TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006)
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
In many of my reviews, I've noted that one of the biggest trends in Hollywood is the remake. Why struggle to think up something original when you can simply redo some other well-known movie? This trend is especially rampant in the horror genre, with dozens of American genre classics and a number of Asian movies being remade to varying levels of success. A lot of these remakes are generally frowned upon by horror fans after they are initially announced by studios, but one that got a lot of ire was the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic is beloved by the horror faithful, so when New Line Cinema and hot-shot producer Michael Bay's production company Platinum Dunes announced they'd be teaming to "re-imagine" it, it wasn't the most popular of news items. But when the movie was hit theaters, it was a big fat hit that drew just as much acceptance as it did derision. Three years later, New Line and Platinum Dunes reunited to continue the story told by the remake. But in lieu of moving the story forward with a traditional sequel, the decision was made to go a different route and take the story a step backward with a prequel. Appropriately titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the movie presents us with what its promotional campaign billed "the birth of fear" in all its blood-soaked glory. Let's see how it holds up.
The year is 1939. Inside a stuffy slaughterhouse in rural Travis County, Texas, a pregnant young woman (Leslie Calkins) goes into labor, giving birth to a son before she ultimately dies. The disfigured baby is later discovered by the passing Luda Mae Hewitt (Marietta Marich) in a dumpster outside the slaughterhouse, and she takes it home to raise as her own. Flash forward thirty years to the summer of 1969. The baby taken in by Luda Mae has grown into an extremely antisocial adult named Thomas (Andrew Brynarski), who hides his facial deformities beneath a crude leather mask as he works in the very slaughterhouse he was born in. But as Bob Dylan sang, "the times, they are a-changin'."
Faced with a number of sanctions from health inspectors, the slaughterhouse has been forced to lay off all its employees and close up shop for good. Closing the slaughterhouse has killed the entire town, and nearly all of the town's citizens have taken off for good. But Thomas remains at the slaughterhouse, refusing to vacate the premises. And he isn't too keen on told to leave, either. When his boss (Tim De Zarn) insults him and orders him to leave, Thomas doesn't hesitate in beating him to death with a sledgehammer. Satisfied with what he's done, he picks up a nearby chainsaw and starts walking the long road to home.
This little incident doesn't go unnoticed by the police, however. The one cop that has yet to leave town, Sheriff Hoyt (Lew Temple), contacts Thomas's brother Charlie (R. Lee Ermey) and asks him to help track Thomas down. The pair eventually find him, but when Hoyt goes to arrest Thomas, Charlie decides he's not having any of that and blows Hoyt's face off with a shotgun. And since the abandoned town doesn't have a police force now, Charlie decides that he's going to be the town's law and order. So what does he do? He drives Hoyt's police car home, cleans up the uniform, and assumes the identity of the deceased Sheriff Hoyt. That evening, the Hewitt family gathers around the dinner table. Hoyt announces to Luda Mae and his uncle Monty (Terrence Evans) that while the neighborhood may have become a ghost town, the Hewitts aren't going to abandon their home. And thanks to the former sheriff, they're not going to go hungry. I'm sure you know what that means. Nothing brings a family together like cannibalism.
And just their luck, a potential meal is passing through town. The Vietnam War is in full swing, and Eric Hill (Matthew Bomer) has been drafted into service. His brother Dean (Taylor Handley), who's already served one tour of duty in the war, plans on re-enlisting so Eric isn't alone, and their girlfriends Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) and Bailey (Diora Baird) are helping them drive across Texas so they can sign up. The only catch is that Eric has no desire to enlist, so he and Bailey are planning on bolting to Mexico the first chance they get. But unfortunately, their chances are slim to none. As they drive down a deserted stretch of road, the quartet are accosted by a biker (Emily Kaye), who pulls up beside them and draws a sawed-off shotgun with the intentions of robbing them. But in all the chaos, the four travelers hit a cow, causing their jeep to flip. Chrissie is thrown from the vehicle into a roadside ditch, and watches in horror as the new Sheriff Hoyt arrives and guns down the biker for no good reason. He corrals Dean, Eric, and Bailey into his cruiser and takes them off to the Hewitt house, where we know no good things will happen. With a little begrudging assistance from the biker's boyfriend (Lee Tergesen), Chrissie sets out to free her friends from the clutches of the Hewitt family and the chainsaw-wielding psychopath that earned the nickname "Leatherface."
If one thing can be said about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, it's that the movie never forgets what it is. It's a movie about a family of redneck cannibals and a big guy with a chainsaw and a leather mask. Never does it try to be anything more or anything less. The movie understands its own nature, and has no problem showing that nature to its viewers. It is violent, bloody, and thoroughly misanthropic, terms that it wears proudly as badges of honor. And while it's not great, it most certainly knows what it wants to achieve and goes for it with gusto.
Director Jonathan Liebesman makes his second attempt at a feature-length movie, and I thought he did a lot to redeem himself after that mediocre waste of time called Darkness Falls that he directed in 2003. If prequels have one fatal flaw, it's that we know how things are going to turn out. That's the nature of most prequels; you can usually guess with a fair amount of accuracy who will be the survivors and who will be the victims. Liebesman seems to recognize this, and he makes a very good attempt to at least keep our attention by keeping the pace tight and the intensity high. And working with cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, he gives the movie a gritty, visceral feeling that was missing from the remake. He tints the movie with sepia colors, giving it a dry, dusty, and dirty look that, when combined with Liebesman's use of shadows, works to greatly enhance the movie's tense atmosphere. Aiding the atmosphere is the music score composed by Steve Jablonsky, the usual composer for Platinum Dunes movies. Jablonsky's music is quite effective, never distracting from the movie by being overbearing, instead supporting the on-screen terror. It is tense and scary all on its own, which really boosts the movie as a whole.
Let's not forget the screenplay written by Sheldon Turner, working from a story from noted "splatterpunk" author David J. Schow. Turner's script is quite well done, not letting the audience go once it gets into its groove. His dialogue is believable, and while the protagonists aren't exactly the movie's main focus when compared to the Hewitts, they're still likable, sympathetic characters. But I have to note the best part of the script, which is how Turner uses the concept of a prequel to take the opportunity to further develop the Hewitts. He fully reveals their cannibalistic nature, and makes them an actual family. And that's what makes Turner's script so effective. It's not completely because of how crazy they are, but how normal they perceive their behavior to be. Forcing physical and psychological torture upon innocent bystanders before chopping them up and eating them for dinner is nothing out of the ordinary for them. Villains like the Hewitts are incredibly scary, because they feel that they are totally, 100% justified in what they do. Their murders are not instigated by vengeance or their own personal amusement, but simply because killing and eating their victims are the way they survive.
Lastly, there's the cast. Everyone's performances are relatively even, but nobody really stands out except for Andrew Brynarski and R. Lee Ermey. As with the remake, Brynarski and Ermey make the entire movie their own. Since Leatherface is a physical role with no dialogue, Brynarski's acting has to be of a physical nature. And he's more than up to the task. His performance really helps the theory that beyond his violent streak and talent with butchery, Leatherface is like a whipped puppy dog. He doesn't really stand up for himself, since he's so used to being bullied, bossed around, and generally talked down to by his brother and his peers. He's basically a poor beaten animal in a human's body, and Brynarski's performance exhibits that. The other truly notable member of the cast, Ermey, is absolutely astounding. I make it no secret that I'm a fan of Ermey, and his performance here reinforces that. Ermey plays the character as sadistic, brutal, and with a sardonic wit that really injects the movie with a ton of black humor. He's really the standout cast member of both the remake and the prequel, and I think believe that Platinum Dunes could have hired anyone better to play Sheriff Hoyt.
Just like the remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning has gotten a decisively mixed reception. Personally, I liked it. I'll admit to liking the remake a wee bit more, but the prequel is not without its merits. I found it to have a vibe much closer to Tobe Hooper's original movie than the remake, and the prequel's depiction of the Hewitts really puts them as some of the decade's better horror villains. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning won't go down as an all-time classic, but I did like it a lot. Since it had its flaws, but it certainly did a lot of things I liked, the final verdict for the movie is three and a half stars. It's worth at least a rental.
Final Rating: ***½