Vanessa Grasse in Leatherface (Lionsgate)

Turns out Leatherface wasn’t always a monster, or was he? The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the 1974 American horror classic directed by the late Tobe Hooper, set the standard for innovative ways to conceive horror movies, and it established a canon; it’s influence is still alive in any slasher movie. Future sequels and reboots never succeeded to remotely match the gritty realism, chilling atmosphere, and disturbing images that helped the original movie become one of the greatest and most influential horror movies. Now, other filmmakers attempt to tell the origin story of the masked man yielding the chain saw.

Directed by French filmmakers Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, Leatherface, set chronologically before the events we know from the first film, depicts the infancy and youth of the youngest son of the Sawyer family, Jedidian, renamed later as Jackson (Sam Strike). He is taken away from his dysfunctional family to grow up in a mental asylum for disturbed teenagers. However, living with his family for several years has an impact, especially if your birthday present is someone tied to a chair waiting to be killed with the chainsaw the folks have given you.

Jackson is a sad young man who inspires the sympathy of a new, sweet, and innocent nurse. Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) believes she can help Jackson until the story line centered on the mental asylum’s day-by-day routine is quickly replaced for an ever-changing plot about riot, escape, long chases, and the road trip with the fugitives.

Jackson is part of the gang (the “healthiest” member, if you ask), and the only real victim of the mayhem is, as you probably guessed, nurse Lizzy. She’s kidnapped by the escapees but protected by Jackson. But he is a Sawyer after all, and the reunion with his family is just a matter of time and fate. So, when that happy homecoming happens, the monster begins to scratch under the surface of Jackson’s humanity. Belatedly, the screenwriters remember that he needs to be Leatherface, after all.

Just as it may sound, the plot doesn’t provide convincing reasons that explain why Jackson transforms into a murderer. Character development is flat in a narrative that simply adds some bloody murders, more as a duty to the horror genre. The funny thing about some of the most violent scenes is that a sheriff hungry for revenge (Stephen Dorff) seems more willing to spill blood than our main monster.

At best, Leatherface is a harmless movie that fails as a horror movie (is it a horror movie in the first place?). Hopper’s classic easily outshines the prequel, where the only shocking scene is a gratuitous necrophilia sequence not related with Leatherface or any Sawyer family member. Yet, all is not lost. Lili Taylor (the Sawyer matriarch) offers the best she can with the poor material at hand. Other actors like Grasse and even Strike gave fine performances with charisma, well above the rest of the overacting (Dorff include). In terms of production values, the movie surprisingly introduces some attractive images (the sun behind the barbed wire, gun smoke expelled from the mouth of a dead body). A couple of well-crafted scenes, the riot and a shooting on a restaurant, deserve a better movie.

To say that Leatherface is a failed prequel or missed opportunity avoids the main problem. The original was an achievement created by a filmmaker with an exceptional vision. This franchise doesn’t needs a prequel, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shouldn’t become a franchise in the first place. It’s time to cut off Leatherface and the Sawyer family with the proper chainsaw once and for all.

Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Written by Seth M. Sherwood.
Released by Lionsgate Films.
USA. 90 minutes. Rated R
With Lili Taylor, Stephen Dorff, Vanessa Grasse, Sam Strike, James Bloor, Jessica Madsen, Sam Coleman, and Finn Jones