Thursday, January 3, 2013

In defense of... Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

With yet another would-be remake/reboot/sequel of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre arriving in theaters tonight night at 10pm (this time merely titled Texas Chainsaw 3D), I thought now would be as good a time as any to offer my thoughts on my favorite entry in the very long running series.  No, I'm not talking about the admittedly groundbreaking Tobe Hopper original, nor the surprisingly good 2003 remake, nor even one of the wacky 'official' sequels.  No, truth be told, my favorite variation on the adventures of Leatherface and his cannibalistic family remains the last one.  I'm speaking of course of Jonathan Liebesman's 2006 prequel to Marcus Nispel's 2003 remake (complicated, I know), entitled merely Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.  The film was a moderate box office success ($19 million opening weekend, $51 million worldwide off a $16 million budget) but was roundly panned by most critics and even a large number of would-be hardcore horror fans.  To this day, I'm not sure why.  Yes, it can be argued that we don't need an origin story for Leatherface and his murderous clan. We don't need to see how he was born, how he got the chainsaw, or how a certain villain from the prior entry happened to have lost his legs.  But perhaps too well hidden in the minutiae of its origin stories and mythology building is nothing less than a top-flight horror film.

If it can be said that a good horror film is partially defined by the audience wanting the film's would-be victims to actually survive their ordeal, then this picture is an unmitigated triumph.  It quickly and efficiently introduces its four young protagonists (Jordana Brewster, Taylor Handley, Diora Baird, and Matt Bomer) and instantly plunges us into their all-too real moral dilemma   While the original Tobe Hopper film (and any number of iconic 1970s horror films) served as a metaphor for Vietnam-era slaughter, this film takes that subtext and successfully makes it text.  We are presented with two young couples, with Handley and Borner heading off on one last road trip with their respective girlfriends before they reenlist in the overseas war effort.  The choice of whether to plunge into (or in the case of Boomer, rejoin) the overseas foreign policy blunder is treated with all the gravity and respect it deserves.  Of course, the question of fight or flight is rendered naught when they are involved in a car accident that brings them to attention of Sheriff Hoyt, again played with scenery-chewing malice by R. Lee Ermey.  One smart decision that the film makes straight off the bat is to not use Leatherface as the primary force of terror in the picture.  He is the muscle of the family, called in when his services are required, but Sheriff Hoyt is the primary evildoer and it is Ermey who makes us squirm.

Unlike the 2003 remake, which only flirted with the idea of cannibalism, this prequel dives right in, blatantly showing off the Hewitt family's penchant for devouring human flesh.  For those who like their horror films literally swimming in gore, you certainly get that here, in spades.  I've seen both the R-rated cut and the NC-17/Unrated version, and both are genuinely disturbing in their blood-drenched visuals (obviously the unrated cut is the preferred version, running six minutes longer and containing about 30 seconds of censored gore).  What's impressive is how the film doesn't relish its violence or its gore.  The violence is not to be cheered or celebrated but feared and/or mourned.  Good people die horribly with no real rhyme or reason, with the added (if obvious) irony of fleeing one killing field for another giving it weight..  Also of note, Liebesman and writers Sheldon Turner and David J Schow ratchet up the suspense in the simplest manner possible: they keep as many of the would-be victims alive for as long as possible.  A major character is horribly dispatched in the first act, after which we wait. We wait and worry even while we sit there wondering, nay hoping that maybe some of them might get out alive.  We are indeed treated to a variation of the iconic dinner sequence, which horrifies in its own special way.  The film is scary and unsettling because the character groundwork has been laid.  Whether its Jordana Brewster's would-be 'final girl' or the two brothers torn between family loyalty and self-preservation, the film is terrifying because we like these people and don't want them to die.

Yes, I will be the first to admit that there film has a few too many 'here's how this character found this item' moments, but frankly the film itself is so compelling that they don't stick out as much as they otherwise would.  Putting aside the obvious profit-minded motive for making a prequel to a successful remake, this picture is an under-appreciated piece of genre art.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is simply a terrific example of gruesome grindhouse horror, made compelling and unsettling by Jonathan Liebesman's commitment to a kind of real-world plausibility.  It's the 'if this happened, here's how it would really go' feeling, which also added surprising gravity to lesser genre entertainments such as Battle: Los Angles and Wrath of the Titans, that gives this film its brutal kick (it's also what makes him very wrong for the would-be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, since we already got our 'realistic' film version back in 1990).  I can't speak to the quality of John Luessenhop's new 3D-enhanced series entry (I may or may not catch it tonight at 10:00pm, depending on my schedule and my personal disposition), but I will take this moment to encourage those who never tried it, as well as those who wrongly knocked it, to give the vastly underrated Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning a chance.  It does its genre proud and it's still my favorite Texas Chainsaw Massacre film of all.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Gareth Morgan said...

While I can't decide if I prefer this one over the 2003 TCM, I completely agree that it's underrated.

It seems the case that true horror fans are worried about the comments of their peers, should they remark that they like a remake or prequel. Sequels are generally accepted but remakes are regarded as skidmarks on the underpants of the original's memory.

They shouldn't be. I'm a 31 year old horror veteran and yet I prefer to watch The Beginning and TCM 2003 over any of the others. I accept that the original is the best but that's because it came first. It's not as exciting or as intense as these two. I love them both.


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