Considering the game-changing stature of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original in the annals of horror cinema, it’s odd that “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has had such a peculiar, erratic life in franchise terms. Odder still then that after so many re-inventions of this particular wheel, to varying artistic and box-office rewards, that “Leatherface” should quietly premiere on DirecTV a month before being dumped into a handful of U.S. theaters on Oct. 20.
Written by Seth M. Sherwood and directed by the French duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (“Inside”), this “origin story” is a somewhat mixed bag. But it’s also an earnest and well-crafted attempt at course-correction, straying from stock slasher recyclage to provide a different story that actually connects a few dots in the very tangled cinematic “Chainsaw” universe to date. Particularly given the angry popular rejection just handed genre rule-breaker “Mother!,” you’d think this respectable addition to an uneven but name-brand horror pic lineage would warrant better treatment.
Admittedly, it doesn’t start out too promisingly, with a nasty 1955 rural Texas juvenile birthday-party scene in which the game “Pin the tail on the donkey” has apparently been replaced by “Torture the suspected pig-thief,” as directed by malevolent Sawyer family matriarch Verna (Lili Taylor). Later, the b-day boy Jed (Boris Kabakchief) lures a passing teen (Lorina Kamburova) into a decrepit barn, where she suffers a grisly death. Unfortunately for the Sawyers, she was the beloved only child of Texas Ranger Hartman (Stephen Dorff). He can’t pin a murder conviction on the “hillbilly trash” clan, but uses this latest incriminating incident to order their children seized by government authorities — allegedly for their own protection — in revenge.
“Ten years later,” the now-heavyset, near-adult Jed, AKA Bud (Sam Coleman), is one patient among many at an institution for seriously troubled youths. Idealistic new nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) has the terrible luck to start work here on the day that mama Verna attempts to pay a visit. By no coincidence, a full-on riot breaks out, during which criminally insane residents kill various staff (plus a few of their own). In the fracas, Lizzy is taken hostage by a fleeing group that includes not-entirely-gentle giant “Bud,” seemingly harmless Jackson (San Strike) and two extremely harmful (as well as over-sexed) individuals: Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen).
Their first stop is a roadside BBQ where the latter duo leave few other patrons alive. That massacre naturally attracts the still-furiously vengeful Hartman, while also putting mama Verna on the scent of her liberated kin. It’s a “Who’s the craziest?” contest in which very little merriment will be had. The future Leatherface is actually a victim in Sherwood’s scenario, which does the best it can to pull together various characters and reference points from mismatched prior “Chainsaw” entries into a cogent prequel.
There’s plenty of graphic violence here, but “Leatherface” is plot-driven rather than merely kill-driven. If anything, the handsomely designed and shot feature is simply too compact to carry the full weight of explication aimed for. It plays less as a horror movie than a down-and-dirty action flick. But that, too, is a useful re-direction: Nothing is ever going to fully recapture the berserker mood that made Hooper’s original so terrifying, despite its deceptive lack of actual on-screen gore.
“Leatherface” deserves credit for doing something other than the rote franchise re-boots of recent years, which admittedly managed to recapture a mainstream audience after the weirder flop follow-ups (excessively jokey “Texas Chainsaw 2” with Dennis Hopper, bonkers “Next Generation” with Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, etc.) of earlier decades.
Performances are solid here, though it’s initially jarring to see Taylor in this kind of film — no matter that she’s already done less hard-edged horror like “The Conjuring,” “The Haunting” and “The Addiction.” She fully commits to the role despite her flat dialogue, and certainly could have picked a worse movie to gore-out in, but thanks to the uneven screenplay her part turns out the worst of it. Dorff loses no cred whatsoever with an enthusiastic turn in a one-dimensional villain role, while the younger actors throw themselves into the task with aplomb.
“Leatherface” was shot in Bulgaria, though the ambiance passes for Texas — at least the Texas of horror movies — well enough.