It’s hard to know where we stand with the twisted timelines of the three incarnations of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre franchise. Technically, Leatherface shares a universe with 2013’s mostly unloved, but I thought rather fun, Texas Chainsaw 3D. But, when held against the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the only film in the franchise that’s well regarded across the board, Leatherface plays out as an origin story for the titular chainsaw-wielding killer.
The film, which is helmed by French directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (the original Inside), has been collecting dust on Lionsgate’s shelf for a while now, which did little to instill any confidence amongst fans. But, fear not, because Bustillo and Maury have made the best TCM film in quite some while. The fact that Leatherface avoids the slasher playbook in its road movie set-up may alone be enough to explain the lack of a wide theatrical release, but this is an entertaining splatter film well worth a digital rental.
We’re reintroduced to the series’ infamous Sawyer family in a prologue set in 1955. The clan’s animosity towards strangers brings the heat of the law and vengeful Texas Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff), whose daughter was killed at the hands of the Sawyer kids, rounds up all of Mama Sawyer’s (Lili Taylor) offspring and places them in protective care. Ten years later and Jed, the youngest and most hesitant of the clan is locked up in Gorman House Youth Reformatory.
But a decade of psychological torture has eroded his sense of identity. So, when a new nurse, Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse), starts at Gorman House, she has no idea which of the inmates is of the Sawyer seed. And neither do we. When Jed’s mother is once again rebuffed in her attempt to see her youngest for the first time since he was taken from her, she gets desperate and her disturbance manages to trigger a riot. Four inmates escape in a car, with Lizzy as their hostage: Jackson (Sam Strike) and Bud (Sam Coleman), a George and Lenny-esque duo, and the altogether meaner Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen). We still don’t know which of these kids will go on to don the flesh mask, but we know it’s one of them, because why the hell would we be watching this if it wasn’t. This begins a dark The Devil’s Rejects-inflected road trip-cum-blood trail, as Hartman pursues the group.
The film grows as it draws closer to the horrific family and, because of the franchise’s loose canon, none of the origin story revelations come across as damaging to the legacy of the mysterious Leatherface of Tobe Hooper’s original. While most of the bigger picture details actually fit together quite nicely, especially for such an inconsistent franchise, Seth M. Sherwood’s script is patchy when it comes to more specific moments. Certain lines, for instance, come across as glaringly cheesy or just downright bad. And many of the clunkers fall in the lap of Finn Jones, the “Game of Thrones” and “Iron Fist” actor, who hasn’t had the best run of late and plays his Ranger character with a bizarre childish frown plastered on his wooden face at all times.
Truth be told, much of the acting comes across as a bit ropey at times. Too often the mostly European cast goes for broad Southern freak performances for their already not particularly captivating characters. But, if Bustillo and Maury‘s work with actors might seem lacking, their cinematic style is glorious at times. They take what is already a highly iconic visual repertoire of bone charms, rotted flesh, horrifying family dinners and the infamous monstrous weapon and do their own thing. While the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is famously light on the gore, Bustillo and Maury know that a similar approach just won’t fly in 2017. So, instead, they go all out.
For such a splattery picture, the violence consistently hurts in Leatherface. Modern gore effects can often feel so elaborate and showy they barely elicit as much as a wince from audiences but, by keeping the lights dimmed and by being thoughtful in their use of the red stuff, Bustillo and Maury ensure this horror show looks painful. A grubby fingertip pressed into a nasty cut; a non-fatal gunshot wound tearing off a hunk of flesh; an assaultive strobe lit stabbing: these little details are what set the use of gore apart. The directors also capture the unique ickiness of Hooper’s first film. Maggoty flesh, the slimy glaze of decomposition and buckets of sickly looking blood are truly disgusting and re-establish the base horror of the Sawyers.
The film inhabits a bizarre intersection of gross-out viscera and captivating beauty: a graceful gut punch if you will. Magic hour shots of Bulgaria, doubling for Texas, are richly textured and warm, and the sight of a dripping chainsaw licking at the air a whisker away from Hartman’s chin has an iconic feel to them and fit perfectly alongside echoed shots from the original.
Like the Blood Feast remake at last year’s FrightFest, Leatherface is further evidence that gonzo non-American directors might be the best bet for these iconic red, white and blue franchises because, at the very least, you’re going to get something big and bold. Yes, Leatherface is messy, but that’s only to be expected from this series and Bustillo and Maury manage to make that feel like part of the film’s DNA. There’s no way this iconic killer was ever going to be born of something that wasn’t a bit wildly macabre. The fact that the film also manages to make the Sawyers skin crawling again is another victory for this effective origin story.