Face-Off: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning vs. Leatherface

The STAR WARS franchise is one packed with prequels, and there's another one coming out this weekend - SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. In anticipation of that release, we're taking a look at a couple horror prequels, both of which are part of the same franchise but exist in separate realities: Jonathan Liebesman's 2006 film THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (a prequel to the 2003 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake) and the 2017 film LEATHERFACE, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo's prequel to the 1974 classic THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Which of these is the better prequel to the films they're tied to? Let's find out with this week's Face-Off.
The Hewitt family lives in a dying town. The local slaughterhouse has been condemned, there are no more jobs, no money, no food. Even the last remaining law enforcement officer is planning to pack it up and move on. But the Hewitts have no intention of leaving their home... and family member Charlie has some experience with taking desperate measures to survive with no food. (Or at least that's what he claims.) He says he was a P.O.W. during the Korean War, and that he and his fellow captured soldiers had to resort to cannibalism to keep from starving to death. If it worked in Korea, it can certainly work for a family in the Texas countryside. While I don't fully believe that this family would so quickly dive into the cannibal lifestyle, the explanation for their murderous ways that THE BEGINNING provides is one that works well enough for the Hewitts.
While LEATHERFACE focuses on the creation of the titular character, it doesn't have any interest in explaining the behavior of his family, the Sawyers. The moment the movie begins, the Sawyers are already bloodthirsty, inbred maniacs - the sort of people who will hand a small child a chainsaw and root for him to chop up the trespasser they've captured. They'll also have that same child put a cow's head on as a mask and lure innocent victims into a death trap. They've obviously been up to this sort of thing for a while, because even the hammer-wielding elderly grandpa is in on it. On one hand, I appreciate the fact that the film didn't want to show us how all this got started, but on the other hand... if they're going to show the origin of Leatherface, why not reveal how the family started killing, too?
THE BEGINNING is set just 4 years before TEXAS CHAINSAW '03, but we still get to see how Charlie Hewitt went from his regular farmer self to stealing the identity of a police officer and becoming Sheriff Hoyt. In a rather comedic bit, we also see how Uncle Monty lost both of his legs. Charlie/Hoyt really steals the show here, as the majority of the film is about the torture he deals out to some captive youths. He pushes his family forward into becoming kill-crazy cannibals, and everyone else just goes along with it. Since it's the same actors returning to these roles very soon after making the remake, it's easy for them to be right in line with the way they were presented in the other movie.
LEATHERFACE features characters from TCM '74, using the names for them that were established in TCM2 (even though TCM2 doesn't exist in the LEATHERFACE / TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D timeline... yeah, it gets complicated). If it weren't for those names and the presence of a birthmark on one character's face, you might not know they're supposed to be returning characters, as they come off as generic backwoods killers. There is a nice moment with a Grandpa who's still capable of standing, 19 years before the events of TCM '74, but it's a character who was set up in TC3D, Leatherface's mom/aunt Verna, who's really running things here, and this is the first time we get to see her in action.
The remake set up the fact that Leatherface suffers from a skin condition he was mocked mercilessly for on the schoolyard, and I can't tell you how glad I am that THE BEGINNING doesn't show any of that. After showing the deformed baby's birth in a slaughterhouse in 1939, the film jumps ahead to '69, by which time Leatherface is already a mute, hulking brute who wears a leather mask over his deformities and works in the slaughterhouse. He starts the killing when he goes into a rage and murders his scumbag boss, but luckily his uncle Charlie is just fine with homicide. As the film goes on, we see Leatherface commit his first chainsaw murder, start chopping people like he did the animals at the slaughterhouse, and replace his leather mask with a face peeled off of one of his victims. He doesn't really evolve during the film,he just becomes what he has always been capable of being.
Taken away from the Sawyers as a child, young Leatherface spends the next 10 years bouncing back and forth between foster homes and a youth reformatory. He's a good looking guy who can have conversations with people and seems pretty normal for the most part, although he has some serious issues from the way he's been brought up. It's not until late in the film that his evolution begins; he goes crazy after losing a friend, suffers a disfiguring injury that requires his jaw be wired shut, and ends up back in the care of the Sawyers, who hand him a chainsaw again. At Verna's urging, he puts the chainsaw to use, and later wears his female victim's face as a mask. It happens quickly, but you can understand how this character becomes a maniac - even if it seems unlikely he'd become the Leatherface we saw in the '74 film.
There are important kills that take the Hewitts down the path of taking over their town and becoming cannibals - the murders of Leatherface's boss and the local sheriff - and there are some random ones, like a biker couple the family kills and cooks. The story centers on a pair of brothers who are about to go off to fight in the Vietnam War, although one of them would rather dodge the draft and run away, which sets up an interesting conflict with patriotic veteran Hoyt. The brothers' girlfriends are also in the mix, one of them is our final girl heroine, but it's the brothers who really benefit from an attempt to give their characters some depth.
Most of the people killed in LEATHERFACE are either random people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or are employees of the youth reformatory who get killed when the patients riot. The important characters are Texas Ranger Hal Hartman, who crosses the line with the way he handles criminals after his daughter is killed by the Sawyers, and nurse Lizzy White, who is taken hostage by a group of youths (one of whom becomes Leatherface) when they escape the reformatory. Lizzy is a nice girl but doesn't make much of an impression. Hartman is a formidable opponent for the Sawyers, but it's hard to root for this lawman when he's executing people in cold blood.
THE BEGINNING sets up the things we'll see in TCM '03 to a ridiculous degree, answering questions that never needed to be answered. Not only do we see how the family started killing and how Leatherface started using a chainsaw and wearing human face masks, this even deals with minutiae like "Why does Hoyt have false teeth?" Who ever even asked that question? There is a missing character who should have been present in this prequel, but that's the only thing left up in the air. Beyond that, this prequel filled in every blank imaginable.
In broad strokes, LEATHERFACE sets the stage for TCM '74 pretty well. You have the Grandpa, Drayton, and Nubbins characters living and killing people in that familiar farmhouse, you have their relative becoming a mute, chainsaw-wielding madman who wears human face masks. The issue I have is that none of them seem like they're going to become the versions of the characters we see in TCM '74. Verna is also such a strong presence here that it almost seems odd that she wouldn't be around during the events of the next film, but apparently she's living across town now.
I didn't like LEATHERFACE much at all when I first watched it last year, but when I'm a fan of a franchise I tend to rewatch even the entries I didn't like... and I have to admit, I'm starting to see more merit in the film the more I sit through it. That said, it works best for me as a standalone film, not as a prequel to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I still can't see this film's Leatherface becoming Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface. That's part of the reason why THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING comes out the winner in this Face-Off - but I also feel that THE BEGINNING features better family members and tells a more interesting story. THE BEGINNING also has an edge because it wasn't made forty years after the movie it's a prequel to, and both films in that branch of the franchise were put together by the same producers.

Do you agree that THE BEGINNING is a better prequel than LEATHERFACE, or does LEATHERFACE work better for you? Let us know by leaving a comment, and also let us know what your favorite horror prequel is. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].



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