NOTE: The following review and the accompanying screenshots DO contain spoilers. Proceed with caution!
The cause of some controversy upon its theatrical release based on the intensity and severity of the violence that was so prevalent throughout the movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning did prove to be reasonably popular at the box office despite the highly touted cuts required from the MPAA for the film to earn an R rating rather than a dreaded NC-17. New Line has now reinserted that grisly footage and put it back into the movie with this un-rated DVD release (those who want the R-rated cut can rest easy, as that version is available as well - albeit as a seperate release).
When the movie begins, a woman gives birth to a deformed baby inside a derelict slaughterhouse somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. The freakish infant is left in a dumpster to die when a woman finds him and takes him home to raise him as her own. Fast forward a few years into the future and the little boy has grown up to be Tommy Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski, reprising his role from the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to which this film serves as a prequel), a hulking and somewhat retarded man who spends his days working at what one can only assume is the same slaughterhouse where he was born. When that place is condemned by the government and shut down, Tommy refuses to leave until his employer insists he split which lands the poor sap on his deathbed. On the way out, Tommy grabs a chainsaw.
Meanwhile, two brothers named Dean (Taylor Handley) and Eric (Matt Bomer) are traveling across the state in their jeep with their two hot girlfriends, Bailey (Diora Baird) and Chrissie (Jordana Brewster). The reason for their journey? Dean has been drafted and is supposed to ship off to Viet Nam and while Eric has finished his tour of duty, he doesn't want his little brother going alone so he's re-enlisting. Understandably, they want to spend their last few days with their lady friends. Unfortunately they run afoul of some biker trash along the way and after they collide with a cow, it looks like one of the biker's is going to rob them until Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey) shows up, that is. He promptly blows the biker's head off and takes three of our four heroes back to his house where Tommy and the rest of his family are going to have them for dinner, literally. Only Chrissie remains free of the Hewitt family's clutches, but let's face it, things don't look good for anybody involved.
While this film succeeds on a few levels, sadly it fails on too many others. What the movie gets right is that it really does contain a mean streak in it a mile wide. This works in its favor in that it portrays the Hewitt family as truly savage and completely deplorable. As such, we should be really scared of them and we should feel for the victims unfortunately, that's one of the movie's biggest weak spots. The four leads are completely cardboard. There's no real depth to them and although there are a few scenes where we learn a little bit about their lives and ambitions (we know that Eric and Chrissie want to have kids and live in California when he gets back) it's too little too late and it isn't enough to make these four teenagers stand out from those featured in whatever generic slasher film you'd care to name. The performances aren't bad, as we are able to understand how they feel and why they're scared (it's obvious there's a maniacal family trying to eat them) but without investing any of ourselves into their plight, it's really all for naught.
The movie also misses some really interesting opportunities to expand a bit on the series' mythology and to branch out a little bit from the genre clichιs that it otherwise clings so strongly too. First off is Tommy 'Leatherface' Hewitt himself. While Bryniarski is certainly a foreboding presence, he's not given anything to do aside from chasing and slashing. We see his birth and there are a couple of hints dropped about his childhood (at one point Ermey refers to the victims he that wants him to kill as the kids who picked on him) but that's it there's nothing here of substance and Leatherface is really little more than a generic killing machine. We see him make his famous 'dead skin mask' for the first time, or at least we assume it's the first time, but we never learn if there's a specific reason for his decision to do this or if it is supposed to represent anything. Adding to this are a few head scratching logic gaps that occur in the last half of the movie. If Eric is a seasoned combat veteran, a Marine as he states, shouldn't he stand a better chance of surviving than the others? And what about the bikers? There's very little done with them and only one member of the group that we see goes after the Hewitts. Where's the rest of his gang when he needs them? All of this, coupled with a ridiculously predictable 'shock' ending adds up to what is essentially a very by-the-numbers horror film that should have and could have been so much better if just a bit more effort had been put into the story. A few scenes make it look like the filmmakers are trying to add some social commentary with the references to the war (and a crazed speech that Ermey gives about how far you have to go to survive) not but it's never fleshed out enough to have much impact.
What the movie does have going for it is the inimitable screen presence of R. Lee Ermey in one of the lead roles (in fact he gets considerably more screen time than Leatherface himself). As the Sheriff, Ermey is fantastic. He chews the scenery like a power mower, spouting off creative profanity left, right and center. He's vicious, he's mean, and more than a few times he's pretty funny as well. On top of that is the gore and violence. For a major studio production, this film, particularly in the un-rated cut provided on this DVD, is astonishingly gruesome even by horror movie standards. While recent hits like Hostel, Wolf Creek and The Hills Have Eyes remake (all of which have had un-rated DVD releases) have definitely upped the ante in terms of on screen violence, this movie tops them by quite a margin. Chainsaws tear through flesh, faces are peeled off of their skulls, teeth and mouths are smashed against the ground, and people are generally just hacked, smashed and shot up throughout the last half of the film. Even for seasoned horror movie fans, the film is quite surprising in how far it goes in this department and it is nice to see the filmmaker's at least trying to make a horror movie that appeals to horror movie fans and not so much to the mainstream audiences who will no doubt feel alienated by the severity of this picture. Obviously there are a lot worse movies out there in terms of what is shown on screen, but there aren't very many major studio pictures that push the envelope like this movie does. The film also features a nice tribute to Hooper's original movie by way of a darkly comic dinner scene and some ending narration from John Larroquette.
NOTES ABOUT THE UNRATED CUT: Seeing as this DVD only contains the un-rated cut of the movie, the R-rated version was not available to compare which makes determining just what was cut from that version and what was reinserted in this version quite difficult. The running time, from the beginning of the New Line logo through the end of the credits of the DVD is 1:35:47, roughly five minutes longer than the running time attributed to the theatrical cut on the IMDB (if that's correct). Note that the back of the packaging for this release states that the movie runs 89 minutes, though that is not the case. In the commentary track the filmmakers do note that the scene in which Ermey takes the three teens back to the house is notably longer, and it's safe to say that a certain chainsaw death scene at about 1:27 definitely runs longer here. Most of the kill scenes do seem to have been extended a bit. The kill scene at 1:08 has also been significantly restored according to the commentary where they talk about how the bits with the meat flying had to be removed as well as how trims had to be made to the face-skinning scene. The leg amputation scene at around 1:14 has also been extended a bit and while it isn't confirmed in the commentary there is second brief shot of chainsaw penetration in the finale that takes place in the car that was likely sliced from the R cut. Here are a few specific screen caps from the DVD to elaborate a bit on that...
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer provided for this release is pretty solid in pretty much every way possible. Much of the film has been color tinted and as such a lot of the movie looks quite grim but this was obviously done on purpose and this transfer does a good job of replicating that. Color reproduction is where it should be in that much of the picture is a little on the dark side but fine detail looks quite good thanks to solid black levels and proper contrast. Flesh tones look lifelike and there's nothing to complain about in terms of print damage or heavy grain to obscure any of the finer points of the picture. Edge enhancement never gets out of control and while there is some mild aliasing in a few spots, there isn't much else to complain about.
New Line has also done an exceptional job on the audio portion of this release, providing both a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound mix and a DTS 6.1 ES Discrete Surround Sound mix. While the DTS mix trumps the Dolby Digital track thanks to the stronger bass and extra channel activity, the 5.1 track is no slouch. Both options, which are available in English only, are very aggressive without being too over the top. Dialogue is crystal clear and the more intense scenes in the film really come to life thanks to plenty of directional effects and well-timed sonic mayhem. The soundtrack, made up of both period rock songs and an original score, sounds great and adds some welcome atmosphere to a few core scenes without burying the performers or the sound effects. Optional subtitles are provided for the feature only in English and Spanish and an English language closed captioning option is also available. An English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround track isn't advertised on the packaging but it is included (though it's not nearly as much fun as the 5.1 or 6.1 tracks are).Extras:
First up, for the supplements, is a commentary track from director Jonathon Liebesman who is joined by two of the film's producers, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller. This is a fairly engaging discussion that doesn't suffer from too much dead air space all three participants stay pretty much on track throughout. Surprisingly, the two producers dominate the track, rather than the director and it's obvious from this discussion that they had a bit of influence on the final product. Regardless, Liebesman does manage to explain his side of things when talking about how he wanted to keep things intense and nasty. The three discuss some of the trims that the MPAA required to get the film its R-Rating (which have been reinserted here) along with casting, location shooting and some of the effects work. Nothing here is going to change your opinion of the movie, but if you want a fairly in-depth account of the production's history, it certainly fits the bill even if they do spend a fair bit of time talking about how 'Leatherface is born now, and he's unstoppable.'
From there we find a forty-six minute long documentary on the making of the movie entitled Down To The Bone wherein we're treated to interviews with pretty much all of the cast members and some of the crew and producers as well. This documentary is divided up into five parts: Origin Of Evil, Invitation To A Slaughter, Lone Star Rendezvous, Carnage Unleashed and The Chopping Block. They cover how Sheldon Turner came on board to write the movie and how they wanted to tie the back-story of the family into the 2003 remake. They cover casting decisions, stating that they wanted sympathetic performers and we're treated to a decent selection of behind the scenes footage here. Everyone seems pretty pleased to have had the chance to work with Ermey, and some of the actors talk about how performing with Leatherface in certain scenes was pretty nerve racking. Bryniarski talks about getting into character and what he tried to bring to the role. There are some interesting production sketches in here, and they do an interesting job of pointing out some of the details you may or may not notice about the basement of the house and the slaughterhouse used in the film. It's interesting to hear from Ermey about the scene where he's bashed into the pavement and how he refers to himself as a man with a sixty-year old body and an eighteen-year-old mind. Of course, the effects are covered in a fair bit of detail, which is always interesting, but the most interesting part of this documentary is the Chopping Block segment where the two editors talk about what they did and didn't want to show the audience and how they tried to use the score and sound effects to enhance certain scenes.
Up next is a selection of deleted and extended scenes (roughly thirteen minutes worth in total) that are available to watch individually or by way of a handy 'play all' option. Liebesman, Form and Fuller are also on hand for an optional commentary track, which explains the context of these scenes and why they were taken out of the finished product. Most of the material here is fairly inconsequential an extended version of the pool scene, bits and pieces of uninteresting character development but there is a nice bit that expands on Ermey's character just a little bit as well as three alternate endings. Without wanting to spoil these, let it suffice to say that none of these endings alter anything one adds some police reports to the finale that expands on the narration which tells how the Hewitt family went on to kill more people, while the other two are simply slightly different takes on the ending used in the movie.
Rounding out the extra features are the film's theatrical trailer, trailers for other New Line DVD and theatrical releases, animated menus, and chapter stops. The keepcase fits inside a perforated slipcase that features alternate cover art on the front and the back. Some DVD-Rom supplemental material is also included on the disc by way of some InterActual content.Final Thoughts:
Even with the added gory bits provided by this un-rated edition's release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning still isn't all that interesting. Sure, it's violent and sadistic and R. Lee Ermey is always entertaining but for the most part, this is a predictable slasher film and very little more. New Line has done a nice job on the disc and established fans of the film will appreciate their efforts, everyone else is advised to rent this one first as it won't likely have much replay value.