– By Allan Lear
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an absolutely classic intellectual property of of the horror genre. Like other seminal horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Hallowe’en, the series takes an excellent starting film and attempts to cash in on its inspiration, success and popularity by kicking it down a metal fire escape until it’s bleeding from every orifice.
Not that this is a flaw solely restricted to horror as a genre. Multi-genre franchises like Alien and Terminator, which swing between horror and action while slathering both with science fiction trappings, also have a habit of taking a single strong premise and burying it under so many sequels, prequels, reboots, reimaginings and recuts that they all but completely obliterate all fond memories of the original film. But what is peculiar to horror is the lack of worldbuilding in such an enterprise. One can imagine why people saw franchises in, say, Predator or Terminator because of the broad brush with which they are painted – taking place across an entire galaxy or across all of multiple possible timelines, there is plenty of space in their worlds for fresh stories to be told. With the obvious exception of Elm Street, which posits a parallel dimension of sleep in which anything is possible, many horror franchises take as their starting point a single twat with a knife and just tell the same story about him over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Specific reference to the number of Friday the 13th films there.
So it is with TCM. God alone knows why the tale of Ed Gein – reimagined as a sort of Monty Python-style transvestite lumberjack, only with human skin instead of suspendies and a bra – bears so much retelling when his story has inspired so many other films already, from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs. It’s certainly not for journalistic accuracy, because the story drifts further and further from the reality with each reboot. Ed Gein was a normal-seeming man in a small town, not a loon in fancy dress waving a chainsaw in a field – that’s what makes serial killers so terrifying. If they were as easy to spot as Leatherface, they’d be extinct by now, especially in America, where the authorities could happily send snipers after them or nuke their rotting homesteads from space.
Still, for some reason a prequel has been decreed, and Leatherface is it. It’s the story of a mismanaged insane asylum in the 1960s which is historically nonsensical, because in the 1960s psychopharmacology was all the range and any violent inpatient in an asylum would likely have been doped off their tits, but there we are. It follows the experiences of Liz White, a new nurse in the asylum who suffers from the appalling disadvantage of being female (a woman! In the nursing profession! In the SIXTIES!) but is nevertheless tasked with helping the various mentalists through their day-to-day lives. She forms a rough friendship with Jackson and Bud, two of the less immediately hostile loons, but makes an enemy in the form of a subplot.
Then there’s the inevitable security failure, everyone in the insane asylum escapes in a massive murder spree (remember, folks, there’s only one form of insanity and all nutters are murderers) and Liz has her arse saved by her new loony buddies only for them all to be captured by the subplot nemesis in a rip-off of the Natural Born Killers. They go on the run and a crazed sheriff tries to track them down so he can kill them for murdering his daughter ten years ago even though they didn’t.
There’s a minor flaw in the plot of Leatherface: in the words of the immortal Captain Blackadder, it was bollocks. It’s what’s called an Idiot Plot, which only works because every character in the film is a moron. How an asylum can even get built in a universe where the dividing line between sane and insane is merely the colour of the shirt you wear, I have no idea, but that seems to be what’s going on. There’s some schtick borrowed some women-in-prison subgenre clichés, three people including a man large enough to block a warehouse doorway with his arse hide inside a decomposing deer, injunctions are waved around, a family with some sort of genetic defect are disappointed because they’ve failed to birth a murderer. The Natural Born Killers have sex with a week-old corpse, which shows that the screenwriter thinks insane people have no specificity to their delusions but are just insane, as it were, in all directions at once. This is an obvious bit of attempted taboo-breaking that, like all such transparent manipulation, fails to achieve its desired goal. God knows what any of it is supposed to be for, especially the pathetic twist where the chap who’s clearly been Leatherface all along turns out to be Leatherface. Plenty of screenwriters turn out plots from the paint-by-numbers school, but few have the unfortunate dyscalculia of Seth M Sherwood.
This film is fortunate in that it’s secured the services of some decent actors, so while the action onscreen is ludicrous it is, at least, not laughable. Vanessa Grasse as Nurse Liz is strong in trauma, with a core of steel that all decent Final Girls should possess. Chris Adamson’s Dr Long, head physician and manager of the asylum, is a proper bastard. Stephen Dorff’s crazy sheriff is pretty crazy. And Sam Coleman as Bud, the aforementioned human wardrobe with an IQ of four, does an excellent job considering his character is largely not equipped with any dialogue.
But it’s all in the service of nothing. Prequels are generally a poor idea because we know where they end up, but the idea of giving Leatherface a backstory when he’s just a dancing pervert with a hedge trimmer was absurd to begin with. Who cares what motivates him? He’s a force of nature. Nobody asks whether the Perfect Storm had mummy issues. Trying to humanise him only diminishes his horror, like finding out that Theresa May has a collection of a hundred cookbooks.
At the end of it all, I was just left wondering – is there really a place in this day and age for a film like this, or the remakes of Last House on the Left, where clans of disabled people are evil cannibals? I don’t mean to be politically correct and I’m not talking about negative portrayal of disability in film or some such studenty cobblers. I just mean that people these days know more about disability and we’re less frightened. Nobody today thinks that you can get spina bifida off a toilet seat or that people with hydrocephalic craniomegaly must have been elk-rapists in a former life (and Glenn Hoddle can go fuck himself). Where there is knowledge, the horror ebbs away, and we are left with pity or, if we are better people, empathy. Leatherface was never meant to inspire either.