Tobe Hooper‘s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is considered to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, and its follow-up, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, has a legion of fans as well. In recent years, however, the franchise has suffered from one poor entry after another, culminating in 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D (alternately titled The Texas Chainsaw Meh-ssacre), the worst film of the entire series.
Enter filmmakers Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Mostly known for their terrifying film Inside, the duo took over the reigns of a prequel project called Leatherface, which aims to tell the origin story of the horror franchise’s iconic villain. Featuring an impressive cast that includes Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff, the film piqued the interest of the horror community and inspired hope that the series would return to the glory days of old. Unfortunately, for all of Leatherface‘s inventiveness and ambition, the film returns middling results.
The film begins with several fun nods to the future of the franchise- something I personally loved and expect other fans to as well. We meet the Sawyer family several years prior to the events of the first film as they attempt to corrupt young Jedidiah by having him kill a local man with a chainsaw, and later use him to lure an unsuspecting young woman to her death. Texas Ranger Hartman (Dorff), father of the deceased girl, issues a court order to have Verna (Mama Sawyer, played by Lili Taylor) stripped of custody of her youngest son, vowing to have his revenge on each of her children.
Several years later, we’re introduced to characters that reside in a mental institution- many of which are violent psychopaths. The patients soon escape, and the viewer follows four of them, in addition to a nurse who’s being held as a hostage, as they flee to Mexico while being pursued by Ranger Hartman and others. Committing violent atrocities to citizens (and each other), we’re exposed to a ‘Who will become Leatherface?’ mystery that unfolds as the story progresses.
There are positive things within Leatherface that should be applauded, namely the acting and gritty aesthetic that directors Maury and Bustillo accomplish. The often underrated Stephen Dorff brings a scene stealing intensity to the role of Hartman, and when his character isn’t on screen, Sam Strike and Vanessa Grasse carry the film well as the sanest of patients and the hostage nurse. While the majority of the actors pull their weight, the three mentioned are complete standouts.
Leatherface also offers several bloody, inventive kills that will surely please fans of the series. However, these death sequences tend to feel more stylistic than substantial. The horrific events lack the same tension as the franchise’s earlier film, and I was never quite as invested in these moments as the filmmakers intended.
My biggest issue with the prequel, though, is that it never manages to feel necessary. Ranger Hartman’s revenge plot isn’t lofty or emotionally resonant enough to satisfy, the backstory of the Sawyer family renders them less frightening, and the eventual Leatherface reveal/how the prequel leads into the original film is entirely predictable, feels like a STRETCH, and again, detracts from the scariness of the character.
In regard to its quality alone, Leatherface is much better than the lesser films of the franchise. The nods to other films are great, the performances are solid, and the kills are top notch. As a prequel though, this installment does more harm than good to the overarching franchise story- but then again, we’ve seen much worse.