Leatherface (2017) Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Starring Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor and Sam Strike. Four teenagers escape from a Texas mental institution and go on the run with a nurse hostage, and wind up being pursued through the badlands by a vengeful lawman. It just so happens that one of the four is destined to become the legendary cannibalistic serial killer known as Leatherface.
We begin at a birthday party for young Jedidiah Sawyer, a pint-sized scamp in overalls. After his mother Verna (Lili Taylor) presents him with a birthday cake made of meat, we see that there’s an unwilling guest at the shindig. A neighbor accused of stealing Sawyer hogs is tied to a chair as Verna gives her boy his gift: a chainsaw that’s bigger than Jed himself.
He is urged to dismember the thief with the roaring saw and ultimately refuses.
Later, Jed resumes his normal daily activity of being a lure to bring motorists to the Sawyer farm for the others to prey upon. He manages to dupe a pretty teenage girl into following him and then watches in regret as she is savagely murdered by his older brothers. Unfortunately for the clan, she turns out to be the daughter of Highway Patrolman Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff). He has Jed placed in a juvenile mental institution, and the Texas courts change the boy’s name to make it more difficult for abusive family members to find him.
10 years later, a young nurse named Lizzy starts her first day at a mental asylum. Verna eventually shows up with a lawyer and legal documents, demanding to see her boy. She winds up starting a riot that results in the death of a cruel doctor who was secretly torturing the patients.
During the chaos, four teenage patients grab Lizzy as a hostage and escape into rural Texas. There’s dimwitted hulk Bud, smart and compassionate Jackson, dangerously depraved Clarice and her violent lover Ike.
The escape is exactly what Hartman wants. You can see that this guy has been sitting around dying for the opportunity to visit violent revenge on his daughter’s killers. He’s hungry for it, and that appetite for destruction comes through in Dorff’s performance. His plan is simple: gun down Jed and the rest of the Sawyers.
This iteration of the infamous Sawyer clan is made up of Verna, Grandpa and four sons: Drayton, Farnsworth, Nubbins and Jedediah. We know that Drayton, Grandpa and Nubbins aka The Hitchhiker will go on to play major roles in Hooper’s original TCM, but I’m not certain who Farnsworth is supposed to be. In the climax of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Drayton states that his brother Chop Top’s real name is Paul. It’s made much more difficult to tell because none of the Sawyer men actually speak much more than a few lines. With the exception of Jed, they are silent thugs directed around by Verna. The most we get is an evil chuckle.
As we know him from the 1974 classic and beyond, Leatherface himself is a psychotic brute with the mind of a child. He’s a nightmarish example of warped humanity living on the outskirts of civilization, with his saw and hammer ever at the ready to slaughter another screaming victim.
Regrettably, this film about his early years has a few issues.
It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to have a character study prequel in which the central hook is that we don’t know which one of the lunatics in the film will grow up to be Leatherface. If I set out to make a Dracula prequel showcasing the vampire’s childhood and the events that shaped him, I’m not going to cast six kids in black capes and say: “Okay, audience, now guess which one is the real Dracula.”
That’s a shell game, not a format for effectively crafting a psychologically illuminating narrative, and it wastes huge amounts of precious screen time that could’ve been spent getting inside the actual killer’s head.
If a movie’s title is the name of the central character, the obvious expectation is that by the end I will have learned something about them.
Unfortunately, the only curveball information the directors have for us is that maybe Leatherface was an innocent child forced to sink into depravity by his crazed family.
It gets even sillier after the reveal, because now we’re meant to believe that not only was the hulking killer sane and well-spoken all the way into his teens, he was also righteous and moral.
When they filmed the childhood flashback sequences in “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare,” was young Freddy Krueger serving food to the homeless in soup kitchens? No. He was torturing animals and behaving like a sadistic psychopat because that’s what he is. He didn’t grow into young adulthood leading an exemplary and squeaky clean life and then suddenly make the decision to reverse course and become an evil man. He was evil all along, and becoming an adult just made him a more successful monster.
Although Krueger and Sawyer are very different men, the same philosophical concept applies to both: some children are born with the seeds of evil already in their minds, and they then grow and blossom into real nightmares.
At the risk of blowing the big and completely meaningless mystery of who Kid Leather actually is, here is one of his lines:
“I wish it could just be normal. I wish we were just two people here at a diner, you know? I wish I was somebody else.”
What is this, The Notebook? Bring out the saw.
Staring down at a bloody corpse, at least Hartman gets it right:
“This ain’t the work of a confused child. This is evil that needs puttin’ down.”
He’s the closest thing the movie has to a hero, though he casually kills an unarmed suspect in front of other officers. He makes some idiotic blunders towards the end, like turning his back on any member of the Sawyer clan, but Hartman is on the right track. He knows the family is bad news. And he’s aided in his quest by Finn Jones (Iron Fist) as a patrolman with a secret that could endanger the manhunt.
The keys to a solid origin story are plausibility and permanence.
Is it believable that a certain sort of catalyst event could create a dramatic personality shift, and is it believable that the effects would be everlasting?
If Bruce Wayne loses his parents to violence and then goes to therapy to work out his issues and rebuild his childhood, the transformative effects of the catalyst are nullified.
But if grief and rage split his psyche open and a guardian monster emerges to set the broken world right again, we have a workable scenario and the world gets a Batman. We know that his life will never be the same. The effects are permanent.
In Leatherface, the catalyst is a series of events over the course of one, particularly bad night. But what it ultimately boils down to is a bullet wound, a car accident and a panic attack.
I know several people who have anxiety issues. When a panic attack ends, they do not transform into iconic serial killers.
I’ve never had to phone the police and say: “Hi. Listen, my roommate got pretty upset over the electric bill and now he’s Candyman. Yeah, the one with the hook. What should I do?”
It’s simply not plausible that a verbally articulate teenager capable of complex reasoning and possessing no small measure of integrity would suddenly decide overnight to become a grunting, squealing cannibal who brutally slays anyone who isn’t his family.
The catalyst in question is not capable of creating this kind of drastic change in values and demeanor.
The prequel posits the idea that Leatherface is not only goaded into killing by his family, but that he murders strangers because he’s afraid of them. It’s a defensive act. That’s odd. Was wheelchair-bound Franklin a threat when Leatherface sawed him down the middle? Did Drayton point a gun at Jed in TCM and force him to cave in Kirk’s skull with a hammer, or lift Pam onto a meathook so she could watch him butcher Kirk with a chainsaw? No. He committed these atrocities because he’s a simple-minded and ruthless killing machine as lethal as the pneumatic air gun that replaced him on the slaughterhouse processing line. Simple minded, yes. But certainly not benevolent.
Though there are a few bloody scenes scattered throughout. They feel minor because the film isn’t scary or emotional in the least. The atmosphere isn’t even mildly unpleasant, with the exception of an icky Nekromantik-inspired sex scene where Clarice enjoys the amorous company of a rotting corpse. She’s the most believably frightening thing there, particularly when she attempts to choke another asylum inmate with a mouse forced down the throat. Something about her feels authentically reckless, whether she’s randomly stabbing a diner patron in the neck or seducing Ike with her hideously disfigured nude body. She’s the only thing in the film that feels like it might catch fire and become something more.
Maybe it’s because she’s a corpse licking femme fatale straight out of Rob Zombie’s fantasies.
From a technical standpoint, there’s some decent cinematography and obvious production values. It’s not a cheap looking film, and the performances are fine. Directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo made the excellent 2007 horror flick “Inside,” about a pregnant woman stalked through her apartment by a scissor-wielding madwoman. They can put together a great horror film with the right material. And on the plus side, their TCM prequel does not contain a scene where Leatherface’s attractive city slicker cousin tosses him a chainsaw and says: “Do your thing, cuz.” Here’s looking at you, “Texas Chainsaw 3D.”
“Leatherface” goes down easy as a viewing experience, and that’s not a compliment. It should be grueling and viciously shocking. It should contain revelations as incendiary as Texas roadhouse chili, not slip down the gullet like warm and mild chicken noodle soup. I mean, there’s a birthday cake made of people meat.