From Hannibal Rising to Alien Covenant, there’s been no shortage of horror prequels that have attempted to add new layers of depth to iconic movie monsters. It’s also often a sign of a franchise having reached an impasse, which is certainly true of the the Texas Chainsaw franchise. Since the 1974 original, we’ve had three middling sequels, a glossy Michael Bay produced remake, a 3D reboot and even a prequel from the director of 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It’s been a bumpy ride for poor old Leatherface and it’s not over yet, as it’s now time for another origin story – this time whisking us back to Texas for another wild gruesome ride. Set years before the events of Tobe Hooper’s terrifying classic, Leatherface sets out to show us the birth of the monster who’s famous for being terrible at applying lipstick and wildly thrusting his pelvis while clutching power tools.
Following so many reboots, sequels and prequels, Leatherface wisely chooses to focus on acting as a direct predecessor to the 1974 original. It’s also directed by the respected duo of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, who gained attention for their acclaimed 2007 debut Inside as well as the equally nasty Among The Living. The French directors are a great choice for breathing new life into the series, while the script by newcomer Seth M. Sherwood manages to weave in plenty of references to previous entries whilst admirably taking the series into new territory.
The film kicks off with a gruesome opening sequence, which immediately gives us a dose of the gory cannibalistic horror we’ve come to expect from the series. From there the film goes in an interesting direction – abandoning slasher horror in favour of a dark road movie that often recalls the dark southern noir of movies like Killer Joe and Natural Born Killers. Where other sequels focused purely on delivering blood and guts, Leatherface is a commendably character driven film with some enjoyable twists and turns.
Taking place in the fifties before the events of the 1974 original, Leatherface reunites us with younger members of the Sawyer family who have been raised into a world of murder by unhinged matriarch Verna (an excellent Lili Taylor). After a gruesome incident is uncovered by local law enforcement, the youngest member of the family is committed to a mental institute and subjected to severe electroshock treatment.
Refusing to sit back and accept her child’s incarceration, Verna stages a daring escape which results in members of the family going on the run with a group of fellow inmates and a kidnapped nurse. What follows is a twisted road movie, as the gang set off on a grisly killing spree as a determined sheriff (a deliciously unhinged Stephen Dorff) follows hot on their tail.Despite its best intentions, Leatherface still struggles to offer a truly compelling backstory for such a terrifying and iconic character. The film can’t help but fall into the same trap that plagues most horror prequels, by diluting the mystery of the character. Tobe Hooper introduced us to Leatherface by having him emerge from cinema’s scariest doorway and slamming a hammer onto an unsuspecting victim. It immediately established the animalistic brutality of the character, and that’s all we needed to be terrified.
Much like the 2003 remake and the 2013 reboot, Leatherface also falls short of capturing the grime, grit and downright ickiness of the world depicted in Tobe Hooper’s film. Shot largely in Bulgaria, Leatherface is a grim but glossy production that feels at odds with the scuzzy horror of the 1974 classic. It rarely feels like an authentic period piece, failing to truly capture a sense of its era and struggling to tonally match the classic film it’s striving to be coupled with.
Leatherface is an admirable attempt to breathe new life into the long-running series and is stylishly made with some enjoyably demented performances. If you’re willing to leave your love of the original at the door and enjoy a macabre road movie, Leatherface delivers 90 minutes of gleefully twisted mayhem. For many fans though, it’s unlikely to match our first introduction to one of horror cinema’s most terrifyingly enigmatic creations.
Words by Stephen Leigh