Film Review: ‘Leatherface’

This Texas chainsaw 'origin story' is a somewhat mixed bag, but it’s also an earnest and well-crafted attempt at franchise course-correction.

Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Finn Jones, Sam Coleman, Jessica Madsen, James Bloor, Christopher Adamson, Dimo Alexiev, Nathan Cooper, Deyan Angelov, Boris Kabakchief, Lorina Kamburova.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2620590/

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a nasty 1955 rural Texas juvenile birthday-party scene in which the game “Pin the tail on the donkey” has apparently been replaced by “Torture the suspected pig-thief,” as directed by malevolent Sawyer family matriarch Verna (Lili Taylor).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.

Film Review: 'Leatherface'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Sept. 22, 2017. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: A DirecTV, Lionsgate release (U.S.) of a Lionsgate presentation of a Millennium Films and Campbell Grobman Films production. Producers: Les Weldon, Carl Mazzocone, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman. Executive producers: Tobe Hooper, Kevin Greutert, John Luessenhop, Robert Kuhn, Kim Henkel, Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill, Beth Bruckner O’Brien. Co-producer, Scott Milam.

Crew: Directors: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo. Screenplay: Seth M. Sherwood, based on characters created by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Antoine Sanier. Editors: Sebastien de Sainte Croix, Josh Ethier. Music: John Frizzell.

With: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Finn Jones, Sam Coleman, Jessica Madsen, James Bloor, Christopher Adamson, Dimo Alexiev, Nathan Cooper, Deyan Angelov, Boris Kabakchief, Lorina Kamburova.

More Film

  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu

    China Box Office: Weekend Chart Dominated By Non-Chinese Films

    Unusually, all of the top five films at the China box office this weekend were non-Chinese. That’s a relatively rare occurrence, as audiences typically favor local films over foreign content. But it is one that may happen more often, as high-performing local titles become fewer and farther between due to production slowdowns. The lack of [...]

  • White Lie

    Playtime Boards Canadian Psychological Thriller 'White Lie' Starring Kacey Rohl (EXCLUSIVE)

    One of France’s leading sales companies, Playtime has boarded “White Lie,” a character-driven psychological thriller film from the promising new Toronto-based directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. Now in post-production, “White Lie” is headlined by Kacey Rohl, who has been seen in hit TV series such as “The Killing,” “Arrow,” “Hannibal” and “Wayward Pines.” Rohl [...]

  • Cannes’ Focus CoPro’ Gives Push for

    Cannes’ Focus CoPro’ Gives Push for First-Time Features

    CANNES–Seven first-feature projects will be pitched to an audience of industry professionals at Focus CoPro’, an event hosted by Cannes’ Short Film Corner that will take place Tuesday May 21 at the Palais des Festivals. The pitching session, which is run in collaboration with Nisi Masa and the Pop Up Film Residency, was introduced last year [...]

  • Cannes: Star Alliance Movies Takes Wide’s

    Cannes: Star Alliance Movies Takes Wide’s ‘Blast’ for China (EXCLUSIVE)

    CANNES  —  Hong Kong’s Star Alliance Movies has pounced on all rights to China on “Blast,” a race against the clock thriller that marks the first full production from Wide, Loic Magneron’s Paris-based sales-production-distribution company. The deal, made against a background of slowing sales to China, represents the first pre-sale on “Blast,” which is now [...]

  • Brazil’s Cinemascopio, France’s Les Valseurs Team

    Brazil’s Cinemascopio, France’s Les Valseurs Team For Nara Normande, Tião’s ‘The Heron’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    CANNES — Recife-based CinemaScópio Produções and Paris’ Les Valseurs have teamed on “A Garça” (The Heron), the feature debut from Brazil’s Nara Normande, co-authored by Tião. Brazilian CinemaScópio is behind Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Brazilian Western-thriller “Bacurau,” in competition at Cannes. Les Valseurs is also presenting Qiu Yang’s short “She Runs” at Critics’ [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content