Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Starring: Jordana Brewster, Taylor Handley, Diora Baird, Matt Bomer, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski
Running Time: 96 min.

Rating: Unrated

*** (out of ****)

Warning: The Following Review Contains Spoilers

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
is a sick, disgusting, graphic and gratuitously violent motion picture. However, I must admit I was entertained all the way through and as a prequel to the 2003 remake, the film works on every level and accomplishes what it sets out to do. In many ways, it represents what is best about the Chainsaw series and actually has a lot in common with the original films. It's grittier, rawer, more visceral and altogether as good or just maybe even a better film than the 2003 remake. It also doesn't follow the usual slasher formula of teenagers being picked off one by one and you'll be surprised just how long many of them last. The movie instead decides to torture them, and ultimately us, for most of it's running time.

I was never a huge fan of Tobe Hooper's 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre largely because I feel its praise primarily stems from its low budget feel and little else. I also didn't care for the characters and always thought Leatherface looked rather ridiculous, like your next door neighbor was dressing up for Halloween. In the newer films, he looks more powerful and intimidating without losing any of the human element that adds to the terror. While I may have found out more than I wanted to know about Leatherface and The Hewitt family in this film, there's no denying it will satisfy fans of the series, who won't be disappointed.

The movie starts with the graphic birth of Thomas Hewitt a.k.a. Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) in a meat packing plant in Texas. We find out he was pretty much born deformed and disturbed, so ends that debate minutes into the movie. Fast forward thirty years to Vietnam-era 1969 and the slaughterhouse is being shut down by the board of health, putting poor Tommy on the unemployment line and turning the place into a ghost town. Now just a pit stop for bikers and hippies, the Hewitt family are the last remaining residents of a bygone era. In this way, the film kind of resembles last year's The Hills Have Eyes remake.

Needless to say, Tommy doesn't take to losing his job very well and this leads to a gruesome scene early in the film that probably reenacts what a lot of people probably wish they could do to their bosses. This defining event becomes the catalyst for the birth of Leatherface. Meanwhile two brothers (Matthew Bomer and Taylor Handley) are driving through Texas with their girlfriends (Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird) before being shipped off to Vietnam, even though Dean, the younger, plans on burning his draft card and fleeing to Mexico. I really liked how this detail ends up playing a major role in deciding their fates later in the film.

After a car accident, they find themselves at the mercy of the demented "Sheriff" Hoyt and the Hewitt family, who are nurturing a killer in Leatherface and are just starting to get their groove on as maniacal cannibals. All I can say is if you enjoyed character actor R. Lee Ermey's over the top performance as Hoyt in the 2003 TCM film, there's much more of it to enjoy here. He's sick and evil, sometimes funny, but never lets his performance go into the realm of pure camp. It's a thin line to walk and Ermey does it well, to his credit. He's really the star of the show in this one. He has some great scenes with the brothers, including one where he forces Handley's character to do twenty push-ups, but with a twist. The movie isn't pointless as we find out some interesting details that enhance our appreciation of the series, such as how Hoyt became a "sheriff" and lost his teeth, how old Monty lost his legs (this is gruesome), and best of all, exactly how Leatherface got that mask of his. That scene may be the defining moment of the entire TCM series.

Even those who despise this movie can't claim it isn't well made and doesn't look great. Much like the 2003 film, the cinematography is fantastic and Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls) does a good job taking over the directing reigns from Nispel, adding his own touches like toning down the music video look of the earlier film and replacing it with a rawer, more documentary style feel. It kind of harkens back to the golden age of 1970's slasher films with the style it employs, which is a good thing in my book.

Although it's never really scary, just sick and disgusting, there is a great deal of suspense and I think they did a great job with the casting. On the whole, I liked the teenage characters in this better in this than in it's 2003 predecessor and thought the acting was far above average for this type of film and this likely contains the best performances in the TCM series. Jordana Brewster (who we don't see enough of these days) as Chrissie cannot be compared to Jessica Biel because they are playing two completely different parts. That's one of the things I liked. Rather than trying to recreate the kick ass heroin from that film they realized this is a prequel and casted someone who could play innocent and vulnerable (not a Biel strength), therefore heightening the terror. Another example of the filmmakers knowing their genre.

This is also evident in their casting of Baird as Bailey, who looks and acts like a scream queen out of a 70's slasher flick. Her carefree sex appeal and awesome scream were a definite highlight of the film and adds much more than you think in a movie like this. Bomer and Handley (who you may remember for his infamous O.C. role as Oliver) are also very strong and have a good chemistry together onscreen that actually made me believe they were brothers. This in spite of the fact they really didn't look or dress like they were teens of the 60's at all. Brewster and Baird fare much better in that department.

Even though I thought this movie did a better job making us feel like this was the 60's than the previous movie did with the 70's, this is the weak link with the newer Chainsaw movies. It seems sometimes the movies forget or don't care what era they're in, which is a shame because it presents intriguing possibilities for a horror film if the filmmaker chooses to take advantage of it. I also wonder if they made the right decision revealing so much about Leatherface and his past, leaving no room for any doubt or mystery as we move forward in the franchise, which you know we will.

This DVD is the unrated version of the film, which contains scenes that were cut in order for this to achieve an R rating. This kind of surprises me as the MPAA tends to only hand out the NC-17 rating to intelligent films featuring a lot of sex and nudity. By their logic slasher films are supposed to have gratuitous sex and violence, but don't dare sorround a serious drama that has something to say with it. That's not to say this isn't an intelligent movie. It kind of is...well, okay not really. I can't say I'm pleased with the horror genre's shift toward showing everything, but if you're going to do that this is how it should be done. This is probably the most screen time Leatherface has had in the series and you know the imposing Bryniarski must have loved that.

The movie ends as it should considering it's a prequel and we have the return of John Larroquette's famous voice over narration from the 1974 orginal and 2003 remake. Since this is the beginning of an era we don't expect the "final girl" to survive. She shouldn't. This is what I think is one of the major improvements recently in horror films, where we can no longer safely assume the girl will survive in the end. They may or they may not. There's finally an aura of suspense and mystery hinging on the fate of the final character. It's a welcome change that's been employed recently that I'm a huge fan of. If a horror film is to truly be dark and hopeless it must stay true to that bleak vision right up until the very end. If it doesn't, it's cheated the audience. That's not say everyone should be killed off or the movie fails but no one can go riding into the sunset smiling either. This movie understands that. It knows what it's doing and it knows it audience. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a success and proves itself a worthy entrant in the TCM canon.

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