Leatherface

2017 | rated R | starring Lili Taylor, Stephen Dorff | directed by Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo | 1hr 30mins |

2017 Halloween Horrorfest #11

Studio Pitch: What better for the English-language debut of Maury and Bustillo than a prequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

{Warning Contains Thematic Spoilers}

While it has been the subject of a non-linear hodge-podge of sequels, remakes and prequels, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was horror lightening in a bottle not made for franchising in the same way a, say, Freddy Krueger is. Sticking too close to that movie’s script and it comes off as a rehash, but stray a little bit and it immediately looses the hot-house of claustrophobia sweltering in the Texas sun during the mad Vietnam-era 70s and shot like a snuff film qualities that came together in 1974. Leatherface (Not to be confused with Leatherface: the Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) might be the movie that strays the furthest from the formula but it doesn’t stray so far as to establish it’s own identity and make something new and fresh. As the movie’s tagline pleads, this is The Origin Story of Leatherface and you damn sure aren’t going to forget it.

The prospect of building an origin story for Leatherface inspires cautious pangs of deja vu to Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, a movie that provides a perfect case study for how scripting an over-expository backstory where one isn’t needed can suck the mysterious terror out of your monster. But Leatherface was a movie worth anticipating, because it marked the English-language debut of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury who 10 years ago unleashed on the French New Wave horror community Inside, a nerve-shredding, fearlessly brutal masterpiece that turned blood-splattering into art. They’ve made a few films since then, but none making their way to U.S. shores until this. It would seem like a perfect marriage of material and filmmaker. So what could go wrong?

First off the deck, the movie looks pretty good. Bustillo and Maury are stylists and can’t help that. The film’s mental institute first half (it’s best stuff) has the same grimy vomit-yellow lighting of Inside. Later, night exteriors find our cast running under a tree canopy with light beams streaming through the branches. No, it doesn’t look like Texas, but it looks nice. The movie is also fairly sick, they can’t help that either. In sequences almost cynically designed to be talked about later we get a threesome with a corpse and a sex scene during a riot. The studio could have tried to market this movie as the shocker of the fall if Mother! hadn’t swooped in and stolen that title.

The film starts off on a messy editing note, a small but completely tone-deaf mistake that runs the opening credits over the movie’s tone-setting first sequence of violence. Your first big kill and the credits are rolling over it? Either Bustillo and Maury are that bored with the project or the studio took the film from them and snipped up the final cut in the editing room.

Anyway, the story backs up 20 years before the first film, first in the 50s where the town sheriff’s (e-cigarette spokesman Stephen Dorff) daughter suffers a cruel fate and locking up her boys riles up the anger of the Sawyer family matriarch (Lili Taylor). 10 years later mom has a new plan to free her boys from the loony bin and the trio of psychos including large, mute, overall-wearing psychotic killer Bud (Sam Coleman) escape with a friend and a hospital nurse as their hostages.

It’s here where things start to get really convoluted. Alliances and the relationships amongst the group start to become confusing and murky. The group’s female, Clarice (Jessica Madsen) turns on the hostages, Bud starts killing just anyone and nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) seems oddly reticent to try to escape even though Dorff’s sheriff is (in true nihilistic TCM mold) an out-of-control psychopath himself. Bustillo and Maury pull together an elaborate slight-of-hand here which I will say I didn’t see coming – you got me – that wiggles around some of the prequel predictability but ultimately doesn’t take the movie to another level as much as it just clears up the fog that it has deliberately been puffing at us for the entire 2nd act.

While Leatherface isn’t a direct remake it knows the fact I opened with here, that there are just certain sign-posts that have to be put in place to make a true Texas Chainsaw film. So what it does is pull those signature scenes (a horrific hostage family dinner, a group of teenagers who break down in the road, a crooked cop, a booty shot of a girl walking through a field and a chainsaw-wielding maniac), dice them up and re-scatter them through this film. As for the “origin story” of how Leatherface came to be, Bustillo and Maury seem completely handcuffed to the requirement to slot in winking origin story building blocks along the way. What we get here doesn’t tell us a whole lot at all.

The original material the movie hangs this fan service on is a story about a group of maniacs on the run tormenting hostages while a crooked sheriff chases them. It sounds and plays very much like The Devil’s Rejects even with Jessica Madsen seemingly doing her best Sherri Moon Zombie impression. This puts us in an endless cycle of rip-offs and homages where Rob Zombie’s film recalls The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Texas Chainsaw prequel recalls Devil’s Rejects.

Leatherface is shockingly soft and gutless for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie from the directors of Inside. This is a combination of nightmare fuel ingredients that shouldn’t have been just gory, it should have been traumatizing. It should have been released unrated with all sorts of world-ending protests over the state of media violence in America (even though it wasn’t shot in America). And it isn’t even the tiniest bit shocking, or tense or thrilling or even fun. It’s a flat, dower and empty film more concerned with surprises and fan service than atmosphere or scares.

Every one of this movie’s problems stems from trying to break The Texas Chainsaw Massacre down into a sequelized formula that has to strictly be adhered to. The only solution here would be to strip all of those beats out and start so radically different that it isn’t even recognizable as a prequel to Tobe Hooper’s (who serves as executive producer) film. To let Bustillo and Maury do their thing and tell a totally new story that might have some chainsaw fury in it. That’s also a solution no studio would put money into. You’re better off sticking with The Devil’s Rejects or for the French flair Frontier(s) this Halloween for your Chainsaw Massacre horror.

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