Director: Jeff Burr
Screenplay: David J. Schow
Cast: Kate Hodge (as Michelle); Ken Foree (as Benny); R.A. Mihailoff (as Leatherface 'Junior' Sawyer); William Butler (as Ryan); Viggo Mortensen (as Eddie 'Tex' Sawyer); Joe Unger (as Tinker Sawyer); Tom Everett (as Alfredo Sawyer); Miriam Byrd-Nethery (as Mama Sawyer)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #86
The wheels started to fall off the Chainsaw cart just by the third film but I don't necessary blame director Jeff Burr for this. (This isn't a review of his later film Devil's Den (2006), where I'd throw a shoe at him if I could). Gore removed, gore added back in the DVD release, an alternative ending directed and the sense, whilst lots of gore wouldn't have necessarily boosted the film's quality, that Leatherface's problems stem from the franchise starting to become unstuck on the cusp of the 1990s. In spite of some critical re-evaluation that it's been getting, it feels stuck as a franchise film at a time when horror cinema was slowly changing, one with great odd one-offs but where a lot of franchises were slowly dying, and without Tobe Hooper in the driver's seat it's unfortunately a "franchise film" in the negative way, without taking risks and trying to recapture the first film's popularity without realising the risk was what helped it. That's weird for me to say when in its unrated form, Leatherface is caked in grim and unmentionable liquids, one of the most openly provocative of the first four films in tone and dialogue especially, not as intense as the first or second, but just deliberately unpleasant in tone where encounters sexually perverse and racist cannibals, but this is still a safe film. As the 2003 remake will attest to, that for all the gore and nastiness you still have something staying within the confines of a mainstream horror movie, one where glam metal is still on the soundtrack, an irony not realised as, when grunge apparently killed off glam in the early nineties, horror films in the slasher-like fold like this would get knocked off quickly too.
To Leatherface's credit, there's plenty of things to pick up on in spite of the ultimate disappointment with it. It has a credible, menacing atmosphere of isolated desert highways and swampy woodland that's befitting the material, where everything feels rusted, old or crusty without it coming off as ridiculously glamorous in a sick way. Some of the grim, admittedly, can be heavy handed - Tom Everett's misogynistic, peeping tom gas station owner and sociopath is a failed attempted to follow Chop Top from the last film - but the sense of danger is appropriate everywhere else. It blurs the line between entertainment, a New Line Cinema production, and an extreme horror film right down to recreating the ran over armadillo from the first film, replacing the immaculate (but somewhat absurd) taxidermy creation from a realistic animatronics one that, in a moment I openly admit to feeling sad about, cries in pain after protagonist Michelle (Kate Hodge) and her obnoxious boyfriend Ryan (William Butler) accidentally run over and have to put out of its misery. At first it can make the strange mix of different types of film work; the sense of horror and underground culture starting to bubble up to the surface, the gore lovin' horror film fan and music genres like death metal having grown up at the time of the second film or so, is found even here which explains a lot of the tone. The gore is still strong, even with cutaways and censorship, alongside its intensity in general mood.
Helping this is that again, the Leatherface family is still as interesting as before. By this point, like marking out the timeline for Highlander sequels, the family tree for this clan isn't worth trying to map out, instead worth viewing each version in each of the first four films as different entities that the scripts all wisely allow to stretch their legs and express themselves as different groups. It's to the point with the exception of whenever Ken Foree is onscreen, especially as Ryan is such an obnoxious prick to suffer as a lead and Hodge only getting a lot more to work with as the heroine in the final act, that actually the stalk-and-chase scenes and the horror moments meant to sell it which are tedious, more interesting to follow the villains instead. A matriarchal clan, a squabbling yet close whose nicely decorated home comes from an older, nicer period of American only with more dead animal parts and a homemade skull crushing machine in the kitchen, a disturbing concept at play too with a little girl amongst them as a born sociopath with a knife hidden in her dolly. No matter how bland the film can get, it will always has some redemption for the scene, even if it might offend other Chainsaw fans, were Leatherface tries learning from a speak and spell machine only to always type "FOOD" on the screen, one of those bizarre and fun character pieces that you only get once in a while in Hollywood horror movies and the only time in the first four films of the series the least interesting depiction of the iconic character has anything of interest to do onscreen.
Then of course you have Viggo Mortensen as Tex, first the handsome cowboy who you'd understand completely wooing Michelle from an obnoxiously written boyfriend, but is also as great as a gangly, weird loon later on. The same year as Philip Ridley's The Reflection Skin (1990) where he had a main role, for a picture of his career at this point, even in a messy, divisive horror film like this, as with Matthew McConaughey in the fourth one, you can tell quite early in his career how good and varied an actor he is, running rings around many of the others to a noticeable extend. One exception though, and another redeeming part of Leatherface, is Ken Foree as a survivalist, Benny, who ends up in this horrible predicament with Michelle and having to fight back, an absolute gem in the film just by himself. He even steals scenes from Mortensen with his own natural charisma that can juggle humour, even lines that would cause one to cringe if anyone else said them, with the ability to act like a credible touch man, harder to do in a genre film in acting than you may presume but what he managed all the way back in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and here.
The problems really come in Leatherface attempting to be a horror film. It's a fool's errand after the first two sequels that three and four thought of recreating scenes from the first film without realising how poorly they'd look in comparison, like here when Leatherface chases a woman through the woods with a chainsaw, as with what I've now realise about my tastes in how, with great exceptions, stalk and chase scenes in horror are now becoming my least favourite completely due to their laziness in execution. It's also the sequel attempting to be a box office hit, which leads to the most egregious flaws in attempting to keep butts at the edge of the seat. Moments appear throughout the film, like the misused subplot of a previous female survivor still rooming the area in a near catatonic state, but it's really by the end of the film when all hell breaks loose where it starts makes stupid decisions, ditching the interest it generated following the Leatherface clan for something more generic. Action scenes of fighting and setting people on fire, the egregious use of heavy metal riffs in moments that are meant to feel awesome or intense, such as the final chase scenes, but come off as cheesy, and a general rush to the finishing line that blurs together with no actual horror to them.
The clash between being a greasy, cruel movie - where the heroine has to have her hands nailed to chair arms rather than tied on and dialogue at one point with gruesome implications of sexual violence - and a mainstream horror sequel really becomes problematic as if feels as if it's both trying too hard to be extreme and that it's also, for all the good moments within it, too predictable and even has its legs chopped off by the finale when it could've gotten interesting, pure gorgonzola topping it all in an ending that was changed to be happier in spite of an obvious plot hole and pure luck being involved with the result narratively. Leatherface altogether comes off as a bastard creation stuck between tones with haphazard decisions alongside the good ideas.