Saturday 31 December 2022

Texas Chainsaw Massacre | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Idealism impaled: latest instalment in Texas Chainsaw Massacre die-nasty is a gore extravaganza populated by cardboard characters.

If you find millennials and Texans getting their brains bashed in entertaining, then you’ll enjoy Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed by David Blue Garcia. Though this is far from the worst of the many films spawned by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), it further proves the impossibility of achieving the shocking rawness and brutality of the original. The latest iteration of Leatherface, whether he’s strapping on a human skin mask, bludgeoning someone with a sledgehammer, or doing his maniacal chainsaw dance, can only exist as a distilled version of his inaugural performance. 

In this Netflix-produced version, four idealistic teens from the progressive city of Austin, Texas decide to invest in the all-but-abandoned town of Harlow, also in the Lone Star State. Chefs Dante and Melody want to open a restaurant, Dante’s fiancé Ruth dreams of launching an art gallery, and Lila (Melody’s sister) is consumed by a troubled past. The quartet plans to host a party for young urbanites who are presumably considering making an investment in the town. When something happens to the caregiver of a large, mentally unstable man—guess who—he does what any sane mourner does: goes on a killing spree. 

An element of absurdity rips through this film. Leatherface’s chainsaw cleaves bodies as if they were butter. He can easily elevate his victims over his head or snap limbs like twigs. And most perplexing, his young and ostensibly fit victims allow him to annihilate them without fighting back. 

The film does have a few things going for it. First, it clocks in at just 81 minutes and quickly gets to the meat of the matter. It’s clear from the beginning that Harlow locals aren’t thrilled about these young city people invading their town. 

Another of the film’s strengths (for the gore aficionado) is that it holds nothing back. You’ll see torn-open faces, protruding bones, and limbs doing things they shouldn’t. And the ending holds up as an exhilaratingly theatrical tribute to slasher brazenness. You want subtlety? This is not the film for you.

The continuing popularity of the slasher subgenre suggests there must be something satisfying about watching dumb young adults get killed. In earlier decades, victims mostly focused on scoring and getting high. Here they seem more ambitious, but don’t be fooled – they’re still dumb. Case in point: Ruth, as she walks through a ghost town that seems more amenable to a poncho-wearing Clint Eastwood character, considers where she might locate her art gallery.   

This film also pulls a common horror movie stunt by bringing back The Texas Chain Saw Massacre final girl Sally Hardesty, now a world-weary older woman who’s been hunting Leatherface her whole life. With her cowboy boots and denim, Sally is the silly Texas version of Sarah Connor. 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with its characters hiding in the typical places and succumbing to the typical violations, offers nothing new. It does, however, stay true to the brand.–Douglas J. Ogurek***

Sunday 11 December 2022

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill (Vintage) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Small-town kid confronts cape-wearing wolf and traverses the dark corridors of mental illness.

A Cosmology of Monsters tackles many elements of the typical dysfunctional family story: sexuality hurdles, financial struggles, unrequited love, adultery, parent/child quarrels, and suicide. Oh, and it has one more thing: a relationship between the narrator boy Noah Turner and a wolf-like creature, which may or may not be the only one of its kind.

The connection between Noah and the monster – it initially communicates by writing terse messages in chalk – becomes more complex (and even weird) as Noah ages. The creature becomes a comfort to Noah as he deals with his own conflicts and those between his mother and his two sisters. Considering Noah’s family’s history of mental illness, is this monster, with its orange eyes and red cape, really visiting Noah? Is it a hallucination? Is it a physical manifestation of a mental illness? 

Author Shaun Hamill indulges in a fair amount of narrative sleight of hand. Noah narrates, for instance, how in 1968 his father Harry (whom he never knew) meets and courts Noah’s mother Margaret. Noah reflects on her decision to choose his father over a safer, more financially stable prospect. Harry, a local with a passion for paperbacks, pulp magazines, and comic books, particularly horror and Lovecraftian fiction, admits he lives with his mother, who is contending with paranoid schizophrenia. Moreover, what a jarring experience when Noah details Margaret contemplating the abortion of a child that turned out to be him. 

Much of the story revolves around The Wandering Dark, a haunted house the Turners build in their Texas town. Noah, assuming the role of a wolf – now there’s something to think about – learns how to move through the facility’s secret corridors to achieve the maximum scare. 

The book also details Noah’s interactions with his family members. Most compelling is the relationship with his sister Eunice, who serves as a second mother while battling her own demons. 

The Wandering Dark, reconstructed based on Harry’s old drawings, is a haunted house, but it is also a symbol of the life that Noah, existing in the shadow cast by mental illness, must navigate. Though the novel resorts to dream/nightmare sequences that I found abrasive, Hamill redeems himself with some impressive world-building.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***