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Editorial – Halloween Returns & Leatherface, or How I Learned to Like the Original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hate Leatherface

LeatherfaceI’ve been trying to write an editorial on Leatherface for the past two days.

You wouldn’t think it would be all that difficult to talk about him, unless you have never seen the films, or just didn’t care enough to pay attention.  Truthfully, it wasn’t that I glossed over the details, it was simply a case that the more I talked about him, the more I was trying to make comparisons to other slashers.   Yes, it’s that hard for me to talk about the chainsaw wielding maniac.   Luckily (if you want to call it that) I have the ability to bring this article to life!  For you see, two new films are coming out in the next year or so in both the Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises.   Both of them stemming from the original films, and not the remakes.  I hope this will help to bridge the subject that I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile.  Maybe it won’t, but you’re here anyway, might as well see where this is going, right?   Hello?  You still out there?  *Tap* *Tap* *Tap*

Not much has been given on details about these new movies, but I’ll warn you now that I will be talking about what little they have given us to think about.  If you care, then I’d turn back now.  If you don’t, well, read on!

Halloween Returns takes place after the original Halloween II (yes, this is the 3rd time, not counting the reboot) that they’ve gone back to this particular well)  and have decided that Michael Myers has been on Death Row for quite some time.   On the day of his execution, some teens find a way into the box to witness Michael’s death.  One of these teens is the daughter of a deputy sheriff who is obsessed with Michael Myers.  Apparently, his sister was killed by Myers at some point, which made him focus on that case vs. his family.  Of course, Myers finds a way to escape the death chamber and the panic ensues as now the kids are trapped in a prison with the notorious killer.

Leatherface, other than being the working title to the original film, well that and Headcheese, this was also the name of the ill-fated Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.  The only part that most anybody might remember of it is Tex, played by Viggo Mortensen.  Yeah, Aragorn was one of the cannibal family!   This story, however, is a prequel to the original film which talks about him and a few other guys escaping a mental institution and how he learned to pick up the chainsaw and wear the mask for the first time.  So if the origin story you got when they did Texas Chainsaw: the Beginning wasn’t enough, you’ll be able to see how this version was lead to his dangerous reputation.

This leads me to the crux of what the original article I intended was about.  Leatherface has this rather larger-than-life reputation among many people I’ve met.  Way back during my time with SciFiFX, we did a podcast on Horror Movie Icons and of course both he and Michael Myers featured prominently on it.   The problem was I could go for miles on Michael, but Leatherface I hit the breaks on pretty quickly.   A few weeks later, at my paying job, I had one person who told me they listened to the podcast and gave me no end of grief.  I had not given his favorite slasher the time of day, and he couldn’t understand why that was.   So I explained that while I had seen the original movie and its sequels a few times, Leatherface never stood out to me as being the character that he should be.  He told me I really wasn’t giving it a chance, because I was being close minded.  I could have dismissed the comments, but instead I evaluated what he said to me.  I mean, I know my biases when it comes to slashers.   Luckily, one of the cable channels was showing the remake at the time, so I got to see it and then Amazon ran a special with the Collectors Edition of the original.  I paid $5 for a two disc set in a metal case.   So I watched it, given that this was the movie I actually remember best, and tried to give Leatherface his due.

I think we all know the movie’s plot fairly well.  In case I’m mistaken, here’s a simple summary of the film:

Two siblings, Sally and Franklin Hardesty, find out that the cemetery their grandfather is buried in has been desecrated.  Along with 3 other friends, they head down to the rural town to see if the grave is okay, and confirm nothing has happened.   Afterwards they meet a crazed hitchhiker who tells them about the local slaughterhouse that had shut down many years ago, and that his family was once a part of it.  Once the hitchhiker starts to become more erratic, and cuts Franklin with his own knife, the group kicks him out of their van.  They stop for gas and meet an old man who not only runs the store, but he cooks BBQ.  He informs them that the gas truck will not be coming right away, which gives Sally the idea that they should go and see the old Hardesty homestead.   Unfortunately for the group, living next to the old homestead is a cannibal family.  After two of them go to house to try and find out if they can get assistance with gas or any other help, death ensues.  It’s not long before Sally is the only one left alive, and even she manages to get captured twice by the family.  She is brought as a guest to a rather macabre dinner where the hitchhiker, the old man, and Leatherface continue a rather torturous experience to the young woman.  She manages to escape their clutches one last time, but not without pursuit.  Luckily, people help her and she manages to ride away in the back of a pickup.  She’s covered in blood, laughing hysterically, and the movie ends with Leatherface dancing in the street with his chainsaw.

In that summary, you’ll note that I didn’t mention Leatherface all that much.  He was in the movie a bit more than that, I admit that.  But I think I covered the most interesting bits about him.   When you first see him, is when one of the “teens” goes to see if he can get some gas.  Instead of just waiting for someone to answer the door, he goes inside the house and starts to explore a bit.  Once Leatherface makes his appearance, he hits the guy with a sledgehammer and then drags him to the back.   Even the girlfriend doesn’t get much more treatment than that.  Though, she was shoved in a freezer.

Why the disrespect here?  Why talk about loving Michael MyersMichael Myers while bagging on Leatherface?   It’s a matter of personality, which you have to convey when you’re wearing some sort of mask.  Both men wear them to hide away from something.  They become detached to the person underneath.  More often than not, the credits refer to Michael, with his mask on, as the Shape.   That’s because he’s considered to be the shape that evil takes form in this film.  Given John Carpenter’s wishes, it was something quite different once the Michael Myers story line was thought to have been ended.  Michael had a pent up rage that he allowed himself to deal with only when that mask was on his face.   If it were ever removed, it would do anything he could to get it back on his face before returning to the slaughter.   Once it’s on, the malevolence of the character shines through with clear intent.   He will stop at nothing to kill a specific target, even so much as to setting up elaborate surprises with those he’s already killed.  It’s to give that sense of hopelessness and weariness when the body could still give a little more.    Leatherface does not have this trait.

When you look at Leatherface, knowing the mask is made of human skin, and that he has that chainsaw, you can place malevolence there.   In still shots, it leaves such an iconic impression that you cannot forget what you’ve seen.  It’s terrifying to think that this man will come out of the backwoods of Texas and find you!   I live in Texas, and as a kid I lived in the country.  Those people could have lived just down the road from me!   For all this, Leatherface should creep me the hell out of me.   What’s on film tells a different story.  Instead of that sheer malevolence that Michael has,szalvafrjjkxhmoajwbh7yldobd or I would argue Jason Voorhees displays, what you get is a confused man who is defending his homestead from invaders.    He is a large and confused man, who obviously isn’t a mental giant.   He isn’t a man who hates these people, he is attacking invaders of his home, and at the same time providing a service to his family by making sure they have food a-plenty.    There’s no sense that he’s taking any more sadistic pleasure in this than butchering cattle.  Even his gruesome facial gear can’t make up for the personality he can’t convey.

He wears 3 masks throughout his time, one is the “Killing”mask that people know best.  Not much explanation needed there.  The others are more female roles, and meant in this film to be submissive.   The “Old Lady” mask  he wears is intended to show him trying to be a complete domestic in this farcical view of the nuclear family.  The “Pretty Woman” mask is used specifically to show his proper side.  He is dressed for dinner, and showing an old Southern charm to their guest and his family.  It’s meant to be a respectful thing, but it’s far more disturbing.  This man in dressing as a woman, because his family has basically lead him into this role, as far as we can tell.  The hitchhiker shows a far more dominant side, which he pushes on everyone at the dinner table.  1974-TEXAS-CHAINSAW-MASSACRE-Dinner-Scene-740x493 The old man doesn’t have nearly that fight in him, but certainly enough to put Leatherface in his place.     The masks are the only way he can express that he understands his place in the home and is trying his best to live up to that expectation.  He’s more of a frightened child than Jason was when drowning in Crystal Lake.  Even when Jason grew up and found his vaunted hockey mask, he didn’t allow the blank expression do the talking for him.   It told you that you weren’t going to get him to speak, sure.   His posture told you that he’s not interested in talking anyway, you’ve done something to offend him and you’re going to die.    Never once can Leatherface convey that, nor feel the emotion.

In all the sequels, they never give Leatherface much of a chance to expand past that.   It’s not until the remake that they ever try to make him that far more evil force, but even as he’s gained a level of the malevolence I spoke of earlier, it’s tempered by far more domineering family members who get to express themselves far more.    The opportunities to force the character into some sort of “growth”, if you want to call anything in a slasher film that, has been blatantly ignored.  They would rather try to put him back into the situation of the first film, where he’s surrounded by family, even if they weren’t in the original.   It leads into bad territory doing such things.   Ultimately, that’s what makes Michael far more successful to me.   Whenever they’ve shown a docile side to him, it’s more him waiting it out.  Dr. Loomis tells you directly that this man isn’t really a man, and his patience is beyond the pale.   Whereas the cannibal family makes you believe every moment that Leatherface is the whipped dog that will kill you with his chainsaw if they let him off the leash.

This brings me back to the newest prequel coming next year.  What are they hoping to accomplish in making this one?   Well, the obvious answer is cash cow to exploit the franchise.  The problem with that is it further waters down the drink, which doesn’t have much of a trace left from what it was.  Telling the story of how Leatherface got the mask and became a chainsaw wielding maniac might be interesting, but does it cover any real new territory here?    If he was ever that intelligent, or even willful, then they’re going to have to push really hard to show what he went through to become the submissive that he is now.  How did he become so terrified of his family  that it also made him afraid of a group of kids who obviously couldn’t defend themselves against him?     Can that story be told in what will likely be just over 90 minutes?   Okay, maybe it will run 2 hours or more, but can even the staunchest Chainsaw fan really be looking for this story?  I cannot see it, and I’m trying.   It’s going to be horrible seeing what should be the legendary slasher, the one that came after Norman Bates himself, get neutered to the point of dressing up as an old woman because the chores have to be done.    If you can tell me yes, then good on you.  You all are true troopers, and I say that knowing that I own a copy of Halloween III.

I know I’ve beaten this horse enough.  You can obviously tell that even after reviewing movies with Leatherface in it, I cannot find the love that so many have for him.   I give the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre all sorts of credit.  It had a visceral feel to it, because the budget demanded that they couldn’t do a great deal of Hollywood clean and polish.  It’s stark, it’s violent, and it’s unnerving.   It does one thing very right with me and gives me one victim to sympathize with.  You never feel like you want everyone to die.   My only problem is that I feel bad for the biggest bad ass of the film too.    The hitchhiker and the old man give me enough of that bad vibe that I don’t feel like giving up on the movie, but the nagging doubt is still there about Leatherface.    I have a cardinal rule for these films: I should never sympathize with the killer.  It’s wrong to do that.   This man is a cannibal, he’s wearing human skin over his face, he’s helping to torture a poor victim (albeit it, because he’s trying to please his family).  There is nothing redeeming about any of that.  Yet, there he is.   Hollywood needs to forget its last Chainsaw sequel, go back to the end of part one again, and then allow Leatherface to be on his own and become his own monster.   Even if they wanted to take a good chunk of the opening of Texas Chainsaw 3D and use it as their basis, more power to them!   It certainly is going to be better than anything they do for a prequel on a character who doesn’t have much of anything to give the audience.