Before Bruce the shark, before the alien on the Nostromo, before Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers, there was Leatherface. The original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic about a group of 20-somethings victimized by a family of cannibalistic whack jobs, is rightfully ranked among the top American horror movies ever made. Shocking for its time in spite of showing almost no blood or gore, “Chain Saw’s” influence on audiences as well as filmmakers remains potent to this day, as evidenced by the slew of sequels and remakes it’s already spawned. Some of these were campy fun (1994’s “The Next Generation”), some were brainless garbage (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre III”), and pretty much all were pointless, mercenary excuses to show young people in peril. None more so than 2003’s out-and-out remake, crapped into theaters by Michael “Pearl Harbor” Bay for no other reason than so he could use “Chainsaw’s” name recognition to launch his new production company. Despite elevated levels of gore and a role for R. Lee Ermey, the “Chainsaw” remake failed to ignite the popular consciousness.
The presence of a sweaty Jessica Biel mitigated some of the film’s more egregious sins, of course.
Bay is back as producer for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” and so are creators Hooper and Kim Henkel. At the helm is Jonathan Liebesman, best (?) known for the crapfest “Darkness Falls,” working on a screenplay by Sheldon Turner, who made such a great impression with his previous coattailing effort, scripting last year’s remake of “The Longest Yard.” Gotten your hopes up yet?
This time around, there are four doomed young people instead of five. Dean (Taylor Handley) and his brother Eric (Matthew Bomer) are out for one last hurrah before going to Vietnam, and what better way to do so than by taking their girlfriends on a road trip through rural Texas? Granted, Dean has no intention of actually joining his bro “in country,” but this bit of personality conflict is largely abbreviated, as the four (including eventual heroine Jordana Brewster) are soon set upon by the Hewitt clan, led by Ermey’s patriarchal “Sheriff Hoyt.”
Ermey is a bit of a mixed blessing, for while his performance anchors the film – being at turns darkly hilarious and Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann-style disturbing – it also tends to take us out of the picture. Luckily, Liebesman maintains a decent balance between comedy and horror.
Then again, there isn’t a lot of mystery here. It’s “The Beginning” after all, so you’re pretty sure the newly misunderstood Leatherface and his family are going to survive to terrorize Marilyn Burns and her friends. We’re treated to a mercifully short recap of young Tommy Hewitt’s (Leatherface’s apparent real name) sad background, from chronic skin disease to penchant for self-mutilation and cattle butchery. The closing of the local slaughterhouse offers Tommy the perfect opportunity to use his unique skills to provide meals for the family, and our four young protagonists figure neatly into this plan.
“The Beginning” is a better movie than the 2003 remake, even if the plot is understandably similar. There are only so many ways hapless teens can get brutally slaughtered, after all, but Liebesman and company keep things appropriately creepy, right down to aping the look of the 1974 original. Ermey is always watchable, and Brewster makes the most of a thankless role. Then again, one really has to ask: what’s the point? The original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” can never be replicated, and while there’s some genuinely gory moments here, the blood is spilling on some well-worn ground.