The death of the inimitable Tobe Hooper, creator of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, has cast a considerable shadow over Leatherface, the unasked-for origin story of his greatest creation from French directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (of Inside fame). That the film was in developmental hell for what seems like forever surprised no one, but a gnarly red band trailer seemed to suggest, against all odds, that it was on the right track.
The finished product starts off in the right manner, too, with a jittery, close-up filled cold open that introduces Lili Taylor’s fearsome matriarch (she just can’t catch a break as a horror mother–first The Conjuring and now this?) and her gaggle of kids. Shockingly, this includes a moment where someone else is called a hillbilly. By a Sawyer. Every camera angle is so Dutch it may as well be wearing clogs and eventually a chainsaw is trotted out as a birthday gift.
This was all teased in the trailer, so it’s spoiling nothing to say that this very clunky prelude is meant to introduce us to the boy who would be Leatherface. We then move swiftly (after an interminably long credits sequence, lengthy enough to rival that of xXx: Return Of Xander Cage) a number of years into the future, after the kids have been taken away by mean sheriff Stephen Dorff and relegated to life in a mental asylum.
Run by an elderly gentleman whose agent clearly answered the phone when Malcolm Mc Dowell’s did not, it’s here we are introduced to audience surrogate Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse), a drippy young nurse who will surely be scooped off and trotted across Texas to meet her gruesome fate before the next ninety minutes are up. She flirts with a young man while his brother looks on. One of them will soon be Leatherface. The question is, which one is it?
Leatherface‘s problems are many. Bustillo and Maury, talented filmmakers both, seem to think they can recreate the true-life feel of the original movie by moving the camera as much as possible whenever anyone is standing still. The score is honking and ever-present. Bulgaria scarcely passes for rural Texas, particularly when characters are soaked in blood and clearly freezing their butts off trekking across a too-green field.
The central mystery of who will become Leatherface is ostensibly the focal point of the whole story, its entire reason for being, but some ill-advised misdirects mean it becomes more of an annoyance, an irritation that makes the pace feel plodding rather dramatic. This is essentially a road trip movie that owes a considerable death to Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, itself an homage to Hooper’s classic.
The comparisons become glaringly obvious as the movie trudges on to its inevitable conclusion, right down to the inclusion of a loopy, necrophiliac blonde (of course, even RZ understands we only need to see Otis in bed with a corpse to get the message–that’s right, these guys show less restraint than Rob Zombie). Thankfully, there’s no rape scene, but what we get instead is arguably more unsettling (not to mention try-hard).
It wants to be a rougher watch than it is (or, at least for different reasons) but for all its posturing (particularly in the case of that superb trailer), Leatherface boasts shockingly little violence and even less chainsaw action. There’s an argument to be made about it being teased the whole way through, but there’s little to keep us invested in the plight of the central group (all of whom are horrible and dull in their own ways).
Dorff has fun chewing it up, seemingly convinced this is his bid for Oscar glory, and Taylor is reliably great, but the rest fade into the background. The man who would be Leatherface is such a blank slate, it’s a struggle to identify him following the film’s conclusion. The Sawyer homestead, built off the plans for the original house, is impressive, but we don’t spend nearly enough time there and its location in relation to a plot-point-specific barn is murky.
For all the buildup for the big reveal, the ending of Leatherface makes little sense and isn’t terribly satisfying, for hardcore fans or otherwise. Texas Chain Saw purists will wonder why this film even exists when it tells us next to nothing about the titular character, while casuals and newcomers will be confused about why Leatherface matters at all in relation to virtually everyone else onscreen.
With his flawed but ambitious 2007 prequel Halloween, Rob Zombie tried to explain the machinations of a character he’d spent his whole life obsessing over. Unlike Michael Myers, though, Leatherface already had a certain amount of empathy given his position as the dolt of the Sawyer family. Leatherface doesn’t know whether to pity or herald him and, in failing to make a decision either way, ultimately makes Leatherface the least compelling character in his own movie. Sacrilege, surely.
WICKED RATING: 4/10
Director(s): Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury
Writer(s): Seth M. Sherwood
Stars: Lili Taylor, Stephen Dorff, Finn Jones, Vanessa Grasse
Release: September 21, 2017 (DirecTV), October 20, 2017 (limited theatrical and VOD)
Studio/ Production Co: Campbell Grobman Films
Length: 90 minutes