By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor and Sam Strike
Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Written by Seth M. Sherwood
It may sound like damning with faint praise to say that LEATHERFACE is the best TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE sequel in a couple of generations, but it manages to recapture at least some of the gruesome intensity that distinguished Tobe Hooper’s original. It may be the first film in this prolonged franchise since Hooper’s that actually has you questioning who will survive and what will be left of them.
It’s also a giant step up from the disastrous TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D, even as it comes from the same producing team, who chose wisely by handing the directorial reins to Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo of INSIDE. They play the mayhem dark, gritty and uncompromising, which will help get CHAINSAW fans past the fact that that weapon plays only a small supporting role, and no skin-faces appear until the very end.
A world premiere at last month’s FrightFest in London, debuting Stateside on DirecTV September 21 and then hitting theaters and VOD October 20, LEATHERFACE does hark back to the ’74 film’s vibe by opening with a dinner-table tableau from hell. Both the saw and the hammer come into play, as overseen by Sawyer family matriarch Verna (Lili Taylor, clearly having a high old time going nuts and playing against type). The clan subsequently choose the wrong victim, which incites the wrath of Texas Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff); he has preteen Sawyer son Jed taken away from Verna and placed in the Gorman House mental facility, his name changed to disguise the guilty. Years later, we meet Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) as she starts work at Gorman House and is introduced to a number of the young inmates, including Jackson (Sam Strike) and the hulking, simpleminded Bud (Sam Coleman), who have issues but seem basically decent, and Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen), who very clearly are not.
After a vividly and bloodily staged escape sequence that gives Maury and Bustillo a chance to show their chops (and stabs and hacks), the unhinged, bloodthirsty Ike and Clarice take Lizzy hostage and set out for the Mexican border with Jackson and Bud. Here the film enters NATURAL BORN KILLERS territory, as they jaunt across Texas (convincingly played by Bulgarian exteriors), slaughtering anyone they come across and threatening to kill and/or defile Lizzy along the way. Meanwhile, bringing the whole CHAINSAW-inspired cinema cycle full circle, screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood takes a page from Rob Zombie’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS as the vengeance-obsessed Hartman leads the cops out to stop the on-the-lam psychos.
Since the film doesn’t make clear till the end which one of its characters is actually Jed, and will eventually take on the eponymous role (Ike’s got the temperament, while Bud is the closest physical match to Gunnar Hansen’s original Leatherface), there isn’t a lot in the way of CHAINSAW iconography or thematic connections here, which may frustrate some fans. If you can look past that, LEATHERFACE functions pretty well as a graphic criminals-on-the-run shocker, in which Maury and Bustillo, along with Bloor and Madsen, elicit a sense of danger that suggests, to quote Joe Bob Briggs, that anyone can die at any time. Amidst all the violent types on both sides of the law, Grasse makes Lizzy a sympathetic heroine that the audience can hang onto in the midst of all the carnage.
If LEATHERFACE doesn’t plumb the true depths of cinematic insanity that the first CHAINSAW did, it at least achieves the similar goal of making rural Texas seem like a place you’d never want to visit; a few moments, like Jed wearing a large dead cow’s head, do get at the original’s near-surreal sense of derangement. And even if its connection to the franchise feels tangential, this film recaptures the spirit more effectively than CHAINSAW 3D, THE NEXT GENERATION et al. (and it’s likely an unconscious homage to the latter that the very Matthew McConaughey-looking Dimo Alexiev appears here briefly as Drayton Sawyer). Making the difference, once again, are Maury and Bustillo; LEATHERFACE is undoubtedly a better film with this duo at the helm than it would have been without them.