Leatherface (2017) Film Review

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.

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Hemlock Grove:season2 Review

Yes it did take me a while to get down to watching all of season one of this horror show but it has pulled me in and I am heading right on to the very end now.

A few days ago I finished up season two of the show. This is where I try not to drop in any spoilers for those of you yet to watch the show-I’ll try my best. Actually best not read this post until you’re done with season one.

So at the end of the first season a few main characters were killed off, in fact it was surprising just how many continued to be maimed, chopped down, slaughtered in quick succession. There were a few mysteries left to keep us curious and wanting more such as the secret experimental project of doctor Johan and what happened to the baby and where Peter and Roman ended up soon after.

So while the infamous werewolf transformation scene may have been extremely bloody and graphic (plus physically implausible) there was actually very little monster wild wolf action. The focus was mostly on the aftermath of the wolf attacks around town, the tensions between the schools pupils and their suspicions of Roman and Peter, and the tensions between Olivia Godfrey and her brother-in-law Norman. Many secrets to hide while the blood spills and bodies pile up.

With start of the second season and new character in her twenties called Miranda comes to stay with Roman in his new plush house after her car is hit on the near roadside. She soon meets Peter who is working at the car repair place, and they spend time together. Eventually she brings them back together. Peter’s mother Lynda Romancek has been jailed by authorities and so Peter and his cousin Destiny begin to make use of her supernatural gypsy skills and his wolf powers in an attempt to free her. Roman meanwhile finds his own problems as his family history changes him, and his desire for blood makes him desperate.

The two characters of interest in this second season are new girl Miranda, who finds herself trapped  at the home of Roman and curious about what he is hiding and the link with him and Peter. Next we find that Roman’s sister Shelley is alive and on the run, hiding from all and moving in the shadows until she takes refuge in the basement of an abandoned house where a friendly young little boy meets her. Over the season Shelley opens up as a character much more, and she becomes more than the simple vague monster image she had previously been.

There is a shift on tone in this season, and in some ways it works better but only so far. The wicked love triangle of Miranda, Roman and Peter is interesting especially toward the end of the season when all the macabre craziness arrives.

As this show was basically competing with American Horror Story, it wanted to set itself apart with a distinctive style that was not seen in AHS. This is of course the times where Hemlock goes very bizarre and quite Freudian with the horror elements and the family tensions. It remains often very soap opera and camp but this is part of the charm in all honesty.

It is great to see Destiny get a lot more screen time as she really is good fun and could probably even lead her own show. Toward the end of the season it is almost like David Lynch is directing Hammer House of Horrors. It becomes even more ludicrous and funny (intentionally all of the time? This could be debated). You know that this is an over the top macabre and melodramatic show, and if you want just that then that is what you get and it goes up a few more notches.

James E.Parsons is author of the science fiction books Orbital Kin and Minerva Century both available from amazon, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith and other good bookshops internationally. His first horror novel is published in 2017.

Hemlock Grove: Season 1 Review

Yes this OTT bloody small screen show has been finished a while now from 2013 until late 2015, but thanks to Netflix I am binge watching it all over a few weeks. I had started with the first series on dvd a while ago but writing put a stop to it. Well now I’ve got right to the end of this series.

I would think that this series got to go ahead due to the huge success of American Horror Story which began in 2011 showing that what could be done with a long running small screen horror series with a decent budget. An audience is there for this kind of thing, and in big number it would be revealed.

And so along came Hemlock Grove a couple of years later as the first real competition to that show. Whereas AHS for the first couple of seasons was really fairly serious and intense, Hemlock Grove was more of an opened up story, with a variety of characters and tones. It reminds me of a number of horror novels I have read, possibly like some Stephen King or Graham Masterton. The show was executive produced by horror director Eli Roth (he of Hostel, Cabin Fever and recently Green Inferno ) a youngish director always pushing at boundaries of taste, censorship and extreme terror on screen. This gave us some suggestion of the kind of show it might be and also how it would possibly differ or be even more shocking that AHS.

From early on, in trailers and promo publicity we learned about the infamous (and kind of physically impossible) werewolf change scene near the start of the series. This was made out to be one very over the top and gore filled show. Is it more that just that?

Adapted from the book by Brian McGreevy (who also developed and helped write the show) it follows the young gypsy Peter Romancek who moves to Hemlock Grove with his mother. They have some family past there from a long time ago, and soon after started at the local school Peter connects up with spoilt rich kid Roman Godfrey, heir to the Godfrey estate. The research building and company with the Godfrey name works on various kinds of biological research and experimentation. Local teens begin to be found dead more and more as Peter and Roman learn of the secrets each holds from the community around them.

The show looks really great. This was one of the very first made exclusively by Netflix, and it has great cinematography, sets and locations and costume design. The influence of shows such as Twin Peaks and the Hammer horror films can be seen regularly. As it focuses largely on the two teen characters of Peter and Roman, it has a more jaded, melodramatic feel but that also goes for the show in general. The mother of Roman, Olivia is played by Famke Janssen is often acting high camp like a light headed Morticia Adams. It can often feel like The Breakfast Club meets a number of classic modern horror films.

I did feel that the show started slowly, but keeping on with it past the third episode I did get to like what was going on and whole feeling of the show. Yes sometimes the acting may be a little hammy and overdone but it has a number of great genre elements and eventually they explode all over the screen with bloody vitriol.

This first season deals with the hunt for a mystery serial killer of teens, while many at the school suspect Peter, even as a werewolf (which he really is) but he and Roman unite to connect up the clues which reveal a much deeper terror. Other characters come into the show to help and hinder their search.

The show also follows the interconnected tensions and troubles between the two main families and how the past is setting up the present for them.

There may have been a few times after the half way mark when it was getting repetitive but it was still the kind of show that I had wanted to see on television and which is very rare. It can be more like a soap opera than AHS but also it is in some ways more emotional and dramatic, as there are characters that the viewers does empathise with as they attempt to stop the werewolf on the loose and the deadly plans of the Godfrey research empire.

James E. Parsons is author of Orbital Kin and Minerva Century-both available from Amazon, Waterstones ,Barnes & Noble, WHSmith in paperback/hardback/ebook and from other good bookshops. His new horror novel is due in 2017.