Leatherface (2017): Witness the Retconning of a Legend

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1972) is a horror classic. Few critics would argue with that statement. Yet the history of the franchise is far more convoluted and troubled than its horror counterparts like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. To date, there have been three sequels spanning the 1980s and 1990s with questionable continuity. These sequels were abandoned for a reboot and prequel in the 2000s. Most recently, a 2013 sequel was released that positioned itself as a direct sequel to the original film, thereby ignoring everything that came before it.

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 Leatherfacewas 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

Leatherface is officially a prequel to Tobe Hooper’s original classic. At the start of the film, audiences are introduced to a 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.

Taking a 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 franchise’s other sequels and reboots. 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. Neither Ike nor Clarice never seem remotely possible 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, the sensitive but explosive Jackson is revealed to be “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. The film’s road trip could have been quite compelling if the focus had been on nurse Elizabeth’s struggle to survive a war of attrition between the escaped mental patients and the vengeful Texas Ranger Hal Hartman. Neither Elizabeth’s nor Hartman’s plights are compelling enough to fully engage audiences. Stephen Dorff is perfectly fine as Hartman but he isn’t given the screen time to necessarily explore his grief and motivations. As a result, he comes across as a fairly two-dimensional villain. Played by Vanessa Grasse, Lizzy is written very inconsistently across the film, 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 another character is ‘curb-stomped’ against a rock. And of course it couldn’t be a ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ film if there weren’t a couple of gruesome chainsaw eviscerations. All of this violence is framed close-up with few quick edits; Bustillo and Maury prefer to let the camera linger on the destruction.

A Missed Opportunity But Worth a Look

After watching Leatherface I was puzzled by the studio’s decision to let the film languish on the shelf for so long. There are a lack scares across the film and its focus is more on dizzying violence than sustained tension. However, Leatherface is a briskly paced film with decent acting performances and enough to keep your interest until its conclusion. At the very least, the prequel is head and shoulders above the dreadful Texas Chainsaw 3D that was inexplicably given a wide theatrical release a few years ago. It also makes an effort to make some connections across the other films in the franchise. At the very least, Texas Chainsaw fans will find something to enjoy in Leatherface.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C

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Author: Andrew Welsh

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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