Leatherface (2017)

OCTOBER 23, 2017


When I realized I would be out of town when Leatherface screened at Screamfest, I was devastated, as I pride myself on my occasionally preternatural ability to see the franchise films in theaters even if they're being cast to VOD (have YOU seen all six Wrong Turn movies on the big screen?). However I was misinformed, and this past weekend the film was indeed released theatrically - only twice a day at an expensive theater I haven't been to in years, but still. I hadn't heard anything good about the film and had its "twist" spoiled for me already, but I had to see for myself and keep my streak going - the only film in the Texas Chainsaw series I haven't seen theatrically is that terrible one with Matthew McConaughey, and I'm perfectly fine with letting that stand (though, I know me a bit too well, and I'm sure if it showed at the New Beverly or whatever I'd sigh and buy a ticket).

As it turns out, it's really not that bad of a film - it just has no business passing itself off as a sequel (or prequel, I guess - let's just go with "installment") in a long running series. Apparently learning no lessons whatsoever from the unsuccessful, not well-loved The Beginning from 2006, we have another prequel designed to tell us how Leatherface came to be a guy with a chainsaw and a mask made of human skin, as if there was any need to know this. Maybe Leatherface was awesome because we didn't know anything about him? Has one single "horror hero" series benefited from filling in its villain's backstory? Pinhead, Michael Myers, and Freddy were all but destroyed when they started getting too much into their "origins", forcing reboots to the series (or, in Pinhead's case, such a lack of further interest that it went direct to video), so why they thought Leatherface would be any different is beyond me. When it's someone like John "Jigsaw" Kramer, the mythology is part of the fun of the series anyway, so it works - there is no mythology to speak of in this particular series.

My article for BMD this week gets into this a bit more if you'd like to check it out, but the long and short of it is that this series is too much of a mess for a prequel to have any weight to it. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but there is some value in seeing how Darth Vader went from an innocent boy to the dark side - because he redeemed himself at the end of Return of the Jedi, thus restoring the humanity we had never seen before. Likewise, Obi-Wan dies halfway through his first movie, so it was nice to see him actually doing the things that made him such a legend. Not every decision they made worked (cough, Boba, cough) and yes the overall quality was much lower than the original trilogy, but functionally it made sense to try. That is so not the case with this series, as Leatherface has had no consistency as a character - his look changes drastically, his family members rotate every time, etc. It's possible that someone might watch this movie without even knowing which film its prequelizing (the name they give him - Jedediah - was also used for one of the family members in the Platinum Dunes films), which is a pretty big problem.

For those unaware, it's from some of the same producers as 2013's Texas Chainsaw 3D, and thus it's tied to that film as well as the 1974 original, making it the first time in this eight-film series that three films were in one timeline (part 3 ignored 2, part 4 ignored 2 and 3, the two Dunes films are on their own, etc.). So now the chronological "canon", for lack of a better word, is Leatherface > TCM '74 > Chainsaw 3D, with the other films no longer existing as far as anyone behind these entries is concerned. However, while Chainsaw 3D made some decent effort to truly tie it into the events of Hooper's film, even going so far as use footage from it as padding for an intro set the next day, this one doesn't go to those lengths, making it feel more stand-alone than any prequel should. And the ties are pretty flimsy - Stephen Dorff's character is the father of the sheriff we met in Chainsaw 3D, for example, and we get some insight as to how the Carson family ended up with the Sawyers. You'd think they'd follow 3D's lead and actually recycle some footage - maybe end this film on the group propping up that corpse we see in the original film's intro, or maybe Leatherface watching Sally and her friends pull up to the family gas station. In other words, do anything to set in stone that it's supposed to be all part of the same continuity for once, but nah - you'd need to remember everyone's names from 3D to make much of a connection to anything at all. Leatherface as we know him is barely even in the film - he only makes his mask in the film's final seconds.

(Yet they call the movie Leatherface.)

So what's it about? To be fair, the concept is actually fairly interesting - we meet a group of young mental patients, with the understanding that one of them will grow up to be Leatherface - we just don't know which one it is. Again, I don't see how this can be at all engaging from a franchise perspective, as Leatherface is just some mute guy in a mask killing people, not a character with levels that we might want to see peeled back, but a "whodunit" structured as a "who WILL do it" is kind of a fun idea. However it might be better in a novel, where physical appearances don't give it away - or force the filmmakers to cheat. One of our young psychos is a giant hulking brute, just like Leatherface! But with the identities being withheld, it's obvious that this guy isn't really him, because if so there's no reason to hide that fact from us. So by trying to not being obvious, the filmmakers make it painfully obvious which character it is, and while it's occasionally interesting to think "Huh, he used to speak!" or "Huh, he was kind of handsome!", it doesn't really matter to anything that happens later. As dumb as The Beginning was at times, there was at least some goofy joy to discovering that, say, Monty's legs were sawed off by Leatherface himself, but none of what we see here will change how you look at the 1974 film (or even 3D, really), rendering it a largely useless prequel.

Plus, again, Leatherface is only as interesting as the people around him. Granted, they try to recapture some of that dysfunctional family spirit by having him on the run with three other wackos (plus one hostage), but as these people are obviously goners there's no reason to get invested in their insanity like you would for Chop-Top or whoever. Again, when you're dealing with prequels, there's already a big disadvantage for the writers as they are writing toward a set in stone ending (the beginning of the next film, more or less), and it's even worse when we're talking about doing it 40+ years later with an entirely different crew. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel didn't write their film to be the middle chapter in a story, so everything we see here is being reverse engineered without any of the original resources to give it weight. I'd be more interested in seeing the Sawyer family in the days leading up to the slaughterhouse closing, if they absolutely had to make a prequel for whatever reason, as that would at least show us what the hell Edwin Neal's hitchhiker character was like when working a (relatively) normal job. Imagine that dude in the breakroom?

But if you ignore its ties to a series, the Badlands meets Devil's Rejects concept kind of works, and held my attention on that level. Dorff is basically the same as Bill Forsythe in Rejects, a lawman who had a vendetta against this family and manages to seem like more of a villain than they do, and it's interesting that he racks up as many cold-blooded kills as Leatherface throughout the film. It gets a bit repetitive with regards to their hostage, a nurse from their hospital named Lizzy who tries to escape every 10 minutes only to be stopped by one of the quartet, but the scenery changes, there's a diner scene that invokes Natural Born Killers, and even though I knew damn well he wasn't Leatherface I kind of loved the big lug guy, who acts as a sort of bodyguard for every other character at one point or another. And Lili Taylor shows up in a few scenes as the matriarch of the Sawyer clan, giving the series one of its rare female villains that do anything besides sit in a chair speaking gibberish.

However, it suffers from a painful lack of true suspense or terror, regardless of its ties to one of the scariest films ever made. Lizzy is the only heroic character in the film, so there's a considerable lack of people to worry about, and with "Leatherface" still not in villain mode all of our kills come from either Dorff or the Mickey/Mallory (or yes, Kit/Holly) types who he's on the run with, murdering people who we meet roughly three seconds before they're shot or stabbed. It's violent enough, sure, but considering the film was directed by the Bustillo and Maury team that gave us Inside - one of the most suspenseful horror/thrillers of the '00s, hands down - it's almost puzzling how flat it is in that department. I got more tensed up with one of the trailers before the movie than I did with any scene here, which is a big problem. Apparently the film was recut and reshot by another filmmaker (I have a guess, since there's a prominent one listed as an "Executive Producer" who has been brought on to other films to fix them in the past), so I'm not willing to cast the blame entirely on them, but if the producers were trying to make it scarier with their reworking, they failed miserably. There's a slightly unnerving scene early on involving a kid in a pig mask, but otherwise even the comically minded TCM2 managed to be scarier.

So I'm kind of at a loss here. On one hand, a reportedly troubled production shows no overtly noticeable reworking (though the opening titles are very awkwardly inserted, something even some friends noticed - it's not just my title-creating mind complaining this time!) and held my attention for ninety minutes. It's well shot and edited, and the Bulgaria shooting location isn't really as bad of a fit for Texas as I feared (it's actually a more believable Texas than the previous film, which was shot in Louisiana). On the other hand, it's rather alarming how un-suspenseful it is, and its main thrust - showing how Leatherface turned from a normal killer into the skin-wearing one - doesn't really work as well as anyone presumably thought it would. And it's almost certainly the last we'll see of this particular incarnation of the character/storyline, so it's hard to recommend tracking down "if you're a fan of the franchise", because it'll just be yet another narrative dead end in a series that already has too many of those. Your call.

What say you?


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