'Leatherface' Review: A Refreshing Origin, Laced In Nostalgia And Madness
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a horror classic. Upon its release back in 1974, audiences were taken aback by the gruesome violence that appeared on screen. The story centers around a family of cannibalistic rednecks, torturing and killing anyone who comes their way. The picture has been lauded by critics for its depictions of unsettling imagery, along with the underlining themes of class and economic struggles during the Vietnam War era.
Given the popularity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it has spawned numerous sequels and prequels. However, every addition following the original has been met with primarily negative reviews. Criticism in regards to these films is everywhere from claims of empty characters to dull stories. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre pictures aren’t meant to be gems of avant-garde cinema by any means, but while some do grab hold of gritty and violent imagery, they overall miss the mark on the pure insanity that made for the original.
2017’s Leatherface makes for the seventh addition to the Texas Chainsaw filmography. Named after the franchises’ main antagonist, the film acts as an origin story for how the killer came to be. Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, Leatherface is the franchises’ strongest addition since the first film. With it comes a thrilling tale that’s soaked in plenty of blood and guts. But what allows Leatherface to come out so strong is how it plays around with an old school horror vibe that has been missing from the genre since the first Texas Chainsaw, along with its use of story.
The picture opens on the main villains of the film: the Sawyer Family. We see them sitting around a table, singing happy birthday to Jed (who is to become Leatherface, only a child at this time). It’s revealed that there’s a man tied up and sitting at the dinner table, and for Jed’s birthday, he is given a chainsaw in which he is to drive into this person. He finds that he cannot bring himself to do it, hence his family forcing him to cut up the victim, before said victim is bludgeoned to death. After the Sawyer siblings are expected of killing the daughter of a sheriff, Jed is taken away to a mental institute (with the story jumping ten years into the future). From there, we are quickly introduced to the rest of our cast. The film places the role of protagonist upon the shoulders of Lizzy (played by Vanessa Grasse), who is a nurse at the mental institute where Jed has been locked away. One night there’s an uproar, granting an opportunity for the inmates to escape. Jed, Lizzy, and Jed’s friend Bud are taken hostage by two inmates, threatening to kill them if they don’t tag along on their escape. It’s at this point that the story turns into a ride of chaos and brutality, slowly building the anticipation for what sets Jed off to officially become Leatherface.
Off the bat, what makes Leatherface different when compared to the rest of the franchise is the emphasis on story. Even though there’s plenty of violence to be found throughout the film, there’s more of a focus on the characters. By re-focusing the picture towards characters and story rather than just straight up gore, Leatherface introduces a refreshing take on the villain origin story. The Leatherface character is a straight-forward human being with no supernatural abilities. He is not a Jason, Michael, or Freddy and yet, when we look at those three slashers, these were all normal people that somehow came into supernatural abilities. Leatherface focuses on a more down-to-earth (yet horrific) human story. The film explores the insanity and corruption that is the Sawyer Family and how Jed has that same madness in his blood. By no means does the film ever become this extravagant character study, but in a genre that has become home to many tropes, Leatherface’s direction in revealing the chaos that inspired the villain is welcoming.
No other Texas Chainsaw Massacre story has lived up to the true shock that was the original. Directors have tried numerous times to recapture that same vulgar brutality, always coming short in the eyes of critics. This being said, even though Leatherface doesn’t reach that same level as the original, it has this great air of tension and anxiety to it, making for a thrilling story. We see a lot of twisted things take place within the Sawyer home with the various family members, yet, a good portion of these qualities also come from the two inmates that take Jed, Lizzy, and Bud hostage.
Ike (played by James Bloor) and Clarice (played by Jessica Madsen) are violent people, prone to immediate outrage and irrational actions. After escaping the institution, the group sits down at a diner to grab something to eat; it doesn’t take long, however, until Ike and Clarice jump up, stabbing and shooting random people. The scene is jarring in its escalation, but convincing given the dialogue of both characters. They are both unsettling, un-sympathetic people, only interested in the rush of their own desires. Later on, after the group finds an abandoned trailer with a corpse inside, there’s a scene where Ike and Clarice are having sex, with Clarice making out and rubbing up on the corpse. It’s a gross scene that continues the tone of disturbing imagery seen so far.
What the majority of the villains share throughout the film is their irrational logic: to themselves they believe they are making complete sense, but to the outside world (especially the viewer) their ideas are corrupt and horrific. It all plays into this concept of the “crazed redneck” that once use to be so popular in the horror genre. Nowadays we don’t see much of that, but if you take classic films like The Hills Have Eyes, one will find some truly terrifying monsters. Clarice and Ike make for a hellish Bonnie and Clyde, with a little bit of the FireFly siblings from The Devil’s Rejects. The idea of the “crazed redneck” in horror is much more than the archetype though, for it also has to do with the setting. If we look back on the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s also the environment that’s unsettling; the bleak, barren land of dry Texas that reeks of rage and tension. These qualities make for a backdrop of dread and despair that once made the genre proud. It’s unfortunate now that films today use these ideas more as parodies, rather than tapping into the grit and anxiety they are capable of creating. Leatherface embodies these qualities, though, making for a nice trip down nostalgia lane, while also offering a fresh blend of madness.
Leatherface makes a for a positive direction in how other horror movies can attempt to tell their stories. Gore and violence can be effective for a good gross-out or shock, but the heart of horror is going to be from what we feel for the characters. Leatherface isn’t the most emotional horror story you’ll ever come across, but its approach is welcoming and felt. We get little droplets of ideas and dialogue to get the big picture for how Leatherface came to be, all while still getting to witness plenty of brutal gore. It takes some of the best qualities that are found in the franchise's first film, and presenting a fresh vibe of pure chaos that will keep audiences ready for what comes next.