I’m all for bad horror movies having short running times. (It lessens the pain.) And there are classics of horror cinema that are notably compact, like “Frankenstein” (1931), with its twisty tumultuous plot that lasts 71 minutes, or the original 1974 version of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which achieved its slow-burn descent into the abyss in just 83 minutes.
But the new, garishly crude, bluntly overlit, what-you-saw-is-what-you-get “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which in case you’re counting is the eighth “Chainsaw” movie since the original (in the case of this series, you’d need a serious flowchart to diagram where the sequels meet the reboots meet the origin stories meet the what-the-hell-let’s-just-do-this-again whatevers), manages to carve out a scanty running time of 82 minutes simply because there isn’t much to it. It’s set in the present day, 50 years after the original, which means that Leatherface must be pushing 70 (in his freshly cut mask of human skin, he doesn’t look a day over 65), but it would be generous to call the film a continuation of the “Chainsaw” saga. It’s more like a blood-soaked but unscary footnote.
A group of Gen-Z entrepreneurs — snowflake “idealists” from Austin, with some serious venture capital behind them — show up in the Texas town of Harlow, which looks like the decaying set of an old Western. These yuppie missionaries have arranged to auction off the town to investors who will turn the abandoned storefronts into restaurants, galleries, comic-book stores, you name it. They’re doing their bit to help America by converting a Texas ghost town into a thriving hipsterville! The plan is so impractical yet arrogant that you’re more than ready to see them all chainsawed.
Melody (Sarah Yakin) and Dante (Jacob Latimore), who are leading the mission, spot a Confederate flag hanging from an old orphanage and enter the building; inside, they find the old lady who used to run it (she’s played by the venerable Alice Krige). They claim that she’s squatting there; she says the place is still hers. There’s even a lone aging orphan who still lives there — a familiar, portly figure we see in silhouette at the top of the stairs. But our righteous gentrifying heroes kick her out of the place, which causes her to have a seizure, and on the van ride to the hospital she dies. That’s when the portly orphan, who was riding in the van with her, slices off her face to wear it as his own.
He’s Leatherface, all right. But it always bugs me when the Leatherfaces in these recycled movies wear masks that don’t look like, you know, Leatherface. In this one, he looks like a soggy gray potato crossed with Peter Boyle. The Leatherface masks you can buy in a costume shop are scarier.
Since the previous two films in the franchise sort of softened Leatherface up (“Texas Chainsaw 3D” made him a sympathetic avenger, and in the coming-of-age saga of “Leatherface” he was an abuse victim), it’s hard for the new film to put the genie of Leatherface’s poor, poor pitiful backstory back in the bottle. When he reaches into the closet where Melody is hiding, and pulls out a dress that belonged to the orphanage headmistress, cradling it to his body with his bloody hands, we half expect to see a tear rolling down that dead skin mask. But it doesn’t take long for Leatherface, his mad-child rage retriggered, to strap on his butcher’s apron and get his rampage groove back.
There’s a good bit where Leatherface, having powered up the old chainsaw, uses it to slice through the length of a wooden floor as he tries to get to the slithering victim below. And there’s a splatterific sick-joke sequence in which Leatherface enters a tour bus full of partying investors, who hold up their phone cameras in fear as he starts to slice and dice away. The sequence, drenched in bad-dream neon blue, is an orgy of severed limbs and sawed-off torsos, with Leatherface particularly favoring the chainsaw-through-the-belly-and-lift move, which he just about turns into a bloody pirouette. The original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is legendary for not actually being very gory (like the “Psycho” shower scene, it was mostly poetic suggestion). But after 50 years of graphic movie dismemberment, that ship of slaughter has sailed.
And then, of course, there’s Sally Hardesty, the lone survivor/heroine of the original “Chain Saw,” played here by Olwen Fouéré, who in smart-looking denim and a Stetson, with flowy white hair and a hawkish profile, looks like Geddy Lee’s slasher-avenger sister. The whole notion of bringing back Sally as a regal badass with PTSD feels inspired by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode to the current “Halloween” series (Marilyn Burns, who played Sally in the original “Chain Saw” and showed up in two of the sequels, died in 2014). The idea is that Sally has spent all of these decades searching for Leatherface. Near the end, she turns to Lila (Elsie Fisher), her feisty 21st-century counterpart, and says, “He will never stop haunting you.” But the truth is that Leatherface stopped haunting us long ago. In “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” he’s just a gruesome action figure.