Among horror fans, the character of Leatherface is something of a legend of the slasher genre, considered one of the grandfathers of the famed “faceless killer” also seen in later films like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
With that said, his mask and weapon have become so well-known that the actual man behind them have somewhat faded into obscurity.
Today, it is my mission to analyze what I can about the character that is Leatherface across every Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie… that I have seen, and, by extension, the evolution of the franchise as a whole.
The only ones I’ll be disregarding are Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait, a 1988 documentary about the original film, and the recently released Texas Chainsaw 3D, which I would have seen if my local theater hadn’t shipped it out before I even knew that it was here. So, without further ado, let us begin.
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Leatherface played by: Gunnar Hansen
Budget (estimated): $83,532
Box Office Gross (US): $30,859,000
The original 1974 film was an interesting piece of work. It pretended to be based on real-life events, even though the movie itself disproves this notion by claiming that said “true events” occurred after the film was shot. The setup seems standard by today’s way of thinking, but was interesting for the time, seeing a group of teenagers going to stay at an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and being picked off one-by-one at the hands of Leatherface.
In terms of the original series, I think this is the best film for Leatherface as a character, as it gives us a brief look at what he might be while also keeping him mysterious enough to be scary on his own. While not blatantly stated, the backstory to Leatherface has him as a mentally retarded man that never learned how to speak properly, and lives in an isolated farmhouse with his brother, father, and grandfather.
While Leatherface is featured as the most prominent of the villains, the emphasis later lands on creating antagonists out of his entire family. All four of them are pretty crazy, and it is interesting to see them all try to play off of each-other during the famous “dinner scene” late in the film with our sole surviving main character sitting at the table where the family feasts on the flesh of their victims.
On the whole, though, Leatherface isn’t really characterized all too much, and neither are the rest of the villains, as the film places a great deal of emphasis on keeping the characters mysterious in order to more effectively scare the audience.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Leatherface played by: Bill Johnson
Budget (estimated): $4,700,000
Box Office Gross (US): 8,025,872
As a sequel to the original, this one comes across as a little bit strange. It’s clearly intended to be something of a comedy as well as a horror film, and indeed, some parts of it are a bit funny. The villains are the same four from the original, although the setup now involves them just sort-of killing whoever they want to, and later dealing with a radio DJ and completely insane sheriff (played by Dennis Hopper of all people) who get roped into their operations.
This time, Leatherface gets to do a little bit more character developing, although it is indeed very little. His interactions with the female DJ show some clear, if admittedly primitive levels of compassion, or at the very least some form of sexual lust, which gets just a little bit weird.
The rest of the cast is still pretty entertaining, although my personal favorite ends up being the sheriff, who is certifiably insane for just about the entire movie, and actually has a chainsaw duel with Leatherface near the end of the movie, which was a great lot of fun to watch.
While certainly not a worthy sequel to the original in terms of style and effectiveness as a horror film, it’s still a fun watch if you’re in the mood for something that looks like a classic horror film but doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as you’d normally expect.
LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1990)
Directed by: Jeff Burr
Leatherface played by: R.A. Mihailoff
Budget (estimated): $2,000,000
Box Office Gross (US) $5,765,562
This film represents something of a return to form for the franchise, and while the opening narration acknowledges the events of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the tone has officially become serious again, and any traces of intentional comedy are long gone.
The film follows the by now well established setup of young people being stranded in the woods at night while being followed by ominous killers and avoiding deadly traps. Continuing the tradition of random actors showing up in these films, out main characters accidentally meet up with an outdoorsman who knows how to hunt and survive out here, played by Ken Foree, a.k.a. that awesome guy that starred in the original Dawn of the Dead.
There’s also Viggo Mortensen as a member of the new family that has been introduced for this movie. It’s established at the beginning that Leatherface is the only one that survived the events of 2, so Leatherface has somehow happened upon a new family of psychopaths, although the comically old character of grandpa is still alive, even though he appeared to have died at the end of 2 and by my math is now about 141 years old.
Anyway, Leatherface himself ironically doesn’t do as much in this film as he did in the previous two, which is quite confusing given the title. With that said, the film makes pretty good use of the rest of the cast, and when Leatherface is on screen, the film continues its efforts to make him seem more human. He is still insane and cannibalistic, but he is still a human. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s only worth it for major fans of the series.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION (1994)
Directed by: Kim Henkel
Leatherface played by: Robert Jacks
Budget (estimated): $600,000
Box Office Gross (US, 1997 reissue) $141,626
Allow me to make one thing perfectly clear: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is a terrible movie. The characters are either annoying and unlikable or entirely devoid of any sort of personality, the story farts around to a level of complete and total meaninglessness, and the dynamic of the family of crazies has been thrown out and replaced with the most extreme level of dysfunction I’ve seen in a while.
With that said, the one thing that makes it watchable is the character of Vilmer, played by a then little-known Matthew McConaughey. Once again, the everyone except Leatherface was dead at the end of part 3, so once again, Leatherface has found a new family. Weirdly enough, the film actually attempts to re-create several memorable scenes from the original, such as an almost carbon copy chase scene through the house, the hanging of a character from a meat-hook, the capture of a character by bagging them and throwing them in a car, and the naive trusting of a character that ends up to be in cahoots with the family.
That aside, there’s also some really weird story bits about Illuminati the F.B.I. watching everyone, and it only adds to the stupidity that is this film. As for Leatherface, he’s been reduced to little more than a mascot at this point. He spends most of the movie cross-dressing as a woman, complete with a plaster mold of an upper body, and the one-or-two chase scenes that he’s involved in feature him obnoxiously screaming at absolutely everything, which is supposed to seem scary, but it’s just annoying.
There’s also a part late in the film where the lone surviving character gets up from the now obligatory “dinner scene” and when Leatherface makes a move to stop her, the character simply tells Leatherface to sit back down, and he obeys without question. Basically, anything left of the menace that was Leatherface has been reduced to an obligation to justify calling this mess of a film Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003)
Directed by: Marcus Nispel
Leatherface played by: Andrew Bryniarski
Budget (estimated): $9,200,000
Box Office Gross (Worldwide) $107,071,655
Most people seem to immediately write this film off as garbage even before watching it, simply because it is a relatively modern remake of a classic horror film. While it is a remake in name, the actual way the film is set up, it feels like another entry to the series, with yet another new family for Leatherface to be a part of, although there are a few parts that are similar to the original film.
Interestingly enough, the is the first of the Texas Chainsaw movies to give Leatherface an official, real name. In the original as well as The Next Generation, he was simply called “Leatherface,” while 2 and 3 granted him the nicknames “Bubba” and “Junior” respectively.
In the 2003 remake, he is primarily referred to as Thomas Hewitt, and there is a very brief scene where he is seen with his mask off, which seems to be a common thread in modern horror remakes. Even with the new name and the face, Leatherface isn’t really given all the much in the way of new character development, although this might just have to do with him being undermined by yet another awesome side-villain. Not unlike Vilmer in The Next Generation, this movie has a man who calls himself Sheriff Hoyt, played incredibly well by R. Lee Ermey.
While there certainly are other characters involved with the families murderous ways, Sheriff Hoyt appears to be the brains behind the whole operation. There’s also the matter that turns a lot of people off modern horror remakes: the amped up violence.
The older movies did have violence, sure, but even the bad ones weren’t very excessive about it, and left a good deal of the actual violence to the imagination. This film shows a lot more blood, but it never feels quite as gratuitous as you might believe.
Overall, this one’s worth checking out, mostly just to prove that horror remakes can be done well. With that said, had the writers dropped the Leatherface character and changed the title they could have made an entirely unrelated, albeit slightly derivate, horror film and focused more on R. Lee Ermey as the main villain. But, that wouldn’t have made as much money, and that’s the issue.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006)
Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman
Leatherface played by: Andrew Bryniarski
Budget (estimated): $16,000,000
Box Office Gross (Worldwide): $51,685,963
With the success of the 2003 remake, production company Platinum Dunes decided to make a prequel telling the origin story of the Hewitt family and how their operation got started. While I wouldn’t go as far as to call The Beginning a bad movie, it’s really just a passable add-on story to the 2003 remake that tries a little too hard to explain everything that happened in that film.
This one does, however, give some more backstory to the character of Leatherface, although I can’t say that I like it all that much. He’s only really Leatherface for less than half of the movie, as it is only then that he cuts off a victim’s face to make a mask out of it, whereas for most of the movie we simply see his scarred up, malformed face that we caught only a brief glimpse of in the 2003 version.
After this, however, he essentially turns into an unstoppable hulk that can casually shake off all manner of knife and axe wounds without so much as a limp. I’ve heard him compared to Rob Zombie’s version of Michael Myers, but considering that this movie pre-dates Rob Zombie’s Halloween, this comparison feels a bit irrelevant.
There are also one or two extended torture scenes that are pretty excessive, and just barely misses being classified as “torture porn.” The main problem is one that comes from concept rather than execution. You see, since The Beginning is a prequel, and every member of the Hewitt family is in both movies, we know from the get-go than none of them will be permitted to die in the events of this movie and that none of our protagonists will survive whatever events may transpire in the film.
With that said, there is still some decent tension present in a few of the scenes, though not nearly as much so as in the 2003 version. While a lot of people tend to hate this movie, I think that it’s alright, just another average, gory horror film from the mid-2000s that’s nobody would even give a second glance at were it not for the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” name.
WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU WATCH?
The franchise as a whole has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but thankfully it hasn’t produced anything that’s completely unwatchable, although The Next Generation comes dangerously close. For casual viewers, I can only wholeheartedly recommend the 1974 original and the 2003 remake, but more hardcore fans can at least somewhat enjoy 2, 3, and The Beginning in their own right.
The only one that nobody ever needs to see is The Next Generation, as even with the awesomeness of Matthew McConaughey the overlong beginning, terrible main characters, paranoid subtext and complete butchering of the Leatherface character make it a worthless mess of a film.
by Casey Storton
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