Face-Off: Leatherface 1990 vs. Leatherface 2017

Last Friday, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo's LEATHERFACE, the latest entry in the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE franchise, received a wide VOD release and is now available for viewing through such services as Amazon Video. To mark the occasion, I wanted to give this week's Face-Off a CHAINSAW theme, and since LEATHERFACE isn't the first film in the series to have that title, I decided to put the two LEATHERFACEs against each other. So here we go - the new LEATHERFACE vs. Jeff Burr's 1990 film LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III. As the tagline for the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE asked, "Who will survive, and what will be left of them?"
The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise was winding down at the end of the '80s, and New Line Cinema was looking to continue their success in the horror genre with another popular series. They secured the rights to the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE franchise in the hopes of turning Leatherface into their new cash cow, and LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III was their attempt to get that ball rolling. The story is familiar, sticking close to the template provided by the original: people on a road trip through Texas cross paths with the cannibalistic family that counts Leatherface as one of its members. These unlucky travelers are then hunted, trapped, and tormented over the course of one terrible night. Some live, some die, and in the midst of all the horror we get to know Leatherface's family members and watch New Line try to fashion Leatherface into their new icon. This LEATHERFACE isn't very original, basically just doing the first movie all over again with different characters, but it has a solid cast and it's an entertaining slasher.
A prequel to the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE from the producers of TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D, this LEATHERFACE purports to show the secret origin of the title character, introducing him as a young child named Jedidiah Sawyer. Little Jed is reluctantly complicit in his cannibalistic family's homicidal crimes, but he can't bring himself to kill anybody with the chainsaw he has been given for his birthday. After being found at the scene of one crime, Jed is taken away from his family and spends ten years in a mental hospital. When some patients escape and make a run for freedom across the Texas countryside, leaving dead bodies along the way, we're meant to wonder which of them is the renamed Jed. Which of them will become Leatherface? It's an idea that's deeply flawed from the beginning. I can never buy into it at any point, because I can't believe that Leatherface would ever be functional enough that his identity could be a mystery. The character from the original was not someone who could be made that way by the events of LEATHERFACE.
The dead body highlight here is a disgusting body pit in which the body fat of the corpses has broken down into a "poison Crisco" substance that a person can get gangrene just from touching. The kills feature hammers to the head and some chainsawing, but they're not that impressive and the cannibal family takes more damage than their intended victims do. There's even one victim who is clearly killed but still comes back in the end because he was so popular with test audiences. He's played by Ken Foree, of course he was popular.
As proven by their film INSIDE, Maury and Bustillo can really deliver in the departments of brutality and bloodshed, and they don't disappoint with the kills in this film, either. The Sawyer family and the escaped mental patients work together to rack up an impressive number of kills, with the methods of murder including head smashings, strangulation, shootings, slashing, stabbing, some necessary chainsaw action, and even death by pig. The people in this film tend to go in a bad way, getting reduced to a gory mess.
This Leatherface was meant to carry multiple sequels for New Line Cinema, so they turned him into more of a badass slasher. He's still a man-child with a low level of intelligence, but now he's more intense. He has developed an attitude and will rebel and stand up against family members who pick on him. It's a fine evolution of the character, and he's also provided him with an upgrade to his signature weapon. He's gifted with a chrome chainsaw that has "The Saw Is Family" engraved on the bar. It's a saw you can imagine him carrying through a few films if this one had been more successful.
This is the type of origin story where the character you're there to see doesn't become that character until the final moments. Once all the carnage causes Jed's mind to snap completely, and after a facial wound requires him to get his jaw strapped shut, the young man picks up a chainsaw and commits a couple murders. In the last few seconds of the film, he covers his face with a human skin mask. For a troubled teenager with a chainsaw I guess he does okay, I just can't see this guy going on to be the Leatherface I've always known. This portrayal strayed too far for me to go along with it.
LEATHERFACE surrounds the title character with a whole new family - the man with the saw and the dead body of Grandpa are the only ones who return from the previous films. There is no attempt made to explain how Leatherface got involved with this new branch of his family tree or what exactly their relation to him and his presumably dead siblings is. Some of them might not even be blood relatives. Regardless, they're an interesting bunch. There's family matriarch Mama; a twisted little girl who may be Leatherface's daughter; Tinker, who's obsessed with technology; Tex, who is the "normal one", able to lure victims in; and the perverted Alfredo, who runs the closest gas station.
Aside from the person we watch become Leatherface, the primary member of the Sawyer clan is matriarch Verna, who was first seen in TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D. Here she's played by Lili Taylor, turning in a performance that's better than you would expect to see in this movie, and sort of better than it deserves. The fact that she engenders some good will almost makes up for the poor representations of the Drayton and Nubbins characters from the original CHAINSAW. The only character from the '74 film who comes off well in this one is Grandpa, who is still able to get around a little at this point in time and pulls off one of those one-hit kills he was known for.
Played by Kate Hodge, heroine Michelle is introduced as someone who responds "violence is no answer to violence" when the subject of the death penalty comes up and can't bring herself to use a rock to put a wounded armadillo out of its misery. By the end of the film, she is answering the violence of the cannibals with violence and can bring herself to bash a villain in the head with a rock multiple times. She's not a great character, but it's interesting to see how the ordeal changes her.
Vanessa Grasse plays Elizabeth, a nurse at the mental hospital who is about the same age as Jed. She's a dreamer who wants to help the patients, which puts her at odds with the twisted, uncaring approach the hospital has to dealing with them. When the patients escape, Elizabeth is taken hostage... and loses a lot of her character, as she mostly just serves as a meek observer of violent actions. She can run and be scared well enough, but I'm not left with any strong feelings about her.
This was an easy call for me. While TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III is a lesser film compared to its two predecessors, I still have fun watching it. The same can't be said for the new LEATHERFACE, which I found very little merit in and didn't really enjoy watching. I have watched part 3 many times over the years, but LEATHERFACE 2017 is not a movie I will be revisiting often. I didn't like the story from the very beginning, and didn't agree with the way the title character was handled at all.

Did this Face-Off turn out the way you thought it should, or did you like Maury and Bustillo's LEATHERFACE better than I did? Share your thoughts on these films and on the CHAINSAW series in general by leaving a comment. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can send them to me at [email protected].



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