Origin stories-who needs them? When thinking of iconic horror monsters do we really want some explanation about where they came from or what created them?
Whatever our opinion we have had a few of these over the last decade or more. I was surprised when this film was announced so soon after the Texas Chainsaw3D film, and that it was not another sequel but a prequel ‘origin story’ of the main iconic monster of the long lasting horror franchise. In the past, often against the wishes or interest of loyal fans we have had hints at the origins of modern horror monsters such as Freddy Krueger of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, flashbacks encounters of the past life of Pinhead from Hellraiser, and more. In my mind the most recent and probably unnecessary prequel origin tale for one of the most iconic modern monsters was the Hannibal Rising movie which looked at the early years of Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal films. It was closely adapted from the short novel written by the great Thomas Harris, who created the character but it did not feel entirely called for. Did that movie take away too much of the mystery from the iconic monster that is Hannibal Lecter?
Would this new Texas Chainsaw prequel be just as unnecessary? Or would it give the iconic voiceless chainsaw wielding fiend a fresh and solid layer of realistic character?
It came free onto Netflix a few days ago so now was the time to find out I decided.
I had already heard and read many very mixed reviews and thoughts on this slightly controversial addition to the Chainsaw series. Leatherface is now up there with Dracula, Pinhead, Freddy, Phantom of the Opera and other legendary horror monsters. Many may hold the view that we don’t want to know too much about them-who they used to be, where they came from, what made them evil or unstoppable killers. The less we know, the more they may seem like some mysterious force of nature, a kind of evil energy or lifeforce.
This movie goes right back to the very start. Back to the Sawyer house out in the open fields of America. We have seen different versions of the Chainsaw family through the various sequels-there has never really been any clear explanation about why sometimes there seem to be a couple of older brothers with Leatherface, different mother figures, sometimes extra extended family members other times only one or two others. In this early beginning the story gives us a Sawyer family with a couple of older grown brothers, one simple chubby young brother, and the young Leatherface character now called Jed. The mother in this version is played by the excellent Lili Taylor, who continues to seem to get better with every film she appears in over the years. At first I thought she was only going to be in the short opening sequence of the film, but she appears throughout as it moves along. Young Jed seems to witness regular violent scenes and torture measured out by his family on unsuspecting people or police prying into their family business. The local sheriff is played by Stephen Dorff and we see that as in the 2003 remake the Texas police can be expected to be cruel and corrupt figures almost as violent as the Sawyer family. Young Jed is taken away after Sheriff Hartman comes in believing they were the reason his daughter died.
Cut to a few years later and young Jed is in some kind of mental institution for young offenders. The Sawyer mother comes to attempt to take back Jed (also now named Bud) but ends up starting a riot where the young offenders escape, cause violent bloody havoc, Jed and some others go on the run taking a young nurse who had only just starting working there. She had seen that while Jed seemed a quiet and dangerously strong young man he did seem to have a kind heart in some way. She is taken hostage along with one of the more sane and decent young men and Jed by two others who will do anything to get away. This young couple in charge have no morals and the film almost seems to morph into Natural Born Killers at this point, only set in the late 1950’s. It becomes a bloody road trip escape movie, where we seem to want the decent young man and pretty innocent nurse to escape together. Young Jed is silent and exploited by the crazed duo in charge as the Sheriff and police soon pick up their trail.
When you have known and watched the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a very long time (originally seeing as a banned copied VHS) the slick, Hollywood level cinematography and direction, costume and light and more take it many miles away from that original place of fear. But we have had several sequels already over the years and one prequel as well which only when so far back, not to where Leatherface was a small child as in this film. Do we know too much about the character now for him to really scare us? In a sense the discontinuity of the Sawyer family through the series does possibly help add a level of continued ambiguity for fans. This is an origin story-but can we really trust the truth of it? What is the real Sawyer Chainsaw family? Who is the real Leatherface and does this film really tell us the truth?
It does throw us a twist in the story after the halfway point which makes it interesting. I really did not expect it. Maybe I was just tired or liked the idea. You then want to go back and consider the film again and the characters up to that point. Well, the people who like the film. So it is probably true that it lacks a strong consistency all through the film with the narrative-is it a horror film? a road movie? a tragic romance? It certainly is not just a simple straight ahead brutal murder splatter flick all way the through like most of the other Chainsaw movies and as most fans may have wanted to see.
I have to say that the acting does on the whole carry the film, especially Dorff as the Sheriff and Lili Taylor as Ma Sawyer. She could even get her own solo movie I would be happy. Some people moaned that Leatherface doesn’t even used a chainsaw or wear a mask until the end of the movie but well that surely makes sense in this case. It incorporate those elements into the story so that they make sense in the end and it is a tragic start to one of the most well known modern iconic horror monsters.
Like the Hannibal Rising book/movie which reveals much about the terrible childhood traumas which shaped the grown killer years down the line, this film shows us a number of things which affected the mind and life and outlook of Leatherface. Can we accept possibly knowing this much about a previously very mysteriously powerful monster?
A number of specific scenes and shots clearly set up the identity of Leatherface and suggest why he wears a skin mask of his victims, why he kills, his lack of voice and interestingly his confused identity. It even touches on his conflicted gender perception at the end previously explored to mixed opinion in the forth film.
Is this a great new addition to the Texas Chainsaw series? It may not have the usual terrifying rollercoaster nightmare experience of most of the movies in the series but it does have some good acting (which doesn’t always appear in the Chainsaw movies) and a number of very graphic moments which will please many of the bloodthirsty Chainsaw fans out there.
James Parsons is author of the horror novel Northern Souls out now in paperback and ebook from all good bookshops and online. He also has two science fiction novels-Orbital Kin and Minerva Century available paperback/Hardback/ebook as well published as James E. Parsons.