For some reason there are those who think that everything has to have an origin story, especially famous monsters and murderers that have populated classic horror films. Rob Zombie tried to this with his remake of Halloween, which dove deep into the psyche of Michael Myers in his youth. Now in the same vein is Leatherface, a prequel which aims to provide us with the origin story for the Ed Gein-inspired murder from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What movies like these fail to understand is that evil doesn’t require an inciting act, and providing a reason for evil to exist dilutes the terror that grips us. Leatherface is a brutal, ugly work of cinema that is relentlessly unpleasant to watch and never once approaches the level of terror of Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece of horror.
The film opens with the matriarch of the Sawyer family, Verna (Lili Taylor), bestowing her youngest son with a chainsaw, though the young man is unwilling to use his new tool of destruction on a man tied to a chair. This twisted backwoods clan runs afoul with the law when the deranged youth lay a trap for a young woman who just happens to be the daughter of Texas Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff). Upon the grisly discovery, Ranger Hartman is able to use the law to get Verna’s children taken from her.
Years later in a Texas mental institution, Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) is starting her first day as a nurse. She meets Jackson (Sam Strike), a young and uneasy man who often looks out for his obese and mostly silent friend Bud (Sam Coleman). Lizzy’s first day becomes a nightmare when an insurrection breaks out and most of the inmates are able to violently gain their freedom. Against her will, Lizzy is taken captive along with Jackson and Bud with Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen), a violent and bloodthirsty couple that makes Bonnie and Clyde look like the Waltons. Ranger Hartman knows that one of these fugitive youths is a member of the Sawyer family and along with his fellow Ranger (Finn Jones) set out stopping the bloody road trip.
Written by Seth M. Sherwood and directed by the French duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, Leatherface really tries to play it close to the vest as to which of these characters will grow up to be the chainsaw-wielding murderer with a facemask of human flesh. Maybe it’d all work better if there was some reason to be invested in any of these characters, but every character with the exception of Lizzy is utterly repellant with a sadistic streak running beneath the surface. This is a movie without any heroes and it works against it so much because it’s basically trying to establish a timeline of abuses that provide some kind of acceptable motivation for a mass murdering psychopath.
What makes the attempts to create an inciting act for a force of evil so underwhelming is how Bustillo and Maury seem incapable of utilize the graphic violence of Leatherface for anything other than shock and disgust. The blood and guts flow freely in Leatherface but it’s never even remotely horrific, let alone so absurdly shocking that’s it provides sick thrills. This is the kind of movie that operates under the mistaken notion that it was simply the violence that made Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic therefore the bloodier the better. There’s just no tension to the story at play and each act of violence becomes more and more tiresome despite its escalating gruesomeness.
The young cast of Leatherface handle the subpar material well, only the demented duo of Ike and Clarice going way over the top with their performances. The real standouts in the cast are the veteran actors, who are mostly given the short end of the stick even though their talent transcends the material. I really would’ve liked a deeper dive into Lili Taylor’s Verna and what drove her to be the mad matriarch of the murderous Sawyer family. Stephen Dorff gives a reliable performance as the vengeance-seeking lawman, but it’s another case where his character is underdeveloped that his darker turn is underwhelming at best. Rounding out the cast is Finn Jones, who proves that his charisma void isn’t just limited to Iron Fist.
Leatherface is an unnecessary prequel that doesn’t ever achieve what it sets out to. More often than not, it’s incapable of anything other than trying to give evil a pass because it went through some traumatic moments. Life is full of trauma and presenting the kind of evil that is the face of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with an inciting incident undermines the horrific aspects of that evil. The fact that evil exists should be frightening enough without a sympathetic cause for mass murder.