Did you think I could just let Halloween go by without acknowledging a new entry in our very first October marathon? Last year saw the ever-so quiet drop of a Texas Chainsaw flick, and we'll be checking it out today as a special Halloween treat, now that the Children of the Corn are tucked safely in their beds.
Director: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Sam Strike
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Clearly the world wasn't clamoring for the further adventures of Leatherface after Texas Chainsaw 3D, because Leatherface - a prequel directed by the men behind French extreme classic Inside, no less - received as much fanfare as a wet fart, slinking shamefully into a direct-to-DirecTV release (seriously) before what Wikipedia claims was a limited theatrical run, but you coulda fooled me. Luckily, this inauspicious debut doesn't immediately bely that Leatherface might be the worst movie in the franchise, because come on. Have you seen the rest of the franchise?
Lili Taylor clearly hasn't, because she signed on to be in this one.
Leatherface is the second prequel in the franchise, but it seems to take place explicitly within the timeline established by 3D, which ignored the remake and its prequel, so technically this one takes place roughly a decade before the original Tobe Hooper masterpiece. Not a great place to start, but let's see how this goes.
The year is 1955. Verna Sawyer (Lili Taylor), the character that made the least sense in Texas Chainsaw 3D, a movie that made nonsense into an art form, is a hillbilly matriarch who encourages her many many sons, but most importantly her baby Jed (Boris Kabakchiev, whose name is the first tip-off that this movie was shot entirely in Bulgaria), to be ruthless family-defending killers. Jed doesn't seem to take to killing as well as his older brothers Drayton and Nubbins (Dejan Angelov and Dimo Alexiev), but he is forced to be involved in the killing of a local teen who just so happens to be the daughter of the sheriff, Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff). Hal uses this to get revenge on Verna and locks Jed away in the Gorman House, a sanitarium for youngsters.
Cut to a decade later. New nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) has just taken on a position at Gorman, a typically wicked movie asylum where grotesque experiments are conducted by the evil head doctor (Christopher Adamson) and everyone is movie star gorgeous but very pale because they're crazy. She is kidnapped during a mass breakout and forced to make way to Mexico in a stolen van with violent couple Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen), who have also kidnapped her favorite patient Jackson (Sam Strike) - who has taken it upon himself to ruthlessly protect her at all costs - and the bumbling giant lug Bud (Sam Coleman, who appropriately played young Hodor in Game of Thrones).
While Hartman pursues them with murderlust in his eyes, Verna attempts to find Jed, and we the audience are left to wonder which of these kids with Lizzy is Jed, because they've all been given new names, and one of them has to be Jed because this movie isn't called Lizzy's Road Trip.
Although considering how lithe and sexy the cast is, it does feel like a certain extension of the Eurotrip universe.
Well one thing I can say for certain about Leatehrface is that it's faithful to the Texas Chainsaw franchise. By that I mean it continues the series' tradition of having completely incomprehensible continuity. I don't want to spoil too much, but there's no way what is revealed here could possibly lead to the Leatherface we've come to know and love. What we're given here is more a Norman Bates story than anything, and if you tried to line up every character here with their counterparts in the original, or even Texas Chainsaw 3D, you'd have to rip those puzzle pieces apart with a chainsaw to get them to actually fit.
But we've come to expect this kind of thing from a Chainsaw movie, so it's not great but not altogether surprising. What is surprising is the structure of the narrative, which forgoes the traditional Chainsaw formula (a group of teens is mowed down until the single surviving girl is forced to sit down to dinner with the crazed clan) in favor of something completely unrecognizable. The fact that it's barely recognizable as a plot at all is beside the point. It's at least something different from the excruciatingly repetitive extended third acts of six previous movies.
Unfortunately, the mystery angle doesn't really fly. While it's fun to sit there and guess who might be revealed to be the grown-up Leatherface, the reveal is dully predictable, and the need to keep the identity of Jed in the dark for plot purposes prevents the screenplay from diving into the inner workings of its title character. There's no conceivable way to draw a line from Jed at the end of this movie to Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw, and you don't come out of this prequel with any deeper understanding of what might be going on in that flesh-shrouded head of his, which you'd think would be the entire point of a prequel that bears his name.
He doesn't even touch a chainsaw until like the final five minutes! Even Jason took Manhattan way sooner than that!
It's also incredibly difficult to figure out who to root for. Leatherface doesn't exactly position itself as a Hero Killer movie where you identify with the tragic descent into insanity, but Lizzy - who is positioned as the de facto protagonist - is an incredibly dim-witted character whose every terrible decision makes her more and more odious and ethically questionable. Her actions directly lead to the deaths of innocents because she refuses to act on information she knows to be true. I'm being vague on purpose, but she's a character who doesn't just make you want to smack yourself on the forehead, you'll want to bludgeon your skull so hard you forget you ever encountered her.
For the purposes of my own sanity, I'll pretend Verna is the protagonist, because Lili Taylor is putting her back into this role. She's obviously a talented actress, but her portrayal of Verna gives the woman so much more depth than she deserves. She would have been great as just a butch mama bear, but she layers thought upon emotion upon physicality to turn Verna into an optical illusion, where unless you look at her just the right way (AKA if you just read the script) she doesn't seem like a one-dimensional cypher. Taylor also delivers the single most epic slap in cinema history in an early scene, a moment that will stick in my brain like barbed wire for decades to come.
I'd hoped Bustillo and Maury would bring their no-holds-barred sensibilities across the pond, but it seems like their approach didn't quite translate for the American studios. There is a lot of nasty implied gore, and a couple pretty killer death sequences (to coin a nifty phrase), but something tells me the infinite list of executive producers that graces the first three minutes of this film has watered down their work a bit.
They do bring a lot of beauty to the film at least, especially in a scene with smoke emerging from a character's mouth that weirdly reminded me of the forgotten Italian slasher Trhauma, but their style is certainly not Texas enough for a Chain Saw picture. There's no scrubbing the Euro out of this film, especially considering that they literally shot it there. I wouldn't say it's a bad movie, not at all, but it's certainly not a Texas Chain Saw and it feels too filtered through a hundred different perspectives to be particularly coherent at the end of the day. I'm still down to see what these directors and some of these actors do next, but this particular entry doesn't really wet my whistle, so to speak.
TL;DR: Leatherface is at least different from the endless litany of disjointed sequels in the Chainsaw franchise, but it's so different that it feels entirely pointless most of the time.
Word Count: 1375
Reviews In This Series
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)
Leatherface (Bustillo & Maury, 2017)