[6 October 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You know a trend has crested and collapsed by the time Michael Bay gets a hold of it. Low-budget, so-called horror-porn movies (Wolf Creek, Hostel) have been reviled for their grisly excess. But they have also been lauded for their cultural and political critiques, modeled after the analyses offered by some ‘70s proto-slasher movies. The mainstreaming of the sub-subgenre has achieved what you expect: these films tend to remake the originals more or less verbatim and, oh yes, provide employment for kids from The O.C.
While the 2003 redo of Texas Chainsaw Massacre offered Marcus Nispel’s jaggedy music-video stylings and Jessica Biel’s definitive break from Seventh Heaven, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is retreading just about everything from its source material, from hip-hugger jeans to Vietnam war references, as well as the basic plot outline: good-looking kids on the road stumble into the Terrible Place and pay dearly, with bloody, screamy excess.
But first, the movie offers a prelude, to establish its ostensible raison d’être, that is, its status as prequel. In 1939, the film proposes, Leatherface was born, gruesomely. His mother, depicted here as an ungainly, inarticulate, miserable likely cousin to the father of her child, works the slaughterhouse floor. When her water breaks, she collapses, and the monstrous baby is born amid bloody goo and left to die in a dumpster, wrapped in brown meat-packing paper. Rescued by the woman who will be “mama,” little Tommy Hewitt is raised up to be the hulking creature called Leatherface (played, as in Nispel’s movie, by Andrew Bryniarski)—this process cut down to the two minutes of the opening credits sequence, reduced to a collection of yellowed report cards and grim newspaper headlines (noting the poverty of the Texas region where he resides, marking the film’s roots in producers Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s original critique of rural underclass conditioning), as well as the requisite bloody indoctrination images. The boy learns to kill and cleave, dedicating himself to workdays in the slaughterhouse.
And then comes 1969, when the meat plant shuts down and Leatherface faces joblessness. He dispatches his bespectacled erstwhile employer and picks up a chainsaw, ambling down the roadway towards his big scary home, his signature tool dangling by his side. When the sheriff tries to enlist “that retard” Tommy’s foster dad (R. Lee Ermey, also returned from the Nispel picture) to bring him in for murder, well, dad takes a side, angry that he and his family are left hungry and vowing, Scarlett-like, never to be so again. He also takes the sheriff’s badge and identity.
The year 1969 serves as another, more readily recognized turning point, having to do with the Vietnam War. Post Tet Offensive, it is the year when the war was pronounced “unwinnable” in the U.S. press, and its various atrocities entered into the public imaginary. In the case of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the year also occasions two decisions by two siblings, too-young war veteran Eric (Matthew Bomer, of Tru Calling), who means to go back for another tour of killing “gooks in the swamp,” and draftee Dean (Taylor Handley, who actually was on The O.C.), who means to go to Mexico. As the film begins, Dean has told only his girlfriend Bailey (Diora Baird) of his plan, so Eric thinks his own return is a noble act: he wants to protect his little brother.
By the time Dean confesses his scheme to Eric and his girlfriend Chrissie (Jordana Brewster), it’s too late, of course. They’re all in a jeep headed across Hewitt territory, which means they’re not headed anywhere but to hell. Hoyt picks them up following a car wreck in which they splat a cow on the road and flip the jeep multiple times, and that casts Chrissie into the roadside brush, so she’s initially unseen by Hoyt. When he deciphers that one of the boys is a cowardly hippie draft dodger, he determines to punish all of them, harshly. When Dean worries that their initial “story” for Hoyt isn’t going to work out (not that any story would), Eric insists they “stay the course.”
Now, most any line would do in this situation, as the rest of the film’s not-so-thoughtful dialogue suggests. And so the decision to use this line resonates in that horror-porny way, as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning draws a tentative, if obvious, connection between devastating, deception-based wars (Vietnam and Iraq), as well as the sheer wrongheadeness of the strategy: staying the course only means more of the same. These kids are doomed.
The many torture scenes that follow their capture by Sheriff Hoyt are pretty much what you expect from a mainstreaming of horror porn. The shadows are dark, the floor and walls slick, the devices rudimentary and filthy. Hoyt hangs up and beats on the boys in the barn, Leatherface hacks up limbs and torsos in the basement, and mama Luda May (Marietta Marich, looking much the same as she did in 2003) attends to the cooking, trying to sort out which tongue is which. A leather-jacketed biker (Lee Tergeson, game as ever) comes through on his own vengeance mission, only to be split open by Leatherface’s roaring chainsaw, his blood spattering all over Hoyt’s ecstatic face like ejaculate.
But if such visual details are ghastly and allusive, they are also not new, not frightening or even very dreadful, since they have been—as they say—“done to death” in previous versions of Hooper’s original (which only looks more and more intelligent as the remakes and sequels and prequels pile up). The argument might be made that the kids who “stay the course” let themselves in for the atrocities they encounter and in a couple of cases commit. These appalling acts are a function of environment and necessity, lawlessness and panic. Eric, though acknowledging that he suffers nightmares, tells Dean early on that the war is awful, but “It’s amazing the things you can get used to.” That’s the pity. We’re getting used to horror porn, in its increasingly formulaic arrangements. And so we’re missing the horror of it.