When Tobe Hooper's initial "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" came out in 1974, I remember being singularly unimpressed. Still, it had a strong effect on a lot of other filmgoers, who found its grisly blend of humor and mayhem profoundly disturbing. Then came the inevitable sequels and a remake of the original in 2003. Apparently, the remake did well enough at the box office to prompt this 2006 prequel, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning." However, beware of box office receipts. Despite different writers, producers, and directors in the series, essentially the only thing that has changed about the movies over the years is a switch in the title from using the two words "Chain Saw" to the single word "Chainsaw." Otherwise, this one, like the rest, is simply more of the same.
You may recognize Michael Bay as one of the producers of the 2003 remake, so wouldn't you know he'd want to capitalize on that movie's success. Theoretically, this prequel, which goes back to Leatherface's birth, is supposed to give us a glimpse into the backstory of the murderous Texas clan that waylays strangers, dismembers, and eats them. Don't count on it. Most of the backstory takes place during the opening titles. After that, it's the identical gory torture and killing of young people that we've all seen many times before.
What numerous filmgoers (and not a few filmmakers) fail to remember is that the original '74 "Chainsaw Massacre" was not all that gory or gruesome; the film implied most of its violence, and, believe me, there is no substitute for the imagination. What this new "Beginning" does is show us everything that the first film only suggested, making for one bloody mess on screen and one bloody mess of a movie. What is unseen can be a whole lot more frightening than what is seen; but I suppose many filmmakers, particularly young ones, are so unsure of themselves and their skills, they feel the necessity of showing us everything to be sure we get it. Thirty-year-old Jonathan Liebesman directed this one, and his only previous big-screen effort was the decidedly non-scary "Darkness Falls." With "Beginning" he seems to be maintaining his pace, substituting shotguns, sledgehammers, the inevitable chainsaw, and an exceptionally high volume level for genuine tension, anxiety, or frights.
The story begins in 1939 with the birth of Thomas Hewitt, a.k.a. "Leatherface," in a Texas slaughterhouse, where the Hewitts find him left in a Dumpster and adopt him. It's no way to come into the world. The new father, Charles Hewitt (R. Lee Ermey, who, as always, steals the show), takes one look at the baby and exclaims in one of the film's few satirical lines, "That's the ugliest thing I ever saw!" The child, we learn, has a birth defect--a facial disease--presumably why he later wears a mask of human flesh. We also learn that he has a tendency toward self-mutilation, which can't help his appearance. The father, ever supportive, tells him, "Don't worry, Tommy; you don't have to look pretty to work down at the slaughterhouse."
Flash-forward to 1969. The meat-packing business has gone bust, and almost everyone in the little community except the Hewitts have left town. They decide to stay on by themselves and get along however they can. In their case, they decide to stop occasional passersby and eat them. Despite the movie's claim to give us the backstory on this diabolical tribe, the movie does not deliver. The filmmakers never tell us why the entire Hewitt family suddenly turn into demented monsters. They just do. The son (Andrew Bryniarski), now thirty, takes a hammer to his former employer; his adopted father takes a shotgun to the local sheriff, assuming his identity; the family starts eating people; and that's it. We're off to the races.
Cautionary note: Never, ever, call a huge, hulking, disfigured, retarded ("He ain't retarded; he's misunderstood") man with a meat cleaver in his hand a "dumb animal."
From this point on, meaning after the first few minutes, the movie is a rehash of all the other "Chainsaw" pictures and their ilk. Naturally, we meet a group of young people traveling through the countryside--two handsome young men in their early twenties (Taylor Handley and Matt Bomer) and their two beautiful girlfriends (Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird). Just as naturally, the young people get tangled up with the Hewitts, and the usual maiming, crippling, torture, and murder ensue, with the film telling us almost nothing more about Leatherface.
How many times can filmmakers retell the same story? And how much bloodshed can an audience stand? The disc I watched was unrated, as the keep case says, the version "too shocking for theaters." So even more blood washes over the screen. If only it were scary....
Needless to say, the movie defies logic at every turn. Nobody goes looking for or investigating the disappearance of the local sheriff. Over a dozen Hell's Angels show up at a gas station without the protagonists ever hearing or seeing them. The villains are able to be everywhere at once, moving up and behind people without people ever noticing their approach. And what are the odds of finding a deranged family of cannibals, a gun-crazed gang of bikers, and a stray cow in the middle of the road all at once?
The thing is, it's pretty hard to feel any excitement or suspense in a film when you know exactly how the plot is going to turn out. This is, after all, a prequel. Will these young people escape to live happily ever after and turn in the Hewitts for their evil deeds? Will the Pope convert to Mormonism?
Although "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" may be a low-budget affair, it does look good, it's well acted, and it's well paced. But for what purpose? The movie is nothing more than a series of head bashings, chainsaw amputations, face skinnings, and every other act of wanton, stomach-churning abuse you can think of. It isn't even shocking because of the redundant and cumulative numbing effect of its violence.
Actually, the best way to watch this film might be with your finger pressed firmly on the fast-forward button. In the end, and despite Ermey's best efforts, it's just another splatter flick.
New Line Home Entertainment present the film in a 1.78:1 screen ratio that nicely fills out a widescreen television. But its intentionally dull, drab, muted colors, big on yellows and browns, makes the video quality hard to evaluate. In its favor, the screen is admirably free of added grain, noise, and other digital artifacts. But facial tones are always out of whack, and definition is only average. I suppose it's all a part of the sinister atmosphere the filmmakers were trying to produce, but like the rest of the film, it is not especially pleasant to watch.
The disc makes the audio available in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1 ES, and Stereo Surround. I found the DD 5.1 loud, if nothing else. Dynamics are good, as are the front-channel stereo spread and the deep bass. You'd think a horror movie would make better use of the surrounds, though. Oh, well....
The special features begin with seven deleted or extended scenes, including three alternate endings, with optional commentary. You can play them all at once, and they last about thirteen minutes total. Next is an audio commentary with director Jonathan Liebesman and producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, which may be articulate, entertaining, and enlightening for all I know but which I skipped entirely because it would have entailed my watching at least a part of the film over again, something I had no intention of doing. Then there is a lengthy, forty-five-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary, "Down to the Bone," with the filmmakers showing us how and why they made their movie. Oddly, they never mention money.
Things wind down with nineteen scene selections; English as the only spoken language; English and Spanish subtitles; and a gruesomely embossed slipcover. In addition, there are Sneak Peeks at several other New Line productions: "The Number 23," "Snakes on a Plane," "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny," "The Butterfly Effect 2," "Undisputed II: Last Man Standing," "The Reaping," and "300."
Clearly, the filmmakers' plan was to show us the hellish nightmare that went into the origins of the Hewitt family. Unfortunately, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" does that in about two minutes and spends the rest of its time echoing every slasher-movie cliché that it and its clones originated. The movie gets boring fast from its repetition of gratuitous gore and its having nothing new to say. You might not want to watch it on an empty stomach, or on a full stomach for that matter. In either case, you may end up with an enormous empty feeling and a craving for a really good horror film.