'Leatherface': Film Review | FrightFest 2017

Courtesy of Campbell Grobman Films
A hillbilly elegy with a high body count.
9/21/2017

French directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury craft a respectful origin story for the long-running 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' horror franchise.

A landmark in hillbilly horror, the late Tobe Hooper’s grungy 1974 slasher classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has so far spawned seven sequels and reboots of variable quality. Erasing the traces of previous origin stories, Leatherface pitches itself as a canonical prequel to the original. It is certainly a superior film to its most recent franchise predecessor, Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), which earned damning reviews but still turned a healthy profit. Hooper died just as this latest installment received its world premiere at FrightFest in London last weekend. He is credited as executive producer here, an unintended but respectable epitaph to his half-century career in movies.

French directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, best known for their terrific 2007 debut Inside, deliver a superior pulp shocker with their English-language debut. Leatherface was shot in low-cost Bulgaria with a mostly European cast and crew, but it feels more like a stylish indie production than a cheap grindcore knockoff. The gory carnage is sparingly but vividly staged, the suspense-driven plot twisty enough to tax the brain. Seasoned U.S. players Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff also add modest marquee value. The film makes its North American debut via DirecTV on Sept. 21 ahead of simultaneous VOD and limited theatrical release on Oct. 20.

At the ramshackle Sawyer family farm in rural Texas in 1955, a young Jed Sawyer (Boris Kabakchiev) proves squeamish when his demonic mother Verna (Taylor) tries to initiate him into the clan tradition of chainsaw slaughter. But the boy later plays his dutiful role in a macabre roadside ambush, donning animal skins to lure a passing couple into a grisly trap. Enraged after his daughter is murdered by the Sawyers, vengeful sheriff Hal Hinton (Dorff) has insufficient evidence to convict Verna, but he punishes her anyway by removing Jed to a state mental infirmary, Gorman House.

Ten years later, new nurse Lizzy White (Vanessa Grasse) begins work at Gorman House just as Verna Sawyer fails in her latest legal bid to get Jed released. Her grown-up son is now a stranger to her, his name changed for his own protection, a shamelessly dramatic contrivance designed to keep viewers guessing for the next hour. Mission accomplished.

The hospital is a gothic purgatory where insubordinate inmates suffer a sadistic regime of electroconvulsive therapy. When a bloody riot breaks out, Lizzy is taken hostage and forced to go on the run with a gang of escapees: the childlike Bud (Sam Coleman), the sweetly protective Jackson (Sam Strike) and the bloodthirsty psycho-lovers Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen). There are some fairly overt movie homages here, from Badlands to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Natural Born Killers.

With Dorff’s sweaty, unshaven, increasingly trigger-happy lawman in bloodthirsty pursuit, the runaways leave a trail of bodies on their doomed rush to the Mexican border. A tense meal break at a roadside diner becomes a brain-exploding shotgun massacre. An overnight shelter in a remote trailer ends in a necrophiliac sex orgy — but hey, we’ve all had crazy nights like that, right? Jed’s identity is not difficult to guess, especially once the gang begins dying off in gunfights and car chases. But such are the formulaic thrills of genre movies, serving up a checklist of guilty pleasures with Pavlovian predictability.

Leatherface is not a wildly original reboot, it simply brings a breath of refreshingly foul air to a moribund franchise. Commendably, it also manages to remain gripping while avoiding the self-referential irony and sexualized torture-porn that has dominated much of horror over the last two decades. The climactic chainsaw-wielding bloodbath will surprise nobody, but it has a satisfying splatterpunk energy that Tobe Hooper himself would surely have relished.

Production companies: Campbell Groban Films, LF2 Productions, Lionsgate, Mainline Pictures, Millennium Films
Cast: Lili Taylor, Stephen Dorff, Vanessa Grasse, Sam Strike, James Bloor, Jessica Madsen, Sam Coleman, Finn Jones
Directors: Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury
Screenwriter: Seth M. Sherwood
Producers: Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman, Carl Mazzocone, Les Weldon
Cinematographer: Antoine Sanier
Editors: Sebastien de Sainte Croix, Josh Ethier
Production designer: Alain Bainee
Music: John Frizzell
Venue: FrightFest
Sales company: Millennium Films

90 minutes

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