We’ve been slicing up this story for a while now haven’t we? Even through all the sequels, remakes, and copies, few films touch the raw, visceral power of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original – a film which still gets under the skin after multiple decades and viewings. What can we possibly add to the story, and do we need to? My feelings have always been that (and the same goes for most horror films and icons) we don’t need an origin story – all we need to know is that this creature or person exists, and that it’s trying to kill the protagonists. Most origin stories try to reason with the murderer and inevitably make us sympathize to a certain degree, yet end up not making the character any more interesting. If your original story contains the origin – fine, but can a prequel coming much later be anything other than a cash grab?
Cash grabs can be entertaining, no matter how cynical they may be. Thankfully, as many flaws as this one his – almost entirely due to the plot and premise – it still does the job of entertaining me. For horror fans, there is plenty of gore and violence (though not as explicit as most others in the series) and for everyone else it is peppered with good performers giving good performances. Viewed as a standalone film separate from the mythology of the franchise it works a little better. It tells a story of revenge echoing through the years – a policeman’s daughter is senselessly murdered by a brutal isolationist family and as retribution the cop abducts a baby from the family. The baby grows up in an institute but eventually escapes with a group of Bonnie and Clyde wannabees and they embark on a collision course of mayhem which leads baby, family, and cop back to where it all began.
Sam Strike takes up the unenviable task of playing the young Leatherface – UK viewers will know him from Eastenders – and I have no issues with his performance. He has the script, he’s been told how to play it, and he follows through. Similarly, the always reliable Dorff and Tyler are engaging and Vanessa Grasse is good as the sympathetic final girl. French directing duo Maury and Bustillo became instant horror legends after their incredible debut Inside, but they don’t get to expand upon their penchant for threat and terror here, hindered by an idea and a screenplay which is entirely by the numbers and unnecessary. There’s a point in the movie – I’m not sure if it was ever intentional – that it seems like the filmmakers are going to pull an early Shyamalan and actually have a different character turn out to be Leatherface. Based on what we do get, that twist could have improved matters.
Going back to my point about not needing origin stories – a related point is that I never found Leatherface to be such an interesting character anyway. Here was this hulking man-child who appeared to be severely mentally challenged, and just happened to enjoy killing things and dead things – like the rest of his family. He was essentially a slave and both didn’t and couldn’t know better. That’s all you need to know. The original offers no suggestion of him being a complex character – that’s us projecting onto him. Rather, the film portrays him to be an almost mindless child in the body of a WWE Superstar, likely the result of generations of inbreeding and seclusion. Leatherface does a ridiculous double sell-out, a triple sell out in fact; first, by showing the young Leatherface being abducted and raised by a different family before being placed in a Young Offenders/mental institution where he is presented as a sympathetic, caring, yet conflicted human, secondly by making him become violent for no good reason, and finally by making him lose his mind and regress to…. something? There’s no reasoning behind any of it. We start out the movie not buying into the character being this emotionally involved teenager, and we end the movie not buying in to him becoming the mindless Leatherface. They even make a mess of explaining the origin of the mask – him wearing it out of necessity due to taking a bullet to the face, rather than because he simply likes the feel of human skin on his own. It makes the character much less interesting, and crucially, much less frightening. What is scary about the original is that history has shown us that there are people out there who commit these crimes for no reason other than they enjoy it. Here, in trying to explain evil they instead act like the parent showing that the coat in the closet isn’t the boogeyman.
Still, with all that said it’s better than a lot of movies of its ilk and it’s likely an improvement on many of the franchise entries. I can’t say for sure how I feel as the three other entries between 2003 and 2013 are of similar middling quality. In the end, they all feel like watchable throwaway horror which don’t come close to the madcap disgusting nature of Part 2, and are a world away from the relentless perfection of the original.