Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"There is never much sense of hope in the film, only a brash defiance that sometimes, for all its ugliness, verges on the heroic."

When you hear about killers wreaking havoc and destroying innocent lives, do you blame the parents? Do you wonder if those killers were just born bad, or if something happened to them along the way? Even Leatherface was a child once, receiving his first chainsaw as a birthday present, struggling to balance its weight and not at all sure about plunging it into the spare party guest at the end of the table. Perhaps, with the right support, he could have been a very different person.

This film is much more than just an origin story for the titular killer. It's a portrait of a time and place, a comment on America's treatment of it poorest citizens. Though never presented as anything less than grotesque, the Sawyer family are symptoms of some much deeper ailment. Despite the terror they can invoke when they have the upper hand, in other circumstances they are helpless, and they easily fall victim to a state ranger with a grudge (Stephen Dorff). This is why Leatherface and his brothers end up being raised in an asylum - equally brutal and corrupt - and why the film proper begins with an escape.

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Any film structured like this is in dire need of some sweetness and light, and that's embodied here by Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse), a young nurse who sees her mission in life as reaching out to damaged children and trying to give them a future. This is makes quite an impression on Jackson (Sam Strike) - all of the asylum patients have been given new names to help them separate from their pasts which, of course, obfuscates who they will become in future - and when the riots begin he takes her as a hostage, which is a haphazard way of saving her life as well as giving himself more time to get to know her. On the road, older brother Ike (James Bloor) makes it clear that he'd prefer to rape and murder her, and his girlfriend Clarice (Jessica Madsen) wants to kill her before he gets the chance. Only the other young sibling, Bud (Sam Coleman) shows her any uncomplicated sympathy. Bud is a bit simple (perhaps due to electroshock therapy) and Jackson is heavily focused on looking after him, which is part of what keeps the unlikely group together - that and their mother's insistence that nothing is as important as family.

During the road trip that follows, Ike and Clarice's Natural Born Killers schtick quickly comes to dominate everybody's destiny. Would-be star-crossed lovers ready to go out in a blaze of glory, they look for trouble wherever they can find it, so it's not long before the vengeful ranger is back on their trail. There is never much sense of hope in the film, only a brash defiance that sometimes, for all its ugliness, verges on the heroic. Meanwhile, Jackson and Lizzy exchange lingering glances, but Lizzy isn't stupid - she knows that her only real hope lies in escape.

Filming in Bulgaria, directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury produce the same lushness in their visuals that marked out 2011's Livid, using light to conjure up the atmosphere of back-country Texas. Ina Damianova's costune design knits the characters and landscape together, strengthening the relationship between birthplace and destiny that has echoed through the series. Strike is good in the role of Jackson, convincing as the product of such a a background yet hinting at a more complex humanity. The real standout, however, is Lili Taylor as the Sawyer family matriarch, bursting with pride in her boys, full of love for them even when she's stern, in many ways the archetype of American motherhood but devoted to the point where every outsider is an enemy, and serving up pie that seems unlikely to contain apples. It's her formidable presence - even when we don't see her for some 40 minutes in the middle of the film - that dominates everything. Despite the absurdity of her behaviour, Taylor makes her believable, and the pain of her separation from her family underscores everything that is to come.

Of all the films in the Texas Chainsaw series, this is probably the least gory, a fact that will no doubt disappoint some fans. It certainly has its moments and those disturbed by gore should still approach it with caution, but it's nothing like as gratuitous as much of what has gone before. Events happen to serve the story more than the theme. Horror is found in different places. This is a cri de coeur for those betrayed by the promise of the American Dream, and as Lizzy's well-intentioned blundering with patients early on reveals, nobody is really innocent.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2017
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Four teenage patients escape from a mental institution, kidnap a nurse and take her on a road trip to hell in this prequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Director: Julien Maury Alexandre Bustillo

Writer: Seth M Sherwood

Starring: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Nicole Andrews, Sam Strike, Sam Coleman

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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