Whereas the teens pretty much stay stagnant on a scale of awareness in horror films, the villains themselves have evolved into something much more creative and enthusiastic. New instruments of torture, ranging from hot wax to 60-second collapsing iron maidens, have become new objects of terror, and those with the power to decide life and death elude authorities and basic laws of reality like they are merely figments of imagination. But for all their efforts and all their means of spilling blood, there is still nothing quite as shocking – or in fact, quite as devious – as the sight of a guy dropping a running chainsaw into the torso of a screaming teenager nailed down to a table. The image is hardly a unique one, and yet it continues to mystify many, including myself. Is this a scary image? Is it even one that deserves to be scary? Of course not. An event leading to someone’s death is only horrifying if it realizes the pain and suffering that comes with it. With chainsaws, there is no time to react, no time to think, no time to feel, and no time to terrify. It cheats the very basic nature of the genre.
And so the feeling has lasted, from the 1970s cult hit to its three sequels, to a recent remake of the original and now to a new prequel that is finding its way onto theater screens this fall. I am worn out on chainsaws. So, too, the victims themselves must be – throughout most of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” they stare at each other with a certain boredom at their situation, as if they are secretly praying for it all to be over and done with in short enough a time to allow audiences to catch a much better movie playing down the hall. That it is only 84 minutes long means it is less offensive and appalling as it might have been, but why spend any amount of time with a story like this anyway? If a killer is meant to live on and continue his reign of terror, then a prelude to it can promise little more than an exhausting extension of that macabre. As such, we cannot possibly root for a protagonist nor hope for a respectable outcome here… because we will not be guaranteed one. Witnessing the film unfold is like watching someone die of an incurable disease; we show up with an ounce of dogged hope that the outcome might be different, although it is all in vein.
The story, as razor-thin (no pun intended) as the standard for these kinds of movies is, opens years before the well-known outcome of the Leatherface killings, with the deformed little bugger being born on the dirt floor of a slaughterhouse, only to be abandoned in a nearby dumpster by witnesses to the birth (the mother, needless to say, did not survive). Suffice it to say, little butcher boy survives the dumping, and is adopted into a family equally grotesque in its upbringing. Flash forward a few years, and Leatherface (we’ll just call him that, as no one else apparently has a name for him) is, too, working at the local slaughterhouse, so fascinated by the cutting and slicing of meat byproducts that he appears disinterested in the obvious: that the town has gone bankrupt, and the slaughterhouse is shutting its doors for good. Never one to obey authority, he sternly stands his ground as the only remaining butcher when he approached by law enforcement and encouraged to leave his job. Right, you might as well ask a poet to drop his pen.
What unleashes the inner horror of this eccentric, disfigured brute? The movie plays with ideas but has nothing substantial to offer as evidence of a snap, and Leatherface assumes his first victim without rhyme or reason, severing every limb on the slaughterhouse foreman’s body in, I guess, some sort of act of vengeance on his turf. That the town is seemingly inhabited by people who all seem related to each other is a cliché of great insignificance (unlike the original Tobe Hopper film, in which the device was more a commentary on barren towns in the deep south), but it is a notion that foreshadows the events to come. Consider the town sheriff, a man intent on doing right by the law – he has no intention of allowing this monstrous man going unpunished for his deed, but the very idea that he seems to be the sole sane person alive in a cesspit of inbreeding and filth dooms him to failure, and the cop is murdered by Leatherface’s adoptive father (the great R. Lee Ermey), who then decides to replace him because, well, he likes the way he looks in police garb.
The four unsuspecting teens who wander into this world are seen as liabilities by the screenplay, which has one goal in mind right from the start and shows no intention of straying from its purpose: to concoct a portrait of bleakness and despair, brimming with delusions of survival and hope. Alas, the audience knows so well the developments of this story that any idea involving prior events to the final outcome leave no room for optimism. So what are we rooting for, exactly? To search for an answer is frivolous. The movie does not care about notions of horror carrying the weight of genuine tension or perspective. It exists simply for the sake of beating a dead horse (in this case, with the loud engine of a chainsaw). Survival, positive outcomes, justice and perseverance, these are all narrative concepts far from the minds of these masochist filmmakers. And even by the standards of the most ambitious twisted cinematic voyeurs, it amazes me that such an enthusiastic bunch of gore-driven writers, directors and producers would have the nerve to trap any class of actors in such a cheap and tawdry-looking production. Whereas the last “Chainsaw” film was at least able to call itself dirty and deplorable with a certain production value, here the endeavor comes off as being utterly inept on a technical scale.
There is a time and a place for almost everything on the big screen. A persuasive filmmaker and a dedicated visual artist are capable of taking the most absurd, over-the-top and deplorable ideas and crafting them in a way that warrants intrigue or even admiration. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” warrants none of that; it is an ugly film, overwhelmed by transparent shock value, short-sighted storytelling and nihilistic undertones. It is, of course, important to remember that being hopeless and merciless with narrative tones are never deal-breakers in a movie of this nature. Well, at least until you throw a non-speaking chainsaw-wielding madman into the mix, I guess.
Author’s Note: This review, or rather the bulk of it, was written in fall of 2006. In keeping with a personal goal to finish everything that has been started, it has now been completed and published.
October 4, 2006 (First Draft)
May 9, 2008 (Publishing Date)
Horror (US); 2006; Rated R for strong horror violence/gore, language and some sexual content; Running Time: 91 Minutes
Jordana Brewster: Chrissie
Taylor Handley: Dean
Diora Baird: Bailey
Matthew Bomer: Eric
Lee Tergesen: Holden
R. Lee Ermey: Sheriff Hoyt
Produced by Jeffrey Allard, Michael Bay, Toby Emmerich, Mike Fleiss, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Bradley Fuller, Kim Henkel, K.C. Hodenfield, Tobe Hooper, Robert J. Kuhn, Alma Kuttruff, Mark Ordesky and Guy Stodel; Directed by Jonathan Liebesman; Written by Sheldon Turner