Tracking the Wild History of Leatherface

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Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Leatherface, the eighth entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Cinematic Universe, finally hits theaters this weekend — which means it’s time to refresh our memories on the misadventures of our favorite chain-saw-wielding super-killer. While Leatherface has stayed mostly on the back roads of Texas since he first picked up a chain saw back in 1974, his story has had more twists and turns than an escape route out of the Sawyer family basement. The new Leatherface updates the character’s origins, framing him as a teenager who’s just escaped from a psychiatric-care facility, and takes place before the date of the original massacre. So if you haven’t brushed up on your TCM lore in a while, here’s a breakdown of what Leatherface (and his family) have been up to over the years.

We’ll begin with Tobe Hooper’s original from 1974, and work our way through the subsequent movies, addressing intra-universe discrepancies in who, exactly, comprises the Sawyer family — and whether or not they’re dead. To make things extra confusing, there are three timelines that spring out of the original massacre date of August 18, 1973: One is depicted in TCM ’74; one is depicted in the 2003 reboot, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (in which the Sawyers become the Hewitts); and the third is depicted in 2013’s Texas Chainsaw (which is a revived but also revised version of the Hooper timeline from ’74). Now, fill the chain saw with gas, because we’ve got a lot of crazy to cut through.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s dirty slasher that started it all! In the original, Leatherface is a member of the Sawyer family, comprising himself, his dad (who we learn in TCM 2 is named Drayton), a brother (known only as the hitchhiker), and the rotting human husk that is his grandpa. All of the Sawyer men used to work at the town slaughterhouse, but once the company transitioned to automation, they were all out of a job. Poor, extremely disenfranchised, and possessing no skills besides cutting up cattle, the Sawyers can only afford to eat what they kill. We pick up their story on August 18, 1973, a day that will become known as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

After the family murders a vanload of young adults who were visiting a property adjacent to the Sawyer house, the hitchhiker is killed in pursuit of the escaping Final Girl, Sally Hardesty. We learn in the prologue of TCM 2 that when the authorities arrived at the Sawyer house later that day, they found “no killers and no victims. No facts; no crime.” Meaning: Leatherface and his chain saw got away to terrorize another day.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The opening scroll of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 tells us that, while the Texas Chainsaw Massacre never officially happened (at least according to state authorities), it also didn’t ever stop, because the Sawyers were never apprehended, and they’ve been cutting a bloody path through Texas for 13 years since the original 1973 murders. TCM 2 was also directed by Hooper, and is the only movie that exists in the same timeline as the original. In it, Leatherface — who his family now calls Bubba — lives with his dad, Drayton, who is now a prize-winning caterer making the best chili in Dallas (hint: It’s because he uses human meat!). They’re also joined by the grandpa husk, the corpse of his hitchhiker brother, and another living brother who goes by Chop Top.

Chop Top, apparently, was away in Vietnam at the time of the first movie, but has returned with PTSD and a metal plate in his head. This time, the family is hunting down a radio DJ named Stretch and a dogged cop who’s the uncle of Sally Hardesty, the franchise’s first Final Girl. By the end of TCM 2, everyone — including Leatherface — is dead, with the exception of Stretch. This was the last TCM movie Hooper would direct, so he went out with a bang and killed the whole damn family. But the third movie, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, retcons that conclusion.

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)
According to the prologue in TCM 3, a single Sawyer survived the night of the 1973 massacre, and was apprehended by law enforcement. His name was W.E. Sawyer, a character not previously introduced; a jury determined that Leatherface was the murderous alter ego of W.E., and so sentenced him to die in 1981. That means this mystery lone Sawyer was dead before the events of TCM 2 — which is our first example of the post-Hooper Massacre movies deviating from what happened in the first two chapters. (Be forewarned: Continuity is going to get crazy from here on out.)

One thing is for sure: Leatherface is very much his own man in TCM 3, and there are more Sawyers left killing people in Texas. This time around, Leather goes by “Junior” at home and is set up with his grandma, the grandpa husk, two brothers (one of which, Tex, is played by Viggo Mortensen), and a daughter. Presumably, the daughter is the product of raping a previous victim, and Grandma Sawyer tells their female captor that Junior likes “private parts” and knows what to do with them, which is truly the most disgusting moment in the entire franchise. There’s also a hanger-on creep named Alfredo who could be another relation, or just an associate of the family, but it’s unclear. In the finale, Tex, Alfredo, and grandma are killed, and even though Leather has his head beaten in with a giant rock, he rises again before the end.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
The fourth movie goes farthest afield of the Sawyer family roots. The prologue references the events of the original, which took place on August 18, 1973, and says that no family members were apprehended. (For those keeping track of continuity at home, this refutes the foundational story of TCM 3, but agrees with TCM 2.) We’re also told that, after a ten-year quiet period, a few mysterious killings happened over “several years,” and then there was another five years of silence, which would make the movie’s release year a reasonable anchor point for its timeline.

When we meet the family this time, though, they are going by the name Slaughter, and they work for an organization that, for some reason, has enlisted them to capture people and show them “the true meaning of horror.” Leading the Slaughters is Vilmer (actually Matthew McConaughey going full-tilt insane), who is a sort of torture ringmaster in charge of his brothers, Leatherface and W.E. Since the W.E. mentioned in TCM 3 was executed in prison, this is presumably just an homage to the previous story and not a direct tie-in between films. Vilmer gets killed in pursuit of his escaping captive (hello, Renée Zellweger) after being buzzed by a biplane, and he bleeds purple. This possibly confirms a line from earlier in the movie in which it is posited that Vilmer is actually an alien. W.E. and Leatherface survive, and it is unclear whether or not they are aliens as well. Next Gen bears the least resemblance to the franchise of any movie in it.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
It’s the reboot universe! This is the fifth movie in the franchise, and the first to introduce the Hewitt family. It is a remake of Hooper’s ’74 film, but this time the victims are on their way home from Mexico when they’re sieged and brought to the Hewitt house for slaughter. Awaiting them is Leatherface, his mom Luda May, her brother Monty, the vicious patriarch who goes by Hoyt (the name of the police officer whose uniform he stole after he killed him), and a feral little boy named Jedidiah.

In the reboot universe, Leatherface is presented as upright, muscular, methodical, and duty-bound, serving as the enforcer for his family. He doesn’t really kill out of passion, which stands in contrast to how he’s presented in all of the movies leading up to this point: heavyset, childlike, erratic, prone to fits and emotional outbursts, afraid of abuse at the hands of his family members, and also frequently seen wearing makeup and women’s clothing. All the Hewitts survive besides Hoyt, who’s eliminated by the Final Girl, leaving the rest of the family to, you guessed it, keep killing their way through Texas.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
Ready for it to get more convoluted? The Beginning is a prequel to the reboot timeline established in TCM 2003. In this reboot canon, we see Leatherface being born on a slaughterhouse assembly line in Fuller, Texas, in 1939. Disfigured and unwanted, he’s thrown in the trash before being rescued by a woman who brings him home and names him Thomas Hewitt. During the credits sequence of the movie, we see medical notes explaining that he has a “degenerative facial disease” causing his disfigurement. He also has tendencies toward self-mutilation. This is the only movie where we see Leatherface in a half-mask, which he eventually trades for the full excised face of Matt Bomer. And really, wouldn’t we all if we could?

Flash forward to 1969: Thomas has grown into the family trade of working at the slaughterhouse, but similar to the original TCM, he’s fired when the plant shuts down. We see the Hewitts become the only residents left in the dead town, and they turn to cannibalism to survive (and for fun). In addition to Leather, the 1969 Hewitt family includes all the same folks from the 2003 movie: his mother Luda May, her brother Monty, and Hoyt, who we now know is actually named Charlie Hewitt. The slaughter of road trippers in The Beginning is referred to in the epilogue as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is the only time in the franchise that the “Massacre” label is given to a day besides August 18, 1973.

Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)
Despite bringing back the Sawyer name, Texas Chainsaw 3D is the only installment to fully change the events immediately following the original ’73 massacre. The seventh movie would also like you to not think too much about the timeline. The movie picks up immediately after Sally Hardesty reaches authorities following her harrowing escape on August 19, 1973. A law enforcement officer goes to the Sawyer house, where the Sawyers have multiplied in the hours since Tobe Hooper’s TCM. The living room is now filled with lots of grizzled men holding guns, instead of the four family members that existed in Hooper’s first TCM. The cop demands that they turn over “the boy,” meaning Leatherface, and the Sawyers are about to comply when a vigilante army shows up and kills everyone inside the house with guns and Molotov cocktails. A single Sawyer woman and her newborn baby manage to escape, and one of the vigilantes takes the baby before beating the mom to death.

In TC 3D, the stolen baby grows up to learn that she’s the long-lost Sawyer, and that she’s inherited an estate in Newt, Texas, from a grandma she never knew she had, Verna Sawyer-Carson. Along with the estate comes caretaking duties for her cousin, Jedidiah, known commonly to the world as Leatherface. His new ward, Heather (Alexandra Daddario), looks to be in her mid-20s, which means the movie would be set around the year 2000. However, the song “2 Reasons” by T.I. plays, and that came out in 2012, the year the movie was made. That would make Heather 40, which is possible, but it also seems really weird to cast Daddario as a 40-year-old. Also, assuming Leatherface was even just 18 at the time his house burned down and his family was killed, he’s either in his mid-40s during Texas Chainsaw or approaching 60, depending on how seriously you want to take T.I. as a time stamp.

Either way, Leather and Heather are looking extremely spry for their ages. (Since the Jedidiah from TCM 2003 was a Hewitt, and this movie deals with Sawyers, we can assume that little Jed from 1973 did not grow up to succeed Thomas “Leatherface” Hewitt behind the flesh mask. But this franchise does love a name callback.)

Tracking the Wild History of Leatherface