Written by: David J. Schow (screenplay), Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper (characters)
Directed by: Jeff Burr
Starring: Kate Hodge, Ken Foree, and R.A. Mihailoff
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There's roadkill all over Texas."
Any discussion of Leatherface must begin with its teaser trailer, a now legendary bit of promotion for an entire generation of horror-heads who encountered it on various VHS releases. All these years later, I can’t say with any certainty on which tape I first saw it, but I can remember the context of being over at a friend’s house, where we’d rented our usual stack of weekend movies. Never the sort to fast-forward through the previews, we watched as this seemingly idyllic lakeside scene unfolded with a man’s back facing away from the camera. I can’t imagine it had either of our attention since it felt like it could have been a rom-com.
Well, until a gravelly voice intoned that “some tales are told, then soon forgotten…but a legend is forever” just before a chainsaw inexplicably rose out of the lake, tossed by a woman’s hand into the waiting arms of the man on shore, who turned out to be Leatherface. After a bolt of lightning ignited the chainsaw, he turned to the camera, summarily blowing our minds in the process. Even though I now know this teaser is absolute nonsense and doesn’t even come close to capturing the spirit of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, back then, I knew I had to see this immediately, even though I’d never seen a single Leatherface movie yet.
Of course, it’s not exactly easy to talk your parents into letting you rent The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, especially when your dad insisted it was the only movie he ever left because it scared him so badly as a teenager. As such, I wouldn’t actually cross paths with Leatherface until a few years after witnessing that insane trailer, and, while the first two Texas Chainsaw films clicked with me, the third entry has always been sort of the forgotten sequel that I never revisit nearly as often as I do the others. Perhaps it’s because it could never live up to that trailer; more likely, it’s because it’s tucked between Tobe Hooper’s own delirious, rollicking follow-up and Kim Henkel’s unhinged nonsense. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels ever held a family reunion, Leatherface would be the one that might seem relatively normal.*
And in many ways, that seems like it must have been New Line’s design when producing their own sequel. While the studio apparently was fine with Hooper upping the gore quotient from the original film’s restrained, largely implied bloodletting, the director’s decision to turn The Texas Chain Saw Massacre inside-out and reimagine it as a rowdy roadshow was not nearly as popular, at least if this sequel is any indication. Leatherface feels something like a course correction, almost literally so: gone is the first sequel’s premise of a roving Sawyer clan wreaking havoc, here replaced by the original film’s formula that finds a couple of unfortunate motorists (Kate Hodge and William Butler) terrorized by a new band of cannibals with Leatherface in tow.
A harbinger of the franchise’s flagrant disregard for continuity, Leatherface proceeds directly from the original, ignoring the events of the previous film in the process (a decision that makes Caroline Williams’s brief cameo quite confounding). The signature opening narration here informs us that W.E. Sawyer was actually apprehended and eventually executed in 1981, with many assuming that this man was the actual Leatherface mentioned by Sally Hardesty (who we learn also died in a health care facility in 1977). But what this film supposes is he very much was not. Instead, the actual Leatherface is still quite at large, now part of another group headed by Tex (Viggo Mortensen), a madman who manipulates unsuspecting travelers into driving right into this clan’s unholy den of sadistic torture and murder.
But despite Tex’s presence (and, in retrospect, Mortensen’s star power), the aim is obvious here: as implied by the title, this is Leatherface’s show. With Freddy’s impending demise just around the corner, it was clear New Line needed another horror icon to pick up the slack, so The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III almost feels like an investment for a studio looking to ignite a new franchise. There’s something perfunctory and maybe even safe about it in a way the other sequels aren’t. Say what you want about TCM 2 or The Next Generation, but those movies defy just about any expectations you may have (and, in the case of the latter, any semblance of reality). On the other hand, Leatherface is almost exactly what you’d expect from a straightforward follow-up; in fact, it feels a lot like what most people expect the original film to be like. Where that film notoriously skirts around the grisly implications of its title, this one revels in it, so much so that it ran afoul of the MPAA in one of the ratings board’s most infamous skirmishes.
Not that there’s really a problem with any of thus, especially since New Line tapped Jeff Burr to helm the project. A workmanlike director who would soon helm numerous sequels that turned out better than they had any right to be, he immediately recaptures the tactile griminess of Hooper’s original and doesn’t flinch while doing so. Before the credits have barely elapsed, Leatherface bludgeons a woman to death before turning her face into his latest mask, the grim prelude to an endless parade of unseemliness. News of recently discovered mass graves unfolds on a static-filled radio transmission, setting an ominous scene for Michelle and Ryan, the two motorists making a cross-country trip to deliver a car to the former’s father.
After miles of barreling down a desolate stretch of highway, they eventually run across one of the grisly crime scenes they’ve bantered about throughout their trio. It’s here that Burr leaves little doubt about his intentions to wallow in all the nastiness the MPAA would allow in 1990, as men in hazmat suits excavate graves, digging up horribly decomposed bodies caked with mud and grime so thick that you can practically smell how gross it is. Leatherface is committed to ushering its iconic title character into the 90s in the most extreme fashion imaginable by having him carve through various victims, each of them more disposable than the last, save perhaps for Ken Foree, who pops up as a trucker and becomes the de facto lead because, well, he’s Ken Fucking Foree.
But again, the title here is Leatherface for a reason, as the masked maniac is front and center for much of the film, appearing alongside the usual assortment of deranged relatives. Mortensen’s Tex is the most noteworthy, both for the star’s later ascent to fame and his obvious, scummy charisma in the familiar role as the family ringleader of sorts. Adopting a Texas twang and an unhinged glimmer in his eye, he effectively sets the template that Matthew McConaughey would run wild with during the next sequel. You can almost sense Burr and company trying their best to find that sweet spot Hooper captured in the original film, which treads right around the line of black comedy without degenerating into a farce like the second film. Leatherface is obviously unhinged but restrained just enough to find that balance, even as it’s introducing a maniacal matriarch (Miriam Byrd Nethery) and even a young, bloodthirsty child (Jennifer Banko, one of the few people who can claim to be an alum of two major horror franchises). And of course, Grandpa makes an appearance, as decrepit and invalid as ever.
In the annuls of franchise lore, this bunch—including its Leatherface, brought to life here as a hulking, albeit more competent brute by R.A. Mihailoff—is memorable enough assortment of lunatics, though I’m not sure they’d be the first to come to mind when you think about Chainsaw clans. Where other films rightfully (and wrongfully—I’m looking at you, Platinum Dunes) added dimensions to Leatherface, this film mostly imagines him as a blunt force instrument of carnage, largely existing to deliver chainsaw-aided jolts and gore. Only a few remnants of him man-child persona remain, most notably in a funny bit where a child’s computer game asks him to identify a clown that he labels “food” instead. And that’s fine, if not reflective of the film’s ultimate aim to be something of a no-frills Texas Chainsaw joint without too many idiosyncrasies to really set it apart. Then again, with this franchise, that means it still stands out since most of the others are so deranged in one way or another.
But for the most part, this one is content to be a return to the original’s roots with a heaping of extra gore ladled on for good measure. Of course, the theatrical version could only boast so much of it since the MPAA’s crusade against this sort of fare was arguably at its height, resulting in a butchered film that’s still slightly incoherent even in its unrated form. Quite possibly the only film to ever miss its release date due to an MPAA battle, Leatherface was hacked up right until New Line finally dumped it into theaters in January. It’s a testament to Burr’s skill as a director that the damn thing works at all, especially since he wanted his name to be removed from the final product. While the film’s infamous gore obviously makes headlines, Burr crafts a genuinely eerie atmosphere around the violent outbursts. Playing out like a moonlit B-side to the original’s sun-splashed macabre proceedings, it unfolds mostly at night, off in some forsaken desolation of Texas (by way of the film’s California locations).
Between both the MPAA and its heavy-handed studio (New Line actually set a date and cut that wicked teaser trailer before the movie went into production), it’s a wonder Leatherface isn’t among the most disastrous films to ever see a wide release. Somehow, it’s not even the most disastrous entry in this franchise, though it’s not just relativity that keeps this one afloat: save for the head-scratching continuity woes caused by the MPAA’s unwieldy hacksaw, it’s worthy of the Texas Chainsaw lineage. A halfway point between the original’s rural atmospherics and the second film’s outlandish gore, Leatherface appropriately lands squarely in the middle on the franchise spectrum. It’s not the first Chainsaw you’ll grab from the shelf, nor is it the last, which makes it ideal to pluck off of the shelf when you’re in the mood for straightforward, unrepentant carnage from this series.
Maybe that means it doesn’t live up to that incredible teaser trailer (the only one New Line put together for the film—one wonders how this marketing strategy was going to yield an entirely new franchise for them), but that’s okay. The saw truly is family, so that means we accept it, warts and all.
*For the record, Texas Chainsaw 3D is that weird cousin that may or may not show up to family gatherings depending on if he’s in jail (or rehab) or not. We don’t judge. Do your thing, cuz.
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