The worst contribution of the 21st century to the pop-culture toolbox is the origin story. Full stop. At this point, I feel comfortable saying that the origin films that have worked (Batman Begins, uh … Lady Bird?) are exceptions to the rule. But there is a range of shades of Origin Story, from “Sure, I understand the temptation to both make and see this” to “Who on earth cares where whatshisface from whatsthething came from?” Leatherface, the origin story of the premier but by no means sole bogeyman of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, belongs squarely in the latter camp.
The late critic and horror aficionado Robin Wood praised Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film as having “the authentic quality of a nightmare,” a dreamlike illogic where cause and effect go out the window and terror reigns. Although the murderous clan at the center of the film is a byproduct of some lightly alluded to socioeconomic factors (they’re poor and white and southern, and the local slaughterhouse at which they were employed laid them off and replaced them with machines), they are unhinged in a way that defies reason from the get-go. There’s no first domino, there’s no mystery to be solved, only a threat to get away from as quickly as possible. But during that closing shot, as Leatherface twirls in magic-hour sun, holding his weapon above his head in anarchic victory, a scandalized America clearly wanted to know: What was he like as a kid?
Unfortunately, they had to wait over 40 years for the scintillating information that he was raised as Jed Sawyer, son of Verna Sawyer (Lili Taylor,) and part of a family whose human-butchering operation is already very active. Little Jed is gifted a chainsaw for his birthday, but he’s too squeamish to break it in on a poor captive tied up at the dinner table, despite the goading of his family. When the family is implicated in the murder of the sheriff’s daughter, he’s taken away and placed in a home for troubled children and/or flesh hunters. Then we fast-forward to that same home some ten years later, and are treated to a sort of horror-movie Jumbotron shuffle game, where we are presented with three 17-year-old boys whose names have been changed from their given ones, ostensibly to protect them from their families. There’s Ike (James Bloor), a hyperviolent sociopath; there’s Bud (Sam Coleman), a stumbling giant of a boy with matted curly hair and a sweet and silent disposition. And then there’s Jackson (Sam Strike), the hot one with a chip on his shoulder and a heart of gold, whom idealistic new hire nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) instantly takes a shine to. There’s also a girl, Tammy (Nicole Andrews), Ike’s paramour and perhaps the most deranged of all of them, and I regret to inform you that this movie is not fun enough to even consider some wacky scenario in which she in fact might be Young Leatherface.
There’s a breakout at the home triggered by a visit from Ma ’Face, and soon we’re off on a murderous road trip, with Lizzy and Jackson as hostages. The suspense, I suppose, lies in finding out which of the kids is Jed, and who will be left standing once the vengeful cops (Stephen Dorff and Finn Jones) start picking them off. The “who” should be fairly obvious from even this rough summary, but the “why” is what I kept turning to throughout the grisly proceedings. According to this telling, Leatherface was created by those twin pillars of violence: family and law enforcement. Made to choose between a life with untrustworthy outsiders or with his bloodthirsty family, he chooses the more familiar of the two. I don’t know why we needed a whole film to tell us that, but once you start the Origins game, it’s hard to know when to stop.
The effect of the film is the same as the deflating effect of explaining a joke; it completely miscalculates the phenomenon of the audience’s original reaction. Ironically, of all the things that are sweatily explained over the course of the film, the reason behind the actual skin mask that is the film’s namesake remains a mystery, reduced to an arbitrary bit of grisly set dressing. Some jokes, it turns out, should never be explained; some human flesh faces should remain stitched on.