And what a beginning it is.
In the Cinema of the Helpless, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning reaches a new benchmark in unrelenting, stinking-bloody-abattoir-of-pain, horror. I winced at the slimy grimy blood-soaked chaos in Speak No Evil; and I squirmed in my seat during the guest suite scenes in Hostel. But I became physically ill while watching the particularly nightmarish scene in the basement, where Leatherface methodically, silently, carves a Thanksgiving turkey–except it was not a turkey he was carving up, and it wasn't a day to be thankful for.
Perhaps the grainy hand-held camera scenes and tight close-ups in the film made me a little queasy to begin with. Or perhaps it was the way the camera lingers while dark, syrupy blood pours from mangled bodies, soaking into the ground, into the carpeting, that made me not quite okay. I wondered how the hell they were going to get those stains out of the carpet. They are the Hewitt family; an insane bunch of cannibalistic rednecks that always play with their dinner.
It is 1969. Two friends are taking one long, slow trip to the war in Vietnam by way of Texas. Along for the ride are their girlfriends, a few desires, and impending doom. The Hewitt family has been going through a series of setbacks as their town, and way of life, disintegrates around them. The meat packing plant, the town's primary source of jobs is shut down, and townsfolk have nowhere else to go but away. The proud Hewitt family refuses to leave, and young–but really huge–Tommy, their disfigured and misfit adopted son refuses to stop pounding and slicing meat, whether bovine or, soon-to-be, the two-legged kind.
When told he has to leave the now closed meatpacking plant, he expresses his unhappiness by wielding a sledge hammer in a brutal scene of shattered bone, muscle and skull. Young Tommy has found a new hobby.
His step-dad has found a new hobby, too. Seems the last sheriff had to leave his position rather suddenly, so Hoyt takes a fancy to the badge–after he cleans the blood off it. R. Lee Ermey plays Hoyt Hewitt with such malicious evil glee, he steals the movie. Armed with a shotgun, badge, and dark sunglasses, he's one determined patriarch who needs to put food on the table. And after that nasty business in Korea that kept him alive when food was scarce, he and Tommy seem to be a match made in hell for getting that food.
In a textbook example of why you should never take your eyes off the road while driving at high speed and being chased by a gun-toting biker chick, both the Vietnam-bound friends and their girlfriends are brought to the attention of Sheriff Hoyt. He takes them home to meet Mama, Uncle Monty, and Tommy, which is not a good thing.
The truly scary thing about dysfunctional families in horror films is that they always function well together–in that insane, clannish, us-against-them kind of way. Mama Hewitt and Uncle Monty go along with Hoyt and Tommy's shenanigans. So when bodies and body parts start piling up, they just make soup, and lots of it. Poor Uncle Monty is the only one to get his comeuppance in a sudden and graphically grotesque chainsaw game of long and short, but this is the prequel, of course, to New Line Cinema's 2003 version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In Tobe Hooper's 1974 film that ushered in the slasher sub-genre, horror was brought to new heights by the relentless battle between the cannibalistic clan and their prospective victims, shown mostly by implication, and without explicit gore. It was the non-stop, frenetic cat and mouse pacing that changed horror films to come. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, horror is again brought to new heights by the frenetic cat and mouse pacing, combined with lingering and quite disturbing scenes of very explicit gore. If it's dead, it's red: if it's not dead, it's also red. Lots of red here, oozing out all over the place. According to Wikipedia, 17 scenes were cut from the final film to drop it from NC-17 to R. I think they missed a few.
A key scene in the 1974 film, which was not duplicated in the 2003 remake, is paid homage to here: the family get-together for dinner. In a macabre tableau that features Mama Hewitt feeding Uncle Monty with a spoon, one unconscious victim, one victim that's lost her mind–along with most of her teeth–and another victim having to watch her friends being either bouillabaissed or carved up, it is a scene that even Dante's Inferno could not have dreamed of. Only this time it is not played with black humor. Nothing in this film is played with black humor.
Being the beginning of Leatherface, we get to see Tommy putting on a new face–graphically. You may see more of it than I did, though: my eyes were shut through most of it. The squishing ripping sounds were quite enough for me, thanks. And his first use of the chainsaw is depicted with verve as he discovers the culinary possibilities of his new toy.
The cat and mouse battle between Hoyt, Tommy, and their victims is directed with precision and sustained tension, and will keep you riveted to the screen, rooting for the guys' and girls' survival. The ominous score works well with the action, and the acting is top-notch, led by R. Lee Ermey's sadistic Sheriff Hoyt. If you buy popcorn, I recommend you eat it before sitting down. You won't touch it while watching this film. You will also never ever be able to listen to another rendition of "Hush Little Baby, Don't You Cry" without cringing.
But go and enjoy yourself. This is one horror film not to miss.