When it comes to the big players in the horror world, Leatherface is something a little bit special. With his legacy spanning eight movies which were released between 1974 and 2017, Leatherface has experienced several different reincarnations of his character, along with an ever-changing cast of surrounding players which make up his extended family. While other horror icons have received a far more consistent treatment in their sprawling film series, Leatherface feels like a different character every time he pops up on our screen.
I feel like it’s time we take a deep dive into the character that is Leatherface, and take a look at the different ways he’s been represented on screen throughout the years. The interesting thing about Leatherface is he’s not always portrayed as a straight-up villain, and is often shown in a way that elicits sympathy from the audience at the same time as we’re terrified of him. Leatherface’s journey to a chainsaw-wielding killer is definitely a study of nature vs nurture, and even though he never utters a word once he becomes Leatherface, he’s one of the most interesting serial killers to come out of the horror genre.
Let’s explore Leatherface’s representation throughout the eight movies of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) series, and the effect the different timelines, backstories, and family members have on the way he’s portrayed on the screen.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
In the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre movie, we meet Leatherface’s family a long time before we meet him, and while they both seem a little creepy, we don’t find out their connection to Leatherface until almost the end of the movie.
First up, Sally and her friends meet The Hitchhiker when they pick him up on the side of the road, and when the group then stop at a gas station, when they meet The Cook, who warns them about going anywhere off the beaten path. But by the time the teens get to Sally and Franklin’s old family home, The Hitchhiker and The Cook are mostly forgotten as the teens try to relax.
Pam and her boyfriend, Kurt, are the first to fall foul of Leatherface when they discover his house while searching for the local swimming hole and decide to ask if they can borrow some gas. This is where I would like to put forward the point that Leatherface isn’t really a villain. Look, I’m aware that he kills a lot of people, and yet, he doesn’t seem to fit into the classic villain role that we see so often in horror movies, at least not in this first entry in the series anyway.
Leatherface is hanging out in his house on a fine summer’s day, and we know he’s alone because his two brothers are out and about. I say brothers, I lost track of how everyone was related the further I got into the series, but let’s just trust that they’re all part of one big, extended family. Leatherface is someone who relies heavily on the guidance of his family, especially The Cook, and so when he finds an intruder in his house when he’s alone he acts on instinct and smashes Kurt’s head in with a hammer, chances are because that’s what he had in his hand at the time.
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“Leatherface’s family […] has a firm hold over him, and he’s unable to fully stand up for himself.”
The shot of Leatherface killing Kurt, pulling him inside, and shutting the metal door is designed to shock up as we question what we just saw, but it’s also there to show the panic in Leatherface. He’s not sure what is happening, and he wants to get rid of the problem in his house as quickly as possible.
When he spots Pam, her panic is mirrored in him as well as the two make a run out the front door of the house. He screams and roars like a frightened animal. After killing both Pam and Jerry, we see Leatherface darting to the window of the house, peeking out from behind the curtains, and sitting with his head in his hands. He is visibly stressed and cannot understand what is happening. In these scenes, he looks more like the victim of a home invasion rather than the bad guy. When Sally and Franklin come across Leatherface later, it may seem like he is stalking them, but it’s more likely that he was walking the perimeter of his house to see if any more intruders were lurking.
The only time we see Leatherface relax is when The Cook returns home with Sally finally captured, and it seems like the situation is under control. Leatherface no longer needs to make the decisions and can default control of everything back to The Cook. This is when Leatherface swaps into his ‘Old Lady Mask’, and looks more like a middle-aged housewife rather than a ruthless killer. This is when he is most helpful to The Cook and helps prepare the house and Sally for dinner. Leatherface changes into his final ‘Pretty Woman Mask’ to dress up for dinner.
The feeling I get from Leatherface in this movie is all he wants to do is keep his family safe and ensure that his older brother, The Cook, is happy with everything he does, even though The Cook loves to bully him. His actions may seem drastic, but he does it to keep his family’s secret.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
It took twelve years to get a sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, potentially due to the movie’s controversial nature. This time, Tobe Hooper pulled an Evil Dead 2 (1987) and gave us a more comedy-based story involving the Sawyer family.
There’s a slight change in Leatherface’s character here, as he’s seen hunting down teens for fun with his brother Chop Top (who is the Hitchhiker/Nubbins’ twin brother) with a comically oversized chainsaw. There’s a slightly more playful nature in his killing, perhaps because it’s been 10 years since the whole Sally incident and the family has managed to get away with it.
This time, Leatherface questions his killing nature when he develops a crush on local radio DJ Stretch. While there’s a lot of lingering shots of a chainsaw hovering over Stretch’s crotch in her tiny shorts, it seems that Stretch and Leatherface build a connection because she actually speaks to him and tries to reason with him. Leatherface has no doubt murdered a lot of beautiful young women before, but Stretch tries to talk him out of killing her rather than just running and hiding.
“[…] Tobe Hooper pulled an Evil Dead 2 (1987) and gave us a more comedy-based story involving the Sawyer family.”
Not only does Leatherface spare her, he actively works to hide her from his family in the hopes that she can survive. Leatherface perhaps enjoys the escapism of having a connection with someone outside his family, even if it’s a very forced type of connection from someone who’s trying to not die, even if Leatherface doesn’t see it that way.
However, Leatherface’s family still has a firm hold over him, and he’s unable to fully stand up for himself and argue for Stretch’s survival. He still looks to them for answers and ultimately trusts their judgement over that of outsiders.
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III sees perhaps the most drastic departure from the Leatherface we know and love. It’s a little unclear where both this and the next movie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1997), actually sit in the timeline, with both movies featuring two very different families.
Leatherface has broken free of the hold The Cook/Drayton has over him, and with a new family to hang out with, he seems to have embraced his more sadistic side. Police have been finding massive body pits all over the place full of victims, and it’s clear that the family have lost their edge of subtlety and are instead running people off the road whenever possible to keep up their killing streak.
The truth is, it’s hard to focus on Leatherface in this movie, as there’s too much focus on the other members of the clan, including the surprisingly normal-looking Tex Sawyer, played by Viggo Mortensen. And the Leatherface that we do get to see is highly-unlikeable. Other family members refer how much Leatherface enjoys sexually assaulting his victims now, saying he makes the “sweetest babies.” It seems that Little Girl, the youngest member we’ve seen of the Sawyer clan so far, is Leatherface’s daughter, but perhaps the “sweetest” comment relates to the taste of other babies. Either way, it paints a grim picture of women who were held captive for at least nine months. There’s no sympathy for Leatherface in this movie as he is a villain through and through and not even a likeable one.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1997)
Another strange entry in the timeline and another famous family member, this time in the form of Matthew McConaughey as Vilmer, and we have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Luckily the grim and nasty version of Leatherface from the last movie is gone, and we’re back to a version of our chainsaw-wielding killer than we’re more used to.
Vilmer is the strong leader of the family that Leatherface was used to with Drayton, and so Leatherface quite happily takes on the more subservient role we saw with the ‘Old Lady Mask’ in the first movie.
However, in this film, we have the debut of what I’m going to call ‘Sexy Leatherface’, where not only does he wear a mask complete with makeup, but now he wears long hair and revealing clothes, paints his nails, and has even made himself a Buffalo Bill-style woman skin suit complete with a set of breasts. This seems to be in a bid to impress Vilmer and stand out in the house compared to Vilmer’s wife, Darla.
“[Leatherface] is often shown in a way that elicits sympathy from the audience at the same time as we’re terrified of him.”
When Vilmer dies at the end of the movie, Leatherface is struck with grief, hinting at how deep Leatherface’s feelings were for Vilmer. Again, Vilmer treats Leatherface like trash, but this is what he’s used to, which is a huge departure from the God-like status and golden chainsaw his family bestowed upon him in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
It’s sad, then, that Leatherface is completely blocked up by the strong personalities of Vilmer and Darla in this movie. I mean, he doesn’t even get to kill anyone with a chainsaw!
That the end of Part One of tonight’s dissection of this iconic horror villain. Keep an eye out on our Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Discord for Part Two, and for all the best horror content you can find online, stay tuned to Nightmare on Film Street.