The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has the oddest trajectory of all the long-running horror franchises. Even during its initial four-movie run from the '70s to the '90s, the sequels' designs were already a little dodgy. During the same era, other slasher franchises like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street had begun following very plain episodic paths: their original movies established their stories and concepts, and all subsequent sequels continued those stories in a mostly fluid manner while recycling actors, characters, or both. Each Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, however, seemed like a mini reset. None of the final girls ever made return appearances, and even members of the Sawyer family killed in previous entries seemed to return for a later sequel or were replaced by very similar characters without explanation. For instance, is "The Hitchhiker" from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, played by Ewin Neal, supposed to be the same character as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2's Chop Top, played by Bill Moseley? Because I'm pretty sure that Big Mama tractor trailer made him into mincemeat during the original's finale...unless that was lazily explained by the plate in Chop Top's skull. If we put that aside, who the hell are all the brand new family members in 1990's Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and why do they have their own invalid, comatose grandpa, too? And once those characters are wasted, who the frig are everyone in 1994's accidentally hilarious Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who also have their own invalid, comatose grandpa? I guess one could make the (silly) argument that this particular borough of Texas was inundated with cannibalistic families, but how is it that every single family has, along with their own desiccated grandpa, their own Leatherface as well? Does he just bounce from family to family like some kind of murderous Oliver Twist?
Even if we put aside all of those complicated mythos and reexamine the series strictly by the various experiences offered by its entries, everything is still all over the place. The first was a landmark horror classic that presented some of the most frenzied and chaotic psychological terror ever levied at a mainstream audience; the second, a Cannon Films-produced black comedy (which I detest); the third, basically a remake of the original, only not as good; and the fourth, an utterly insane direct sequel to the original which starred a pre-fame and totally bonkers Matthew McConaughey and a typically mousy Renee Zellweger; Leatherface was a crossdresser and the murderous Sawyer family had apparently been installed by a shadowy underground operation for the purposes of studying “real horror.” It makes absolutely no sense, all the characters are eccentric as hell (even the teenage victims), and McConaughey’s murderous Vilmer has a remote control for his robotic leg brace. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because it’s a blast. Then came the remake, which was good; the prequel to the remake, which was bad; and Texas Chainsaw 3D, which was a direct sequel to the original (not the remake), somehow included Bill Moseley again, and solidified its place as the worst entry up to that point. Confused yet?
French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury burst onto the American horror scene when Dimension Films acquired their home-invasion shocker Inside (À l’intérieur) for distribution. Since then, Dimension owners the Weinsteins (run!) tried to get the duo involved with several of their other horror properties, such as the long-mooted Hellraiser remake and an early iteration of Halloween 2 before Rob Zombie returned to create something slightly better than his remake while still making something pretty terrible. For whatever reason, the duo couldn’t find their footing with either project, but evidently their sloppy seconds (or thirds) known as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series was there to pick up the pieces — hence, we have the succinctly titled Leatherface, which borrows its moniker from the first-round Part 3, and which explores Leatherface's past as...a teenager.
A common complaint worth repeating: not everything, or everyone, needs an origin story. Bates Motel, while an entertaining series, spends fifty episodes saying “Norman is crazy.” We know. (And Psycho IV: The Beginning had already done that, and far better,) The Nightmare on Elm Street remake tried to muddy Freddy’s origins by suggesting, maybe, he was framed. (He wasn’t.) And Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween finally answered the burning question we’ve all had about The Shape for 40 years: just WHERE did Michael get his jumpsuit? (A shitting Ken Foree.) What filmmakers and studios fail to realize is that mystique is perfectly fine. We don’t need everything spelled out. Oftentimes, it’s scarier if we don’t know. Though most moviegoers, horror fans or not, would be quick to point out that franchises like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th have more than enough entries already, their popularity never really waned even when their box office receipts began to shrink. Mainstream audiences may have had enough, but horror fans kept that candle burning, consuming each series on home video sequel by sequel. Those franchises have also been around for so long that one sequel after another was no longer enriching the overall mythos, which is why the remakes started, and then the prequels after that, and then the ret-conning sequels that only followed certain original films. This is why Leatherface is the second prequel in the series, coming after 2006’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.
Saying "what if?" regarding certain horror franchises is all well and good, but the more entries made that shit the bed, the more complicated those franchises become. This sequel counts but this one doesn't, and these never happened and who could possibly keep up? If whoever owns the rights to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series vies for a third prequel, they better call it Leatherbaby so I know where it belongs in the franchise's timeline. (But in all seriousness, maybe a filmmaker can finally step up and make the definitive biopic on serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired not only Leatherface but also Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, and Buffalo Bill — how’s that for an origin story?)
The weirdest part of this history-exploring concept is that their filmmakers constantly cite their desire to make the audience "sympathize" with their respective series' boogeymen — with masked maniacs, pedophile dream stalkers, and murderous cannibals.
Open question to these filmmakers: why do you want this from us? IT’S WEIRD.
Leatherface juggles numerous unlikely inspirations — Of Mice and Men, Mystic River, Badlands — while marrying it to one of the biggest horror franchises in cinema history, and with so much of this going on, it can’t help but make the film feel so different, and by result make the character of Leatherface feel so different, that it’s out of sorts with the rest of the series. The worst entries before this one at least felt like a proper Texas Chainsaw Massacre entry — even the ridiculous McConaughey one, Leatherface's crossdressing propensity notwithstanding.
Leatherface’s biggest fumble is its purposeful design to obscure just which teenaged psycho in the large collection of escaped teenaged psychos is the titular chainsaw-wielder we all know and love. This whole Ten Little Indians-ish, “which troubled youth is Leatherface?” angle is, frankly, stupid, and the film so obviously points to one character in particular as being the infamous cannibal that there's no way your brain would ever allow that to be the case, so when a twist occurs and points to an entirely different character being the titular madman, the viewer looks blankly at the television and says, “No shit.” And once this twist occurs, and you spend the rest of the movie knowing this character is Leatherface, it absolutely robs him of any fear he would go on to inspire in the original. Somehow, he goes from a teen who can think and reason and even empathize to a mute, human-face-wearing mongoloid who communicates by shrieking and wagging his tongue around like a pervert.
I mean, Leatherface just sucks.
It’s also incredibly violent. And I can see you rolling your eyes and pushing up your glasses to say, “Well, what did you expect?” and in response I push up my own glasses and nerdily remind you that the original film spilled very little blood, contained very little violence, and, despite its title, contained only one chainsaw murder — the violence of which was left off-screen (so shut it.)
Leatherface is not cut from the same cloth. It’s very bloody, very violent, and very depraved. If characters being slowly chainsawed apart digit by digit or a psycho girl licking the gooey face of a rotting corpse while having doggie-style trailer sex is your idea of a good time, then have at it, you weirdo. Though, technically, Leatherface is a prequel to the '74 original, it falls more in line with the Platinum Dunes era, thanks to its violent content and admittedly pleasing visual palette, and which were set during the 1970s, anyway. From the get, Leatherface's execution shares very little in common with the stylistic approach and aesthetics of the actual film that inspired it, which was much more of a disturbing, moody cautionary tale and less the maniacal splatterfest the ignorant dismiss it as being. With everything tinged in gold and sepia, some of Leatherface's shot composition is genuinely beautiful at times (that’s where the Badlands influence comes in — Terrence Malick would be so proud), but beauty only gets you so far in any genre, and where the beauty leaves off, the violence and nastiness and goo take over. And speaking of, I hope you like goo! Because you'll get more than your fill here. In Leatherface, sedimentary goo even makes noise.
There are only two bright spots throughout this catastrophe, which are its competent leads. Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) does strong work as the Sawyer family matriarch, and any project is better for having her. Same said for Stephen Dorff, whose sheriff character easily presents as a man possessed and operating on his own, unlawful agenda. It’s a wonder either of them appear in, essentially, part eight of a long-running slasher franchise, especially one that landed with such a quiet thud. (This was the first Chainsaw in 24 years that didn’t get a wide theatrical release.)
Had Leatherface been called anything else — Cannibal Run, for instance (I hope you're proud because I just made that up on the spot) — it would offer a reasonable amount of nonsense escapism. It’s well made enough in the gonzo sense, it’s attractively photographed, and the bloodiness and gags will definitely entertain the gorehounds. But most importantly, it wouldn’t be weighed down by those pesky terms “legacy” and “classic” and “iconic,” because as the official backstory of ‘Leatherface’ Sawyer, it feels rote, unwelcome, and just plain wrong.