Today we’re going to be talking about the horror movie character known as Leatherface, who originated in 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But before we do that, we need to talk about the slasher movie genre as a whole.
The slasher movie genre replaced the monsters of earlier horror films with insane humans with blades, for the most part. There were still some supernatural elements in the genre, but a lot of the films that had those waited until future installments of their series before they introduced them. As the name of the genre implies, there was also a lot more gore in these films than had been present in the earlier monster films.
For the most part, the slasher genre is the most formulaic type of horror film. A group of teenagers is being murdered by a mysterious killer, usually in the middle of nowhere. At the end of the film, one survivor will somehow get the drop on the killer and kill him. Of course, the murderer is alive and well by the sequel, and usually kills off the survivor from the previous film early on.
This formula has been used so often that there are tons of parodies and spoofs of this type of movie. To be honest, I kind of prefer the parodies to the real thing. Films like 1981’s Student Bodies, 1989’s Cutting Class, and 2015’s The Final Girls are often more entertaining for me than the more serious slasher films.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the two films that could be considered to be the first slasher movie. The other film was also released in 1974, Black Christmas. I won’t be posting an article on that film because that film had no sequels and the killer never became as iconic as later slasher movie villains.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was marketed as being based on a true story, having been loosely based on the crimes committed by notorious killer Ed Gein. I say “loosely based” because Gein lived in Wisconsin, he didn’t really kill enough people to describe his killings as a “massacre”, and as far as I know he only ever used a rifle to kill his victims. So really, the film should have been called The Wisconsin Rifle Murders, but I guess that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The character of Leatherface is kind of odd, even by serial killer standards. He wears a mask made of human skin (hence his name), and isn’t given an actual name until late into the series. For those of you that are curious, the character’s real name turns out to be Jedidiah Sawyer. If I had a name like that, I’d probably stick with “Leatherface” too.
Leatherface is also the one movie slasher that seems to be based most heavily on Ed Gein. While a lot of slasher movie villains pulled some inspiration from the infamous killer, Leatherface has a lot of the same disturbing habits and traits that Gein was said to have. Leatherface also seems to have the same sick fixation with his mother that Gein had, but I may be reading too much into the film.
Another odd note is that Leatherface rarely works alone in his films. While he is the “main” villain of each of his films, he typically is working with other members of his family to kill the teenager victims. This is not normal for the genre, and gives Leatherface kind of a unique gimmick compared to the other slasher movie villains.
The first film features a group of teenagers driving out to investigate a grave that may have been robbed or vandalized. Only two of the teenagers (a brother and sister pairing) are related to the man in the grave, with the other three just being friends of the other two. Apparently, going off with a friend to see who vandalized and/or robbed their grandfather’s grave was something that teenagers did in the 1970’s.
The first few murders in the film don’t involve a chainsaw, but eventually the movie delivers on its promise of chainsaw murders. As Leatherface murders his way through the lead characters, the film reveals that his entire family is insane. I won’t go into too many details here, because this film can be quite graphic and disturbing if you’re not used to slasher films. Unlike with most horror films of the time, the movie ends with the killer alive as the survivor gets away.
The film was successful enough to get a sequel in 1986 that was either called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. Sometimes figuring out what a movie’s official name is can get confusing. The creator of this film made the movie more comedic than the first film, so there are some horror fans that don’t like this film as much as the first one.
This film starts with Leatherface murdering a couple of high school seniors. In typical slasher movie fashion, the first few victims are big enough jerks to deserve some comeuppance, but not enough to be murdered. Leatherface proceeds to murder most of a local radio station and kidnaps the station’s DJ.
One character, a police officer related to the survivor from the first film, manages to kill himself and most of the insane family (including Leatherface) with a grenade. The film ends with a battle between the DJ and Leatherface’s brother Chop Top (no, really), with the DJ emerging victorious and claiming the iconic chainsaw for herself.
The third film in the series was 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. This film seemed to focus less on a coherent plot and more on the grisly murders. The film also gets rid of Leatherface’s family and puts Leatherface entirely in the spotlight. This is odd considering that he was blown up in the previous film, but slasher film fans have pretty much accepted that the villain can never truly die in these pictures.
The last film in the original series was 1994’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. I’m guessing they were trying to bring in the Star Trek fans with that title. Like with the second film, this movie seems to have more comedic moments and tones down the horror. Leatherface’s family is no longer as violently insane as they were in previous films (being blown up probably had something to do with that), and Leatherface himself seems to be less competent. Leatherface also dresses in drag in this film, because men wearing women’s clothing was considered to be hilarious in the 90’s.
After this point, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise entered a period that I like to call “continuity hell”. There were four more films in the series, ranging from 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to 2017’s Leatherface, and it is legitimately hard to tell where each film falls into the continuity. The 2003 film was a remake of the original and the prequel in 2006 (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) was clearly part of the remake’s continuity, but the next two films Texas Chainsaw 3D and Leatherface could either be sequels to the original film, sequels to the remake, or sequels to the last film of the original series.
At the end of the day, it says something that Leatherface is not an interesting enough killer to stand out on his own. The movies that feature Leatherface without his family tend to bomb horribly. What makes matters worse is that people rarely discuss Leatherface or his family when talking about the iconic slasher movie villains. This is kind of sad, as Leatherface was one of the first.
With that said, we say goodbye to Leatherface and his creepy family, and run as far away from his chainsaw as we can. Tomorrow we talk about a slasher villain that became much more well known and was much better received: Michael Myers. Yes, I know I should save the post on the Halloween films for October 31st, but I’m running out of material and this was the next one historically!