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Review: ‘Leatherface’ is justly confident in its portrayal of an icon (Includes first-hand account)

As movie studios continue to reach back in time for inspiration and content, many are taking a small step away from the direct remake to create background stories for well-known characters. While these narratives are related to the popular films that made these personalities famous, they still allow an abundance of room for creativity when constructing the previously unknown but perhaps hinted at origin stories. The latest in this rising trend is Leatherface, which travels to a time long before the chainsaw-wielding maniac ever struck fear in the hearts of road trippers.

Jed is the youngest of the Sawyer clan, not yet inducted into their bloody traditions of torture and murder. But it’s not for a lack of trying or encouragement by his mother, Verna (Lili Taylor)… the boy simply appears to have the conscience the rest of them were born without. However, when they brutally kill the wrong person, the sheriff (Stephen Dorff) makes it his mission in life to “save” children from familial endangerment by removing them from their homes. As a result, Jed grows up in the system before finally landing at a mental institution. The inmates are restless and desperate to avoid the doctor’s experimental procedures, so at the first available opportunity they break out. A deranged couple (Jessica Madsen and James Bloor) take a couple of their fellow inmates (Sam Strike and Sam Coleman) and a nurse named Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) along for the ride, but it’s not going to end well for any of them.

The film is directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, who many horror fans will remember for their brutal contributions to the wave of new French extremism about a decade ago. Outside of the family’s name and the brief appearance of a chainsaw, there’s nothing that connects most of this film to the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than its title. But that’s probably one of the things that makes it so intriguing. Audiences familiar with Tobe Hooper’s film and its sequels will wonder how this mild-mannered boy could become the ghastly serial killer of legend — and this picture doesn’t tell you until the end of the last act, when the audience can sympathize with Jed and perhaps understand what causes him to take on this malicious persona. His transformation occurs gradually throughout the picture, but it’s unquestionably complete by the credits.

While Rob Zombie did something similar for Halloween‘s Michael Myers, this movie is more successful in recounting Leatherface’s origin because it does so without trying to recreate the original. Yet, fans will revel in the nods to its predecessor — particularly the re-creation of a room near the end of the picture. This movie is faithful to the films that inspired it, but also not afraid to develop a new story that fits into that narrative. Its confidence is impressive and not unwarranted.

The actors appear to have a keen understanding of the film and its tone, never becoming caricatures of the personalities they’re portraying. Taylor is resolute about the love for her family and simply doing right by the way she too was raised. Meanwhile, Dorff portrays the obsessed cop we’ve seen in these pictures before, not understanding that it’s only a matter of time before the tables turn in his enemy’s favour. Strike is playing a product of the system that seems to have maintained a semblance of humanity.

Directors: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor and Sam Strike

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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