Leatherface: Witness the Retconning of a Legend

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an undisputed horror classic. Yet the history of the franchise itself is pretty convoluted. Unlike its its horror counterparts, Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street, the TCM series has a spotty track record. To date, there have been three sequels spanning the 1980’s and 1990’s with questionable continuity. These sequels were abandoned for a reboot and prequel in the 2000’s. Most recently, a 2013 sequel was released that positioned itself as a direct sequel to the original film.

When Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury were announced as the directors for a new Chainsaw prequel, there was early optimism among fans. After all, Bustillo and Maury’s work on Inside was  well-received and offered some promise of a harder edge to Leatherface. After filming wrapped up in 2015 Leatherface was inexplicably shelved with no trailer or release date information made available. Eventually Leatherface was dumped on streaming platforms last fall with a very limited theatrical release. Was this a bad sign or just an oversight by the studio?

Synopsis

At the start of the movie, young Jedidiah Sawyer and his bloodthirsty clan including mother Verna, older bothers Nubbins and Drayton, and Grandpa Sawyer . Following the death of a young woman on the Sawyer farm, Jedidiah is removed from his home and institutionalized at a youth mental institution. Ten years later, four patients escape from the facility, taking a nurse, Elizabeth White, as a hostage. The escaped patients include psychopathic lovers, Ike and Clarice, the large and silent Bud, and sensitive Jackson. A mentally unstable Texas Ranger, Hal Hartman, the father of the young woman murdered 10 years earlier at the Sawyer farm, ruthlessly hunts down the patients. Everything builds towards a final confrontation on the Sawyer farm where “Leatherface” will be revealed.

Leatherface Takes Few Risks with Familiar Material

Credit to screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood and directors Bustillo and Maury for trying a different approach. While the ‘road trip’ narrative bares more than a passing resemblance to The Devil’s Rejects, it serves to instantly distinguish Leatherface from the rest of the series. Much of the problem with Leatherface lies with the fact that is is a prequel. With prequels there is ultimately a predetermined endpoint, often limiting a filmmaker to “connecting the dots”.


Sherwood and company do try to misdirect audiences about the identity of the young Leatherface. Unfortunately, the reveal is never really in doubt.

Sherwood and company do try to misdirect audiences about the identity of the young Leatherface. Unfortunately, the reveal is never really in doubt. Neither Ike nor Clarice seem remotely plausible as candidates given their screen time. The hulking, slow Bud should have been our Leatherface – he made the most sense. However, in an effort to swerve audiences, Sherwood pens the sensitive, but explosive, Jackson as our “Leatherface”. This misdirection never feels right as Jackson has few characteristics you’d associate with the iconic horror figure for most of the film. A quick shift in character in the final moments feels shoehorned into Leatherface to connect it more closely with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Taking The Monster Out of the Shadows

Leatherface also suffers the same problem as many horror sequels with a memorable villain – it places too much focus on the antagonist. There was potential with the movie’s road trip premise. If the story had instead focused on nurse Lizzy”s struggle to survive a war of attrition between the patients and the vengeful Texas Ranger Hal Hartman, we could have had a more tense movie. Neither Lizzy’s nor Hartman’s plights are compelling enough to fully engage audiences. Stephen Dorff is fine as Hartman, but Bustillo and Maury don’t give him enough screen time to explore his motivations. As a result, he comes across as a fairly two-dimensional villain.

As for nurse Lizzy, screenplay writes the character in a very inconsistent manner. Initially sympathetic to Jackson and then turning quickly on him. This character shift exists more to justify Jackson’s descent into “Leatherface” than as a function of organic character development. Taking Leatherface out of the shadows and having so much of the film focus on him reduces much of the mystery and menace surrounding him.

No Skimping on the Gore

Bustillo and Maury are the same filmmakers who gave audiences the “New French Extremity” film, Inside. Not surprisingly then, Leatherface has several scenes of extreme and startling violence. The hospital breakout scene is appropriately chaotic with a couple of death scenes that may leave some viewers squirming. Later in the film, one character viciously ‘curb-stomps’ someone against a rock with very little left to the imagination. And of course it couldn’t be a ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ film if there weren’t a couple of gruesome chainsaw evisceration’s. Bustillo and Maury frame all of this violence with close-up shots and few edits; they prefer to let the camera linger on the destruction. Gorehounds should be entertained with the prequel.

A Missed Opportunity But Worth a Look

After watching Leatherface I was puzzled by the studio’s decision to let the movie sit on the shelf. Yes, there are a lack scares. Not surprisingly, Leatherface is more concerned about dizzying violence than sustained tension. Nonetheless, the prequel is briskly paced movie with better-than-expected acting. Certainly, there’s enough to hold your interest until its conclusion. At the very least, the prequel is head and shoulders above the dreadful Texas Chainsaw 3D. And the studio inexplicably gave that movie a wide theatrical release. As a bonus for series’ fans, Leatherface makes an effort clean up the franchise continuity. Overall, Texas Chainsaw fans will find something to enjoy in Leatherface.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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