Tuesday, April 29, 2014

TCM At 40 Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - The Beginning (2006)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Starring: Jordanna Brewster, R Lee Ermey, Taylor Handley, Diora Baird, Matt Bomer, Andrew Bryniarski, Lee Tergesen
Rated: R

I like your new face.
    ~Sheriff Hoyt

Before we begin, I want to thank you readers for you patience.  I kinda took a break from writing in general last week.  Sorry it happened to be mid-retrospective, but that's how it was.  Now we're back, and moving backward in time apparently.  Let's talk about one of the craziest descriptions of a film to hear yourself say aloud, "the prequel to the remake".
At the outset, I'm immediately going to point you toward THIS article written a little over a year ago by my good friend Scott Mendelson.  He and I are two of this film's biggest champions.  I think Scott covers it expertly there, so I'm going to do my best to throw in my couple pennies as well.
I had little to no expectations when it came to this film back in 2006.  I don't even think I was planning on seeing it in the theater.  I used to work in Blu-ray and DVD testing when I lived in Los Angeles.  The friday this released I received a subtitle check disc for this one to do.  These discs are of a low bit rate, are not properly color timed and also have a running counter at the bottom.  I also had to go over the subtitles and make sure they were verbatim to the dialogue onscreen (stutters, coughs, shortnin' of words, you name it).  What I'm trying to say is that these are of the worst conditions to watch and enjoy a film.  Of course, I can't complain about being paid to watch a new release on opening day, not having to trek to the theater at night and having my evening free.  Even with this not so ideal viewing conditions, this film still jumped out at me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Why a prequel?  Well, at the end of the last movie, Leatherface lost his arm and the film's strongest and best character, Sheriff Hoyt had been hit by a car and run over several times.  The only way not to dig into the supernatural to return both to prominence was to travel back in time.  But, in all reality, this film does a good enough job at being its own film that you really don't need to see the remake to enjoy this one.  In fact all the tie-ins (we'll talk about those later on) feel more like easter eggs for those who have seen the remake.  The film does a good job of being its own complete entity and also does a MUCH MUCH better job of being a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film.
One thing that immediately jumped out to me in this film was our protagonists.  This is a far more sympathetic batch of kids that are far far undeserving of the macabre that awaits them.  I'm not saying any kids in horror movies "deserve" to be hacked up, but if you've seen a few horror films or slasher films, you know there's a certain logic to a character's personality and their fate.  In The Beginning, our main characters are people with such grand visions for the future mixed with some uncertainties and feelings about the Vietnam war.  The brothers are on their way to report for duty as one of them has been drafted and the other decides to go on a 2nd tour of duty to accompany him.  There's nice camaraderie between the two, enough so that it plays as good drama when the younger one informs he's draft dodging.  Jordanna Brewster's Chrissie serves as our final girl here and she serves as great in between of being a strong person in her own right, yet one that is able to mediate the argument of dodging that comes to a head.  I guess, I'm just more taken with these folk than the group trying to smuggle marijuana into the country from Mexico in hopes to deal it while keeping that fact from one of their own and one's fiance at that.
This 2nd Platinum Dunes venture is much more a brutal and bloody affair than the original as well.  Sheriff Hoyt flat out tortures our two brothers.  Sheldon Turner wrote this, and he's no dummy.  I don't know whether this is supposed to double for the boys trying to escape Vietnam yet winding up prisoners of war at the hand of Hoyt or if its to be some post-9/11 torture parable via Al Qaeda or Guantanamo Bay.  With Turner as the writer, I'm pretty sure this sort of stuff was intentional and is no coincidence that it plays out like this.
The only thing that felt really awkward to me when I watched it were all the "forced" connections to the first remake.  It felt pretty hokey that every single detail came to happen from just this one day and that nothing was left ambiguous.  However, on this last viewing, I had a thought.  How would these events feel if the viewer HADN'T seen the 2003 iteration.  And you know what?  With that mindset, there's absolutely no hokiness to it.  If anything, some of it (like the cutting off of the legs) adds to the craziness, unpredictability and wild card nature of the film.  A lot of it fells much more natural in terms of this film's story too.  While one could see these connections as handicapping, you really have to commend this film of overall standing on its own and not really feeling like its "coming after" the last film.  It knows it comes before and is allowed to do what it wants to do.
The Beginning is also a much much better Texas Chainsaw Massacre film than the 2003 one.  If that one was Texas Chainsaw Massacre redone as a horror-suspense thriller, then this is TRUE remake/reboot/reimagining of the original film.  Hey folks, CANNIBALISM is back!  We also see the origins of it and the "why" as to how it comes about for those folks who constantly have to have horror villains' motives explained.  You know what this also results in?  A dinner table scene!  Yes we get a dinner table sequence.  Everything here is so much more in spirit and tone than the 2003 iteration that it put a real smile on my face when I saw it and felt like the people crafting the film really had an appreciation and knew what they were doing with the source material.
No horror film is perfect and this one doesn't change that (the birth of Leatherface is pretty ridiculous).  But, I've long been a fan of this film and it does a lot to hop over its shortcomings.  Its a much more true remake of the original film too.  The Beginning sports the rare feat of having a complete cast of protagonists that I can really get behind and feel genuinely disturbed and mortified by their demise.  There's been a lot of hate flung toward this film, and I really can't see it.  I think part of that is just people that hate any sort of modern remakes of anything, yet sit and talk about how the remakes of The Thing, The Fly, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or Hammer Horror's catalogue are some of their favorite films of all time.  Give this one another look, folks.  Its absolutely terrific.  I'd even recommend you watch it BEFORE or INSTEAD of the, good in its own right, 2003 redo.

Next Time: Heatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D

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