Director: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Writer: Seth M. Sherwood
Producer: Les Weldon, Carl Mazzocone, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman
Stars: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Finn Jones, Sam Coleman, Jessica Madsen, James Bloor, Christopher Adamson
Family matriarch Verna Sawyer’s plot to recover her boy from a vengeful Texas Ranger releases a band of murderous teens from a youth reformatory.
It does take place in Texas. There most certainly is a massacre. Outside of a prologue sequence however, don’t expect to see a chainsaw until 75 minutes into the movie. While we’re at it, know upfront that “Leatherface” doesn’t focus all that much on its titular terror’s supposed origin story either.
For good or for bad, which of those two is determined by the direction you lean on gore-centric horror, “Leatherface” is exactly the splatterfest it was always destined to be. Anyone familiar with the unflinching shocks of their breakout French-language hit “Inside” (review here), not to mention their follow-up films “Livid” (review here) and “Among the Living” (review here), knows the kind of primal brutality in store when directing duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo are involved.
People may have differing thoughts regarding where “Leatherface” lands in their preferred “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” hierarchy, and how well it fits, or doesn’t fit, as a TCM film. But producers knew what they were getting when they signed this pair to the prequel. Whether franchise fans like it or not, Maury and Bustillo deliver on their fright film forte of gut-wrenching gruesomeness by the bloody barrelful, precisely as blueprinted from the beginning.
“Leatherface” has a plot, though it really functions as a loose excuse to set up the slayings. In 1955, Verna Sawyer’s cannibal clan loses youngest member Jed when a roadside trap leads a teenage girl to her death. That girl turns out to be the daughter of vindictive Texas Ranger Hal Hartman, who reasons if the Sawyers took one of his, he’ll take one of theirs.
Ten years after Hal makes Jed a warden of the state under a child endangerment law, Verna comes calling for the boy. She doesn’t get Jed back, but she does create a commotion by sparking a riot at an asylum-like youth reformatory. A killer Bonnie and Clyde couple flees in the aftermath, bringing a pair of fellow teens and a rookie nurse along as hostages. Hal reenters the picture as a manhunt ensues with the escapee quintet leaving a trail of butchered bodies in their wake.
Oh, pre-mask Leatherface is in there somewhere too. Outside of where his nickname comes from, you won’t learn a whole lot about him though.
You know a movie prioritizes carnage over characterizations when cast member credits include “Brunette Nurse, Demure Nurse, Scared Girl, Lowly Deputy,” and “Orderly #1” through “Orderly #3.” Be it the breakout, pandemonium at a BBQ restaurant, firefights with authorities, or any number of frantic chases, chaos is the first and last name of “Leatherface’s” game.
At issue isn’t that the film pushes boundaries too far with such sensationalized, even glamorized violence. The problem is that “Leatherface” extends discomfort limits simply for the sake of being extreme, not to meaningfully further its fiction.
Certain scenes go so overboard on the mayhem that the film itself becomes manic. Leatherface the person as well as the movie bearing his moniker lose themselves in the savagery of random inmates murdering random nurses, various physical tortures, and excruciatingly painful deaths.
“Leatherface” ultimately has little interest in exploring everyone’s murderous mindsets. Instead, Maury and Bustillo are out to test audience endurance by slathering eyeballs in as much gratuitous viscera as an R-rating can stand.
Maybe it’s a culture difference that comes with Maury and Bustillo, but their desire to disturb sexualizes slaughter with an off-putting air. When a sex scene includes cuts so that a couple can change positions, there is no other reason to lengthen such an interlude than to service salaciousness, not the story. When this also comes after a previous scene where the couple’s carnality creates spontaneous oral sex while a riot erupts around them, it’s a white flag signal that controlled creativity has surrendered to excessive indulgence in depravity.
Instead of being titillated, one starts seeing through cheap tactics to be unsettling and alluring when those two tones don’t mesh in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” universe. “Leatherface” presents a lurid world where every act of aggression is motivated by someone raging in response to a verbal insult. Sure, the movie fills itself with confrontational darkness that is cinematically exquisite, but how well does that work as entertainment or as a “Texas Chainsaw” chapter?
As mentioned earlier, the film’s fitness for TCM canon is up for debate, as it only peripherally relates to the property. I unquestionably prefer “Leatherface” to “Texas Chainsaw 3D” (review here), though I wouldn’t take it over any other entries in the series.
As also mentioned earlier, it’s a catch-22 to condemn “Leatherface” for being the mean movie that it is, because Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo couldn’t possibly make it anything else. If you can’t stand its heat, or don’t want to, best to not set foot in their kitchen. For the final word, “Leatherface” can succinctly be summed up as an outstanding Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo effort that is only a mediocre “Texas Chainsaw” film.
Review Score: 55