[5 February 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Some legends don’t require explanation. The elements and events that made them mythic stand solitary against the necessity for history. When it was discovered that John Wayne Gacy had over 30 bodies buried under his suburban Chicago home, each victim sexually brutalized by a man who was once a local politician and a kid’s party clown, those ancillary facets only added to his malevolent mystique. But in most cases, the notion that someone sinister had rationale for their repugnance really doesn’t stand. It’s ruined many a meaningful macabre franchise, turning a once potent boogeyman into a sloppy psychological case study.
It’s a situation that, sadly, now applies to Leatherface, a.k.a. “Bubba” Sawyer, a.k.a the newly minted Thomas Hewitt. The chief icon derived from Tobe Hooper’s masterful The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this power tool pariah with a hankering for some human vivisection is mass murder personified, a tarnished interpretation of famed Wisconsin cannibal Ed Gein. In the 1974 original, the Black and Decker bad-ass with a mangled brain and a disturbingly mousy voice was all malice and menace, single minded in his pursuit of individual prey. Even in the 2003 remake, ‘Tommy’ was all saw and no bullshit. Unfortunately, success breeds sequels, and the producers of the modern day revamp needed a way of keeping their financially frisky franchise alive. Enter the cinematically suspect concept called a ‘prequel’, and the decision to destroy Leatherface’s metaphysical air of mystery.
As part of the new “Unrated” release of 2006’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (read: a DVD version loaded with more gore and unnecessary expositional footage) the production team of Andrew Form and Brad Fuller use the supplemental commentary track to defend their position. “We wanted to explain how Leatherface became this horrifying creature” they say, going on to infer that, through such a celluloid background check, fright fans would come to appreciate the horrific nature of his actions even more. So how, exactly, do they do this? Why, they get a god-awful script by Sheldon Turner (responsible for the equally hackneyed Longest Yard remake), hire Australian newcomer Jonathan Liebesman as director, and decide to take the movie in a totally different direction. Instead of exploring Leatherface as a character, they spend most of the movie explaining how relative Charlie (R. Lee Ermey) became Sheriff Hoyt.
That’s right, after an opening which shows little baby Face being born on the floor of a slaughterhouse (how novel), we get a credit sequence montage that fast forwards through poor facially flawed Thomas Hewitt’s formative years. We learn of his psychological stigmas, his desire for self-mutilation, and his penchant for slaughtering his pets. Indeed, it’s an entire FBI profile in five jump cutting minutes. Before we know it, our informational tour is complete, and a fully formed Leatherface is working overtime at the local abattoir. All exploration of his mentality completed, all inference into his stunted emotional states and desire to kill completely dealt with and defined. If it wasn’t such a slap in the face of most scary movie mavens, it would be just lame – or laughable.
You see, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning sold its very existence on the notion that audiences would get a chance to investigate the foundation of one of fear’s greatest monsters. It promised loads of Leatherface data, and pretended to be something other than your typical teens in peril scarefest. Instead, that’s exactly what it is, the main narrative centering around a pair of brothers off to enlist in the Vietnam War (Thomas Hewitt was born in 1939, and the main story takes place 30 years later). One is a gun-ho recruit who’s actually re-upping for another tour. The other is a soft, sensitive type who’s just aching to burn his draft card and head to Mexico. While they give each other suspect looks – and make out with their individual eye candy gal pals – we see Charlie Hewitt kill the local constable and assume his identity.
That’s Sheriff Hoyt’s story in a nonsensical nutshell. Once we get the line of dialogue that assures us that the real police man is “the only law in town”, Charlie whips out the shotgun, blows a big ole hole in the officer, and decides that its time to play dress up. The rest of the movie is a cross between the expositional need to get our hawk/dove foursome in harms way, and the newly anointed Hoyt going bugfuck. And all the while, sitting along the sidelines, waiting like a perverted player for his coach to call him in for a little motorized slice and dice, is the supposed star of our show. Toss in a few ancillary bikers to up the carved corpse factor, the return of the fattest actress in the entire terror lexicon (‘Tea Lady’ Kathy Lamkin), a ridiculous amount of scenery chewing, and you’ve got one of the worst horror movies ever made.
Even with all the drained veins, arterial spray, and gore-filled gratuity, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning can’t defend its derivative nature. Even as Form and Fuller continue to preach their appreciation of the genre and their desire to stay true to the intent of the character (their bonus alternate narrative track is really an exercise in shocking self-delusion), they completely disregard the needs of the cinematic category. Take for example the whole prequel premise. Since we know who’s alive at the beginning of Chainsaw One, there is absolutely no suspense here. We realize that all the kids will die (otherwise, they’d play a part in the first film, right?) and that even the ancillary characters we are introduced to will either fall under the blade or be whisked away thanks to gunshots or other forms of feloniousness.
Even worse, the filmmakers believe we are more enamored of Charlie’s transformation into Sheriff Hoyt than Thomas’s turn into Leatherface. As they state in the Making-Of documentary that acts as a bonus feature for the DVD release, they wanted to avoid all the standard serial killer dross – animal mutilation, sexual abuse, cruel familial treatment – and instead focus on…well, in this case, the focus is on nothing. Apparently, a birth defect renders tiny Tommy embarrassed by his looks, and it’s this lack of self-esteem that brings him to the point of flesh flailing. If you believe this superficial excuse, a few sessions with Dr. Phil and a couple of trips to the plastic surgeon, and Hewitt wouldn’t have gone all heinous. No, it’s Charlie that they’re more interested in, and aside from actor R. Lee Ermey’s desire to incorporate some black humor into the proceedings, his descent into madness is muddled and confusing.
Apparently weak and emasculated in his home life, our crazy crackpot cannibal (the discovery of human hors d’oeuvres guaranteeing that, like Scarlett O’Hara, the Hewitt’s will never go hungry again) finds the uniform empowering – and damn sexy. Like a superhero putting on his supersuit, Charlie doesn’t just pretend to be Hoyt, he creates an entire new persona out of the pleasure this newfound authority gives him. Perhaps this is why the script spends inordinately large amounts of time monologing and pontificating. There are even a couple of dinner scenes where, in between bowlfuls of human stew, Charlie/Hoyt preaches like an evil evangelist. Now, if this was all in service of some serious psychological thriller, the kind of creepy mental minefield ala Silence of the Lambs, we might accept the heavy handed histrionics. But all Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is interested in is egotistical exchanges and some incredibly gruesome special effects.
Since it’s obvious from the DVD’s added content that everyone involved is on board with this approach, there is no outside voice of critical reason capable of bringing this misguided mess back down to Earth where it belongs. Instead, the conversations and interviews featured as part of the packaging tend to support the movie’s central conceit of turning Leatherface into a simplistic symbol of terror. Even the actor assigned the role (massive meat bag Andrew Bryniarski) went all Method on the rest of the cast, answering only to his character’s name and walking around in full fiend mode most of the time. Such dedication can be beneficial when a movie requires a carefully drawn portrait of a particularly complicated individual. But Leatherface is a guy who cuts up people with a chainsaw. Gravitas is inherent in his persona. Overcomplicating him simply destroys that.
Between the illogical moments where our baddie turns up in places he couldn’t possibly have hidden, to a final shot that encapsulates everything this movie could have been (it is, without a doubt, the single best thing in the entire misguided movie) Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a flim flam fright flick that fools no one. Unlike the 1974 original, which many consider a modern masterwork, or the 2003 redux, which horror fans enjoyed as an excellent slice of artistic exploitation, this failed feature plays like the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels of old. Instead of doing something inventive with the character of Leatherface or his overall meaning to movie macabre, the filmmakers drag out the same old dynamic and hope that the ability to tap into increased technical prowess (art design, special effects) can get them over the bad spots. Unfortunately, no amount of individual acumen can cross the chasm created here. In either his Bubba Sawyer or Thomas Hewitt persona, this killer didn’t need clarification. Doing so has bankrupted his status irreparably.