There are a lot of things I’ll let a horror film get away with. I’ll excuse bad acting, a shitty script, or low production values. But the one thing that I will never let a horror movie get away with is being completely boring. And Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is so completely boring that I was stunned to learn that it was only 84 minutes long. Didn’t I feel stupid for trying to chew my arm off to escape.
The real fact of the matter is that Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a complete piece of shit. Except that a piece of shit is grosser than almost anything in this movie, which besides having generically boring characters and a tedious charade of a plot, doesn’t even give us any good kills. After seeing the ante upped in many recent films – including the TCM remake to which this is a prequel, and Hostel, which this apes at times – TCM:TB is a complete letdown of unimaginative chainsaws to the gut. Three characters are killed this way. When the Dawn of the Dead remake features a better chainsaw kill than your film with the words “chainsaw” and "massacre" in the title you know you’ve made a stinker.
Problems enter right from the premise: why does anyone want the ‘origin’ of Leatherface? Especially one as banal as this, with him going crazy after being laid off from the meatpacking plant where he raptly works the meat even after the place has been shut down. All origins come in a domino-toppling row here: Leatherface kills his first person, Hoyt kills and becomes the sheriff, the Texas town they live in dies and the first batch of wayward teens show up to get slaughtered, Leatherface uses a chainsaw on a person for the first time and he gets the first incarnation of his defining mask. This seems to happen in about 24 hours; at least the movie establishes that the family had been cannibals for a couple of years before the opening of the movie (watch out next year for the prequel to this, where we see R Lee Ermey in a Korean prisoner of war camp developing a taste for long pig!).
The less said about the doomed teens, the better. They’re as generic a bunch as have ever been slaughtered on film, although it’s worth noting that human mannequin Jordana Brewster has the kind of gym rat body that nobody had in 1968, making her every scene anachronistic (it gets worse when she does some “sassy movie backtalk” after being captured by the cannibal family). There’s some hooey in here about the Vietnam war and the draft, the kind of thing that you know has the filmmakers patting themselves on the back for being “relevant” to the world today. Of course it’s completely irrelevant, and in the context of the film pointless. One character is set up as a Vietnam vet with nightmares who we’re maybe supposed to think will take on the family – unless of course we’ve ever seen a film in this genre and know that not only does the girl always end up making it to the end, it’s the girl with marquee value who will last the longest. By having this vet character here the filmmakers are subverting expectations no one has had for thirty-plus years.
There’s also no subverting of expectations about R Lee Ermey – he’s doing his usual Marine drill instructor schtick here. In the TCM remake he had an element of supremely creepy mama’s boy to him that doesn’t fully follow through here. Also, the idea in the first film that he was a legitimate lawman was great – it added to the complete alien nature of this hickish hellhole. Here we see that he’s just a redneck who kills a cop for his uniform and likes to play police. And he does it while re-enacting his role in Full Metal Jacket, which is amusing for a while but soon devolves into a mixture of self-parody and echoes of Freddy Kruger in the later, awful Nightmare movies.
Ermey dominates the movie, pushing Leatherface to the periphery. You have to give Ermey credit for playing the role with as much scummy gusto as he does, but frankly I wanted more Leatherface. And what I really wanted was more family members – why not bring in Chop Top, or create new characters so that they could be killed off? The truth of the matter is that you know that all the kids will die and all the characters from the first film will live, so the standard stalk/kill thing becomes even more tedious than usual. New family members would have at least allowed some back and forth between the kids and the killers.
The remake is so superior to this version that it’s not fair to compare them – remake director Marcus Nispel understood basic concepts like tension, atmosphere and pacing. The only thing in this prequel that even begins to be better than the remake is that it contains family dinner scenes, something sorely lacking last time around. But like everything else in the movie, the dinner scenes are numbingly dull.
By the time the movie ends – suddenly and, to me, hilariously – you’re just happy to see the credits roll so that you can get out of the theater and spend your time doing something more interesting and productive, like picking your nose for hours.