What can one movie do that five of its predecessors haven’t been able to? Sylvester Stallone will try to answer that question himself this year when he proves once and for all that he has no pride and no new script ideas by resurrecting the “Rocky” franchise. For the time being, however, we will have to make do with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” as Jonathan Liebesman attempts to breathe new life into everyone’s favorite power tool enthusiast, Leatherface (played this time by Andrew Bryniarski, not that it matters, with the mask and all). Produced by long time Jerry Bruckheimer collaborator Michael Bay (who also brought us the last installment in the series), “The Beginning” — the sixth film focusing on Texas, chainsaws and, of course, easily exsanguinated teenagers — purports to be a prequel explaining the on-screen carnage that began in 1974 with Tobe Hopper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Like the five movies that preceded it (or followed it, if you want to get chronological), “The Beginning” takes place against the bleak backdrop of Texas cattle country and deals with the gruesome exploits of a family of sadistic cannibals. The film opens in 1939, with the birth of the most notorious of the aforementioned clan — Leatherface nee Thomas Hewitt — before moving forward in time to 1969. Baby Thomas is all grown up now and enjoys nothing more than butchering cattle with his trusty cleaver. This quickly becomes a problem, however, when the meat packing plant that served as his place of amusement closes, leaving poor Leatherface with nothing to chop. Enter the oversexed teenagers.
Someday someone should try to make a horror film about teenagers who believe in abstinence and see if the movie sells a single ticket. Granted, Liebesman and screenwriter Sheldon Turner have tried to add some depth to the Abercrombie catalog escapees by giving them a narrative background and even politics. The all-American duo of Dean and Eric, played blandly by Taylor Handley and Matthew Bomer, has been stationed to fight in Vietnam, and they are traveling across Texas with their respective lady friends, Bailey and Chrissie. But — unbeknownst to Chrissie and Eric — Dean and Bailey are planning to escape to Mexico.
Needless to say, deep political drama this is not. After a requisite car crash strands the teens, they are taken in by Leatherface’s uncle, Sheriff Hoyt (played by the History Channel’s official drill sergeant, R. Lee Emery), who brings them to meet his very welcoming family. From this point on, those with weak stomachs would be advised to relocate to “Open Season” or maybe even “Jackass: Number Two.” Seriously, this movie is one of the goriest in recent memory.
Following in the footsteps of recent gross-out horror flicks, including “Saw,” “Hostel,” and Rob Zombie’s surprisingly well-crafted and grossly-underappreciated “The Devil’s Rejects,” “The Beginning” relies heavily on dark lighting and jerky hand-held camera sequences to create an inescapable sense of discomfort.
We can’t always tell exactly what limb is being cut off or the specifics of someone’s dismemberment, but this uncertainty keeps us squirming and prevents the inherent absurdity of the special effects from becoming too apparent. Indeed, cinematographer Lukas Kettlin keeps the camera so close during most of the action that all we see is filth and bloody flesh. As a result, we are not concerned with evil on some epic scale, but rather with the intense details of personal violence.
In a creepy (and very Michael Bay) bastardization of the Gettysburg Address, Sheriff Hoyt tells his family, “People may not remember what we say here tonight, but by God they’ll remember what we did,” before they dig into a big pot of human stew. And, anyway, once the killing and torture begins, we barely remember the back story let alone the characters’ names.
It is this reliance on pure shock and revulsion that makes “The Beginning” a serviceable but unremarkable horror film. Unlike the true masterpieces of the genre — “The Shining,” “Psycho” or “The Exorcist” — Liebesman’s film is content to dwell in the moment and to exclude any real psychological depth. As is the case with any second-rate slasher movie, those looking for some great revelation will be disappointed. Like other directors before him, Liebsman has become so enamored of the chainsaw-wielding madman that he feels no need to provide either stylistic or narrative justification for yet another scene of bloodletting. Sure there is a potentially interesting subplot dealing with Vietnam and the scarring nature of war, but when we’re watching people eat their own tongues, how are we really supposed to unpack themes? Oh well, looks like we’ll have to wait for Sylvester Stone if we want the sixth time to be the charm.