UK Release Date: 8th January 2018
Runtime: 84 minutes
Director: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Writer: Seth M Sherwood
Starring: Vanessa Grasse, Sam Strike, Sam Coleman, Jessica Madsen, James Bloor, Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Finn Jones
Synopsis: A young child taken from the criminal Sawyer family finds himself on an inexorable journey towards violence, when he escapes from a psychiatric unit during a riot.
If the early part of the 21st century has taught us anything, it’s that horror movies which purport to tell the origin story of classic monsters, humanising them and encouraging the audience to sympathise for their plight, are a waste of time. These horror villains debuted with almost no backstory and no raison d’etre, which only served to make them more terrifying. Perhaps the most chilling example of this phenomenon is Leatherface, who explosively emerged wielding a mallet in Tobe Hooper’s nightmarish masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Naturally, Leatherface delves deep into his life story to conjure something that, while grim, has none of the quality of the original film.
Leatherface is a film that was first mooted over at Lionsgate way back in 2013 after the success of the utterly bizarre Texas Chainsaw 3D. It was shot in the summer of 2015 by French directing duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, who were best known for making Inside. The film was initially slated for a 2016 release, but did not meet that date and lay completed on the shelf for a year before it was finally released, albeit with little fanfare and mostly on to VOD platforms, making less than a million dollars at the box office. Given the quality of the finished product, that’s understandable.
This film is essentially a grim road movie, unfolding with lashings of outrageous gore. Leatherface begins with Verna Swayer (Lili Taylor) handing her youngest son, Jed, a chainsaw for his birthday. A chain of horrific events leads the unconvincingly psychotic cop Hartman (Stephen Dorff) to take Jed away and incarcerate him in a psychiatric facility. Years later, sensitive teen Jackson (Sam Strike) and hulking Bud (Sam Coleman) befriend new nurse Lizzie (Vanessa Grasse) at the facility, just before Verna turns up and causes a riot. Before long, Jackson, Bud and Lizzie find themselves on the run, in the clutches of sadistic couple Clarice (Jessica Madsen) and Ike (James Bloor).
Gorehounds will no doubt be pleased with Leatherface, which delivers torrents of blood at every possible opportunity and indulges mayhem in the form of curb-stomping, chainsaw-based limb hacking, point-blank shotgun blasts and just about everything else you can imagine. Much of the violence is accomplished via old-fashioned practical effects work and it’s clear Maury and Bustillo know their way around a grotesque set piece. Indeed, the film’s visual style is slick and the Bulgarian landscapes evoke the heat and dust of Texas nicely. Often, though, the violent set pieces feel nasty for nastiness’s sake and lack cohesion with the rest of the narrative.
Much of the madness comes courtesy of Madsen and Bloor, who are convincing as psychopathic criminals. A scene in which they take part in a necrophiliac threesome with a corpse, though, nudges them into unnecessary caricature and seems calibrated solely for gross-out purposes. The same is true of a diner sequence that makes the book-end framing segments of Pulp Fiction look like a friendly chat over a pot of coffee. They’re treated nicely, though, in comparison to Stephen Dorff’s lawman, who is a cartoon character designed simply to engender artificial sympathy for the objectively evil Sawyer clan.
There are some impressive performances. Most notably, Sam Strike – Danny Dyer’s son in EastEnders – and Vanessa Grasse are solid as two basically nice people caught in the crossfire of the horrific events happening around them. Grasse is more than just a woman in peril and Strike finds real depth in his relationships with both Grasse and Sam Coleman as the Hodor-like behemoth Bud. The finale twists their relationship and pushes it towards a gory resolution, but the quieter scenes between them are the best character moments the movie has to offer.
Leatherface is a real mixed bag of a movie that marries some accomplished horror filmmaking with a premise that feels entirely perfunctory and twists a beloved genre character beyond recognition. The references and nods to the past are like chainsaw blows to the chest, landing with the thud of a decapitated head. Leatherface almost works when it allows itself to stand alone as a grim, grubby horror film in its own right but, as a Chainsaw sequel, it’s tough to stomach in more ways than one.
There’s a brief ‘making of’ documentary that has the main purpose of showcasing how outrageously British the cast members’ accents are and a selection of grim deleted scenes, including a genuinely creepy and ambiguous alternate ending.
Pop or Poop?
Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo bring Euro-horror nastiness to uniquely American subject material with Leatherface, which uses blasts of extreme gore to add life to an unusual road movie premise that leads to an origin story for a villain who never needed explaining. The performances are strong, but it needn’t be so grim and the whole thing feels as unnecessary as any other horror prequel.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Leatherface is available on DVD in the UK from Monday, courtesy of Lionsgate.