Overview: A young nurse is kidnapped by escapees from a mental institution; Lionsgate Films; 2017; 90 Minutes.
The Whole World’s Gonna Know: This time of year calls for a good old-fashioned blood romp through the fields. Fans of horror classics will turn to the days of yore for that nostalgia-flavoured death dream: ‘80s franchises, favoured cult classics, and, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
TCM didn’t need an origin story. Its unanswered questions made up for some of the most depraved and creative imaginings for its audience. How did this family get so completely maniacal? How long has this been going on? The answers to the questions didn’t matter, only the grungy enthusiastic murder spree did, and what the beloved film contributed to the genre as a whole.
This year directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury decided to make that origin story. It was a bold move, one that would come against the judgment and expectations of a rabid fanbase who venerated Hooper’s original vision as an example of perfection in the genre. It would have been easy to lean too thoughtful and presumptive in telling this tale, but to my great surprise, they did right by it.
That is to say, Leatherface doesn’t pretend to psychoanalyze its monstrous villains, or play on the heartstrings of its audience. We’re given the chance to empathize with the character to our own capacity knowing what occurred—and what will occur—in his life. And it does so while delivering a bloodbath with gruesome deaths and sacrilegious sexcapades. After all, Leatherface is just a gleeful romp that never takes itself too seriously and we do it an injustice to take it too seriously ourselves.
Hillbillies: The stereotypical Texan drawl of an inbred family still causes discomfort, but it is Leatherface’s stomping ground. Everyone is dirty and sweaty as hell celebrating a birthday and pressuring the birthday boy to punish a thieves and trespassers with a chainsaw. This is only part of the initiation of the murderous family and its protege is on the sensitive side.
A tide is turning in family welfare; it’s 1955 and the state has implemented removal of dependents who are living in poor conditions or who are being abused and neglected by their parents. When the state becomes involved and removes children from these homes, the place they’re supplanted to is just as unhealthy. Over the years, this institution for troubled youths cultivates a power system that comes to a head when the inmates riot, escape, and take naive innocent Nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) as their hostage.
As a group of five on the run—some more willing than the others—the power struggle is evident. Tammy (Nicole Andrews) is the strongest player, an especially depraved inmate and leader of the pack, resentful of her past and anyone who stands in her way. Her “boyfriend” Ike (James Bloor) matches her depravity, or at least doesn’t seem to mind her histrionics and quasi-necrophilia. She’s the one who shoots first and asks questions later; he has mixed results trying to quell her rages.
As a sometimes-willing captive, when Lizzy is motivated to survive she shines; unfortunately she’s been written into a piteous love affair all too reminiscent of “missionary dating” or that female curse of wanting to save another through love. At times she’s pathetic, quiet background setting for the more theatrical of the bunch, and though weak she’s a necessary foil for their behaviour. Without her, we might forget what sanity looks like. Unfortunately we might also forget her too, if not for the part she plays in the end.
Leatherface has taken Bud (Sam Coleman), a nearly mute giant, under his wing as payback for a favor during institutionalization. He feels a responsibility to him that gets him (and Lizzy) into trouble on more than one occasion. Bud exists to remind us that Leatherface has a greater capacity for feeling than the rest of his family, representing his humanity despite his animalistic upbringing. As Jackson/Leatherface, Sam Strike does well, sometimes reaching too far towards innocence and a sense of wide-eyed politeness. More than anything, he succeeds at playing the type of man who attracts women who want to fix them, and his internal moral wrestling is never too obnoxious.
Together they’re on the run from the institution and the law, specifically a rage-fueled Texas Ranger bent on continuing a blood feud with the Sawyer family. Stephen Dorff plays this role with heightened hysteria, sweat flying off his increasingly deranged face as he crosses every line put in place in his training. This isn’t about justice anymore, and between the family and the law enforcement nobody really has any hope of coming out in one piece.
Each character has their own origin stories for us to wonder about and create. We’re given hints and glimpses at what they might be with scars, tics, and specific triggers. Five origin stories live inside of this one, proving that once again, unanswered questions are much more compelling than those that are answered.
Overall: Beyond that, the story is just what you’d expect: mommy issues thanks to matriarch Verna (Lily Taylor), unfair treatment by the law and a lack of comprehensive mental health care all play a part in the creation of a monster. It’s one variation in a sea of similar stories, and just as good as any origin story we could imagine on our own. Leatherface isn’t trying to do anything new, but it still pleases with its radical gore and bone-splitting scenes, even the ones that make you roll your eyes. To compare it to TCM is unreasonable and unnecessary, when it stands on its own as a mindless flesh-tearer that’s best enjoyed with a group of rowdy friends and some pumpkin ale this Halloween season.
Featured Image: Lionsgate