The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) **
As difficult as it can be to make a decent sequel, a worthwhile prequel is a much more daunting filmmaking challenge. People keep failing to be daunted, however, so allow me to spell out now what ought to be obvious: when you follow up one movie with another set before the events of the original, the audience will know right up front approximately how the story is going to end!!!! Theoretically, there are ways around this problem, but in practice, they require so much imagination as to be beyond the reach of most writers. Furthermore, the narrative space in which even a well considered prequel can exist is hemmed in by the back-story of the original tale. The more elaborate that back-story is, the more room there is for a prequel to germinate and grow— with the converse of that statement being true as well, and perhaps more importantly so. I bring this up now because The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning makes for a near-perfect illustration of all the reasons why making a prequel is, in most cases, a fool’s errand.
At first glance, it might appear that there is little to be gained from delving into the history of the Hewitt family. In fact, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, writer Sheldon Turner, director Jonathan Liebesman, and no fewer than thirteen producers demonstrate that even that dismissive estimate is overly optimistic. Virtually all of the “untold story” is addressed and put to bed within the first ten minutes, leaving the rest of the film with nothing to do but rehash those elements of Tobe Hooper’s version that were neglected by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. At some point in what I take to be the mid-1940’s (although the plot-point working conditions look more like the 1890’s to me), an employee (Leslie Calkins) at a prominent Texas slaughterhouse announces that she is in desperate need of a bathroom break. The boss (Tim De Zarn, from Demon Knight and I Married a Monster) ignores her no matter how loudly she fusses, so he has nobody but himself to blame for the situation when the woman’s water breaks right there in the butchering room, and she gives extremely complicated birth to an appallingly ugly child. The woman hemorrhages to death, the Evil Capitalist has his minions toss the monster baby in the dumpster out back, and the infant’s cries attract the attention of Luda Mae Hewitt (Marietta Marich, returning from the previous movie), the rather demented woman who was just then scavenging through the slaughterhouse’s trash bins. Luda Mae names the foundling “Thomas,” and takes him home to be raised by her son, Charlie (R. Lee Ermey, also reprising his old role).
The passing years do not render young Thomas any more normal. In addition to his facial deformities, Thomas suffers from some degree of mental retardation, and being raised by crazy people doesn’t exactly help him to overcome his handicaps. He develops a penchant for violence and self-mutilation, and drops out of school to join his father and uncle (Terrence Evans, another returning cast-member) in the cattle-slaughtering business, at about the same time that he decides it would be a great idea to cut off his own nose. With thankfully un-belabored irony, the Hewitt men all work in the same abattoir where Thomas was born. (Note that all the foregoing plays out beneath the main titles and the opening credits. That’s how short the shrift is given by this movie to its ostensible purpose.) Thomas Hewitt grows to full maturity just in time to get laid off when representatives from the state health department condemn the slaughterhouse, effectively killing off the entire settlement that its demand for labor supports.
That brings us to 1969, and to the start of the movie proper. Thomas (Andrew Bryniarski, whose repeat performance here makes him the first actor ever to portray Leatherface in more than one film) is not cooperating with the condemnation order, continuing to show up for work even after he receives his pink slip. Finally, on official closing day, the boss man decides that the time has come to run the big feeb off of the property. Thomas doesn’t cooperate with that, either. He kills both the boss and the other man (Marcus H. Nelson) to whom the former had initially delegated the task of banishing him. Then Thomas picks up the chainsaw he inexplicably finds sitting in the boss’s office, and wanders off down the road.
Sheriff Winston Hoyt (Lew Temple, of The Devil’s Rejects and The Visitation) finds out about the murders soon enough, and he stops by the Hewitt homestead to enlist Charlie’s aid in finding and apprehending his wayward son. Charlie kills the sheriff instead, claiming the dead man’s identity as his own. He also brings Hoyt’s body home, butchers it into stew meat, and introduces his family to the joys of cannibalism.
Meanwhile, in another, more economically viable town, a young man named Eric (Matt Bomer) is preparing to leave home for his second tour of duty in Vietnam— rather to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Chrissie (The Faculty’s Jordana Brewster). Eric thinks he’ll have company on the flight back to ’Nam, for he is under the impression that his little brother, Dean (Jack Frost’s Taylor Handley), is going to enlist too. Eric is mistaken. As Dean tells his own girlfriend, Bailey (Diora Baird), he wants nothing to do with war, least of all this one, and has let the charade go on as long as it has only because he wants to avoid disappointing his brother until it becomes absolutely necessary. And as if this needed to be said, the four kids will never make it to the recruiting station, winding up instead in the clutches of the Hewitt family.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, like its predecessor, is reasonably competent in all technical respects, and is nowhere near as lousy as it might have been. It’s also almost totally pointless. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t exactly itching to learn how Monty Hewitt lost his legs, nor did I need to sit through an entire second movie in order to grasp that the Hewitts became a clan of cannibalistic serial killers because they’re all crazier than a shithouse rat. As shocking revelations go, I have to say that’s neither terribly shocking nor terribly revelatory. And as an exercise in suspense, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is really more of an exercise in futility. Charlie, Monty, Thomas, Luda Mae, and the disgusting fat lady (Kathy Lamkin) all figure in the preceding film, so we know they’re going to survive. Furthermore, because four years are supposed to elapse between the events of this movie and those of its predecessor, we can also be certain from the get-go that not a single one of the protagonists is going to make it out alive. I mean, any survivor would go straight to the real cops, and it would be all over for the Hewitts in a matter of hours; no fucking way would they still be at large four years after their activities were brought to official attention. The only thing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning really accomplishes is to answer once and for all the question of whether R. Lee Ermey’s character was supposed to be an insane cop or an insane civilian impersonating a police officer, a point that was left somewhat ambiguous in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Otherwise, everything good about this movie is something we’ve already seen four or five times before, and at least two of those times, it was being done noticeably better.