Directors: Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury
Writers: Seth M. Sherwood, Tobe Hooper (based on the characters by), Kim Henkel (based on the characters by)
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Finn Jones, Sam Coleman, Jessica Madsen, James Bloor
Leatherface is a good-looking and enjoyable addition to the Texas franchise... which might be its biggest issue.
The latest addition to the Texas Chainsaw Franchise, Leatherface, serves as a direct prequel to the 1974 horror classic from Tobe Hooper, telling the story of how little Jedidiah Sawyer became one of the most feared and notorious killers in cinema history. It's an interesting take on the beginnings of his murderous career, and one which demonstrates some intelligence and consideration of its source material.
For the most part, Leatherface is a competent if not unremarkable piece of film. It begins with young Jedidiah's first exposure to murder, after which he is locked away in a children's institution. 10 years later he eventually escapes with 3 others and what follows are the events from which Leatherface is born. It's an uncomplicated narrative which is well structured, essentially taking a cyclical approach, the events at the start of the film mimicking those at the end. There are also several creative nods to the films of old, including a classic chainsaw chase through the woods and ambitious recreation of the original Sawyer house from 1974. The physical portrayal of Jedidiah Sawyer is a brilliant echo of Gunnar Hansen's original portrayal, capturing his iconic gait and vocalisations very well. Leatherface also treats you to a half-decent twist towards the film's end - its fairly easy to see coming, particularly for long-term fans of the franchise, but you'll appreciate the effort that the film makes try and lead you down the wrong path.
Unfortunately, despite demonstrating minimal technical problems, this film has a major issue which is far more elemental. Leatherface might want to call itself a Texas film, but it doesn't feel like a Texas film. Leatherface brings with it a sense of fun and levity, and a cheerfulness which invites you to enjoy the film, lively rock and roll accompanying the violence as our youthful protagonists slaughter their way through the country-side. Leatherface is an adventure, and a neat one at that, having no rough edges, all the crudity and ruggedness of the scenery feeling manufactured and artificial. Overall, watching Leatherface is quite a comfortable experience - and herein lies the problem.
Texas films are not supposed to be comfortable. They are not supposed to be fun and they are not supposed to be pretty. They are a journey that you do not want to take, but cannot bring yourself to turn away from. They are depraved and disturbing, unpleasant to look at and difficult to watch all the way through. Tobe Hooper's original was, and remains to this day, a difficult film to watch, which is a quality that Leatherface simply does not have. To its credit, it certainly becomes darker as the film goes on, really cementing the link between this film and the original, but it still possesses nothing like the power of the older films.
A great illustration of this comes in the form of its opening scene. It mirrors the traumatising final moments in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), where Sally Hardesty is physically and mentally tormented at the family dinner table - an unbearably distressing scene which sums up the genius of Hooper's original. In Leatherface, however, this very similar set of events feels more like a show for the audience, rather than the true behaviour of a twisted, isolated family. The deranged Sawyers are enjoying it a little too much, shaking with glee as the chainsaw revs - rather than letting us learn it for ourselves, Leatherface shows the brutality of the Sawyers to us. Similarly, our nameless victim incites little to no feelings of sympathy because we have only just met him, having little understanding of his ordeal. It's all too much, too soon, such a scene requiring context to have any kind of emotional impact. Hooper's original was immersive, and sat you at the dinner table right next to Sally - Leatherface only lets you watch from the safety of your living room.
These aspects do not make Leatherface a bad film. They simply make it the wrong type of film for the Texas franchise, a franchise famous for an original film which was initially banned for UK release. Its glossy look dampens the realism of the story which was a major selling point for the original (being based on the crimes of Ed Gein), while its relatively lively and energetic texture doesn't allow the obscenity of the story to be properly conveyed. Otherwise, it is well filmed, with a simple but effective script and a driven, straightforward story-line which shows some intelligence in its construction. It certainly won't astound or shock you, and won't scratch that unmistakeable Texas itch in the way that many of its predecessors can, but it is certainly an interesting and sufficiently entertaining adaptation of the theme.
In one line: Leatherface possesses plenty of good elements, but not the element which is most important for a Texas film.