Leatherface Review – Dissecting The Prequel To A Masterpiece
When the original actor Gunnar Hansen was living, he spoke about his inspiration for the character of Leatherface. Hansen in the early 1970’s, walked, immersed and convinced those at a local psychiatric hospital that he was among the patients. This method and inspiration created a larger than life, sympathetic beast that roamed the screen of the 1974 classic. Hansen, a large man in stature, talent and heart was the obvious look for this face wearing, chainsaw wielding monster. With several sequels and remakes which have come from this franchise over the decades, a new entry is added with the blend of grit from yesterday and the darkness of today in the very limited big screen release of LEATHERFACE by the filmmakers behind the 2007 French extremity masterpiece INSIDE Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury.
Unlike what we witnessed with Rob Zombie’s re-imagining of the HALLOWEEN franchise (especially part 2), LEATHERFACE offers a story, a less abrasive tone and much less trailer park. Opening with a familiar scene in the annals of horror, we see a family birthday, a coming of age. As we pan around the table, we are reminded of the insanity and twisted family dynamic that the Sawyer’s embody as they prepare dinner. Dealing with barbarous actions, family loyalty and disappointment, the film never lets you go from that the madness of the opening sequence giving you tastes throughout the narrative. As we shift ten years later, we see that Jed and several Sawyer family members are grown up and sit in a state mental hospital due to the vengeful Texas Ranger named Hartman (Stephen Dorff) taking the children out of the Sawyer Farmhouse to protect them from the rest of the family especially the matriarch Verna (Lily Taylor).
LEATHERFACE shares its successes and failures pretty evenly throughout the run time. The films tone shifts incredibly as we witness a tense and wild west style jailbreak story take over for the remainder of the film. It becomes a chase with the authority in pursuit of the dangerous patients from the state hospital developing through a wide open back country and old country towns. The characters personalities, back stories and intentions form before the viewer’s eyes. They become outlaws instead of monsters. You question who is right, who is wrong and who truly is dangerous. I loved this aspect. Throughout the meat of the film, we see the directors attempt to form bonds and establish connections with familiar style of characters with the viewer. The escape group includes a Harley Quinn type young woman, a Joker esque patient, the soon to be Leatherface, his OF MICE AND MEN Lennie and a caring nurse who is the humanity within the madness and violence. These characters are cookie cutter on every level from the dialogue to the sex to violence to the bonds that are created. As we come to the final act, events are put in motion and the influence of mother comes out of the dark to help create the future Leatherface. The final act returns to the beginning of the film as it accelerates with violence, gore, and tension that returns it to more of horror style project but gives an unexpected interruption of Leatherface’s origin.
LEATHERFACE is a tale of two films. For me, here is what works. Splitting the editing credit between Sebastien de Sainte and Josh Ethier, the final cut of the film (even with the issues I had), was created with a keen and smart eye creating compelling cinema on different levels. Taking on a film like this, where there is such a shift in tone surrounding a legendary, modern monster no doubt can be difficult and a pressure chamber. Not knowing too much of Sainte’s body or work, I know Ethier especially has shown during his previous projects, an eye to developing scenes, construct moments, find the mood points on every level and develop an effective pace.
The DP Antoine Sanier framed this film for full impact both visual and emotionally. Sanier allows enough room for action to develop when needed, never being afraid to let the violence form and creating some memorable shots (Jessica Madsen’s death and the exiting of the smoke from her head). Sanier really brings to life the horror and drama of this story in the rises and lulls. The locations and sets are detailed which gives Sanier a canvas to work on. The sets fit the change in storytelling, conflict and at certain points feel like characters. These ties heavily into the use of light which invokes and unveils so much throughout.
LEATHERFACE suffered from a couple of the most common issues in modern horror films. First, even with talented actors like Finn Jones, Dorff, Taylor and a slew of young actors, the characters felt cookie cutter and expected. This is supposed to be the rise of an icon that scared people so badly, someone who was mentally challenged. It is lost in the look of the characters and the explanations throughout the film Yes, they served their purpose but unlike INISDE, I felt no real connection or buy in to the conflict or seeing them survive. Second, the final act of the film dropped the ball for me. After an opening act that holds some elements of the original film with the grit, the close reactionary shots defining each family member and a score that adds a wicked pulse by John Frizzell it moves to a drama but returns to a predictable conclusion. Why it is tragic how Leatherface comes about and the choices made to become Leatherface, that final scene is a predictable gut punch.
Overall, I enjoyed most of this film. At times LEATHERFACE is unflinching and at other times is expected. The unrelenting engagement of the violence and the raw interactions of the characters pushes the boundaries giving a glimpse to what made this franchise classic. After I watched this, I truly respect the change of tone, texture and sub-genre we see through 2/3rd of the film taking it from a very dark OF MICE AND MEN to a modern horror film formula. Watching the escape and the characters dealing with freedom as well as conflict intrigued me. I only wish we could see more of the chase style story with a better payoff that many have come to expect from the minds behind INSIDE by several of the minds behind the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE including Kim Hinkle, Tobe Hooper and Robert Kuhn as well as SAW’S Kevin Greutert.