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October 5, 2006
The tag line for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of the finest horror movies to arise from the New American Cinema of the 1970s, read "Who will survive and what will be left of them?" Well, not much, after encountering Leatherface's penis/chainsaw assault. The original film holds up as a masterpiece of horror to this day, and no amount of sequels, remakes - and now a prequel - will add to director Tobe Hooper's legacy. The newest installment in the series, released just in time for the 2006 Halloween season, attempts to address some questions about the macabre family at the center of the films, questions that apparently were on more than a few people's minds. But is an attempt to demystify the lore of the characters of Texas Chainsaw Massacre really necessary, and does it in fact detract from the atmosphere of fear that Hooper expertly (and on a shoestring budget) created? Part of the terror that surrounded the original film was that the viewer had no idea what drove this cannibalistic family, preying on nubile teens that wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time. To delve into the family's roots, however ridiculous or credible they may be, decreases the fear by adding some notion of comprehension. To be exact, The Beginning explores the roots of the characters from producer Michael Bay's 2003 remake, which was directed by Marcus Nispel, a surprisingly decent work. Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls) takes the reigns for this prequel, and the results, while not an utter failure, are disappointing.

The story begins in 1939 in a slaughterhouse, where a woman dies giving birth to some type of evil creature, as indicated by the oozing puddle of blood and pus that forms at her feet. Flash-forward to 1969, and this creature has grown up to become Thomas Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski, reprising his role from 2003), aka Leatherface, a troubled young lad of 30 who is ruthlessly manipulated by his uncle, Sheriff Hoyt, played again by the excellent R. Lee Ermey. The little Texas town in which they reside is suffering some major downsizing and taking no part in the Summer of Love. The slaughterhouse, apparent lynchpin of the community, must close, prompting Thomas to his first kill - the manager of the plant. This launches the poor, definitely emotionally disturbed, and probably retarded young man into a cycle of murder, spurred on by Uncle Hoyt and the rest of his clan. Things escalate when four sexy teens wind up in a car wreck near the house after an encounter with a female biker (played by the miscast Cyia Batten, who is just not believable as a faux-Hell's Angel), and are abducted by Hoyt. Cue screams, mutilation, torture, and yes, chainsaws.

Most of the scares of the film are shock and gore scares, again a departure from the spirit of the original. In Hooper's classic, gore is minimal, adhering to the Hitchcock philosophy that what you don't see can be much scarier than what you do. The overbearing soundtrack, composed by Steve Jablonsky, is also distracting at times - a poor choice, considering the effectiveness of the minimal score of the original. But why keep comparing this film to a classic? Let's look at some of its merits and faults on their own.

Brothers Dean (Taylor Handley) and Eric (Matt Bomer) are heading across the state to enlist with the Army with their girlfriends keeping them company on the road - the voluptuous Bailey (Diora Baird) and the sensible heroine of the film, Chrissie (Jordana Brewster). Thing is, Dean burns his draft card along the way, because there's no way he's heading to Vietnam in 1969 - and can you blame him? It was probably worse than heading to Iraq in 2006… Eric, however, is only planning on re-enlisting to take care of his little bro… it's a complicated family affair, but interesting in the context of the current quagmire in which America finds itself. The Hewitt family, pushed into cannibalism since the close of the slaughterhouse and depressed economic state of their corner of Texas (among other reasons, which I won't spoil here), doesn't take too kindly to draft dodgers, and the burned draft card becomes an issue of contention between Hoyt and the boys. So, what's the ideology here? Is the family a victim of creeping capitalism, attempting to keep the ball rolling through a communal pot of body parts when a recession sets in? Or do they represent the conservative core of Middle America, disgusted with draft dodgers, bikers, and hippies, and intent on preserving their bloody corner of Texas, even if they have to slaughter to do it?

The message gets lost in the madness. This is truly a gory film, for better or worse, and close-ups of flayed skin, chainsaws piercing chest cavities, and slit throats abound. Much of the picture takes place after dark, and at times the lighting is so poor and the photography so grainy, it makes it hard to see the action - surprising, for such a high-profile commercial release. The dementia of the dinner scene, a key component of any Chainsaw movie, gets off to a good start as the surviving teens loll in a stupor of horror and pain while the family says grace and prepares to eat human flesh. But the scene's disturbing, freak-show atmosphere is ruined by a smarmy quip that Chrissie hurls toward the family, enraging them and killing the mood. These modern-day horror movie lines, brought off beautifully by Freddy Kruger in the Nightmare On Elm Street series, feel out of place here, although Ermey does get some laughs with his deadpan drawl.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is certainly not a failure, but compared to recent throwbacks to the golden age of horror (Wolf Creek, High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes remake), it falls short. The requisite thrills of gore and villains popping out of the woodwork are there, as well as an effective overall feeling of tension and dread. The attempts at back-story here are admirable as well, but the construction reveals its flimsiness at times and this version is perhaps targeted too much towards a Friday night teen crowd.

The ending of the film is bleak, but this should come as no surprise, as it is a prequel to horror to come. At times, one almost begins to feel sorry for the used and abused Leatherface, who just wants to find the perfect skin from some handsome young man to cover his hideously deformed face and call his own. Perhaps if another family had found the infant in the trash, things would have turned out a lot better for Texas, and there'd be a hell of a lot more of those who survived.

SEE ALSO: www.texaschainsawmovie.com

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Jonah Flicker
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.

See other articles by Jonah Flicker.

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