As evidenced by director Tobe Hooper's passing earlier this year, attempting to define or re-capture elements that made the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre groundbreaking is a nigh-impossible task. In the decades since its debut, the franchise has tried to re-capture lightning in a bottle, with sequels, remakes, prequels and reboots. Leatherface, a prequel to the original film, similarly fails to strike the same sense of unease in its viewers, despite being an entertainingly gruesome endeavor.
Something is rotten deep in the heart of Texas, with the Sawyer family seemingly serving as the source of the stench. Opening sequences of the film show just how sick, violent, and sadistic the members of the Sawyer family can be - all heralded by the family's matriarch, Verna (Lili Taylor). The Sawyers aren't the only problem in this rural community, as Texas Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff) seems to have a personal vendetta against not just the Sawyer family, but any wayward youth who has a troubled history.
Dismissing Verna as a cruel and soulless figure might be accurate, but that's not to say she isn't a loving mother as she travels to the local mental institution in hopes of freeing her son imprisoned there. Her attempts are unsuccessful, but when a riot ensues, a group of patients escapes with a nurse as their hostage, kicking off a chaotic and carnage-filled road trip. The only question is whether or not Hartman can catch them before the body count grows, and whether the lawman is more dangerous than the people he aims to capture.
The second installment in the franchise popularized the slogan "The saw is family," which captures far more about the success of the original film than many of its sequels. Leatherface is an iconic villain whose ruthlessness is on par with Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, but what makes Texas Chain Saw Massacre so successful isn't the largest member of the clan - rather it's the concept of the Sawyer family itself.
Leatherface filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury attempted to tap into the theme of what individuals are capable of when they're pushed to their limits, thanks to the strong performances of Taylor and Dorff. The characters are far from subtle, lashing out other characters in predictable ways, which helps to take attention away from the biggest question many of the audiences will have: Which of these characters becomes "Leatherface?"
The sequences of the teens on the road committing various violent crimes will satiate most horror fans, as there truly seem to be no lengths they won't go to in hopes of satisfying their bloodlust: this gang of characters makes Rob Zombie's "Devil's Rejects" feel like the Brady Bunch. Zombie's characters make up for their violent nature with their charm and charisma, but Leatherface's crew are twisted down to their very cores, and their crimes are some of the more unsettling elements of the film.
French directors Bustillo and Maury have been gaining a well-deserved following in the horror community thanks to films like Inside and Among the Living. The duo continues to shine with their gorgeous cinematography and their creative interpretations of just how much blood the human body can contain, resulting in some truly disturbing scenes of gore. Films like Evil Dead or Dead Alive give audiences impressive practical effects that are too ludicrous to believe, but the nihilistic nature of the violence in Leatherface is disturbing as opposed to crowd-pleasing.
As its own product, Leatherface is entertaining and terrifies viewers with its portrayal of the cyclical nature of violence, no matter who the culprit might be. When compared to other installments in the franchise, Leatherface is one of the more linear narratives of the series, making it more easily accessible to some but lacking a fever dream quality created by the original film.
Devout fans of the franchise might feel Leatherface is more reminiscent of the 2003 remake, while more casual fans can still enjoy a fulfilling road trip to Hell.
Review Score: 3/5