On paper, "Leatherface" sounds like a can't-miss proposition for fans of its 43-year, 8-film-and-counting franchise. Positioned as a direct prequel to one of the granddaddies of the horror genre, Tobe Hooper's blistering 1974 nightmare "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
," the film elevates its pedigree by enlisting the talents of acclaimed French filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (2008's "Inside," 2011's chilling "Livid," and the "X is for Xylophone" segment in 2014's "The ABCs of Death 2
") and solid veteran actors Lili Taylor (2013's "The Conjuring
") and Stephen Dorff (2010's "Somewhere
"). From there, everything that could go wrong seemingly has. Exploring the genesis of Jed Sawyer's homicidal madness and his path toward becoming the corpse-skinned, chainsaw-wielding Leatherface is an intriguing idea by itselfeven if this subject was already covered, and done better, in 2006's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
"yet the conceptual angle screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood has taken is misguided in the extreme, undermining itself with cheap storytelling gimmicks and not once feeling as if it is exists within the same universe as the original Hooper classic
Ten years after young Jed (Boris Kabakchiev) was goaded by his twisted cannibalistic family to lure Betty (Lorina Kamburova) to her gruesome demise, he is now a troubled teenager residing at a mental institution called Gorman House. Here's the rub: all patients have had their names changed for protection, and Jed could be one of three young men who go on the run when mother Verna (Lili Taylor) visits and initiates a breakout. Is he the quiet, portly Bud (Sam Coleman), who brutally kills the head doctor when all hell breaks loose? Is he Ike (James Bloor), one-half of a psychotic team of lovebirds alongside Clarice (Jessica Madsen)? Or is he the more protective, sensitive Jackson (Sam Strike), who takes to new nurse Lizzy White (Vanessa Grasse) when the lot of them abduct her from the hospital and go on the run? Hot on their tails is Sheriff Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff), thirsty for vengeance since the decade-old murder of daughter Betty.
It may sound oxymoronic to criticize a movie like "Leatherface" for being depraved and mean-spirited, but this particular installment is ugly and distasteful in a way the previous seven entries were not. With the exception of thinly drawn protagonist Lizzy, there isn't a decent person in sight. The line blurs time and again between the maniacal Sawyer clan (who do not remotely resemble the older people they become) and all other players, from the unhinged Sheriff Hartman and his unapologetic officer cronies, to necrophilic slasher-in-training Clarice. Thoroughly unpleasant but never scary, the picture doesn't even begin to feel like a part of its time-honored series until an atmospherically shot third-act woods chase, and by then it's too little too late to save the monotonous, meandering narrative.
Constructing the story as a mystery is perhaps the greatest insult, lending artifice to its very purpose of marking Jed's progression from a meek child born into a sick family of degenerate psychos to a grown son with a penchant for sawing up passersby and stitching together masks made of human skin. Keeping the identity of Jed a secret is meant to leave the viewer guessing but is obvious from the start, and the longer this charade is sustained the more irritating it grows. As it stands, the A-to-Z plot trajectory is problematic without this hamstrung device, failing to organically or believably track Jed's psychological instability.
When a film delves into foreboding darkness the way "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
" and its follow-ups have, it is crucial there be a beacon of light to offset and hopefully overcome the surrounding evil. Otherwise, what is there to care about and who is there to root for? "Leatherface" is virtually bereft of this sense of hope, and Lizzy is too undernourished as a heroine to act as conduit for this emblem of goodness. Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff are the most recognizable cast members on hand, and they are squandered, too, trying to breathe life into moribund archetypes as Jed's manipulative mother Verna and the crooked Sheriff Hartman. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have impressed in the pasttheir early French imports "Inside" and "Livid" are disturbing yet classy triumphsbut none of that inspiration is on hand in "Leatherface." In its place is unremitting viscera and sadism without tension, insight, or an ultimate point.