Liebesman: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

So overwhelmed with dread and doom was the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that it felt like a full stop on the franchise. Not only did it appear impossible to rival its intensity, but by fulfilling the torture horror and found footage horror that now always seemed to be latent in Tobe Hooper’s original, it seemed to have brought the entire cycle to its natural conclusion as well. Of course, the whole point of franchises is that they continue long after these natural conclusions, and so The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning finds itself in an unusual position – to occupy a space both before and after the 2003 remake, thereby bottling the torture aesthetic that it spawned while simultaneously periodising it. To that end, screenwriter Sheldon Turner and director Marcus Liebesman set their narrative in the aura of Marcus Nispel’s 2003 film. Despite the title, The Beginning is not really a backstory for Leatherface, but simply an episode that takes place a few years before the 2003 remake. Rather than provide a full-blown origins mythology, Turner and Libeseman instead rehistoricise both the 2003 and 1974 versions in terms of two new points of reference: the depletion of the American industrial heartland, and popular protest to the War in Vietnam.  

In that sense, The Beginning continues the global palette of the 2003 remake and The Next Generation. We start with a brief prologue (the closest we get to an origin story) in which Leatherface is unceremoniously born in an abattoir and then shift to the closure of the same slaughterhouse in 1969. At this point, our protagonist, played by Andrew Bryniarski, still goes by his birthname of Thomas Hewitt, but he becomes Leatherface by embodying all the Gothic energy of the factory as it closes once and for all. He’s the last worker to leave, so thoroughly does he identify with his profession, and his first victim is the abattoir manager, who expels him from the production line. In retaliation against the global conditions that have shut down his blood-strewn safe space, Leatherface returns to the factory office and murders this manager with the same hammer he uses to stun the cattle who provided his income over the previous decades. This first murder marks the confluence of human and animal flesh that animates the franchise, but also marks Leatherface’s transition from the hammer to his trademark chainsaw, which catches his eye in the moment after his manager finally expires.  

Leatherface is thus birthed out of an industrially evacuated American heartland, producing a quasi-sociological account of his crimes as a desperate bid to make ends meet (or meat). The broader Hewitt clan notes that “sticking around this town, with no more jobs, no more money, no more food, is downright suicidal,” but simultaneously affirm that “this family has endured through adversity and pain. We have endured, we have prevailed.” Add to that a dual fear that “bikies” will plunge the town into decay, and “hippies” will gentrify it beyond the price point of the average rural Texan, and the Hewitts decide to harvest human prey to replace the agricultural and industrial income that vanished with the closure of the abattoir.  

Along with this allegory of industrial decay, The Beginning also leans much further into the Vietnam backdrop that was only ever implied in Hooper’s original, or refracted through the War on Terror that imbues the 2003 version with its distinctive dread. In fact, The Beginning often plays as a grindhouse spiritual sequel to Full Metal Jacket, thanks in no small part to the presence of R. Lee Ermey, who played insane drill sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s film, and is cast in the role of Hewitt family patriarch here. Ermey also appeared in the 2003 remake, where he earned a new subplot that saw him interrogate several of the victims in a makeshift Black Ops site while his clan terrorised the rest of them up at the house. But The Beginning leans deeper into the perverse militarism of Full Metal Jacket, to the point where Ermey could really be playing the same character twenty years on – a little more jaded and dogged, to be sure, but instantly recognisable. For Ermey’s Charlie Hewitt, part police officer and part monster, is the main character of The Beginning, rather than Leatherface, who plays more of a cameo, occurring at regular interludes to illustrate Charlie’s insane disquisitions.  

As in the 2003 remake, Charlie has a taste for enhanced interrogation, but now his scepticism of the younger generation is more squarely focused on the War on Vietnam. We learn that he was a POW in the Korean War, where he learned cannibalism as a survival mechanism, and that nothing causes him greater ire than “a draft-dodging hippie.” Upon learning that at least one of the new group of victims (played by Jordana Brewster, Taylor Handler, Matt Bomer, Diora Baird and Lee Tergeson) may be such a draft-dodger, he subjects the men to Viet Cong-styled torture for treason and then forces one of them to do pushups while beating him: “We got ourselves a regular red-blooded American hero here, ain’t we?” As the house is transformed into a nightmarish bootcamp, the Hewitt family become emblems of both the Viet Cong and the American heartland, two brutalist regimes converging around Leatherface.  

Along the way, the more comic elements of the franchise are deflected into the various side characters who personify the bystanding that much of the American public demonstrated towards the War in Vietnam at this moment in time too. When the victims are first abducted, they encounter a tow-truck driver who might easily rescue them from Charlie’s van, but blithely observes that the whole situation is none of his business. Likewise, the genteel Texan women of the 2003 remake – two of the best characters in the entire franchise – return here as fan favourites, and spend a short scene drinking tea and discussing recipes for coconut biscuits while one of the victims is chained to the foot of their table. When she finally breaks through their polite smalltalk, they seem more startled by her lack of etiquette than by the violence that has been visited upon her body, or the gore that quickly ensues from hereon in.  

This visceral dimension accelerates quite intensely in the third act and forms another dramatic point of departure from the 2003 remake, which was so laden in doomy atmospherics that it didn’t have to be especially violent. Nispel’s genius lay in continually anticipating an unimaginable gory tableau that never arrived, a gesture that was powerful enough to single-handedly usher in the torture horror of the 00s, which played as so many efforts to fulfil, contain and provide closure to the open-ended possibilities of this one film. The Beginning arrives at the height of that torture era, two years after Saw and one year after Hostel and so it is easily the most violent film in the franchise so far. Leatherface’s construction of his first mask – the moment he becomes Leatherface – is probably the most confronting moment, visually speaking, in the franchise as a whole. Yet for all the immediate power of this gore, which culminates with the lone survivor hiding in a viscera bath in the disused abbatoir, before she too is cut down, there’s an air of desperation to the closing moments of The Beginning – a tacit awareness that showing violence is less effective than hinting at it. The next films would also try to recapture the peculiar power of the 2003 remake, whether by resorting to 3D technology (Texas Chainsaw 3D) or drawing on the New French Extremity (Leatherface), but The Beginning is close enough to the penumbra of the 2003 version to both bathe in its aftereffect, and reiterate that it is unlikely to be matched again.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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