The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is a film that lives on in infamy. While you might not have gotten around to watching it yet, you’ve most-likely heard of it. This is probably due to its reputation of being a horror film that plays more like a documentary. Made for a mere $300 grand by amateur filmmakers and actors, this film manages to achieve something none of its sequels have–nor have many movies in general–in being legitimately terrifying.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels all too real, thanks its gritty 16mm cinematography. Beyond that, when you watch this original entry, it feels like you are watching real people unravel and perish. The film tells the story of a group of teenagers on a road-trip to visit their grandfather’s grave. Alas, things go awry when the teens stumble upon a house full of barbecue making cannibals, The Sawyers. One by one, the kids are offed in the twisted Texas family’s tradition. Each member of the family brings something to table, figuratively and literally. However, the character who would become the face of the film and it’s proceeding franchise was Leatherface, a skin-mask wearing, chainsaw-wielding killer cannibal. This figure would go on to be interpreted differently in the franchise that followed.
The original film’s writers Kim Henkel (Butcher Boys) and Tobe Hooper (Djinn) never intended to return the characters they created. That is, until the slasher boom in the 80s. At that time, the house of enjoyable schlock, Cannon Films made a four-picture deal with Tobe Hooper. Part of this agreement was that one of the films the director made had to be a sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Not wanting to repeat himself, Hooper decided to make 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2 a flat-out horror-comedy with the focus being on the satire of it all. Granted, its predecessor had some subtle, dark humor but this time around the comedy was much more apparent. What resulted was an original and entertaining sequel.
Following that, the franchise made its way into the 90s with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), which went back in a serious horror direction without either of the series creators involvement. However, this third installment ended up just being an utterly forgettable retread of the original. After that, series co-creator Kim Henkle chose to return the characters he helped conceive. Henkle’s return brought us Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) which was essentially his attempt at doing his own comedic version of the original. This endeavor became a strange mess of a film, giving the Sawyer family ties to government conspiracies. Sadly, it’s also just a bad movie that’s not really worth watching unless you’re already a fan of the franchise and just morbidly curious about it.
By the early 2000s, horror sequels were no longer in vogue. Instead, remakes of horror classics had taken center stage. The first of these remakes was none other than 2003’s TCM remake. The film was a pretty straightforward, dark remake and is one of the better genre remakes in the scheme of things. However, this remake possessed none of the realistic, gritty feel of its source material. To the contrary, it was slick, glossy and ultimately not able to hold a candle to the original.
Nevertheless, the remake was very successful and spawned a prequel to itself with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006). By 2013 Lionsgate acquired the rights to the franchise. The studio decided to stray away from the continuity created by the remake and instead do a sequel to the 1974 original. In doing so, the rest of the sequels were ignored. Texas Chainsaw ended up being a good sequel to its forefather. It also managed to finally not be as bipolar as the rest of the series had been. As you read, each of the films was either dark horror or satirical comedy. Texas Chainsaw (2013) however, proved to be the perfect mix of horror and comedy. Moreover it was profitable and a sequel was fast-tracked.
Alas, due to going through a period of development hell and being marred with production difficulties, we’re just now getting the newest installment, Leatherface. This is after the film was shelved for three years and ultimately pulled from its intended theatrical release. Instead, the movie in review was released exclusively on DirecTV in September. Then, just last week, Leatherface was released to all major streaming services, except Netflix. This marks the first time that a TCM movie did not get a theatrical release. But, after seeing this film, I can understand why.
Leatherface takes place in the 50s and is a prequel to the original Tobe Hooper film. The film follows three young and violent mental patients who escaped in the wake of a riot within their institution. The most deranged of these fugitives are Ike (James Bloor), the defacto leader of the escapees and his girlfriend, Clarice (Jessica Madsen). Two other inmates, Jackson (Sam Strike) and Bud (Sam Coleman) are unwillingly roped into running. For leverage, the deranged couple has also taken newly minted institution nurse, Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) as a hostage. All of them are being pursued Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff), a bloodthirsty Texas sheriff. Hartman is bent on vengeance after losing his daughter to mayhem of the Sawyer family years earlier. Specifically, he knows one of these escaped patients is a Sawyer who was institutionalized as a child and is now living under an assumed name. Thus, the crazed cop will go to any length to avenge his daughter.
Helmed by French horror directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside) and scripted by Seth M. Sherwood (London Has Fallen) this film does attempt to do something different. Unlike the rest of the franchise, it’s a criminals on the road movie with a mystery built into it. That mystery being, “Which one of these teens will become Leatherface?”
Alas, I think that is where this movie’s main problem lies. In doing something so different, the movie barely ends up being a TCM movie. Instead, Leatherface is more of a pale imitation of Natural Born Killers (1994) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Unlike those movies which are frenetic, gritty and ultraviolet; Leatherface is simply ultraviolent, but boring. By halfway through the film, I just didn’t care about any of these characters. Besides, I had already correctly guessed which of the patients would eventually be the face of the franchise and become one with the chainsaw. However, I will say that the film does look good and the majority of the violence is very done. As with Inside (2007), directors Bustillo and Maury put the gore in gorgeous.
While I respect Leatherface for trying to do something new and different; it just doesn’t work. As I said, this isn’t really a Texas Chainsaw movie. Being a fan of the franchise, it just didn’t deliver what I wanted. Therefore, I expect fellow fans of the franchise or even just the original, will feel much the same. In fact, I think the studio responsible for this entry knows that too since I have seen next to no promotion for the movie online. Leatherface won’t kill the franchise, but it may deal death its current incarnation. My guess is that in 3-5 years, we’ll see another entry in the franchise and it will be one that completely ignores Leatherface. Do yourself a favor and just have a double-feature. First, watch the original TCM, then watch The Devil’s Rejects. It will take 3+ hours, but you ultimately get a much better version of Leatherface.
Leatherface is currently available on most streaming platforms & OnDemand Services.