On paper, the marriage of creatives/material between Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo and the Texas Chain Saw series is rather brilliant. The New French Extremity gore hounds already crafted one bona fide splatter classic with Inside ('07), and their slasher Among the Living ('14) plays like a dry run for a franchise sequel, showcasing their attention to gut wrenching brutality and morbid beauty. Screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood's take - a prequel "whoudunit?" origin story that outlines the earliest days of our hulking, eponymous wielder of power tools - was a bit of a head-scratcher, yet in the right hands could be an entertaining stalk and slash diversion.
Besides, the damage to the TCM series has already been done, as it's run an unusual cycle - genre redefining original, blackly comedic initial sequel, gruesome straightforward third film (also titled Leatherface for max confusion), odd reboot by slightly miffed co-creator, Platinum Dunes reboot, prequel to Platinum Dunes reboot, 3D disaster - that's fucked the continuity up worse than possibly any other horror serial in history (OK, maybe Halloween has it beat).
The problem is, beyond the picture's bookends - a gruesome birthday party prologue and the final ten minute freak out (both of which take place in the infamous bone-decorated Sawyer abode) - Maury & Bustillo seemingly forgot (or perhaps Sherwood worked too hard to buck against) the Chain Saw formula. On one hand, that could be a good thing for some viewers. Instead of just putting a new spin on the usual "teenagers get lost in rural Texas and stumble upon the cannibal clan" , they chose to make the movie into a mystery, in which a group of mental patients who escape from a cartoon version of an asylum (complete with a shock treatment "horror room" ), go on the lam across a honey-dipped countryside (Among the Living cinematographer Antoine Sanier loves him some rolling grass hills).
The escapees are a motley crew of degenerates; the sensitive but damaged Jackson (Sam Strike), the hulking mute Bud (Sam Coleman), the sinewy, volatile Ike (James Bloor), and the scarred, bloodthirsty Clarice (Jessica Madsen). Their hostage is the caring nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse), and during numerous shoot outs with the law, their gang of five is whittled down as we try and guess which one of them is the real Jed Sawyer, who was locked away and had his name changed (the explanation for the latter somewhat hazy) after his family lured his first victim in, somewhat against poor lil' Leatherface's will.
This seemingly self-aware refusal to make "just another Chain Saw sequel" would be all well and good, except that none of it is overly exciting, scary or engrossing. A second act explosion of violence in a diner is decently staged, and the French filmmakers haven't lost their knack for imagery that crawls under your skin (a prolonged fuck scene on top of a rotting corpse is particularly icky). Yet none of it really amounts to anything, as the movie feels lazily stitched together, stringing us along as a vengeful policeman (Stephen Dorff, who resorts to a community theater approximation of a Texan accent) seeks justice for the death of a family member he knows one of these loonies committed.
Thank goodness Leatherface only runs a merciful eighty-seven minutes. Though there are a few instances of New Extremity-style gore horror heads will no doubt eat up, there's almost nothing else here to break up the tedium as Lizzy tries to escape, Jackson saves her from certain doom, and the other maniacs push the group on toward Mexico. Rinse the plasma from your skin and repeat.
To be fair, once we actually do get back to the Sawyer house and the movie recalls that it actually is the eighth Texas Chain Saw picture, Maury & Bustillo have a ton of fun, revving up the titular instrument of bodily destruction in order to paint the farmhouse walls red and feed these miscreants to the pigs Mama Sawyer (Lili Taylor) keeps out back. But the appropriately gooey, shrieking finale becomes the cinematic literalization of "too little, too late", as the movie made us sit through seventy-seven minutes of a mystery any fan of the series will be able to solve during its first fifteen in order to get to ten of "the good stuff".
There have been rumors swirling around the production (which was shut down at one point following its principal '15 Bulgarian photography and then subjected to producer-mandated reshoots) that the cut we're seeing now is not Maury & Bustillo's at all. Yet the finished film carries enough of their thumbprint to make one wonder if a better version could've even existed in the first place. Leatherface, it seems, was botched from conception, attempting to inject a humanizing element (those who hated Rob Zombie's Halloween ['07] will have a field day playing compare/contrast) into an evil that was frightening because it was borderline elemental and unknowable from the start.