(by Dustin Putman
Even as it sinks into far-flung insanity, "Texas Chainsaw" earns points for auspiciousness. Following 2003's inferior but acceptable remake and 2006's tauter, improved prequel, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," this unrelenting little morsel of depravity dares to return to its roots, picking up immediately after the classic 1974 original in an alternate reality that pays no mind to the events of 1986's deliciously (and very, very darkly) comedic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2." Throughout, director John Luessenhop (2010's "Takers") and screenwriters Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms seem to be at war with which style to infuse the proceedings with: the grimy, gritty docudrama aesthetics of the older films, or the slicker—if also gorier—Platinum Dunes reinvisionings. One thing is for sure: as bold and frequently intense as this new installment is, there must have been test screening-inspired studio interference on the project's way to release. How else to explain the movie's nonsensical established setting of 2012 when, save for a tacked-on sequence near the end involving a camera phone, it is plainly obvious the picture was meant to be set in the early '90s? By pushing the timeline forward by two decades, any person with the most cursory of math skills will see that it doesn't hold water—that is, unless our fresh-faced heroine, a baby in the 1973 prologue, is supposed to be a 39-year-old woman who hangs with college-aged pals. Article continues below
After Sally Hardesty, heroine of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," narrowly escaped with her life, an angry mob took eye-for-an-eye justice into their own hands, shooting the cannibalistic Sawyer clan and setting fire to their farmhouse of horrors. All were presumed dead, save for a baby who was never found, secretly raised by two of the vigilantes as their own. Now, years later, a grown Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario) receives a double shocker: (1) that she was adopted, and (2) that the blood grandmother she never knew in Texas has died and put aside an inheritance for her. Wanting to pay her respects and fulfill her relative's wishes, Heather heads down to the Lone Star State with boyfriend Ryan (Tremaine 'Trey Songz' Neverson) and friends Nikki (Tania Raymonde) and Kenny (Keram Maliki-Sánchez) tagging along for support. What she arrives to is a lush gated mansion that is hers for the taking, impeccably designed and furnished, but hiding a murderous secret in the basement's catacombs: her chainsaw-wielding, mentally challenged cousin, Jed, a.k.a. "Leatherface" (Dan Yeager) himself.
"Texas Chainsaw" deceptively abides to formula for its first hour or so, setting up a van full of nubile young things as they head through the backroads of Texas, gleefully ignorant to the mortal danger that awaits them. It's all very workmanlike and predictable, but it also proves spectacularly efficient at providing a handful of solid, jump-making scares and a stark ruthlessness that reminds, indeed, of the '74 version above all others. In attempting to evade death, characters make some dumb decisions and stumble at inopportune times, but there is a believability in their rash mistakes here and a brutality to their nasty spills. Though over too quickly, the central chase set-piece between Leatherface and Heather shows a deft ingenuity as they end up in the midst of a town carnival, the laughter of the crowds offset by a terrorized woman and a maniac in hot pursuit.
Where the story goes in the third act should not dare be given away, but it is both daring and preposterous in just about equal measures. Realistically, Heather's arc is a tough pill to swallow, and yet within the movie's internal logic, there is a certain quirky rationale behind the decisions she ultimately makes. A case of venturing too far off the beaten path of this franchise's bread and butter, perhaps, but it is director John Luessenhop's willingness to go out on a limb and try something different that is finally admirable in the home stretch. The decision to treat Leatherface as a person rather than a monster goes hand in hand with the finale, and it somehow makes him all the more frightening that he's viewed so very human.
"Texas Chainsaw" will no doubt divide audiences, even within die-hard fan circles, but it is almost always preferable to take chances than to repeat old tropes with no concern for putting a spin on things. In connecting a seamless branch to the granddaddy that started it all, the film falters big time by being set in a decade that doesn't make a lick of sense to what has come before. Working around this careless narrative discrepancy, "Texas Chainsaw" offers up some pleasing thrills. As Heather, Alexandra Daddario (2010's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief") strikes as an off-beat choice for a protagonist—her blue eye shadow alone would render her the disposable sexpot in any other slasher flick—but the actress is committed and ably gets a more complex character to play than the usual so-called "Final Girl." Meanwhile, Tania Raymonde (TV's "Lost") entertainingly essays the aforementioned looser gal, Nikki, ensuring she's somehow likable even as she sleeps with her best friend's boyfriend right under her nose. And then there's newcomer Dan Yeager, who wordlessly captures the horrific, if oddly sympathetic, essence that Gunnar Hansen brought to the soon-to-be-iconic role of Leatherface nearly forty years ago. He's quite good, even when "Texas Chainsaw" threatens to jump the rails as a silly plot twist or two take over. In spite of these—or maybe because of the involved courage to try something new—the film defies the odds. When it works, it's about as foolproof as a shard of glass to the jugular.