Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Leatherface' (2017)

Once Texas Chainsaw performed surprisingly well in theaters in 2013 (especially considering its budget), it was inevitable that the producers would come up with another way to mine the franchise, and after scrapping initial plans for a sequel, they ended up going the same route as Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes did in 2006: a prequel exploring the origins of Leatherface. Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Leatherface (not to be confused, of course, with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) doesn't just rehash the typical Texas Chainsaw formula (group of young people stumbles into the clutches of Leatherface and his homicidal family) in a slightly earlier era, instead going in a different, more melancholy direction with its story.

The movie opens in 1955 with a familiar dinner scene featuring the Sawyer family torturing a captive, while young Jed Sawyer is reluctant to participate, even when handed the family talisman of a chainsaw. Later, Jed helps lure a young woman to her death at the hands of his kin, but when she turns out to be the daughter of a local cop (Stephen Dorff), Jed is taken from his family and sent to a home for troubled children. Ten years later, Sawyer family matriarch Verna (Lili Taylor) -- who was the mysterious grandmother leaving an inheritance to Alexandra Daddario's Heather in Texas Chainsaw -- shows up demanding to see her son, but the home's sadistic director tells her that all the kids have been given new names to help them start new lives, and he doesn't even know which one is Jed.

This is a cheap piece of misdirection meant to make the true identity of Leatherface a mystery for most of the movie, once Verna's visit causes a disruption that allows several of the teen inmates to escape. We follow a group that includes a hulking, mentally disabled teen named Bud (Sam Coleman), who's clearly designed to play into viewers' ideas of what Leatherface is like, but the real Jed is actually the intelligent, articulate and seemingly compassionate Jackson (Sam Strike), which is revealed in overblown fashion in the movie's final act. Never mind that his size and demeanor are nothing like any previous depiction of Leatherface (including in the 1974 original and in Texas Chainsaw, the two movies this one connects to explicitly), or that his transition into the more familiar character is abrupt and unconvincing. A good two-thirds of the movie is invested in setting up this weak, obvious twist.

Leading up to that is a sometimes soulful, sometimes gruesome story about troubled teens on the run, but Seth M. Sherwood's screenplay mostly seems to be biding time until it can get to the big Leatherface reveal. French directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, making their English-language debut, throw in some of the creatively nasty gore that their other films (including cult classic Inside) are known for, but those moments are surprisingly infrequent. The rest of the low-budget production (with Bulgaria standing in for Texas) is pretty rudimentary, with Taylor giving the best, most believable performance (although she's offscreen for most of the middle of the movie) and Dorff chewing scenery as the redneck cop out for revenge (he's also apparently the father of the redneck mayor in Texas Chainsaw, which really stretches the timeline's believability). Thanks to Maury and Bustillo, this is probably the most stylishly and confidently directed installment since Tobe Hooper's first two, but that's not really saying much.

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