Leatherface, the eighth feature in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre horror franchise – which so far includes the requisite gritty reboot, a 3-D feature, and another entry already titled "Leatherface" (1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre III) – is a shocking delight. By this point in its protracted lifespan, one might reasonably expect The Texas Chain Saw Massacre imprint devoid of all surprises, long passing into superfluity.
The franchise has produced two perfect films, both directed by the late Tobe Hooper. First was the ghastly, lo-fi, intensely scary 1974 original about a cannibalistic family lurking in the backwoods of Texas. Then, a decade-plus later, came a 1986 sequel that productively subverted the original by reinventing that same family as darkly comic caricatures, critiquing the very operations of so-called "slasher movies" that the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre helped invent. A third worthy entry in this, or any, long-running horror series, seems much too much to ask.
Leatherface's status as a prequel portends further pointlessness. The title character is a hulking, near-mute, developmentally disabled killer known for wearing victims' faces and for his prodigious chainsaw-and-mallet murder antics. He has always been terrifying precisely because of his status as a mysterious cipher. He is the threat of a backroads wrong turn, a creepy gothic house, or an abandoned abattoir personified. He is the quintessence of the (perhaps "problematic") tropes of white trash-sploitation and hillbilly horror. In the original movie he emerges seemingly out of nowhere, and that's just as well. Nobody cares where Leatherface comes from, what his real name is, etc. Such information is about as useful as knowing where Freddy Krueger scored his tatty Christmas-striped sweater, or what the shark from Jaws's favourite colour is.
And so Leatherface seems hobbled from the get-go, by dint of its premise, by virtue of its very existence. How surprising, then, that the film proves itself a welcome addition to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre herd. Credit here goes largely to the French directorial team of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. The duo's 2007 debut, the home-invasion thriller À l'intérieur, remains a high-water mark of the tide of extremely gory, at times desperately provocative turn-of-the-millennium films often termed "the New French Extremity" – a movement which drew in tacky schlockmeisters (Xavier Gens, Alexandre Aja), bona fide auteurs (Bruno Dumont, Claire Denis), and those adrift somewhere in between (Gaspar Noé). Like the return of Leatherface himself, seeing Maury and Bustillo wash up in a shot-in-Bulgaria last-gasp franchise prequel feels altogether welcome.
Set some years before the events of the 1974 original, Leatherface follows the backwoods Sawyer clan, led by fiercely proud mother Verna (Lili Taylor) in their scraps with a hard-bitten sheriff (Stephen Dorff) nurturing a personal vendetta against the family. When the cops drag Verna's young son Jed into protective care, she hatches a long-con plot to liberate him – because family is everything, especially if your family is unspeakably demented. The bulk of the film tracks the future Leatherface and a group of young adult mental patients as they evade the law, giddily murdering anyone who gets in their way (and a few others just for fun).
Naturally, the film is brutally violent. But unlike so many inessential late horror franchise entries, it's not merely reducible to a string of skull-stompings and grisly dismemberments. In a particularly arresting sequence, Maury and Bustillo's camera cuts to a long shot as an escaped psychotic is gunned down by Texas lawmen, her body falling lifeless into the sun-bleached landscape. Such reposes of hushed quietude amid the otherwise unrelenting cruelty would be insufferable in less adept hands. For Maury and Bustillo it's not a showy flourish so much as a flash of sympathy for the movie's extended cast of oddballs, murderers, corrupt cops, and inbred psychotics. Their canon-twisting tweaks on the original story – like establishing a matriarchal structure to the cannibal clan, thus reducing Leatherface's madman M.O. to that of other psychotic mama's boys of the Norman Bates/Jason Voorhees school – prove less successful.
Still, Maury and Bustillo's seemingly pointless attempt to psycho-pathologize one of horror cinema's most terrifyingly vacuous serial killers triumphs, in its own unlikely way. Their characters, both new and old, feel fleshed-out enough to warrant genuine interest, and merit the payoff the film's modest (if well-executed) twist. Like the film's punishingly gory set pieces, the storytelling itself is meaty. And as the cackling Pa Sawyer, the cannibal-cum-chili-cookoff-champ, puts it in Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there's one secret to good chili, and good slasher cinema: "Don't skimp on the meat."