. They burn the place to the ground. One of them finds a little baby nearby and decides to adopt it. The rest of the cannibal family gets burned alive… or so we think.
Fast-forward twenty years. The baby girl (Alexandra Daddario), now grown-up and living in Oklahoma, gets a FedEx message that her biological grandmother has died. One “why didn’t you tell me I was adopted” fight with her folks later, she and a truckload of dippy friends head off to see the new house she’s inherited. As you might guess, this is a bad idea… for a number of reasons. (If you have to ask why a van full of Oklahomans should never go to Texas, please consult your nearest Oklahoman immediately.)
That’s not the interesting part, since you can probably guess what happens when they get there. The interesting part comes from the town not far from that inherited house. The long-ago lynch mob leader is now the mayor, his yahoo buddies run the local businesses, and none of them feels all that bad about taking the law into their own hands that long-ago day. Suddenly, our clear-cut moral divisions look a lot murkier than we expected, and the movie actively takes that ball and runs with it. Are the people in charge – the ones we hope those hapless victims will flee to – actually all that better than the cannibals? Are their abuses any less awful than the monsters they try to destroy? You can agree or disagree with the answers, but Texas Chainsaw 3D gets props for at least positing the questions. Sure, the film features tons of gore, but doesn’t seem interested in cheap-thrills payoffs as much as the fascinating ambiguities that crop up along the way.
That alone signals a sea change in what this movie was supposed to be. And it doesn’t stop there, either with its straight narrative (refusing to rest on simple kill shots) or in the curious way it grasps Hooper’s underlying messages. The sense of losing your ethical bearings – of suddenly finding yourself in a strange and frightening world where the rules we learned so well no longer apply – permeates every frame. It doesn’t run nearly as strong here as it did in Hooper’s film, but if you listen closely, the heartbeat comes sure and steady.
Nowhere can you sense that respect more than with Dan Yeager, whose Leatherface comes eerily close to Gunnar Hansen’s performance in the 1974 original. Hansen himself has a cameo, but Yeager’s turn represents a far more loving homage. He moves like Hansen did; he carries the same sense of the Jungian Other let out of his cage. And with him as our guide, we slowly see a movie that quietly exceeds our admittedly modest expectations. Even now, I still don’t know if it’s good. I do know, however, that I leaned forward in my seat with 20 minutes to go, thoroughly invested in the outcome and not quite certain what the filmmakers had in store. I know that the film never made me want to walk out, or urge it to get to the damn boss fight already because it was boring the shit out of me. I know that I drove home thinking about surprisingly weighty things: abuses of power, the tyranny of families and why monsters hold such a primal appeal. And I know that the prospect of seeing this movie again actually makes me a little excited. I don’t want to go overboard in my praise: there’s a lot of by-the-numbers material here, and I sincerely hope that this isn’t the best horror movie of 2013. But if this is the worst, then hang on, because we’re in for a very good year indeed.