Friday, 1 February 2019

Retrospective: Leatherface (2017)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! We're coming to the conclusion of this retrospective today with 2017's Leatherface... not to be confused with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III of course (and with that in mind, any time I've referred to "Leatherface" in previous posts, I was referring to Chainsaw III). After the relative success of Texas Chainsaw 3D, the filmmakers once again decided that a prequel was the way to go to continue the series - that's right, not only does this film have the same title as a sequel which it ignores, it also isn't even the only prequel in this franchise. Bloody hell, the Texas Chainsaw franchise continuity is just a mess at this point. Is Leatherface at least be more coherent than the continuity of its franchise? Read on to find out...

Considering that this film's trying to do its own thing, it's unfortunate that it's using basically the same poster design as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Suffice to say, it's a very "meh" poster.

PRODUCTION
After the relative success of Texas Chainsaw 3D, the various studios involved in its production began conceptualizing a follow-up. As early as January 2013, Texas Chainsaw 3D executive producers Christa Campbell and Lati Grobman came to Millenium Films chairman Avi Lerner with an idea for a project which was going to be called Texas Chainsaw 4 (for some inexplicable reason). However, this project was announced prematurely by Millenium, which irritated the rights-holders at Main Line Pictures. I'd recommend checking out this article from Bloody Disgusting which breaks down the minutia of who owned the rights to the film at this time and shows how the studios involved were squabbling amongst each other.

Screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood pitched the idea of a prequel, as he didn't like how inconsistent the franchise's continuity had become and wanted to do something completely different with the franchise. He decided that he wanted to give Leatherface a tragic backstory, where his identity and mental faculties are taken away from him by the time the original Chainsaw rolls around. The film would also tie into Texas Chainsaw 3D, forming a trilogy along with the original film. The studio liked the idea and moved forward with Sherwood's pitch. On October 31, 2014, French directing duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo were hired to direct the film. The pair had already received acclaim for their debut horror film Inside and were a very exciting choice for Leatherface. Maury and Bustillo then rewrote the film to better fit their vision for the project, including altering every death scene and changing the ending, which was original supposed to feature Leatherface going on a mass murder spree with a chainsaw (with over thirty victims, holy shit, he hasn't even killed that many people in this whole franchise!!!).

In spring of 2015, casting for the film began. The lead roles went to Sam Strike as Jackson, James Bloor as Isaac, Jessica Madsen as Clarice, Sam Coleman as Bud and Vanessa Grasse as Lizzy. As is typical for Chainsaw films, most of them were young actors with only a few credits to their name and no major roles to speak of. Stephen Dorff, best known for being a mofo always trying to ice-skate uphill, was cast as the film's main antagonist, Sheriff Hal Hartman. Angela Bettis was originally cast as Verna Carson-Sawyer, but had to drop out and was replaced by Lili Taylor, the mother from The Conjuring. Also worth mentioning was that Finn Jones (who was already well-known for playing Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones and who would later play Danny Rand in Iron Fist) was cast in a relatively minor role as Deputy Sorells.


Filming began in late spring 2015 in Bulgaria. Apparently Millenium Films had a studio in Bulgaria and so it was the most economical location to shoot the film, marking one of the few times the franchise had been shot outside of Texas, and the only time it had been shot outside of the US. While many of the locations for the film do look quite close to a Texan setting, there are definitely moments that look like Bulgaria. Perhaps the most obvious example is during the film's final chase scene in a tangled forest which looks like something from a werewolf movie or a dark fantasy setting. Filming took twenty seven days to complete. Christa Campbell and Lati Grobman stated that they wanted the violence in Leatherface to be a more graphic, as apparently fans had complained that Texas Chainsaw 3D lacked in that department. I'm not sure what they were talking about, as that film had some of the most explicit gore in the entire franchise, although perhaps they thought that it didn't come frequently enough? In any case, the brutality was ratcheted back up in Leatherface.

The film went into post-production in early 2016 and it seemed like it would be released sometime that year. However, Lionsgate inexplicably sat on the finished film and once again we had a Chainsaw being buried by its own distributor. However, unlike The Next Generation's cut-and-dry reasons for delay, I haven't been able to find a clear motive for Lionsgate to do this. I've seen speculation that they thought that the film was no good and didn't want to release it. Scott Sherwood believed that Lionsgate were afraid of the film underperforming if they invested in a wide release. I personally wonder if the squabbling between Millenium, Main Line and Lionsgate that I mentioned at the start of the production section might have had some influence on this film's delay. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these reasons, but whatever the case, there was no news about the film until spring of 2017, when it was announced that the film would finally be released in October in a limited theatrical release and through VOD services. However, in December 2017, Christa Campbell announced that due to the time it had taken to release Leatherface, the rights had reverted back to Kim Henkel and Bob Kuhn, scuppering Millenium and Lionsgate's plans for their own Texas Chainsaw franchise.
PLOT SYNOPSIS
Leatherface opens with... sigh... a dinner scene. The Sawyers have gathered for young Jedidiah's birthday and it turns out that they have a guest - a man who they accuse of trying to steal pigs from them! Verna and Drayton encourage Jed to kill the man with a chainsaw, but he is unable to follow-through with it. Luckily, Grandpa's saves the day with an ol' one-hitter to the thief's head. Sometime later, Jed lures a young woman to a barn where the floorboards give way and she is seriously injured. Drayton tries to convince Jed to finish her off, but Jed is still unable to kill her. Nubbins then finishes the job, dropping a large motor on her which crushes her to death. After being notified of an "accidental" death by Drayton, the police arrive and it turns out that the victim is the daughter of the local sheriff, Hal Hartman. Hartman blames the Sawyers for her death and tries to get revenge by arranging to have Jed taken away to Gorman House Youth Reformery.

Ten years later, Verna attends Gorman House with her lawyer, Farnsworth (oh hell yes, my favourite character returns!), to try to have her son released back into her custody. However, the facility's overseer, Dr. Lang, refuses and says that Jed has been given a new name to hide him from his family. We then follow a new nurse at Gorman House named Lizzy as she meets various patients, any of whom could be the grown-up Jed: a large, severely handicapped boy named Bud who is prone to outbursts of extreme violence, a socially awkward, but nice boy named Jackson who is best friends with Bud, and an unhinged psychopath named Isaac. Isaac threatens Lizzy, which leads to a fight between Bud and Isaac and causes security to take them both away. Lizzy also comes across a violent female patient named Clarice who tries to force-feed a mouse to another patient. Jackson then warns Lizzy that Dr. Lang performs cruel experiments on the patients, because he thinks that she has a conscience and can help the patients.


After her request to get Jed back is denied, Verna stays at the facility until late. She then sneaks past security and breaks into the patients' quarters. This causes a number of the patients to break free and begin attacking the nurses and guards. Verna escapes just as a full-on riot breaks out. Meanwhile, Bud kills his guards and then frees Isaac before heading to Dr. Lang's office and crushing his head. Lizzy is nearly killed by a patient, but Jackson saves her and then the pair try to escape the facility. They are intercepted by Isaac and Clarice, who take the pair hostage in the trunk of Dr. Lang's car in case they need leverage in their escape. They also come across Bud casually strolling away from Gorman House, and Isaac picks him up as thanks for helping him escape earlier. A very tense group is thus formed, with Isaac and Clarice threatening to kill Jackson, Lizzy and Bud if any of them try to escape. Isaac aims to get the group to Dallas where he has family that can help him, at which point they'll let Jackson, Lizzy and Bud go.

The next day, the group comes upon a diner where they hope to stock up on supplies and get a new vehicle. After the group makes their way into the diner in two pairs (plus Bud), Isaac and Clarice manage to get ahold of a revolver from one of the patrons and Clarice finds a shotgun under the counter, which they use to stick up the joint. Most of the patrons and staff are shot by the couple, but one survivor opens fire on them, hitting Bud with a non-lethal hit as they flee to a getaway car. The survivor tells Sheriff Hartman about the shooting and, knowing who has escaped Gorman House, Hartman concludes that Jed is with the group and is responsible. The police then start hunting for the group, which hole up inside of an abandoned trailer in the woods after their getaway vehicle runs out of gas. They find the owner of the trailer dead in the shower and then tensely hole up for the night. While Bud is on watch, Lizzy tries to sneak away during the night, but is caught by Isaac in the attempt. When Isaac tries to rape her, Jackson stops him and the pair fight until Clarice breaks it up and forces Jackson and Lizzy back to the trailer. Isaac insults Bud's watchman skills which causes Bud to snap, knocking Isaac out and then killing him by curb-stomping his head against a rock.

The next morning, Clarice realizes that Isaac is missing along with Bud and goes looking for him frantically. Jackson and Lizzy take the opportunity to escape and find Bud with Isaac's corpse. Clarice is then found by an officer named Sorells, who tries to interrogate her on the whereabouts of the other escapees until Hartman shows up and begins beating her for the information. Clarice taunts Hartman about his dead daughter, which causes Hartman to shoot her. Jackson, Lizzy and Bud witness this and then escape by hiding inside of a dead cow until the police pass them. Horrified by everything happening around her, Lizzy tries to wash herself clean and notices a deputy nearby. She shouts for him to help, which causes the officer to radio for backup. Bud attacks to try to stop the deputy, but is shot in the head and killed. Jackson goes apeshit, slamming the deputy's head in the door until he dies. Lizzy is terrified by this sudden change in Jackson and tries to flee in the police car, but Jackson gets inside and, distraught and furious, asks why she call for the officer because she got Bud killed. Before they can dwell on it, a police chase with Hartman ensues, which ends with Jackson being shot in the face, nearly tearing his lower jaw off and causing their car to crash.


Later, Lizzy awakens in the barn where Hartman's daughter was killed. She sees Jackson tied up and Hartman taunts them, telling her that Jackson is Jedidiah Sawyer. Hartman radios Sorells to say that he has found the pair and that they're holed up in the barn. Sorells then takes this information to Verna, expecting a monetary reward for helping her. Verna "rewards" him with a knife to the gut and then feeds him alive to their pigs. The Sawyers then rush the barn and apprehend Hartman before he can kill Jed. Lizzy is also captured by them and everyone is brought back to the Sawyer house. Verna sews up Jed's face, holding it in place with a makeshift bridle. Lizzy and Hartman then try to escape, but are stopped. Verna then gives Jed a chainsaw and orders him to kill Hartman. This time, Jed complies, cutting Hartman's hands off and then plunging the chainsaw into his gut to kill him. Lizzy freaks out and then flees into the woods with Jed, Drayton and Nubbins in pursuit. When Jed finally catches her, Lizzy begs for him to let her go because she knows that he's a good person. Jed responds by cutting her head off in one quick swing.

In the aftermath of all this, Hartman and Lizzy's bodies are turned into mincemeat and fed to the pigs to hide any evidence of the crimes. Jed also takes Lizzy's severed head and uses it to make his first face mask, but when he sees his face in the mirror he smashes it in a rage.

REVIEW
The first thing that really strikes you about Leatherface is just how different it is than any other Chainsaw film. Whereas other Chainsaw films' narratives follow a typical slasher template (a group of clueless people get picked off one-by-one by a masked psycho), Leatherface is more like a twisted roadtrip film crossed with a mystery regarding which character is going to become the titular villain. Even compared to the other prequel in this franchise, The BeginningLeatherface is wildly different. The Beginning filled in a few blanks in its predecessor's backstory that no one really cared about while trying to hew as closely to the franchise's template as possible, which just made it feel like an excuse to extend the franchise a little further. In contrast, Leatherface's primary goal is to explore who Leatherface is and how he became the way he is in the original Chainsaw. Doing this through a twisted roadtrip movie rather than a slasher was an inspired decision as it is just incredibly tense to watch. Isaac and Clarice run the show as they're the ones with guns and a car, but the audience knows that they're both incredibly dangerous and could snap with little provocation. Jackson and Lizzy are both trying to escape and don't want any part in any of the violent acts that Isaac and Clarice are willing to commit to stay free. Add in the police hounding the group, an undercurrent of jealousy from Clarice directed at Lizzy and that Bud is a violent wildcard, and this entire roadtrip could end in a flurry of murder at any second. The tension just keeps building until Bud finally snaps and the fragile alliance shatters. This roadtrip portion of the film is by far its strongest and most compelling part, it's too bad it didn't last just a little bit longer.

Another way that Leatherface sets itself apart from other films in this franchise is that, instead of centering the story on a group of victims, Leatherface himself is the focus of this film's story. Instead of just making this a by-the-numbers prequel where we follow Leatherface through all the expected, foundational moments that got him to where we know him (where he got his chainsaw, where he gets his face mask, his time at the slaughterhouse, etc), instead we get a mystery where the identity of Jedidiah Sawyer is unknown to the audience for most of the film and therefore we have to figure out which of the characters is actually him. The way that the film keeps Jed's identity secret throughout the film is a really interesting aspect of Leatherface and is such a clever way to keep a prequel like this fresh. The first time you see it, any one of the main characters could potentially grow up to be Leatherface and they're all given fairly equal treatment by the script so you can't be entirely sure who it will be. Bud's the obvious pick, as he's heavy-set, mentally challenged and violent, fitting the usual Leatherface template. He's also mute, meaning that we can't get too much information out of him, keeping the mystery alive. Isaac is also a potential choice for Leatherface as he is a violent psychopath and is the only one who actually talks about having a family that he wants to get back to. Even Clarice is a dark horse possibility to become Leatherface, considering that gender ambiguity has always been a big part of the character's identity, it's not outside the realm of possibility that he could be a trans-person.


It comes as a mixed bag then that Jackson, the nice-guy hero character who has a crush on Lizzy, is actually Jed Sawyer. On the one hand, he's totally unlike the Leatherface we already know so it's quite surprising and they did a good job of keeping it from being obvious. However, it's also kind of lame because he's just so bland and such a stereotypical, white male lead. It's like someone said "Hey, we know Leatherface is an overweight, gender ambiguous, mentally disabled man who loves to kill people. We've even considered making him into a woman in this prequel! But, just hear me out on this - what if we made him into a nice, handsome, mentally-sound white boy?" Going in such a "safe", Hollywood direction for their lead saps away much of the boldness of the choice to toy with our expectations of who Leatherface is supposed to be. Making it so that he's not actually mentally deficient is also a strange choice, considering how obvious it is in the original Chainsaw. Instead, Leatherface makes it far more complicated - he's mute because his jaw was shot out and he's so mentally challenged because his mother broke his mind and stripped away his identity. That doesn't really explain why he suddenly goes from being in love with Lizzy to being willing to chop her head off with a chainsaw though. I personally don't agree that this was the "right" direction to go with Leatherface's origin, but I do appreciate the filmmakers' attempt to do something different and unexpected with their slasher franchise, especially when it manages to work this well (again, see Jason Goes to Hell or Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers for examples of franchise shake-ups which did not work at all).

In addition to making some questionable creative decisions about Leatherface's origins, Leatherface also manages to feel inconsistent with the original Chainsaw and Texas Chainsaw 3D, despite Scott Sherwood's attempts to fix the franchise's inconsistencies... whoops! This is most obvious with the way that existing characters are portrayed. One of the most glaring examples is Drayton. In this film, he's portrayed as the most violent and psychotic member of the Sawyer family, but in the original Chainsaw he straight-up says that he can't stand killing. I get that characters change over time, but you're telling me that he loses his appetite for killing in between these two films? Even if that is the case, are you telling me that you're going to make a character in a prequel that much different than they were before with no explanation for what changed them? Verna Carson's role in this is also really weird and makes her inclusion in Texas Chainsaw 3D feel all the more out of sync with the original film. This film reveals that she is the head of the Sawyer family and is the one who raises her children to be killers. This makes her absence in the original Chainsaw and at the start of Texas Chainsaw 3D all the more glaring in hindsight, not to mention that Burt Hartman apparently ignores her for forty years after the Sawyer massacre. In addition, the fact that this sociopathic woman somehow manages to marry an incredibly rich local man is just breezed over without explanation. These just make Verna in this film feel out of step with how she was implied in Texas Chainsaw 3D, where she seemed like she was just a regular person who happened to love her family even though they were crazy. Oh, and lest we forget, Texas Chainsaw 3D tried to downplay the fact that the Sawyer family are a bunch of psychopathic murderers, so the fact that this film once again portrays the entire clan as gleeful sadists is jarring. Once again, I have to wonder if the plan for a Texas Chainsaw 3D follow-up was to have Heather realize that maybe her family actually were a bunch of murderers who deserved to get wiped out.

Despite making it very clear that the Sawyers are evil people, Leatherface still feels the need to make us sympathize with them because the "bad guys" in this film are also evil! For example, at Gorman House Dr. Lang performs unexplained electroshock experiments on patients for little reason other than because he's an evil bastard. Jackson even confides in this to Lizzy because she's apparently the only nurse in the facility who doesn't love torturing the criminally insane. Then there's Sheriff Hal Hartman (the father of Burt Hartman, the cartoonish villain from Texas Chainsaw 3D), who hates the Sawyers because they killed his daughter and got away with it. Obviously, that's a pretty understandable reason to want this family locked away, but he's treated like he's just as bad as the Sawyers are. He takes away Jed from his family and arranges for him to not be returned to them, assaults and tortures Clarice for information before straight-up gunning her down in cold blood, tries to kill Jed to get revenge on the Sawyers and implies that he wants to kill Lizzy too to get rid of the witness. Jackson also tells Lizzy that "he's a corrupt son of a bitch" who "filled Gormon House almost single-handedly". Hartman's certainly a really bad person, but is he as bad as the Sawyers? Certainly not, but this film wants you to think otherwise. And, once again, having the Sawyers kill Hal Hartman and his daughter just further justifies Burt Hartman's lynch mob killing of the Sawyers in Texas Chainsaw 3D and makes it more inexplicable that Sheriff Hooper would think that the just action would be to let Leatherface kill Burt at the end.


I also want to comment on the violence in Leatherface, since the producers had mentioned that Texas Chainsaw 3D wasn't graphic enough. Leatherface falls somewhere in-between the Chainsaw remake and The Beginning in terms of its violence - it can be pretty nasty and gory, but most of it happens off-screen and it doesn't come across in a sadistic tone that punishes the audience for watching. That said, the film is not scary at all, instead relying on the violence and disturbing imagery to try to unsettle its audience. This didn't work for me, but there are some gross moments that bear mentioning, in particular a scene where Bud, Jackson and Lizzy are forced to hide inside of a dead cow's corpse to escape police dogs. There's also a three-way sex scene where Isaac and Clarice bring a decaying corpse along for the, er, ride. It doesn't add anything to the plot, it's just there to shock you, which seems to be all that this film can muster instead of scares. That's unfortunate because, as I mentioned earlier, the tension really ratchets up during the road trip section of the film simply because the characters are all so unhinged and ready to kill each other, you'd think that they could squeeze a few scares out of that set-up.

The acting in Leatherface is some of the best in the Chainsaw franchise, in my opinion. While Sam Strike's Jackson and Vanessa Grasse's Lizzy make for a pair of bland leads, nearly everyone else is really entertaining and fun to watch. James Bloor's Isaac in particular was a highlight, he could easily just be a one-dimensional psychopath, but Bloor's performance gives the character unexpected gravitas. It feels like the way that he lashes out at the world comes from the way that it has treated him all of his life and that deep down he might not be an inherently awful person. Stephen Dorff also puts in a great, scenery-chewing performance as Hal Hartman, being far more entertaining than Paul Rae's Burt Hartman was. He's unhinged and always entertaining to watch as he hunts down the Sawyers relentlessly. Scott Sherwood compared him to Lefty Enright and while I wouldn't say he's anywhere near that level of crazy, he makes for a solid antagonist. Lili Taylor is also quite strong as Verna Carson, feeling like the real force of evil behind the Sawyer clan's crimes. Again, this doesn't really fit with the picture of the character we were given in Texas Chainsaw 3D, but Taylor takes the material she's given and runs with it, embodying a character who ends up coming across as the real villain of the piece.

The theme of family which had been running through Texas Chainsaw 3D is also picked up here once again. It's obvious from the opening scene, where Verna tries to get Jed to commit his first murder. Verna tells Jed that a thief was trying to steal their pigs and that "bad people like him are trying to break our family apart", emphasizing that family is the motive behind this family's crimes. This also shows up at the end when Jed kills Lizzy. She tries to appeal to his good side, but when she says that the only reason that he's trying to kill her is because of his "crazy mother", Jed immediately snaps and chainsaws Lizzy's head off in a violent rage. Verna also says that "your family always has your back", which is demonstrated on a number of occasions in this film as grandpa kills the thief for Jed, or when the Sawyers rescue Jed from being murdered by Hartman. Family also plays an interesting role in the philosophy of Dr. Lang at Gorman House. Dr. Lang states that the youths in Gorman House are given new names to hide them from their degenerate, criminal families. This is a period-appropriate reference to American eugenics, which posited that criminal elements in society were passed on by degenerate parents and that such people should be prevented from passing on their genes. Thank God that this movie seems to refute these notions, as Jed becomes Leatherface not because it was in his genes, but because of the psychological conditioning that his family subjected him to. However, this once again clashes with Texas Chainsaw 3D's idea of "biological lineage decides who you will become", but considering that that was already really questionable at the time, I'm happy to see it pushed back against here.


All-in-all, Leatherface is a pretty good film and a solid prequel. I certainly don't agree with all of the creative decisions that were made, but I'd much rather get a film like this that's willing to take risks than a safe, predictable sequel. Add on that it's well-directed and the acting's mostly good, and you have what is arguably the most consistently-strong Chainsaw film since the original.

6/10

AFTERTHOUGHTS
So, with that all said, where does the Chainsaw franchise go from here? As I said in the production section, Millenium and Lionsgate have lost the rights to the franchise, thereby scuppering any sort of follow-up to Texas Chainsaw 3D that they had been planning. It's also kind of too bad that Texas Chainsaw 4D is off the books now, with its lighter tone and feuding family narrative, we could have gotten a gleefully bonkers sequel where the Sawyers and Hartmans all get into a climactic chainsaw battle. The rights have now been bought by Legendary Pictures, who are planning on making multiple films and TV shows. I'm not entirely sure how they're going to justify a Texas Chainsaw TV series, but where can Legendary even go with the franchise without just repeating what has already been done? With the success of 2018's Halloween, odds are that we're going to get a throwback continuation in a similar vein, but with Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen and Tobe Hooper all having died, I'm not sure how that will turn out.

In my opinion, rights issues have been one of the biggest hurdles plaguing the Chainsaw franchise. It kills any sort of momentum when every new film is part of a new studio's own continuity. I'd argue that it's the reason why Leatherface never achieved the same iconic success as Jason, Freddy or Michael Myers. So, to solve that, I feel like the best thing that can be done for the franchise is for a studio to just buy the rights from Kim Henkel outright and then go about making their own franchise with annual or biennial releases. I really liked the idea of Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, where they combined the elements of the Chainsaw films with The Hills Have Eyes, a sequel which goes in that direction again would be really cool.

This is how I'd rank the series from worst to best:
1) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) - 8.5/10
2) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) - 4.5/10 (Yeah, this movie is technically more uneven and worse than Leatherface, but it's really entertaining so it gets a bump from that.)
3) Leatherface (2017) - 6/10
4) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) - 5.5/10
5) Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) - 4/10
6) Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) - 3/10 (This one gets the slight bump just because I had more fun with it.)
7) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) - 3/10
8) Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) - 2/10

Thanks for tuning in once again and I hope you enjoyed this retrospective!

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