Friday, November 3, 2017

Worth Mentioning - A Violent Road Trip from Hell

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody doesn't believe this origin story.


I have always given Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 a lot of credit for being the only film in the Chainsaw franchise where the lead characters aren't a group of youths who take some kind of road trip. In every movie but that one, it's kids on the road who wander into the lair of the iconic killer Leatherface. Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury from a screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood, Leatherface, the eighth installment in the series overall (counting the remake and the prequel to the remake), is yet another movie about young people on the road... but this one takes the road trip set-up and flips it on its head, as this time Leatherface is one of those young travelers.

This movie doesn't feature Leatherface as you've ever seen him before, though. Coming from the producers of Texas Chainsaw 3D, this is a prequel to the original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But you can trust me when I say that I am never going to be considering the events of this film as canon when I revisit TCM '74. Leatherface presents itself as being the origin of the title character, but it's not an origin I accept.

Most of the films in the Chainsaw series were filmed in Texas, as it should be. To this point, the only exceptions have been Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, which was shot in California, and Texas Chainsaw 3D, which was shot in Louisiana, just a few miles from the Texas border. It must be a rule that if a movie in the franchise has a "3" or "Leatherface" in the title, then it can't be shot in Texas, because this one wasn't shot in the Lone Star state, either. This one wasn't even made in the United States; standing in for Texas this time around is the country of Bulgaria. Bulgaria happens to be where a few entries in another killer family saga, the Wrong Turn franchise, were filmed, and Leatherface feels a lot like some of the lesser entries in that series, complete with cast members who are distinctly Eastern European but are being passed off as backwoods Americans.

The story begins in 1955, with a scene that came off with a cringeworthy embarrassment to me. It's the birthday of young Jed Sawyer (that's the name they established for Leatherface in 3D), and his parents Verna (Lili Taylor) and Drayton (Dimo Alexiev) have gifted the little boy - played in early scenes by Boris Kabakchiev - with a chainsaw that they encourage him to use on a man they have tied to a chair, having accused him of trying to steal their pigs. This is just the sort of scene I dreaded seeing in a prequel Leatherface origin story. It's ridiculous, "baby's first chainsaw" nonsense. Not only is the concept lame, but you have Drayton - a character 3D said was Jed's father, even though he was meant to be Leatherface's older brother in TCM '74 (and TCM2, which 3D wiped from existence) - acting differently than the character we know and being played by muscular guy who's too young. Alexiev is not going to be looking like Jim Siedow (or 3D's Bill Moseley) in 19 years. Worse than that, you've got a little kid sitting at the table who's supposed to be a young Hitchhiker / Nubbins, awkwardly cackling away. The only family members who come off well in this scene are Verna, simply because she's played by Lili Taylor, and Grandpa (Eduard Parsehyan), simply because it's interesting to see a more lively Grandpa who's still able to walk and talk.

Now there's a Chainsaw prequel that might be intriguing, one focusing on a young Grandpa back in his days of working in the slaughterhouse. I'd rather see the circumstances that drove him to cannibalism than watch how Leatherface became Leatherface.

Jed can't bring himself to use the chainsaw in this scene, but on another day he does help Drayton and Nubbins (Kristo Milev) lure a young girl to her death in an old barn. That kill causes a lot of trouble for the Sawyers, because the girl happened to be the daughter of a local lawman, Stephen Dorff as Hal Hartman. Hartman can't prove that the Sawyers killed his daughter, but there is enough evidence that the adults aren't fit to be raising their children, so he has all of the family's minors taken away from them.

Jed ends up in Gorman House Youth Reformatory, a mental hospital for young kids. And of course this is the kind of mental hospital that has questionable methods of dealing with its patients. The movie gets substantially better, which is to say it's not painful to watch, once it leaves the Sawyer property and enters some uncharted territory (for the TCM series) at Gorman House.

The story now jumps ahead to 1965, and for the majority of the remaining running time Bustillo, Maury, and Sherwood mean to have us trying to guess which of the teens we meet in Gorman House will turn out to be the renamed Jed Sawyer. Contenders are Bud (Sam Coleman), who has the look and demeanor you would expect, it's easy to imagine that he could become the Leatherface we saw in TCM '74; the friendly, good looking Jackson (Sam Strike); the violently insane Ike (James Bloor); and Ike's also violently insane arsonist girlfriend Clarice (Jessica Madsen), who was never on my suspect list, but it seemed that she was the #1 possibility for a lot of people online. Well, Leatherface is known to wear women's clothing. And faces.

These are the youths who go on the road trip, escaping from their torturous treatment at Gorman House with new nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) as their hostage. With Ike and Clarice in charge this road trip quickly becomes a murder spree, with a bit of necrophilia with a decomposing corpse tossed in there along the way. On their trail is Hartman, who is taking a "shoot first, let God sort 'em out" approach to the search. There's really nothing new or interesting going on in this stretch of the film, it just plays like TCM2, The Devil's Rejects, and Natural Born Killers were put in a blender, but at least it doesn't feature any poor excuses for Sawyers... Except the kid who will become Leatherface, but that barely counts.

Soon enough the group has been whittled down to just one potential Leatherface, who quickly sustains a horrific face injury. So now we know why this person is going to start wearing masks. Yeah. That's why Leatherface wears masks. Sure.

Wrong-headed from the ground up, Leatherface has easily become my least favorite film in the Chainsaw franchise. There's hardly any merit to it at all. It's painful and embarrassing at its worst and generic at its best, which is really a shame because a Chainsaw movie from the directing duo that brought us Inside could have been something special. Instead, all Bustillo and Maury were able to bring to the film was gore, but in fairness to them nobody could have turned that script into a good movie. They were handed an impossible concept to work with.

The idea of a teenage Leatherface story was a bad idea from the moment it was conceived, and this was definitely not the way to execute the idea. A "who will become Leatherface" mystery? It's absurd, and I don't buy that the person who does become Leatherface would go on to be the character we saw in the '74 film after these experiences and this injury. I don't buy that Leatherface ever in his life came as close to being a regular person as this character does.

Not only does Leatherface not match up with the original film, it doesn't even fit with this new branch of the franchise that the producers have built around the original. The only films that exist in this timeline (despite the fact that they're lifting names from TCM2) are Leatherface, TCM '74, and Texas Chainsaw 3D. 3D moved the events of the '74 movie forward in time so the character Heather could be a baby when that happened but still be in her twenties in present day. The actress who played Heather, Alexandra Daddario, was born in 1986. But now we have Leatherface, while involving members of the Hartman and Farnsworth families that were part of 3D, being set in the '50s and '60s so it can lead into the original's setting of August 18, 1973. Nobody's even trying to keep track of the continuity here.

The Chainsaw series has had some ups and downs over the years. The Next Generation gets a lot of hate, I was upset when they made a remake, 3D wasn't received with overwhelming positivity... but none of the previous down swings ever dipped as low as Leatherface does. I have almost zero interest in watching this one again, but I will, only because that's what obsessive, completist fans of franchises do.

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