The shadow of the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hung heavy over the remainder of the franchise. No director since the original had managed to recapture and even intensify the horror of Tobe Hooper’s vision in the same way as Marcus Nispel, who barely had to include overt violence at all, so suffocating was his atmosphere of dread, doom and atrocity. In the years that followed, each instalment in the series tried to innovate its way into a new level of shock – The Beginning leaned into torture horror at its height, Texas Chainsaw 3D took advantage of the new 3D era, and finally Leatherface recruited Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, two of the figureheads of the New French Extremity, the only other cinematic movement of the new millennium that could rival torture horror for sheer impact. At the same time, screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood took the franchise in a radically new direction by focusing on the adolescence of Leatherface, and so largely discarding the narrative formula that had remained more or less unbroken since the original, with the possible exception of the anarchic sequel released in the 1986. In place of the tried-and-tested capture of a posse of young adults by the Leatherface crew, we now follow Leatherface himself as he is committed to an asylum, escapes with a gang of inmates, and evades corrupt police, all of which makes for a much more peripatetic rhythm than in previous instalments.
Unfortunately, this new rhythm, along with the 1950s setting, and a couple of fairly memorable bit parts for Lily Taylor and Stephen Dorff, is the only thing that really works about Leatherface, which is only revisionist in the sense that it evacuates the franchise of all its aesthetic originality. Leatherface is given the most literal backstory imaginable – as a chainsaw refuser, who as a toddler finds himself unable to cut open a guest at his family table, and is thereafter bundled off to the local asylum to become a ward of the state. Rather than chart a gradual progression from normality to the Texas Chainsaw universe, we start in that world, which removes the sense of revelation that characterises the best origin stories. In addition, Leatherface just doesn’t have much in the way of an artistic signature – it’s low-budget, but not especially grindhouse, and doesn’t feel Texan in the slightest, partly because it was actually shot in Bulgaria. Beyond this Eastern European setting, the action feels cast adrift in the any-place-whatever of the streaming universe, since Leatherface is the first film in the franchise that feels tailored to the half-distracted, globalised space of online platforms.
Worse, Leatherface completely disavows the gleeful core of the original – the comic voyeurism that always made the camera feel somewhat complicit in the social conflicts that it was charting. Strange as it it may sound, this prequel traffics in the prudish moralism of YA fiction, drawing as much from The Hunger Games as from Tobe Hooper, to envisage a world in which Leatherface’s two main antagonists are a mean girl and her jock boyfriend. Leatherface here is a high school anti-hero, a misunderstood loner, and an eerie spectre of the kind of humourless self-regard that produces mass shooters. Of course, there is some flamboyant ultra-violence from the directors of Inside, much of it reserved for the end, when Leatherface’s chainsaw makes contact with more extremities than ever before. There’s also the suggestion of an intriguing twist, midway through, as well as a few hints towards Leatherface’s subsequent career as a cross-dresser. But ultimately none of these more novel directions pan out, resulting in a film that feels curiously empty, unplanned and unfinished – a film made to be turned on and off at a moment’s notice, in the manner of a streaming world.