A crafty prequel to 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
" remake, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" is more faithful in look and spirit to the classic 1974 original film than to its flawed redux, and that is indeed a good thing. Savagely gritty, grisly and lean where its immediate predecessor was unevenly paced, overlong and open to comparisons that it consistently paled next to, this latest incarnation in the long-running series benefits from being its own original entity. Not simply a tired knockoff of the earlier movies, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" adds some extra meat to its bones by provocatively delving into the birth of Thomas Hewitt, aka Leatherface, and the genesis of the entire psychotic Hewitt family's first steps toward murder and cannibalism. Set during the height of Vietnam, the U.S. nation's sense of unrest is personified by characters who are grappling with and are deeply affected by the war, unaware that a greater impending danger is headed their way.
The time is July 1969, and siblings Eric (Matthew Bomer) and Dean (Taylor Handley) are heading through the desolate Texas countryside with girlfriends Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) and Bailey (Diora Baird). Eric, a war vet planning to return to Vietnam with younger brother Dean in tow, doesn't yet know that Dean has every intention of tearing up his draft card and making a run for Mexico. Eric barely has time to process this discovery before the four of them get into a severe car crash that leaves a cow splattered on their windshield. After being picked up by the makeshift Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey), Eric, Dean and Bailey find themselves in the clutches of the deranged and downtrodden Hewitt clan, who want to make these travelers their first victims. In the meantime, the still-free Chrissie makes the brave but unsmart decision to track down their whereabouts and save her friends. Suffice it to say, a horrific night of terror is about to begin.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" is the film that "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
" from three years ago only dreamt of being. That reimagining wasn't bad, but suffered from drawn-out plotting, a little too much flashy Michael Bay-style cutting, and the core issue of being an inferior version of an enduring motion picture that didn't need a remake to begin with. The general setup is similar in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" in that a group of young travelers take an unfortunate route through Texas that spells their demise, but some choice differences in the formula shake up what is usually expected. For one, the protagonists are already facing a real-life horror with the Vietnam War before a different kind of horror enters the frame, and for two, they are placed in an inordinately grave situation by totaling their means of transportation and injuring themselves long before the chainsaw gets fired up. With the stakes raised up a notch, additional creepiness comes from the chilling notion that the Hewitt family are still novices at murder who transform through the course of the film from human beings to monsters. These villains aren't portrayed sympathetically, but there is a mournful side to their fates as slaughterhouse workers who have their jobs and livelihood snatched from them.
Director Jonathan Liebesman (2003's "Darkness Falls
") does a superb job at keeping the atmosphere thick, the blood plentiful and red, the tension heightened, and the pacing as tight as a vise grip. Screenwriter Sheldon Turner (2005's "The Longest Yard
") tosses out all extraneous material and reaches for the jugular; he cuts to the chase quickly, so that there is no chance for the suspense to grow slack. And cinematographer Lukas Ettlin (2004's "The Grudge
") does a better job than any previous series entry by retaining the grimy, uncompromising, almost documentary-like visual style of the original, with the smell of blood and the stench of sweat pretty much emanating off the screen. If there is a technical complaint to be had, it is that Ettlin occasionally tends to shoot his subjects and the action so close up that it is difficult to see what is going on, but this problem only really calls attention to itself in the final ten minutes. Otherwise, the movie is an unsettling rollercoaster ride through grim territory and stomach-churning violence that is admirable in its fearless realism. Kudos, too, for including a dinner table scene notably MIA from the last film, even if it is missing two key ingredientsthe decrepit grandpa and a malletthat would have set it over the top.
As strong-willed heroine Chrissie, Jordana Brewster (2006's "Annapolis
") has the Jessica Biel role of the piece and sells the part. Admittedly, Biel displayed a wider range of emotions, but Brewster gives Chrissie her own individuality by playing her as someone who eventually lets anything fly at her tormentors, verbal backtalk and all, when she recognizes her likely ill fate. There is also a touching scene Brewster plays opposite Matthew Bomer (2005's "Flightplan
"), as fiancé Eric, where they discuss their life together and the children they would have had when it becomes clear Eric won't be getting out of his situation alive. As Dean, Taylor Handley (1998's "Jack Frost
") transcends his role by convincingly portraying a young man conflicted by not only the war, but his own mortality. Rounding out the central menu items is Diora Baird (2006's "Accepted
"), solid but bland as Bailey. On the antagonistic side, R. Lee Ermey (2005's "Man of the House
") is deliciously mean-spirited and blackly comic as Sheriff Hoyt, and Andrew Bryniarski (2002's "Rollerball
") is a large, intimidating presence as Leatherface. If anything, though, there isn't enough of the flesh-wearing, chainsaw-wielding star attraction.
A feeling of doom looms over the horizon of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" that makes it more of a sobering experience and less conventionally fun. This is how it should be for a hard-R, no-holds-barred horror film, but it's worth noting. Because this is a prequel, the viewer already knows that the Hewitts won't be defeated. After all, Jessica Biel and her four pals are already set to drive down the same dusty road four years later
. The big question is the fate of top-billed "Final Girl" Jordana Brewster. Without giving away the outcome, director Jonathan Liebesman thankfully plays fair with his audience and cooks up a conclusion that is truthful to what is already known to follow without pandering in the name of a safe ending. Veritably frightening and apt to get pulses racing, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" is a top-notch grindhouse flick perfect for the Halloween season. It's also the best this series has seen in twenty years.