Film Review: ‘Leatherface’ Crafts a Texas Chainsaw Origin Story

Horror movies rarely need origin stories. Either they don’t add anything to an already perfectly good mythology, or they needlessly add complications. It takes a very deft hand to explain how a monster became a monster in any sort of satisfying manner. “Leatherface” is not one of those films. This origin story for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” never finds a good reason for existence, beyond financial motivations for the powers that be. Leatherface was a perfect example of a classic cinematic villain that was perfect as is. The more backstory you give him, the less interesting of a character that he becomes.

“Leatherface” has more in common with a road trip horror flick like “The Devil’s Rejects” than its own franchise. Part of that is due to a clear interest in every character who isn’t the title one. It’s as if the makers of this film knew there wasn’t a point to extending the mythology, so they focused on everyone else. This ends up making the title a cash grab as much as anything else. There’s an extension to you know who’s origin story, but it’s both over convoluted and so simple that it never needed to be told in the first place. Moreover, the less you know about the Sawyer family, the better. The mystery is part of what sells the fear in the original. Here, it’s just nonsense.

A brief prologue introduces us to the Sawyer family in the early days. They’re already maniacs, led by matriarch Verna Sawyer (Lili Taylor). Young Jed (Boris Kabakchiev) is gifted a chainsaw for his first kill on his birthday, but chickens out, embarrassing the clan. He makes up for though, by luring an unsuspecting teen girl to her death. That, however, is a mistake, as she’s the daughter of Texas Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff). Unable to pin it on the adults, though knowing they had a hand in his daughter’s murder, he opts to have the state take Jed, for “his own good”.

Locked up in a horrific mental asylum for a decade, he grows into a teenager among just as depraved folks as his family. Renamed Bud (and now played by Sam Coleman), he takes a shine to a pretty new nurse named Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse), but before long Verna has marched in and organized a riot. In the chaos, Lizzy is taken hostage by Jackson (Sam Strike), Ike (James Bloor), and Clarice (Jessica Madsen), with Bud also in the escape party.

Once out of the mental institution, the teens hit the road, on the run from the law. Hartman has Deputy Sorrel (Finn Jones) in pursuit, though he’s not far behind either. Verna has her own plans as well. As the body count rises, Bud comes closer to his destiny, something he accepts without too much trouble. The picture ends sometime before the first movie begins, but you’ll see the links. Problem is, it’s not a compelling link in any way.

No one in this cast does any work to write home about. “Leatherface” is decidedly not an actor’s film. The well-known trio of Stephen Dorff, Finn Jones, and Lili Taylor are just cashing paychecks. Dorff and Taylor chew the scenery, while Jones has literally nothing to do. The lesser known cast members don’t fare any better, as James Bloor and Jessica Madsen are over the top manic. Vanessa Grasse and Sam Strike leave no impression, while Sam Coleman and Boris Kabakchiev are only marginally better. Also on hand are Tammy Andrews, Lorina Kamburova, and others, though they don’t make a mark either.

Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have a clear eye for gore, but that will only take a movie so far. “Leatherface” needs more than an orgy of violence to succeed, something they’re not up for. Bustillo and Maury put forth anonymous direction that calls absolutely no attention to itself. There’s never any tension and every moment is telegraphed well in advance of the actual event. The script by Seth M. Sherwood doesn’t fare any better, as made clear by the lack of a point to it all. When a film can’t settle on what it wants to be, it ends up being nothing at all.

Horror fans yearning to know more about the title character may find something here in “Leatherface,” but more likely than not they’ll be let down as well. This is a mediocre horror outing that is a frustrating prequel. There was no reason to go this route, aside from the name recognition of the title. As an original slasher flick, it wouldn’t have been any better, but at least it would have been less derivative. As a franchise, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” should have stopped at one. Even so, this is a letdown for the series. Alas.

“Leatherface” is distributed by Lionsgate Premiere and opens in theaters on October 20.

GRADE: (★★)

What do you think?

Film Lover

Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.


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