Long Live Goddamn Fucked Up Horror Pictures
Warning: Spoilers for Texas Chainsaw Massacre and X follow.
There’s no shortage of wistful recollections from lifer horror fans, many of them filled with the nostalgic retracing of childhood footsteps through musty video stores that became sanctuaries for our budding obsessions.
The more I analyze this niche nostalgia, the more I wonder if it’s not because these stores were meccas of access. Surely we have more titles at our disposal now, most of them remastered in pristine formats far more advanced than their VHS ancestors. Rather, it’s more that these memories preserve a pure state of mind, when tantalizing covers in the horror section represented forbidden fruits. After all, the art was often their entire appeal. Rare was the case when I’d start with the film’s synopsis, which usually acted more like a footnote to the garish covers and gory money shots contained on a black tape's sleeve. Elaborate words weren’t necessary when a tape sported immaculately rotting zombies, toilet monsters, masked maniacs, and dead teenagers to entice me to plunk down a few bucks for a night's worth of cheap thrills.
The promise was clear: rent this tape and you’ll see some fucked up shit. At a certain age, that titillation was more than enough. Subtext? Politics? Discourse? The only necessary conversation existed between you and your schoolyard buddies as you passed around exaggerated sleepover memories like they were some kind of mind pollution contraband. For the entirety of it's existence, the horror genre has made a simple pact with viewers, who tacitly agreed that disreputability was the draw. Whether they admit it or not, horror allows the viewer to indulge in, and perhaps even enjoy, the sort of squeamish, unseemly corners of imagination they’d never dare peer into on their own accord.
While even the most base examples of these efforts inherently sported some sort of subtext/political dimension, these points of view were certainly not always the main draw. However, in recent years, the dynamic has noticeably flipped (at least in some corners genre fandom), to the point where we’ve invented labels to describe these politically charged, subtext-driven, thematically heavy films, such as “elevated horror” or “post-horror". Even Jordan Peele calls his own films “social thrillers”.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this: I’m not insisting that horror can’t or shouldn’t be driven by the more cerebral, noble approaches found in Get Out (2017), Midsommar (2019), and Black Christmas (2019), and it’s far from the first time the genre has thrived on such fare. In fact, horror is an even more vibrantly crazy quilt when filmmakers bring social concerns to their pictures, and it’s fair to assume this movement will rightfully define this particular moment in time.
Nevertheless, every movement inevitably inspires a response, and we may be witnessing the horror genre’s burgeoning revolt against recent trends -- the proverbial moment where the “elevated horror” wave is breaking and rolling back to reveal that primordial sludge where fucked up shit still reigns supreme.The response was clearly articulated earlier this year when Scream (2022) etched terms like “elevated horror” and “legacy sequel” into its own lexicon of genre commentary. But behold, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) and X (2022) have also entered the chat. Both films exhibit an acute awareness of recent genre trends and cliches, particularly in regards to the various discourses regarding subtext and aesthetics.
The former seems hyper-attuned to the way recent horror movies have been unsubtle vehicles to explore social issues; so much so that the very nature of its premise feels like a parody: a group of Gen-Z kids (including a Black man and a school shooting survivor) have bought a Texas ghost town to gentrify it into a hipster oasis. Their takeover becomes hostile when they kick an old woman (Alice Kriege) out of a house she legally owns, drawing the ire of both her adopted son, Leatherface (Mark Burnham ), and a pistol-packing good ol' boy who drives a gas-guzzling pickup (Moe Dunford).
You don’t have to strain to see that Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems to have something to say about these topical issues. Even so, you may strain to find any kind of consistent, coherent statement about any of it. Whether it was by design or a byproduct of a tumultuous production, the sequel doesn’t clearly advocate for either side of the political spectrum. Rather, it feels primarily motivated by vintage exploitation tactics, mainly in the way it provokes everyone who seems to lay eyes on it.
The only consistency here is the saw, which carves through the "woke" and the “unwoke” alike with impunity, underlining the folly of trying to find coherent politics in the 9th entry of a franchise about a chainsaw-wielding redneck. As Fangoria editor Phil Nobile Jr. wrote in a recent edition of the Terror Teletype newsletter, this chaotic, almost nihilistic approach to messaging stands in stark contrast to the past “five-plus years of thinking all horror films must be poignant metaphors for trauma, grief, abuse, and whatever else your MFA thesis said they were.” It’s tempting to dismiss Texas Chainsaw Massacre as politically confused or thematically muddled, but what if it’s just playing dumb in this respect? What if it’s instead a pointed satire, Leatherface's whirring blades aimed straight at cowardly horror filmmakers who value subtext over scares?
Texas Chainsaw Massacre goes a step further by hacking up nostalgia-gazing conventions of recent “legacy sequels”, most notably by reintroducing Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, subbing for the late, great Marilyn Burns) as an obvious Laurie Strode copycat -- the lone, traumatized survivor turned avenging angel. After living with the memory of what Leatherface and his family did to her and her friends for the past 50 years, she’s poised to take vengeance on behalf of this new generation. Only her confrontation with her tormentor lasts for all of a couple of minutes before she, too, is flung into the grist mill, just another anonymous slab of meat for the pile. Texas Chainsaw Massacre explicitly confirms what Halloween (2018) suggests: these monsters don’t give a shit about their victims’ grief and trauma, so trying to mine profundity from such an angle is futile.
Instead what Texas Chainsaw Massacre insists is that you’re really here for Leatherface, and it’s all too giddy to unleash a septuagenarian man-beast on a horde of fresh meat. The film’s signature scene revels in the purity of watching an iconic slasher do his thing when the power tool wielding manaic carves through a party bus, splattering its neon-soaked interiors with chunks of dismembered and disemboweled viscera, creating exactly the type of scene your 12-year-old self couldn’t wait to breathlessly recount on the playground.
By the time this sequel hilariously recreates the iconic final shot of Tobe Hooper’s original classic, it’s hard to see it as anything but a wry black comedy that captures the faintest glimmer of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and The Next Generation (1994), a pair of sequels engaged with the memory and legacy of the franchise’s first film. This latest entry suggests that maybe we’re overthinking these long-running series by saddling them with overwrought subtext and vapid call-backs. Maybe we should collectively admit that the very existence of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel in 2022 is absurd, and it’s fine if it’s just a vehicle for bad taste and sick gore effects.
After all, Hooper and Kim Henkel hatched the original as a shock to the system, with the director regaling interviewers with tales of revolted audiences puking in the parking lot after watching his movie. Yes, that original film has earned its reputation as a definitive dispatch arising from the morass of Vietnam, sounding a Flower Power death howl; however, it’s also a movie that opens on a pair of exhumed corpses sweltering in the blistering Texas sun and has no qualms about carving up a guy in a wheelchair. In its screwy way, the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre wants us to recall the guttural shocks of the original, and it should come as no surprise that it hails from producer Fede Álvarez, the schlock purveyor behind the vile, unapologetic Don’t Breathe (2016/2021) films.
With X, Ti West engages with the notion of “elevated horror” by exploiting horror's disreputable distant cousin: pornography. In trademark fashion, his story is a familiar one: a group of carefree youth embarks on an idyllic road trip that quickly goes south when they encounter a bizarre, rural family that wants to violently punish the intrusion. By making his ill-fated set a group of outsider porn filmmakers, West holds a mirror up to the dual, shared aims of both “dirty movies” and horror, providing some sly genre commentary that ultimately asks viewers to confront just what they want out of both. Specifically, we’re meant to question what we want from X and its slasher movie ilk, and West supposes that it’s okay to admit why this genre works: it’s riveting to watch unhinged weirdos fuck people up.
While constructing this thesis, West juxtaposes the conventions of both slashers and porn, at one point cutting between the banal setup for the in-movie smut (a Black man’s [Scott Mescudi] vehicle breaks down, leading him to bed a licentiously Caucasian farmer’s daughter [Brittany Snow]) and the obligatory moment in a slasher movie where the audience knows things are awry (one of the girls [Mia Goth] has an uncomfortable encounter with the creepy old woman who owns the property being used for the shoot). Audiences inherently recognize (whether they like it or not) what both of these scenes will lead to - especially since the crew shoots the sex scene before this set-up, further highlighting their priorities - and West thinks that’s perfectly okay. He even has the characters cite Psycho (1960) as an example of a mid-movie twist just before you know X itself is about to pivot from orgy hang-out to body count bloodbath.
From a purely narrative standpoint, X mostly does what you expect it will. Sure, West has fun with the particulars but, like schlock masters of old, he knows what the people are here for; a mantra that’s even held by the film’s in-movie porn producer (Martin Henderson), who insists on delivering the perverse goods in the name of making a (dis)honest buck. He emerges as an obvious mouthpiece for West’s meta musings: the mercenary devil on your shoulder who’s just worried about getting the shot. Meanwhile, his director (Owen Campbell) insists that he’s not just making any old porno. No, he’s going to experiment with lensing and avant-garde editing because “it’s possible to make a good dirty movie". Sure, kid. Whatever.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that this highfalutin' director is the first to get it in the neck when he attempts to flee the scene. However, his bloody demise also feels like a pointed response to his lofty artistic goals. Then, just when you think West is going to side with Henderson’s exploitation huckster, he drives a pitchfork right through his skull. Maybe it’s not that either man is right or wrong. Maybe this is just West calling for the death of this particular discourse. Yes, it is possible to make a good dirty (or scary) movie, but do we need to go through the charade of acknowledging this at this point? To paraphrase Annie Brackett from the OG Halloween (1978): let’s stop talking about things and get down to doing them. X just does the damn thing, abandoning any manufactured meta posturing and delivering one of the most thrilling slasher movies in recent memory.
West reminds us that the more warped corners of horror history have often been content to revel in gore and schlock, and X is no different. The multi-hyphenate filmmaker knows he can’t tease the presence of an alligator without eventually feeding at least one cast member to it. Hell, West even knows you can’t swipe “Don’t Fear the Reaper'' from Halloween without pairing it with the ghastly, indelible image of an old woman brutally stabbing someone to death while she’s in the throes of an orgasmic delirium. He knows you can’t make multiple references to an old man’s bad ticker without paying it off in hilariously grim fashion. He knows that you know the “Final Girl” conventions and gleefully toys with those expectations for the sheer hell of it.
Most of all, it knows that slasher movies often hinge on how weird and wild their killers can be, and West conjures a twisted pair in Pearl and Howard, the two codgers who just can’t abide all these young kids fucking on their land. However, their disdain doesn’t spring from the typical conservative roots espoused by the televangelist throughout X (whose very presence feels like misdirection). Instead, it turns out these two are horny as hell and wish they could still fuck. As far as “twists'' go, it’s sneakily clever, if only because it rekindles the primacy of the slasher subgenre by reducing the killers’ motivations to sheer jealousy, and West thoroughly explores the twisted potential of the premise. Let’s just say that the future 12-year-olds who smuggle X onto their screens will likely have the wildest stories on the playground.
It’s not particularly showy, yet it feels fresh in the wake of Scream and other deconstructions, perhaps signaling that we’ve pulled ourselves through the bloodstained looking glass and arrived back at square one: horror films can also be at their best when filmmakers embrace the genre and have fun within its sandbox instead of burning it down. Sometimes, well-executed schlock is just as fun as self-assured subversion. When a bemused sheriff (James Gaylyn) surveys the carnage and speculates on the contents of the porn crew’s film canister, he correctly guesses it’s “one goddamn fucked-up horror picture,” a declaration that doubles as an exclamation mark, emphatically accentuating West’s mission statement with X.
Again, this is not a call for horror to become the exclusive domain of edgelord gorehounds. Nor do I think that these films are anti-intellectual (X especially re-imagines the genre’s sexual politics, but that’s a different discussion altogether). They’re not telling us to completely turn our brains off. Rather, they’re potent reminders that horror can be its best self when the genre’s primal draws are at the forefront; whether it’s sex, violence, or a delirious blend of both. In that aforementioned Terror Teletype, Phil also considers the new Texas Chainsaw to be “a bend in the road, an indication that horror is ready to stop being so po-faced and concerned with your trauma”. X hits the gas right into that bend, acting as another possible herald of a movement back to a time when horror wasn’t just confrontational, but actively invited you to be a sicko.
It seems significant that the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, X, James Wan's Malignant (2021, where the requisite grief and trauma manifest as a maniacal tumor, literally living within the protagonist’s body) and even Studio 666 (2022, no grief, only blunt force trauma to the skull as the Foo Fighters attend '80s horror fantasy camp) have been peddled to mass audiences via theaters and popular streaming services, all of them united in a shared aim to cut loose and evoke an era when melting flesh and mangled faces gracing the covers of Fango could sell a movie as effectively as an ominous, wispy trailer promising weighty, existential ruminations on life. While it’s been nice having this lifelong obsession validated in recent years by the reputable Hollywood machine, I’m just as eager to get back to horror movies fucking me right up and making me feel like a degenerate, still passing along recommendations on a digital playground with fellow mutants hoarding their own contraband.