Filmed two and a half years ago in Bulgaria and collecting dust on a shelf until now, Leatherface purports to be a direct prequel to the original 1974 Tobe Hooper horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with no references to any of the later films or the tangled continuity of this seriously belabored franchise. In the tradition of all prequels, the movie fills in the back story of Jedidiah Sawyer, the youngest member of the cannibalistic Sawyer clan, and how he turns from a sweet little boy (relatively speaking) to the human-skin-wearing, chainsaw-wielding murderer known as Leatherface.
As with all prequels, they shouldn’t have bothered. What made the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre so extraordinary was that Hooper made it feel like an actual nightmare on screen, with logic and rationality increasingly drained from the narrative to be replaced with sheer insanity, claustrophobia and terror (and, it should be noted, very little onscreen gore). The cumulative effect of that movie was and continues to be overwhelming, a sensation that none of its follow-ups have ever achieved.
Leatherface joins that dubious club by virtue of the fact that it explains away a large chunk of that terrible dream-like scenario. In the original film, Leatherface stands out because he (or, for all we know in that first movie, she) is a complete enigma even in a family of homicidal lunatics. Leatherface simply exists; we don’t know why he wears a mask made of human skin, we don’t know why he wields a chain saw, we don’t know anything except that, in the grand tradition of the great movie monsters, he is a seemingly unstoppable, unknowable force. That is what makes him so frightening.
But Leatherface the movie tells us everything we didn’t need to know about the hulking human beast, starting with a birthday party when he’s a kid that serves as his initiation into the family practice: he’s handed a chainsaw and expected to slice up a handily provided victim. But his mom (Lili Taylor, cashing a check) still loves her boy, and when a series of events lands him in a mental asylum, she is determined 10 years later to get him out at any cost.
That’s when Leatherface turns from a horror movie into a prison escape story and then takes another turn into a road movie, as four patients break out with a hostage nurse (a bland Vanessa Grasse) along as leverage. Hot on their trail is Sheriff Hal Hartman (an over-the-top Stephen Dorff) and his deputy Worrels (Finn Jones of Iron Fist infamy, charmless as ever), with Hartman losing his grip on sanity as he seeks revenge for the Sawyers’ nasty murder of his own daughter. The gimmick is that we’re not supposed to know at first which of those escapees is actually Jedidiah, although Seth Sherwood’s screenplay makes it obvious enough relatively soon in the game. After that it’s just the inevitable slog toward the pre-ordained conclusion, the curse of all prequels.
Leatherface is directed by French horror “auteurs” Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, best known for their overrated 2007 gorefest Inside, in which a pregnant woman fought and lost against a female stalker looking to claim the woman’s baby for herself. The lack of real human emotion and characterization in that film (kind of endemic to most of the French New Wave of Horror that the pair were at the forefront of) carries over to Leatherface as well. Shot to look as grimy and smeary as possible, the film seems only interested in a nihilistic race to see how it can outgross itself at each turn (the necrophilia-laced sex scene probably takes the cake).
Because we know the outcome, there’s no suspense about whether or not poor Jedidiah will embrace his destiny as a Sawyer once we know who he is. None of the other characters register as anything resembling people we might care about either. The characters in the original film weren’t exactly multi-faceted and complex, but because that movie was told mostly from the point of view of Sally (Marilyn Burns), you couldn’t help but empathize with her. Leatherface offers no point of view, no empathy, very little mystery and ends up just a repulsive bore that replaces real horror with blood and guts. With any luck, the franchise runs out of gas here.
Leatherface is out in theaters and on VOD this Friday (October 20).
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