It would have been all too easy to completely and totally screw up a Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel, delivering something so terrible that it actually made the good films in the series worse by association. That's not what Leatherface is. Instead, it's simply a competent movie with no clear identity or goals, that seems to exist mainly to deliver one over-enthusiastically telegraphed twist.
Being an origin story for one of the most iconic horror movie antagonists in cinematic history placed Leatherface in a precarious position from the get-go. We've seen enough of these to know they rarely add much to the mythos, and they often detract from it by carving away bloody chunks of the mystery. Leatherface is a murderous hillbilly with a chainsaw who wears people's faces. What more really needed to be said about this guy?
In the new Texas Chainsaw continuity into which this movie fits, Leatherface was a relatively innocent kid who's taken from his abusive family--including his savagely bloodthirsty mother Verna Sawyer, played with gumption by Lili Taylor--at a young age and placed in an institution. As a teenager, he escapes with a handful of other inmates and a hostage nurse, and most of Leatherface concerns his time spent on the lam. Stephen Dorff plays a crooked Texas Ranger with good reasons for hating the Sawyer clan, and Finn Jones--far less annoying here than in Iron Fist--is his naive deputy.
If you're not paying attention, you might not realize it, but Leatherface wants you to wonder which of the escapees is actually the titular villain. Early scenes put an emphasis on the fact that the institution changes the children's names when they're committed, and the movie doesn't actually confirm who the future Leatherface is until relatively late in its runtime. But the cast is insular enough that it's easy to spot the twist coming long before it happens.
Besides building toward that limp reveal, Leatherface doesn't really know what to do with itself. It's not as gory as it might have been, though a couple of scenes, especially one that flirts with necrophilia, exist only for their shock value and add nothing else to the movie. There are a few gruesome deaths, but nothing uniquely grisly enough to remember once the credits start rolling. It's shot conventionally, and the score, like the rest of the movie, is unremarkable.
The best thing there is to say about Leatherface is that it makes an effort to get you to care about certain characters who might not have been so sympathetic. It definitely stumbles into that unfortunate horror movie pitfall of, essentially, demonizing mental illness, but it tries to show multiple sides of various characters, and it's generally well-cast and effectively acted. Vanessa Grasse as the captive nurse, Lizzy, is an easy protagonist to root for, although you'll also want to scream at her to make better decisions--a slasher genre staple, to be fair.
Overall, Leatherface never really revs up and gets going as anything more than a schlocky, competent callback to better films. Then again, it could have been much worse. Either way, we'll always have the original.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Some sympathetic characters||Stylistically unremarkable|
|Well cast and acted||Twist too telegraphed and limply delivered|
|Relies on tired slasher tropes|
|Unnecessary origin story|