Austinist Reviews: Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Beginning

Lester Bangs once said of the Dead Kennedys that their fans didn’t really understand them; that even if the Kennedys were earnest in their political views, it didn’t matter because people only came to their shows for the “goon brutality.” And he was right. Just look what happened to punk: it was misunderstood, watered down and rendered near-useless by its own following. It rotted from the inside out. (For hard evidence, go see Propagandhi on their upcoming tour and count the number of times you hear some asshole say, “I wish they would just play the music and not talk so much”. Less Talk, More Rock, right?) And it seems like the same thing has been happening with horror films over the past decade or so.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that horror has made such a comeback in the mainstream, but it seems like the genre is being reshaped by people who never really understood it in the first place. Case in point is the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre; just the fact that someone would even consider that TCM should or could be made better says a lot about the state of things. Now we can make things bigger, louder, sexier! Won’t that be great? And the final product speaks for itself – a chunk of bland, formula garbage that thinks it can impress us with slicker violence, sexier women and more sadistic villains. It’s horror stripped down to the most obvious surface elements – Less Talk, More Rock.

I’m not saying that horror used to be some brainy, intellectual endeavor, but it seems to have lost nuance over the years. One of the reasons the original TCM was so great was that there was no fucking explanation. These monsters, these horrible things, existed without cause, seemingly as part of the natural order. Animals get hit by cars, people get killed by chainsaw-wielding maniacs. It’s survival of the fittest, right? Chainsaw’s reality was terrifying, yet completely believable – inevitable, even – and that’s what made it so scary. We saw the truth in it.

After that long preamble, it probably goes without saying that I was very skeptical of a “new” TCM that attempts to explain the unexplainable with an MTV gloss- especially when it’s made by a guy whose major directing credit is Darkness Falls. But as it turns out, TCM The Beginning isn’t as awful as I expected it to be.

Despite a painfully lame “birth of Leatherface” scene in the first five minutes, TCM The Beginning moves the Hewitt family into craziness and cannibalism relatively smoothly and convincingly. The short version is this: in some dying backwoods Texas burg, the few remaining inhabitants decide to take over the town and play by their own rules. Sickened by what’s become of the outside world, they resolve to remain in self-imposed isolation at their creepy farmhouse forever. Of course, that means they can’t exactly go out for groceries, so when a gang of teenagers stumbles onto their turf, they torture, kill and eat them.

Shot at a gorgeously creepy farmhouse outside of Austin, TCM The Beginning is as visually impressive as any modern horror flick. The colors are nicely washed out, the locations are eerie and every frame seems like it’s covered in a layer of dirt. There is some decent gore for the hardcore splatter fans, and director Jonathan Liebesman has certainly brought the franchise into the age of “pornographic violence” (as he called it during a recent appearance in Austin), for better or worse.

R. Lee Ermey is absolutely perfect as the cracked uncle who corrupts his disfigured oaf nephew into murder and mayhem, while the rest of the characters are fairly appropriate background noise for his lunacy. Though Ermey plays the same character in almost every film he’s in, this particular incarnation seems to work well; brutal, remorseless and sociopathic, yet recognizably human, and even occasionally funny. Part of Ermey’s charm is that he can make you laugh while someone’s legs are being chopped off onscreen. If anything, he carries the film, elevating it from a pointless gorefest into a reasonably fun film. The film focuses more on him than it does on Leatherface, so if you’re not an Ermey fan, you might as well stay home.

TCM The Beginning isn’t great, so don’t expect to walk away without some complaints. But unlike the 2003 remake, this installment is just as fun and self-aware as it is gory. There are moments of genuine humor, tension and horror, and it’s certainly one of the better installments in a series that contains some of the worst films of all time; does anyone remember Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation? Hmm? I see you hiding over there, Matthew McConaughey.

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