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Leatherface. Starring Stephen Dorff and Lili Taylor. Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Running time: 95 minutes. MPAA rating: R. Now available on video on demand.
Fans of Mary Harron's 1996 biopic I Shot Andy Warhol might want to know about Leatherface, the umpty-umpth chapter in the seemingly deathless Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. In the earlier film, Lili Taylor played Valerie Solanas, the disturbed woman who committed the titular act, and Stephen Dorff played Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol "superstar" who took Valerie under her wing for a while. I imagined Taylor and Dorff -- once possibly the queen and king of '90s indie cinema -- laughing it up together between takes on Leatherface, in which they reunite as two people on severely opposite sides of the law. Here, Taylor is Verna, matriarch of the cannibalistic Sawyer family, and Dorff is Hartman, a Texas Ranger driven around the bend when his daughter suffers a cruel death at the hands of the Sawyer boys.
The thought of Taylor ribbing Dorff on set about how good his ass looked in a dress twenty years ago is funnier, and more entertaining, than anything in Leatherface. Which is a shame, because for the first time, possibly, since Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there are actual accomplished directors at the wheel and not schlock non-entities. The French duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo are known to international horror fans for their debut, the gore-drenched thriller Inside. Their next two features played at a couple festivals over here but didn't otherwise make much of an impact, and they contributed a segment to The ABCs of Death 2. Oddly, all of those projects featured the fearsome actress Beatrice Dalle, but alas, the diastemic diva doesn't figure in Leatherface, perhaps because the movie would then have to explain what a French woman is doing in Texas backwoods. (Or actually Bulgaria standing in for Texas.)
Inside had a relentlessness, a hungry gaze into the abyss, that made me hopeful for Leatherface. But the Gallic duo are hampered by the stricture of an R rating; the body count is high, and blood becomes buoyant, but the movie cuts away from a clear look at the carnage almost spitefully, as if the directors resented having to stay within MPAA bounds. Instead of going goreless, like Tobe Hooper's original masterpiece, Leatherface teases us with how bloody it could be but isn't allowed to be. Still, these filmmakers have an eye, and much of the movie looks like some foul dark fairy tale with flesh-eating goblins and homicidal woodsmen. Set mostly in 1965, the film plays with 20th-century archetypes -- the killer romantic pair, the kindly nurse, the sensitive boy in a dysfunctional family. The young man who will become the inarticulate, flesh-mask-wearing chainsaw killer Leatherface escapes from a corrupt mental institution along with aforementioned nurse (Vanessa Grasse) and sicko lovebirds (James Bloor, Jessica Madsen).
The psychos-in-love are so far out there they work a rotting corpse into their carnal routine. The nurse is as pure and blameless as you could ask for. That leaves the relatively good-hearted (though violent if necessary) inmates Jackson and Bud, the former stoic and smart, the latter hulking and inarticulate. I think which one ends up becoming Leatherface is supposed to be a surprise, so I won't spoil it. At times, mostly in the dynamic between these damaged boys and the nurse, there is the slightest whiff of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, but just the stale aroma of a blown opportunity. Why not -- Leatherface pays homage to everything else, never becoming its own movie.
The recently excused Tobe Hooper is credited as an executive producer on Leatherface, a probably-honorary credit. Hooper's Chainsaw is often imitated, never duplicated (or bested, say I), a sui generis sweatbox odyssey that seems to owe nothing to any other film before it. Leatherface feels properly respectful, made by filmmakers who idolize the original, and that's also its weakness: it's a jumped-up fan film, and because it's meant to be a prequel to Hooper's movie it's locked into whatever happens in that movie. It can't deviate from what we know, and can't truly surprise us, though I will say that Drayton Sawyer sure ages a hell of a lot between 1965 and 1974, and that we've now seen a Mama Sawyer but still haven't seen a Papa. And two decades after co-starring in one of the defining mid-'90s indie films, Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff ended up in Bulgaria yelling at each other and getting covered in sticky Karo syrup and having more fun, I hope, than I did.
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