Perfection is a hard act to follow – which is why the three sequels to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), not to mention Marcus Nispel’s 2003 reimagining and its two sequels, all came with diminishing returns. Leatherface is different. It is not just that it is a prequel – so, after all, was Jonathan Liebesman’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) – but also that it is a prequel not to Nispel’s inferior reboot but to Hooper’s original, going right back to source, and then decades further back.
The film opens in 1955, on the fifth birthday of Jed Sawyer, with his older brothers Drayton and Nubbins, his hammer-happy ‘Grandpa’, and his mother (or aunt, or both) Verna (Lili Taylor) all gathered around the dining table to celebrate, as well as a bound guest who has made the mistake of trying to steal the Sawyers’ pigs. Part of the family’s birthday present to young Jed – the future Leatherface – is to allow him his first chainsaw kill, but he is reluctant to do the deed. In the next scene, he is happy enough to don a cow’s head – a prelude to the mask that will give him his nickname (and the film’s title) – and to lure passing teenager Betty (Lorina Kamburova) into a deathtrap set by Drayton and Nubbins, but again, he does not actively participate in the killing. “You done good, J”, Drayton tells his little brother. “It’s like you can learn a little after all” – but Jed, who is scrawny, non-violent and able to talk, seems to have some way to travel before he can become the hulking, inarticulate horror icon of the title. Under his family’s baleful influence, that might happen – but Jed is picked up by Betty’s furious father, Texas Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff, modelled on Dennis Hopper’s vengeful Lefty Enright from 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), and is sent to the Gorman House Youth Reformatory.
Ten years later, Nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) is spending her first day at the oppressive Gorman House, when the sudden arrival of Verna, aggressive as ever and looking for her lost son, causes a riot. In the ensuing mayhem, Lizzy is taken hostage by four teenaged escapees – killer couple Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen), charming Jackson (Sam Strike) and lumbering giant Bud (Sam Coleman) – as they head for Mexico, leaving a bloody trail behind them that Hartman is soon following.
There are two factors that keep all this interesting. The first is that the directors are Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, whose previous collaborations Inside (2007), Livid (2011) and Among The Living (2014) have proven their dexterity with both genre’s limits and its history, and who here lovingly pay reconstructive homage to many of the locations (though in fact this was filmed in Bulgaria) and even camera angles from Hooper’s original, whose events this film foreshadows. The second is that in this tale of adolescent cross-country flight, playing at times like an extreme Badlands (1973), all the Gorman inmates have been assigned new names. This means that while we suspect that Jed is among the three male fugitives, it is unclear which of them he is – and given that each of them has proven potential to do atrocious things, the film becomes a kind of whodunnit, or whowilldoit, as we try to second-guess which character will eventually put on the skin mask, and come of age from juvenile delinquent to adult family butcher and human meat chef.
This is a smart way of ensuring that, even if we know that the Sawyers will and must survive this instalment, there still remains both the tension and the tragedy of discovering just who is the figure of the title, and how and why he will claim it. The answers are not pretty or meant to be so, and are revealed in settings whose rot and sweat you can practically smell. Yet in spite, or perhaps because, of all the splatter and excess, this still does not come close to the elusively non-explicit horrors of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, even as it serves as their grim rites of passage. If “Nobody messes with our family” is the ultimate message, then Maury and Bustillo certainly maintain a respectful continuity to reunite the old clan, as Jed pieces together his future identity from the different influences around him.