Sunday, October 29, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning' (2006)

To their credit, the producers of the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were reluctant to make a sequel, even though the movie was a success at the box office. Rather than leaving well enough alone, though, they decided instead to make a prequel, which isn't exactly a more noble choice. And really, with a handful of small tweaks, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning could have easily been a sequel to the previous movie. It follows the same basic formula, as a group of young people on a road trip through rural Texas stumble across the Hewitt family and get slaughtered. For the first time, the movie doesn't open with text and/or narration with "facts" about the case (although John Larroquette returns to deliver some narration at the end). Instead, an opening sequence shows the birth of Thomas "Leatherface" Hewitt (played again by Andrew Bryniarski, the only actor ever to play Leatherface twice) in 1939 literally on the floor of a slaughterhouse, and his subsequent discovery by Luda Mae Hewitt in a dumpster outside the facility. But the bulk of the action is set in 1969, just a few years before the previous movie, with the same generic late '60s/early '70s period detail, and not much about it would have to be different for it to be set in 1974 instead.

The young people this time around and headed to a military base so that brothers Eric (Matt Bomer) and Dean (Taylor Handley) can be shipped off to Vietnam, Eric for his latest tour and Dean for the first time. The looming threat of Vietnam is a major background element in the original movie, which of course was made when that was also a major background element of real life, but here it's used just to generate some basic conflict between the brothers (Dean plans to flee to Mexico rather than allow himself to be drafted) and to play with co-star R. Lee Ermey's iconic drill sergeant role from Full Metal Jacket. Ermey is back along with Terrence Evans and Marietta Marich as members of the Hewitt family, making this the TCM movie with the highest quotient of returning actors.

They all return to play the Hewitts in a slightly earlier time, when they're just starting to explore their homicidal impulses. The impetus for this turn toward murder is the shutdown of the local slaughterhouse, where the mentally challenged Tommy has worked for his whole life. It doesn't take much for the Hewitts to move from killing animals to killing people, starting with the local sheriff. The makers of The Beginning seem to think that audiences were desperate to know how Ermey's Hoyt became sheriff (he's just impersonating the murdered lawman), how Evans' Uncle Monty lost his legs and how Leatherface started wearing people's faces, but they fail to answer the most important question: Who cares? The plot minutiae connecting this to the previous movie are superfluous, and its nature as a prequel means that we already know that all of the killers will make it out fine (minus some teeth and legs, at least).

So director Jonathan Liebesman just gets down to the gruesome task of hacking up the main characters, including Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird as the brothers' girlfriends. Brewster shows more determination in the "final girl" role than Jessica Biel demonstrated in the previous movie, but she's much less of a defined character, with no background other than being in love with Eric and slightly sad that he's leaving for Vietnam. There's also a biker gang that serves no discernible purpose other than raising the body count, with Lee Tergesen showing up as a badass, gun-toting biker only to be dispatched by the next scene. The violence is perfunctory, and the increased focus on the Hewitts (especially Ermey's scenery-chewing performance) makes the movie even less emotionally engaging. Even Leatherface, whose ostensible origin story is the movie's hook, gets minimal screentime, and the explanation for his name is that ... he literally wears a leather mask on his face (before developing the habit of wearing the faces of his victims). It's just one more haphazard element in a movie that never justifies its own existence.

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