Taken away from his deranged family by the state, young Jed Sawyer eventually ends up in a criminal facility for violent youths. When a riot breaks out, he finds himself on the run with a group of other volatile individuals. Evading a vengeful lawman, Jed gradually finds his way back to the Sawyer homestead, where he can take his place within the family to become the killer known as Leatherface.
It’s difficult to approach a film with an open mind when the fact that it exists at all feels like an issue. There are few who would argue that Leatherface: The Formative Years was something the world needed and yet here we find ourselves; mourning the loss of Tobe Hooper as an unnecessary prequel to his most monumental of cinematic achievements lands on us. Not that the beloved director would be exactly turning in his grave however; he and original Texas Chain Saw Massacre writer/producer Kim Henkel both serve as executive producers on this new vision, after all.
Leaving behind the Sawyer homestead for most of its duration (or rather, hurtling toward it), Leatherface eschews the perhaps expected kids-get-stranded-and-set-upon narrative, opting instead for a violent, Bonnie and Clyde (plus three) road movie. Pursued by Stephen Dorff’s Ranger Hal Hartman, whose daughter is murdered by the Sawyer clan during the film’s opening, five fugitives are taken on the road by psychotic lovers Ike and Clarice who charge across the country like Mickey and Mallory Knox, blasting through the patrons at a diner en route to Mexico, in one of the film’s stand-out scenes. Indeed, it is during the more violent moments like the diner massacre that the film finds itself working rather well.
The narrative’s strongest asset is the ambiguity surrounding Jed’s identity. When Lili Taylor’s Verna Sawyer (far and away the film’s best performance – all controlled, bubbling fury and concealed mania) bursts into the hospital where her son is held, she is told that all the inmates’ names have been changed, and it becomes something of a guessing game as to who among the core group will eventually don that famous mask. It’s a bold decision that differentiates the film from other such origin stories, and raises questions throughout. It does mean however, that we are made to wait for the finale for any real chainsaw action, although when it comes, boy howdy is it bloody. The climax as a whole though, is pretty undercooked, with no time given to the tearing apart of one of the film’s key relationships, and little belief that the burgeoning monster is on the doorstep of becoming the iconic figure of the title. We are taken to the Sawyer house for the third act, and into a familiar hallway, but it is as though the film is holding back on treading too closely to the original film for fear of disrespect, when in this regard, it could have done with daring to go all in.
A smart move in bringing Leatherface to the screen was the hiring of Inside directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury; if you’re going to cash-in on a classic, you may as well make it look nice. And while visually the film breaks no new ground, it is satisfying to look at, with all the sun-baked Southern sweat you’d expect although – as with Marcus Nispel’s 2003 TCM remake – none of the grimy, queasy Texas authenticity of the original. And is that not the problem with all more recent films linked to the franchise; ramping up the gore is little substitute for the squalid danger of Hooper’s landmark film.
Whereas Rob Zombie’s depiction of Michael Myers’ upbringing formed part of a reimagined take on its source material, Leatherface marks itself as a prequel to one of the greatest films of all time, without feeling as though it runs into it. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre told us all we needed to know about its murderous man-child, due to the late Gunnar Hansen’s tragic, unhinged portrayal. Taking an interesting narrative approach to the subject, Leatherface is perfectly watchable, well performed and enjoyably bloody, and about as good as a completely unnecessary prequel can reasonably be. Like Nispel’s take, it’s a solid if unremarkable horror flick, but if you’re going to hang onto the heels of a classic, you simply must deliver more than that. It’s probably the best Texas Chainsaw film not directed by Hooper although, unfortunately, that amounts to a pretty flimsy endorsement.
Words: Kevan Farrow (@KevanX)