The principle of diminishing returns certainly seems to apply to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. For the purpose of relevance to this review, I chose to comment only on Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original and Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake. The former was a disturbing, iconic and nightmarish horror classic, with a perfect opening voiceover. The latter was a slick, intense and efficient film in its own right, even thought it couldn’t recreate its predecessor’s visceral impact. Now here’s a prequel that seems more intent on grossing people out with gore than on presenting something memorable.
This is not to say that Jonathan Liebesman’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” doesn’t have its moments. The shot of Leatherface walking slowly on that godforsaken back road early on, chainsaw to his side, is a visual that conjures up great dread and despair, and the way he dispatches one poor soul later on is inspired hardcore stuff. But scenes that stand out are very few and far between, and the film falters in part because of a middling script that stretches to reach 90-odd minutes. The main thing that felt like padding was the confusing introduction of a weird biker couple, but let’s go back a little. The year is 1969. Eric (Matt Bomer) and his younger brother Dean (Taylor Handley) are driving across Texas with their respective girlfriends Chrissie and Bailey (Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird) for one final bit of summer fun before the boys head to Vietnam. It’ll be a second trip for Eric, while Dean secretly plans to go to Mexico with Bailey to avoid the draft. This bit of information is to be interpreted as shorthand for their different toughness levels; no points for guessing that Dean will have to find his inner soldier at some point. In a bizarre turn of events, some crazy biker chick wants to stop the group’s jeep for a robbery, a development that leads to a violent crash with an unfortunate, road-crossing cow. The whole mess then leads to the involvement of the perverted, self-proclaimed Sheriff Hoyt, played once again by R. Lee Ermey, and from there things go from bad to worse.
There are well-done early sequences about the death and decay of a small town after the slaughterhouse is shut down (one of the employees was Thomas Hewitt, better known as Leatherface), but there’s little of interest beyond that. The filmmakers made the curious decision to open the film in 1939, when Hewitt was born, and then jump ahead 30 years in the blink of an eye. We learn that Leatherface (the returning Andrew Bryniarski) was bullied at school, but that was clearly alluded to in Nispel’s movie. Isn’t there a huge amount of cumulative trauma, abuse and frustration to be mined for insight over such a long time frame? The screenplay by Sheldon Turner, with story contributions by David J. Schow, focuses a little too much on the deranged Sheriff, to the detriment of the chainsaw-wielding maniac. Ermey knows he has a juicy role to work with, and he has many occasions to communicate the twisted worldview of his character, the dinner scene being a prime example. Among the talented young actors in the film, a special mention goes to the beautiful Brewster (The Fast and the Furious, Annapolis), who does a great job in a role similar to the one played convincingly by Jessica Biel in 2003. Baird is absolutely stunning too. If you’re not in the mood for horror, you can always be in the mood for beauty, in which case you should check out her spectacular cover picture for the latest Stuff magazine.
The ending, more or less out of left field, goes against what is generally accepted regarding Leatherface in that it involves cunning and scheming. Thomas Hewitt can charge out of his demented family’s front porch like a speeding train with that chainsaw in his hands, but his M.O. doesn’t include the kind of stuff we see in the final minutes. Liebesman’s debut feature, Darkness Falls, was critically drubbed but made three times its 11 million $ budget in the first few months of 2003. It was one of those theatrical releases that resemble most of the straight-to-DVD horror films: it’s a bit silly and ridiculous, it has noticeable flaws, but it can do the job if you’re not too demanding. “TCM: The Beginning” marks an improvement for him, but it’s still an unsatisfying film. I walked into the theatre to Witness the Birth of Fear, as the posters say, but what we get is an origin story short on both origin and originality.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay