Two key images, or textures, dominate the opening of Leatherface, the third film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, and a reboot of sorts. As the opening credits roll, director Jeff Burr presents us with Leatherface preparing his masks in a macabre laboratory, fixating minutely on his craft as he pores over what’s used and what’s discarded. Immediately, the action shifts to a traffic jam in the remote back highways of Texas, where police are exhuming a mass grave of 60-70 bodies, presumably Leatherface’s victims, that have putrefied into adipose, “a creamy breakdown of body fat.” Between these two textures, Leatherface promises to corporealise its main character in a new way, doing away with the idea of Leatherface as a “split personality” and returning to him as an independent character in his own right who is still out there somewhere.
Against those complex and reticulated textures, Burr sets the highway, which is simpler, more isolated and more austere here than in either of the previous films, which tended to feel as if they were set on the outskirts of towns and settlements rather than right out in the middle of the Texan desert. Full of long, high perspectives that emphasis the extent of the road and surrounding isolation, as well as the sheer scale of Texas itself, there’s a new focus here on the expansiveness of Leatherface’s domain as well. As if to compound that sense of scale, the main characters – a Californian couple named Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) – are not locals but are just passing through Texas on their way to Florida, New York and, eventually London. The result is a very pure and focused sense of dread that becomes synonymous with the crushing, almost unbelievable emptiness of the highway, and is only enhanced by a fairly functional plot and an extremely circumscribed cast of characters and locations. Yet that doesn’t make for a bland experience, since this is the austerity of a film that is effectively dispensing with the mythology of the first two, creating a new sense of possibility around the Leatherface legend that just renders the oppressive and overwhelming sense of space even more pregnant and foreboding.
Nor surprisingly, that sense of space makes the prospect of stopping, let alone leaving the highway, quite terrifying, so there’s something inherently frightening about the extended sequence at a petrol station that makes up the entirety of the first act. Here, Burr also demonstrates a wonderful ability to embellish and embroider the austerity of the film with all kinds of little details and touches as well. Animals, in particular, take on an especially uncanny and talismanic sheen, since the petrol station is littered, variously, with roadkill of all kinds of description, old-fashioned taxidermic posters, preserved animals in grotesque poses and butchers’ dissection and preparation diagrams plastered on the walls. As might be expected, that all works to build a heightened sense of the human body as mere flesh, as well as making Leatherface’s own cluttered studio feel peculiarly present as well.
Yet for all these harbingers of Leatherface this first act plays out largely as a study in highway horror, delaying the entrance of the film’s namesake in order to distance us just that little bit more from our expectations and preconceptions about the meaning of the franchise as a whole. As a result, there is no other sequence in the franchise quite like this opening act either, which plays more like a post-apocalyptic road movie in which the couple are met by a cavalcade of struggling survivors, part men and part machine (just as when Leatherface does finally arrive, he’s now armed with a variety of mechanical accoutrements alongside his signature chainsaw). For a moment there, you could almost believe you were in a different franchise, as the couple strike up a friendship with Benny (Ken Foree), an African-American survivalist preparing for the end of days, and who gradually suggests the world could have ended already – or be in the process of ending – without it being especially visual or audible from within the depths of this remote wasteland. Speaking of audibility, this is also one of the most accomplished sequence in the franchise in terms of sound design, as the vast vacuum of the highway turns any kind of sound – not just the chainsaw’s distinctive rattle – into a source of horror. Unlike the first two films, then, which focus largely on Texan natives and are obsessed with the terror of being pursued on foot, here the horror is more car-centric, which is perhaps why Burr also manages to provide more of an outsider’s perspective on the Lone Star State as well.
Of course, it is only a matter of time before the couple find themselves lost in the woods and stalked by Leatherface, who kidnaps Michelle and leaves Ryan to band up with Benny to get her back. The rest of the film alternates between Ryan and Benny’s efforts to get into the Leatherface home – now a compound more than a house – and the weird rituals of Leatherface’s family themselves. This macabre, gruesome and disturbing collection of people are the real spectacle of this second part of the film – Leatherface is the least intense amongst them – where they play more of less as an antecedent to contemporary torture porn and ultra-horror. At the very least, this family has to have been a touchstone for the hyper-gruesome reboot of the franchise in the mid-2000s, while certain moments also feel like prototypes for the Hostel franchise, evincing a remarkably and repulsively violent aesthetic for the early 1990s, and really taking you back to the era of “video nasties” in the process.
The whole scenario is even more disturbing in that Leatherface is somewhat childish amongst his own family, prompting one of the most intense peformances I’ve seen from a a child actor from the family’s own daughter in turn. Still, it’s Leatherface’s psychotic mother, played by Miriam Byrd-Nethery, who really steals the show – all of a sudden it feels as if we’re in the same Texas as Psycho – as she continually demands him to perform ever greater acts of atrocity even as she berates him with a relish that makes it clear she will never be satisfied with his sacrifices to her. Inevitably, there are also traces of the relationship between Jason and his mother in there as well, especially at Leatherface’s more quizzical moments, but to its credit the film never feels derivative, partly because of how well Burr handles the dark parody of hearth and home (“the saw is family”) at its core. In fact, you could almost see Leatherface as a bizarre home invasion drama, in which it is Leatherface and his family who are pleading to simply go about their white survivalist business and perform their family rituals without being oppressed by intrusive outsiders.
For that reason, Leatherface often feels like the first film in the franchise to really strike a balance between horror and comedy, building upon the more openly satirical sequel to pave the way for the high camp of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, released in 1994. Yet what makes Leatherface so striking is that it never discards horror either, with the final act never quite getting grotesque or caricatured enough to offset the shock value of the film as a whole. In part, that’s because this film feels like it’s designed to scare kids, or to put the audience in the perspective of scared kids, not simply through the infantilisation of Leatherface, but from his participation in a whole variety of habits – most memorably playing video games – that seem to speak to children on the cusp of the 90s. Of course, you could also see the film as being a satire of cannibalistic, narcissistic youth – the horror of youth – but both perspectives still ensure that Leatherface is full of the kinds of images designed to stay with children who saw it too young. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Burr concludes with a brilliant series of images and set pieces, as we move from the house to a nearby swamp, where, with more than a touch of lurid giallo horror, Leatherface chases his last victim into the murky waters of what feels like his next major mass grave. At this point, the Texan trajectory feels complete, while even those characters that survive feel as if they have been incorporated into Leatherface’s macabre Texan landscape in some way, forced to forever envisage themselves as roadkill, or dismembered at the bottom of a swamp, and forcing the viewer to forever remember them in the same way.