06 July 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: ALL THIS HAS HAPPENED BEFORE, ALL THIS WILL HAPPEN AGAIN

The final shots of the Michael Bay-produced remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre set up a sequel in the baldest way possible, and also one of the stupidest: relying as it does on a character who very prominently lost his arms suddenly being able to jump out of the dark with a chainsaw. Yet somehow, in amongst all the rage at the clumsy illogic of it, I was amused. After all, the original film ended in a way that indicated very clearly that no sequel would be forthcoming, while setting up a subgenre that would end up doing more to establish the modern tradition of the obligatory sequel than anything else would ever do. So to go from Tobe Hooper's self-contained nightmare to Marcus Nispel's ham-fisted attempt to promise more and bigger bloodletting was as much as anything a micro-study of what Hooper's film ultimately begot.

The curious thing is that when that obligatory sequel finally came out three years later, it wasn't showing us what came after at all; instead, it was a prequel, with the forthright title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. To be honest, I'm not certain that the burning questions raised by the first film were necessarily that burning, consisting as they did mostly with variations on the theme: "What turned the Hewitt family into a band of vicious killers?" The answer, if you don't mind my spoiling it, is that they became killers because they are psychopaths. To quote the marvelous B-horror reviewer El Santo in his write-up of the prequel: "As shocking revelations go, I have to say that’s neither terribly shocking nor terribly revelatory." But there are at least a handful of points where the first film was at least somewhat ambiguous, and it falls to TCM:TB to clean up these ambiguities:

-Since the end of the first film is in a fully-functioning slaughterhouse, it cannot be the case that the Hewitts' knowledge of animal butchering processes could be the result of their time in a now-defunct slaughterhouse.

-Is Sheriff Charlie (R. Lee Ermey) a real cop gone crazy, or a crazy pretending to be a cop?

-How exactly is everybody related?

It's not a sign of either film's qualities that it took a prequel to resolve this issues, but resolved they are, along with a dollop of retconning: in the old film, Thomas "Leatherface" Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski, the first actor to return to the role for a second go-round) developed a skin disease that ate away his face, but in the new film, he was born an ugly motherfucker, and cut off his own nose for no apparent reason other than because he is crazy.

Anyway, so despite the lack of a need, here is the Hewitt family backstory: in 1939, a woman (Leslie Calkins), who seems to be the only employee of the world's smallest meat-packing facility, begs for a bathroom break, seconds before she gives birth right there on the floor. The strain of it kills her, and her supervisor (Tim deZarn) tosses the grotesque bastard in the scrap bin, where he is found by the addled Luda Mae Hewitt (Allison Marich). She names the infant Thomas and brings him home, over the objections of her son Charlie.

Over the years, Thomas joins Charlie and his uncle Monty (Terrence Evans) at the meat plant - likely the same one that he was born in, but that's not terribly clear - until in 1969, it is condemned by the Texas Health Department and closed down (and yet, in 1973, it would be just as open as can be. Room for another prequel!). Thomas doesn't quite understand the concept of "closed down," unfortunately, and he clubs that very same supervisor to death, before stealing away with the chainsaw that is sitting on the boss's desk for what I'm certain is a very good, not-at-all contrived reason. For example...fuck, move along. Sheriff Hoyt (Lew Temple) finds out, and picks up Charlie to help him bring Thomas in quietly. It seems that the Hewitts are the last family left in the area - the meat plant was the economic spine of the county - and the sheriff will be leaving the abandoned police station himself, once he finishes this last collar. Which poses the questions of a) who called in the murder, and b) who is Hoyt going to leave Thomas with? It is by now clear that TCM:TB will lack even the slight regard paid to narrative cohesion enjoyed in its predecessor.

Once they find Thomas, Charlie blasts Hoyt in the head with the shotgun the sheriff thoughtfully left on the police cruiser dashboard, and in the absence of any other source of food in the dying region, he brings the cop's body home where he turns it into stew, feeding it to his marginally grossed-out relatives. Thus begins the killing spree, thus begins the cannibalism, and thus does The Beginning fill its destiny and provide all the backstory we could ever possibly hope for.

The movie is twelve minutes old. Everything prior to the meat plant closing happened under the credits. Still, it's not as irritating as Episode I.

Having thus shot its wad with an entire feature running time left to go, The Beginning takes the path of least resistance and turns into un slasher comme une autre. Four young people are hanging out at a hotel pool: Eric (Matt Bomer) and his girlfriend Chrissie (Jordana Brewster), plus Eric's little brother Dean (Taylor Handley) and his girlfriend Bailey (Diora Baird). We are instantly reminded that it is 1969 when Eric rises from the pool like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, and all four kids start to yammering about 'Nam. Apparently Eric has just returned from a tour, but when Dean got hisself drafted, the older boy immediately decided to re-up in order to keep his brother safe. Ha, he'll sure feel silly when he learns that Dean and Bailey are going to skip out and flee to Mexico! And shot to death by the VC. He'll also feel that. Anyhow, the period-piece notes all over this sequence are just as desperate as they were in the first film, and just as marred by the presence of a song that hadn't quite been released yet ("All Right Now" by Free). Generally, the effect is just as thin here as it was there, for these are naught but Expendable Meat, which is the same in all generations; and Bailey's name takes us out of time far more than saying "Nam Nam Nam" bring us into the era. Also, "Nam Nam Nam" needs to be incorporated into a French Indochina-themed lolcat photo.

After Chrissie and Eric get engaged while Bailey and Dean screw - you may now register guesses as to tonight's Final Girl - the four head out on the road, running afoul of a biker gang led by Biker Dude (Lee Tergesen) and Biker Chick (Cyia Batten), both rather quaintly given names in the credits that we never hear. That bit of character development taken care of, they stop at the Creepy Gas Station run by Luda Mae (now played, as in the last film, by Marietta Marich), where they spot the bikers. They flee, and Dean tries to light his draft card on fire, right before Biker Chick pulls up behind them with a shotgun; between dodging her and screaming at his treasonous sibling, Eric manages to drive straight into a cow that literally explodes in a giant mass of blood. Really, it's funny more than anything. When they all come to, the Chick is dead and Chrissie is nowhere to be seen, but Charlie, duded up in Sheriff Hoyt's outfit, comes along and arrests them all for draft-dodging, as Eric valiantly takes the fall for his brother. Chrissie wakes up in the weeds near the side of the road - being tossed from a vehicle leaves her in much better shape than the others - and jumps in their ruined truck just as Uncle Monty comes along with a tow truck to drag it to the Hewitt homestead, still played by an unlikely movie prop.

What follows is pretty much typical stuff: Charlie torments Dean and Eric for a while, forcing Dean to perform push-ups to redeem his cowardice while thumping the boy in the legs, giving Eric over to Thomas for carving-up purposes and giving Bailey to Luda Mae, who is thrilled to have a surrogate daughter to take care of, Bailey having been much the worst-treated by the car crash. Chrissie arrives at the scene and quickly realises that she can't do much of anything when she spots Dean in a bear trap that he stepped in while trying to run for help; she goes back to the road where she finds Biker Dude, and they go to find any survivors they can.

TCM:TB is certainly a rote latter-day slasher film with barely anything worth recommending, but it has three major points of interest: in no order, that it is an unusually pristine blend of slasher and torture porn elements, that it is more of a remake of the original TCM than the actual remake was, and that its Final Girl sequence really isn't.

The first two of these are dealt with quickly. The film's narrative is strictly slasher: four young people run afoul of crazies and get picked off one by one, along with some poor body-count padding bystanders. And yet the sequence where Charlie abuses Dean and Eric can only be regarded as torture porn, and the scene in which Leatherface slices Eric apart even moreso - particularly in a moment where he flays the boy's arms open, a scene already shown in the same year's Hostel (this scene also gives Thomas Hewitt his first flesh mask; after gazing at Eric for a moment, he realises that the bondage mask he's been wearing just ain't cutting it anymore). Not to mention the otherwise-inexplicable scene where Monty, his knee shot by Dean, gets his legs amputated by Leatherface's chainsaw (Aha! That is why he had no legs in the second movie! More prequelling!), a moment that also incorporates one of the precious few TCM gags that is actually funny, thanks mostly to Ermey's line delivery. A slasher film with torture porn setpieces is a rare thing; perhaps this is even the sole example. Not a point in the movie's favor, mind you, but something interesting to note.

Meanwhile, the basic plot structure is much like Hooper's 1974 film. Young people visit a gas station, get in a bit of trouble, end up trapped in the psychos' house, everybody but one dies or is incapacitated, the Final Girl ends up at the family dinner, and escapes. Where the 2003 film had a long central section in which everybody hung around with no idea what was happening, the 2006 film - like the original - is mostly forward momentum from the instant that the kids bump into Sheriff Charlie. Director Jonathan Liebesman isn't one-half the director Marcus Nispel was - and he wasn't one-eighth the director Tobe Hooper was, at least in that one case - so none of this is particularly intense, scary, or entertaining. Still, it's at least a bit interesting.

But by far, the strangest thing about the film is the false Final Girl sequence. Except for Eric and the Biker Chick, nobody is dead at the start, though Bailey is in real bad shape. It's just that Chrissie is the only person who is in a really good position to do anything other than die slowly or violently, or both. Of course, we know something that nobody in the film does: since this is a prequel, and we know that Charlie, Luda Mae, Leatherface, Uncle Monty, and the grossly obese Tea Lady (Kathy "No Country" Lamkin) are all alive and kicking four years in the future. Which not only means that none of them die, it strongly suggests that none of the kids live - after all, if Chrissie makes it out of there, she tells the police, they go to the Hewitt farm, and the events of the 2003 film's wraparound narrative happen ahead of schedule. So we're keenly aware that Chrissie is a dead woman walking, and no matter what she does, it's not going to end well. This turns the final twenty minutes of TCM:TB into a particularly grim waiting game, watching as she tries and fails to rescue her friends, runs into the abandoned slaughterhouse and creeps around, and ultimately jumps into a car and drives screaming into the night. It's nihilistic in ways that even Hooper's film wasn't, but it's not an "earned" nihilism; it's just futility, splashed across the silver screen.

So it's probably just as well that none of the protagonists are especially well-acted or well-written; the most expendable bunch of Expendable Meat in the whole series, and considering how poorly-defined the five victims were in the first movie, that's saying a whole lot. Circa 2006, the horror genre was a kind of junkyard for terrible characters anyway, so TCM:TB doesn't exactly stand-out in this respect. But there you have it.

Rather than giving us interesting heroes, the film compensates with a focus on its villains uncommon for a slasher film, and for the first time in the TCM franchise, Leatherface is given short shrift, in favor of Charlie. A good move, since R. Lee Ermey is very much the only actor worth a damn in the film (Andrew Bryniarski, here as in the last film, is woefully underequipped to handle the new vision of his character as a tragic manchild), and one has to wonder if the decision to make the new film a prequel was entirely a result of the desire to bring him back, despite his character's unambiguous death in the preceding chapter. That, and the desire to give Leatherface two working arms.

Amazingly for such a mercenary project (and could the prequel to a remake, something I believe to be unprecedented in cinema history, be anything other than mercenary), it's not totally awful. The worst of the "straight" TCM films without a doubt, and positively musty with familiarity - what isn't stolen straight out of the first film is stolen straight out of the remake. But when all is said and done, it feeds the gorehounds more than anything else in the franchise has, and while cinematographer Lukas Ettlin is no Daniel C. Pearl, at least he does his level best to mercilessly copy Pearl's distinctive aesthetic from the 2003 film. Its greatest sin as a work of art is that it is content to plagiarise without shame, from its predecessors and from the incredible bland state of modern horror cinema. But for the dying spasm of a 32-year-old franchise (oh, God, please let it be so), it could have been much worse, and indeed it has been a lot worse. Basically, TCM:TB is undistinguished and unmemorable, which in the horror genre in 2006 is practically enough to make it a classic.

Body Count: Besides that exploding cow, there's a series record of 11 onscreen deaths, though three of those don't really feel like body-count-padding. Four people are killed with a chainsaw (one who really should have been dead already from blood loss), plus Uncle Monty's legs, making this the first time that the phrase "chainsaw massacre" feels earned.

Reviews in this series
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)

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