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October 6, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | October 6, 2006 |

Someone should really introduce the whole idea of diminishing returns to film producers. When significant cinema happens — either by accident or design — the best response (as far as most audiences are concerned) would simply be to let it happen. Mold your homage into your own filmmaking, if you must, but don’t revisit the territory that has become legendary.

The original version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a nightmare for moviegoers of its time due less to the brutality of its violence than the manic energy with which it was presented. The film was a savagely nihilistic vision, filmed in faux-documentary vérité and showcasing protagonists ripped limb from limb, leaving the sole survivor blood-spattered and screaming with laughter. Theatergoers were appalled, and the film cast a dark shadow over the horror genre, daring it to up the ante.

But the real power lurking behind the original film was the disturbing premise: A family of cannibals lived on the outskirts of civilization and preyed on passersby. This kind of mythos hit home for many Americans who could see endless stretches of land from their car window, hear reports of real murderers like Ed Gein (upon whom the story was loosely based), and easily imagine that something horrible was lurking in the fringes.

Sadly, the myth was exploited to produce a surfeit of sequels, each more awful than the last, and a diffident 2003 remake that was little more than a handsome retelling. Just looking to the premise of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (it’s the prequel to a remake) will tell you how far removed from the original source this franchise has become. Making this film as a prequel cripples it in another way: We already know who lives and who dies because they’ll show up in the next bloody movie!

The de-mythologizing begins by constructing the Hewitt family’s descent into predatory madness. A woman gives birth in a 1939 Texas meatpacking plant to the deformed menace who will become Leatherface. He’s rescued from the garbage by the Hewitt mater and taken to live with their dire clan. When baby Leatherface grows up to be a hulking monster possessing an uncanny élan with the butcher’s knife, the factory goes under and is shut down, taking the town along with it. Leatherface wastes no time bashing his employer to death with a hammer while Paterfamilias Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey) guns down the remaining lawman and appoints himself sheriff.

Apparently not long after these events, four ill-fated teens come a-rollin’ through the deserted town — they’re standard horror movie B’s (babes & boyfriends), one of whom (Matthew Bomer) is heading into his second tour in ‘Nam while his brother (Taylor Handley) intends to skip off to Mexico to avoid exactly that. The characters’ brief introductions skirt the boundaries of meaningful involvement, but are much too short and rushed to really let the audience feel empathy. And where empathy doesn’t go, interest is not likely to follow. …

From the onset we know what will happen, both because of horror film norms and because it’s a prequel, people. The only prayer TCM: TB could’ve had was through unexpected emotional involvement or harrowing violence. Director Jonathan Liebesman obviously opted for the latter — apparently 17 separate scenes had to be excised from the theatrical cut to avoid an NC-17 rating. There are certainly enough bludgeons, chainsaw eviscerations, and human consumption to make one’s stomach wobble, but it isn’t anything exceptional. Uninvolving characters are mangled in fairly uninvolving ways — what’s left to say?

The film does take a couple of stabs at higher purposes: There’s an exchange between Ermey and Bomer about the horrors of war (both characters were vets) and hints as to the psychological motivations of Leatherface, but they’re much too scant. In the end, we don’t know or care why the Hewitt family is crazy — they just are; they’re rednecks who eat people.

Perhaps in more capable hands than those of Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman, this could have been a pleasant surprise, but considering that the Chainsaw premise has been so thoroughly sucked dry, I’m hard pressed to imagine how. With each effort this franchise has gotten weaker because the filmmakers can’t figure out why a particular mythology isn’t alluring after so many repetitions. The rest of us can.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

Mind If I Borrow Some Skin?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning / Phillip Stephens

Film | October 6, 2006 |

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