So there is no confusion, director Tobe Hooper's original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the greatest horror films of all time. I'll even go one step further and say that it is also one of the best independent American films of all time. But there are moments in the latest entry in the Chainsaw franchise -- a craptacular prequel to an almost equally craptacular 2003 "reimagining" -- where the movie gets so bad that you begin to doubt the merits of the original source material. It's not like watching Octopussy and wondering how the James Bond franchise could have sunk to such depths of ineptitude. No, what happens while watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is you simply start to wonder if it the original was any good at all. After all, the original is not that different in plot or content than this new film, and since this is so bad, it must stand to reason the original is bad as well. In other words, this is not a well-established franchise that's fallen on hard times with a film that is not up to the standards of earlier entries. This is, quite simply, an example of a film totally and completely sucking ass.
The action takes place in rural Texas before the events depicted in director Marcus Nispell's pathetic 2003 remake. The film begins with a lame pre-title sequence at a slaughterhouse in 1939, where a woman gives birth to a deformed baby. Of course, we all know this baby is going to grow up to be the chainsaw-wielding maniac Thomas Hewitt (a.k.a. Leatherface). As the film shifts to the early 1970s, the slaughterhouse is closed for good, leading to a series of events where the yet-to-don-a-mask-of-human-skin lunatic makes his first kill. When the local sheriff comes looking to arrest Thomas for murder, the killer's over-protective -- and fortunately for the sake of the story -- sadistic uncle (R. Lee Ermey) fills the cop full of lead, and assumes his identity. (See, this explains why he was a cop in the last film.) From there we get to meet the meat, or rather the hapless victims we will get to see butchered over the next hour or so. Our unsuspecting victims are two brothers bound for Vietnam, and their adoring girlfriends, all traveling across Texas (where else would the by traveling?). After they run afoul of Ermey's sheriff, it's only a matter of time before these poor kids are sliced and diced, hacked and stacked.
It is hard to explain what works about the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially when watching The Beginning. Amidst the revving chainsaws, screaming women and splattering blood that propels this film, it is easy to go into so much sensory overload that you might start thinking that that's all the 1974 film had to offer as well. And in some ways, that is all the 1974 film had to offer. But 32 years ago, it was all brand-new, completely original, and something that had never really been seen on the big screen before. And within the sense-shattering onslaught of violence and hysterics that permeates the entire second and third act of Hooper's original film, there is something even more horrific going on. The films the followed the original Chainsaw all featured the requisite family of crazed killers, portraying them as cartoonish cannibals, mistakenly thinking that what made the first film so terrifying was how crazy the family was. But what made the original film so terrifying was not how crazy the Sawyer family was, but how normal they thought they were. In one of the original film's most classic moments, Jim Siedow's Drayton Sawyer returns to the house to find the front door chainsawed to ribbons by Leatherface, and screams at his hitchhiking brother, "Look what your brother did to the door! Ain't you got no pride in your home!"
That moment says more about the dysfunction of the Sawyer family, and the façade of normalcy they live by, than any other moment in the five films that followed. Underneath it all, the original film was ultimately a nightmarish look at the disintegration of the American family. It was a glimpse at the ugly underbelly of society, an underbelly of backwoods, in-bred ignorance and violence, that threatened to consume -- literally -- all that was beautiful and "normal". All the other films -- even the sublime 1986 sequel -- are really about nothing more than lunatics killing people with chainsaws. And that concept, alone, with no depth or theme of substance, is not enough to warrant making what amounts to the same movie five more times. Sure, the '86 sequel with Dennis Hopper is both hilarious and gruesome at the same time, but the world would not be worse off it the series ended there.
There are many reasons why The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning fails so miserably. The most obvious would be the script that does almost nothing to take the franchise or the genre to new levels, as well as the direction by a talent-challenged hack that has clearly watched movies, but never studied them. Jonathan Liebesman's direction is an exercise in by-the-numbers clichéd filmmaking that does nothing to convey a sense of terror, nor does it ever do anything that could be remotely mistaken for original. But the film's biggest flaw is that in its pathetic attempt to milk the franchise for a few more dollars, it tries to explain why this family is so crazy, and why this hulking lunatic dons a mask made of human skin and picks up a chainsaw. Maybe this is a result of a society that needs to have everything spelled out for them in order to understand what it is that frightens us. This would also explain the recent Hills Have Eyes remake that also tried to make sense of the senseless. Part of what made both the original Chainsaw and the original Hills so effectively scary was that neither film went out of the way to explain what was going on or why. In the horror films of the 1970s, evil things simply happened, because evil is lurking out there, waiting to get anyone unlucky enough to stumble in its path. But now, evil happens because a child is born deformed, picked on throughout his youth, and the local slaughterhouse is closed, sending everyone into a state of economic despair. For a horror film, this type of explanation is nothing more than revealing the secret of the magic trick. And once the secret is revealed, the magic is gone.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is not a good film. True fans of the original will be disappointed, and those that enjoy this trash are just as likely to be entertained by any glittering object that catches their attention. Rather than waste your time with this time-waster, watch the original Chainsaw. If, after that, you want to see more chainsaw massacring, watch the 1986 sequel. And if that's not enough to satisfy you, go back and watch those two again.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]