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Gory but pointless origin story fails to carve its own identity

Image of Leatherface

Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo/ USA/ 2017/ 90 mins

Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Mon 8 Jan 2018

Of all the components that made Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre such an iconic, enduring and formidable work was the hulking, pig-squealing, flesh-wearing maniac Leatherface.  Played with primal ferocity by the late Gunnar Hansen, he stood out as a demonic force of nature, even among the rest of the ghoulish Sawyer clan.  As with all true horror, he doesn’t need to be explained, or his origins examined; he’s impactful and terrifying because he just is.  Inevitably, it’s been decided that an origin story is just what we need.

Optimism was raised by the addition of French directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, who were responsible for the elemental, claustrophobic home invasion chiller Inside.  A truly horrific film in the best sense as Béatrice Dalle interrupts the impending birth of Alysson Paradis’ child and tries to carve the baby out of her.  Rarely has a limited space been put to such use immaculate use in a film, and it was slightly mouth-watering to see what they could make of the Sawyer’s charnel house.

Sadly, Leatherface is not only a missed opportunity, it carries out the threat posed by its very existence; it demystifies the character. Much of the first half is set in a mental institution for young people and attempts to set up the mystery of which of three inmates is Jedediah Sawyer, the larval Leatherface, when he’s taken away and has his name changed by the state after the Sawyers murder the daughter of vengeful Texas Ranger Hartman (Stephen Dorff).   An escape leads to a cross-country crime spree as the three suspects and a deranged girl go Natural Born Killers on everyone they come across.

Although there are some competent moments of sickening violence, as you would expect from the directors, it becomes another in the endless cycle of attempts to recreate the alchemy of the original and it is doomed to fail.  The riddle of who will become Leatherface is obvious, and it never captures any of the grimy dread that makes Hooper’s 1974 so visceral.  It all feels too clean and clinical, and despite game performances from all involved, especially Lily Taylor as matriarch Ma Sawyer, it’s very much modern horror-by-numbers.

44 years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre carved itself a reputation as fearsome as the whirling teeth of its signature weapon it’s time to accept that the lightning is unlikely to be bottled ever again.  Certainly, Hooper himself was never able to replicate his achievement, and Maury and Bustillo haven’t even come close.