In 1974, Tobe Hooper created the faceless monster Leatherface, armed with a chainsaw he used to cut down unsuspecting teens. Loosely based on the exploits of real-life serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre became one of the most influential horror movies of all time, inspiring three sequels, a remake and a prequel to the remake.
Almost four decades later, director John Luessenhop picks up where Hooper left off, as outsider Heather (played by Percy Jackson’s Alexandra Daddario) receives a mysterious letter informing her she’s inherited an estate in Texas from a grandmother she never knew existed. She and boyfriend Ryan (singer-turned-actor Trey Songz) then embark with friends on a road trip to discover Heather’s roots and, by extension, the root of evil.
Sympathetic monsters are a hallmark of the horror genre, and Texas Chainsaw 3D attempts to delve a little deeper into the demented mind behind the Leatherface mask. Family and blood ties, a running theme throughout the franchise, manifests here in a blood feud involving Leatherface's family, the cannibalistic Sawyer clan, and the angry lynch mob of hillbillies united against them.
Logic issues plague the script. Decision-making criteria are based not on what makes the most sense, but on what will look the coolest in 3D. During a scene in which Leatherface (capably played by newcomer Dan Yeager) chases Heather at a carnival, she ignores the possibility of getting help from one of the many armed policemen present and instead grabs on to the outside of a Ferris-wheel basket to escape from danger -- a means of escape that would appear rational only to monkeys and Cirque Du Soleil performers.
The characters are shallow and thin, even by genre standards. Screenwriters Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan present the audience with an amalgam of character traits, but no actual characters. In fact, most of the interactions between Heather and her friends feel like a much older writer's version of “what the kids are saying these days,” especially when the foursome is trading artificial banter and shouting 'It's a party!' any time one of them decides to turn on some music.
Blessed with at least some semblance of a backstory, Final Girl Daddario, has the most to play with and fares the best. The rest of the cast is not so lucky, particularly Keram Malicki-Sanchez's Kenny, whose only identifiable character trait is that he likes to bake crepes. Not every character has to arc or be interesting, particularly in a horror movie, but it's a little difficult to care about the guy wandering dangerously close to Leatherface's chainsaw when the only thing you know about him is that he's good at making French pancakes.
Most effective is the film's opening, which takes key footage from the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre and burnishes it with a stereoscopic makeover. Rendered in 3D, the brutality of Sally Hardesty's escape from the clutches of the Sawyer clan takes on a gauzy nightmare-like quality that’s almost worth the price of admission. But, when the film jumps to the present day, the novelty of the technology quickly wears out its welcome.
Luessenhop modulates the 3D action effectively, creating some good isolated scares, but what made Hooper's film so terrifying was that it looked like a documentary. It felt true. In stark contrast, everything about Texas Chainsaw 3D, from the pretty actors to the slick camera technology to the affected lighting, feels contrived. The result is cool to look at, but barring those moments where the sound has been ratcheted up to “Spinal Tap 11” levels to goose the audience, it isn’t scary.
Fans of the franchise will appreciate the respectful homages scattered throughout, from the old Volkswagen bus that Heather and her friends travel in to the cameos from franchise stars Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) and Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty). And ultimately, that is what is most disappointing: that the filmmakers clearly love Hooper’s masterpiece, but are powerless to make a sequel that has anywhere near the impact. Trotting out series stars and giving a 3D makeover to some of the most famous footage in horror history might engender goodwill, but it also invites comparisons that Texas Chainsaw 3D is ill-equipped to withstand.
Texas Chainsaw 3D opens today nationwide.