Leatherface (2017)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-09-23 04:27

Written by: Seth M. Sherwood (screenplay), Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper (characters)
Directed by: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, and Sam Strike

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The massacre begins.

In a better, more just world, Leatherface would be a seismic event: finally, after years of teasing a leap to the States to helm a horror franchise, Inside auteurs Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo arrive to usher the Sawyer clan back to the screen after a four-year absence. But alas, we live in the sort of world where this snake-bit duo is still under the radar: their follow-up film Livide continues to collect dust on Dimension’s shelf, and it took a few years for Among the Living to make it Stateside. As such, it’s sadly no surprise that Leatherface debuts amidst whispers of a tumultuous production that prolonged the film’s release long after it started filming over two years ago. Unconfirmed rumors of reshoots and multiple edits have dulled anticipation, so much so that Leatherface finally drops with little fanfare, dumped by Lionsgate as a DirecTV exclusive before it bows on other VOD platforms next month. While the DTV arena no longer carries its former stigma, nothing about this particular release inspires much confidence.

Unfortunately, the final product bears this out: Leatherface is a dull drag, one that explores previously-covered territory that nobody was exactly clamoring for in the first place over a decade ago. I’m not saying it’s impossible to produce a great Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel; however, I am saying we now have two pieces of evidence to speak to how difficult of a task it is. Simply put, Leatherface reiterates an old horror adage: most monsters are better left as enigmas, as this represents another instance of shedding too much light on an icon, crippling their mystique in the process.

To its credit, this version is at least somewhat more ambitious than Platinum Dunes’s connect-the-dots prequel, which felt like a lesser retread of the company’s terrific 2003 reboot. This one serves as the lead-in to Tobe Hooper’s original, taking viewers all the way back to the 50s, where young Jed Sawyer is hesitant to participate in his birthday festivities that would have him torturing a “guest” with a chainsaw at the behest of his deranged family (headed up by Lili Taylor’s Verna Sawyer). Much to their disappointment, Jed refuses to take up the family business, and some years later, he’s just as tentative: it’s at this point that older brother Drayton has lured the local sheriff’s (Stephen Dorff) daughter to the family barn with the hopes of finally initiating his little brother.

Instead, he has to do the dirty work himself, much to the horror of the increasingly unhinged sheriff, who has been unable to pin a rash of grisly murders to the Sawyers. At the very least, he at least has enough evidence to take Jed away from the family on the grounds of child endangerment, a turn of events that sends Jed to a ward for orphans, where he resides for the next decade. This is where the bulk of Leatherface picks up, as Verna arrives to the sanitarium with the intention of raising hell and breaking out her son, whose name has been changed to protect his identity—and preserve the film’s ill-advised, pointless dramatic conceit. It turns out that Verna’s plan is successful enough to spring a quartet of patients, including psychotic lovers Ike and Clarice (James Bloor & Jessica Madsen), sensitive soul Jackson (Sam Strike), and his brutish, stocky, semi-mute companion Bud (Sam Coleman). After taking the latter duo as hostages alongside a nurse (Vanessa Grasse), Ike and Clarice hit the road towards Mexico, leaving a trail of carnage every step of the way.

Obviously, this is not your typical Texas Chainsaw Massacre film—whatever that means, anyway. This is a franchise that notoriously resists recycling its formula, to the point that the goddamn Illuminati somehow got involved by the fourth installment. Say what you want about this series, but it’s rarely churning out the same old shit over and over, so Leatherface at least upholds some of the franchise tradition by taking on the form of a road movie. Granted, that’s just about the only way it honors its title, but it at least proves there was some inkling or spark of ambition behind this project at one point.

Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t match the intent, as Leatherface feels like an uninspired riff on Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie’s films in its quest to blend violence, twisted romance, and revenge. Not much about it clicks, largely because the characters range from unpleasant to unremarkable: Ike and Clarice are dismal caricatures Xeroxed from the lovers-on-the-run template, while Jackson is an utter void as the “nice kid” from the group. Bud does have a certain charm about him, particularly in the way his feral outbursts clash with his almost childlike innocence (sounds familiar, right? We’ll circle back around to this.). For a film of this type to work, you have to feel some investment in the characters, particularly when one of them will eventually assume the iconic Leatherface mantle, a plot point that’s easy to forget considering how far removed these events are from the franchise.

At the very least, this deranged group does weave an impressive amount of carnage, starting with their escape from the sanitarium. With Bustillo and Maury at the helm, this feels like a foregone conclusion, but they deliver the violence in ample amounts (and with practical effects to boot). Heads are bludgeoned by rocks and splattered by gunshots, with other extremities proving to be quite expendable too, particularly once the film recalls its franchise legacy and reasserts that the saw is still very much family. More blood and gore are shed in single shots here than in Hooper’s entire original film, which is not a criticism but rather an observation that Leatherface is yet another entry that foregoes suspense and atmosphere in favor of delivering on-screen carnage.

To be fair, there are worse directions to take, particularly since Bustillo and Maury specialize in this kind of wanton bloodshed. Even this doesn’t really impress, however—something about it just feels like old hat at this point, as the duo rarely infuses the proceedings with their signature sense of style and mood. Leatherface is often just haphazard butchery, rolled out dutifully as a matter of course and rarely having any impact. Occasionally, it taps into Hooper’s squeamish sense of the macabre, such as when Ike and Clarice fuck atop a decomposing corpse; however, such flourishes are so fleeting as to render the proceedings into a rote, mechanical prequel checklist. Here’s Grandpa Sawyer wheeled out, this time spry and very much among the living; here’s other familiar names and faces from the Sawyer clan; here's the iconic flashbulb and familiar tracking shot, here reduced to fanservice gags; finally, here’s Leatherface brandishing his chainsaw and donning his iconic mask for the first time, fashioned from his eventual victims here.

Granted, the script does try to toss in a curveball in regards to Leatherface’s true identity. (This is the point where I loudly broadcast a SPOILER WARNING if you’d rather not know.) For all the world, it seems patently obvious that Bud—the shaggy, squealing manchild of the group—is Jed, no matter how impossible that may seem given Sawyer’s physiology as a child here. In fact, it’s almost too obvious, especially with how the film goes out of its way to play coy about the subject, leading you to an even more obvious assumption that Jackson is actually your boy Leatherface. The seemingly good-hearted, quite eloquent, brooding kid of the group that the entire story is framed around just might be the title character—shocker!

I’m not even sure why anyone bothered with this particular device: dramatically and narratively, it accomplishes nothing beyond a cheap “shock” you’ll see coming from a mile away anyway. Concealing Leatherface’s identity has no real function here; in fact, it actually weakens the story since the misdirection and mystery dilutes whatever arc he has. Leatherface is so preoccupied with being clever that it does a complete and utter disservice to its titular icon, here reduced to a dumb “twist” instead of functioning as an actual character. Even more distressing, the reveal is utterly ruinous of Leatherface himself; somehow, screenwriter Seth Sherwood conjures up an origin story even worse than the skin disease nonsense in the Platinum Dunes films.

The impetus here is laughably silly, and this is not to mention the zero-to-sixty turn Jackson takes in finally claiming his Sawyer legacy. One minute, he’s the “nice guy” of the group trying to protect the nurse; the next minute, he’s lopping her head off, revealing that Leatherface is yet another burly mama’s boy, as if the genre weren’t populated with enough of those already. What’s more, it’s impossible imagining this wiry, baby-faced void of charisma ever becoming the Leatherface that will terrorize Sally Hardesty and her friends just eight years later. In its attempt to trick viewers, Leatherface instead leaves them utterly confounded and disbelieving of it all. To put it bluntly, this never feels like a true prequel to the events of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, no matter how much it postures as one—it’s merely some familiar iconography that’s been ripped off, stitched together, and grafted onto this gangly, unwieldy mess.

Of course, that iconography has an obvious appeal—there’s a reason this is the eighth Texas Chainsaw film, after all. To be sure, it’s hard not to get a kick out of Leatherface when it does return to the franchise’s more familiar confines. The series may infamously shift and contort with each entry, but it will always thrive on the primal horrors introduced in Hooper’s original. Even here, when it’s couched in absolute nonsense, that desolate Sawyer abode remains a house of horrors for anyone who dares crosses it, and the last fifteen minutes of Leatherface confirm that maybe you would have been more content with a more standard Texas Chainsaw outing all long.

It’s here that Bustillo and Maury capture something of the sun-splashed ghastliness that made Hooper’s film so indelible, meaning the film ironically springs to life when it’s treading its most familiar ground. The climax—which also features a moody, moonlit chase through a fog-drenched forest—is among the film’s best sequences, if only because the combined powers of the directors’ aesthetics and lively performances from Taylor and Dorff give it some semblance of personality that’s otherwise sorely lacking. More than anything, you just really want this movie to spring to life in some way and stop feeling like an obligatory follow-up, even if it is too little, too late here.

The total anonymity guiding Leatherface is most disappointing here. With this directing duo and this franchise, you expect something more consistently distinctive, not something that feels like it might be decent if it were titled Wrong Turn 7. Like that franchise, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been completely reduced to a cash cow that’s been bled for all its worth and then some. When you’re tackling yet another sequel in a franchise, it’s perhaps forgivable; when you’re talking about a second goddamn prequel, something may be frighteningly amiss.

Bustillo and Maury’s presence might guarantee that Leatherface at least looks the part of a fine, slick production, but the more overbearing, disconcerting presence of a legion of producers and multiple editors has ground this final product into a diluted, amorphous sludge. I’ll take the insane whirring, buzzing cacophony found in the likes of The Next Generation or even Texas Chainsaw 3D before this utterly forgettable, disposable junk, an admission that has me totally confounded about the future of this franchise—if, indeed, it even has much of one at all.

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