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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning   D

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Writer: Sheldon Turner (from a story by Turner and David J. Schow)
Cast: Jordana Brewster, Taylor Handley, Diora Baird, Matthew Bomer, Lee Tergesen, Cyia Batten, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning opens with an homage to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, one of the most unexpectedly literate referents I've ever seen in a B-picture. For that brief shining moment, I thought there might be something to this otherwise shameless cash grab from New Line. Not that a horror prequel should be filled with snooty literary references, of course, but merely that the screenwriters had invested some thought into the scenario. If they could slip something like that under the radar, then they might be able to invest the ensuing scenario with a little creativity. Stranger things have happened, after all. It's not totally beyond the realm of possibility, and with a brief whiff of something interesting in the opening frames, the prospect of sitting through the remaining 83 minutes carries at least some hope of enjoyment.

Or not.

Soon enough, that hopeful promise disappears, leaving a movie so unpleasant that even a jaded old gorehound like me was taken aback. Horror flicks are supposed to be, well, horrifying, but there's a difference between evoking our fears and merely showing us something nasty. I appreciated the efforts of the 2003 "original" in that regard, but the follow-up has nothing more up its sleeve than a sloppy chum bucket and yet another gaggle of beautiful nymphomaniacs being hacked to bits.

It's all the more frustrating because the premise needn't have settled for that. Exploring the origins of the series' cannibalistic Hewitt family and how they came to rule their forgotten corner of rural Texas holds fascinating possibilities. Furthermore, director Jonathan Liebesman understands that his ringer lies not in Leatherface -- the hulking maniac du jour played again by Andrew Bryniarski -- but in Hewitt family patriarch Hoyt, who masquerades as a county sheriff in order to flag down travelers and cart them home to the supper table. R. Lee Ermey reprises his role from the 2003 version here... and as every human being on the planet knows, R. Lee Ermey is an extremely scary man. He doesn't need hockey masks or power tools to fill you with unholy fear; he just needs to squint at you like you were something he dug out from the bottom of his shoe and ask if you've ever seen a human kidney before. TCM: TB wisely puts him front and center for the duration, even pitting him against nubile heroine Jordana Brewster in a knock-down drag-out Battle of the Ass Kicking Drill Instructors cage match. (One guess who wins.)

Beyond that rather canny bit of resource management, however, Liebesman does nothing but squander every opportunity he has. The trumpeted notion of exploring the roots of these characters -- centered on the local slaughterhouse and the economic holocaust that follows its closure -- is dispatched with 15 minutes of "neglected outsider" piffle. An attempted social subtext stumbles around as well, entailing some obvious critiques of Vietnam-era cultural collision and the corruption of traditional American values. (Two of the Hewitts' youthful victims are brothers embroiled in the draft, with Matthew Bomer's Eric preparing for a second tour of duty in Asia, and Taylor Handley's Dean planning to flee to Mexico.)

Neither of those elements is the purpose of the exercise, of course, and lost potential could be forgiven if the film were the least bit scary. But TCM: TB shunts aside its interesting aspects so quickly that we can't help but pine for the possibility of something better. Into the void steps the absolute rankest of horror film clichés: a quartet of Pretty Young Things who wander into the Hewitts' sights and spend eighty-odd minutes being sliced apart like hogs. Liebesman indulges in the shock and grotesquery of slaughterhouse aesthetics from one end of the film to the other, devoid of suspenseful buildup and rendered in one long gruesome trawl. Shock tactics are the order of the day, leading to numbing visions of monotonous hell as flesh is stripped, limbs are severed, and various titular pieces of equipment are put to uses that violate various manufacturers' safety codes. Sexual transgression is on gratuitous display, most notably in Brewster's flimsy white halter top (soon smeared with blood to better highlight her dirty, dirty lady parts), as well as various other bits of genre silliness that would qualify as satire had TCM: TB not been so clearly in earnest.

Grinding one's way though it all feels less transgressive than grueling, less a tour of the darkest corners of human nature than a film that soaks itself in crimson to cover up its creative bankruptcy. If intensity is the purpose of the exercise, then I grant The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning a certain power in that regard. But so pointlessly cruel is the action -- so relentlessly vicious with no thread of either imagination or artistry to validate it -- that even hardcore buffs can be excused for turning up their noses. We may not have seen the end of this nascent franchise, but the beginning leaves depressingly little hope for improvement.

Review published 10.06.2006.

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