In the opening scene of the B-movie horror classic “Re-Animator,” mad scientist Herbert West reanimates the corpse of his mentor with disastrous side effects. The lumbering corpse is just a zombie, nothing like the person that it used to be. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” has the same problem. Instead of living up to the gritty suspense of Tobe Hooper’s original film, Jonathan Liebesman’s prelude feels more like Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake: a flashy, bloodthirsty imitator.
“The Beginning” sets out to tell the backstory of Leatherface, the iconic monster-assailant of the TCM franchise. The first unstoppable, inhuman slasher villain portrayed onscreen, Leatherface inspired an entire genre of imitators, from Jason Voorhees of “Friday the 13th” to Michael Myers of “Halloween.” But the movie fails to live up to its promise. Instead of a backstory, all Liebesman shows us is a gorefest similar to the 2003 remake. The only difference is he sets it four years earlier.
Besides a grotesque slaughterhouse birth scene, the film immediately jumps to 1969, where Leatherface is now working at the same slaughterhouse. To make a short story even shorter, the place gets condemned, economic downturn kills the town and Leatherface promptly kills everything else. His main victims come in the form of two young couples, driving across the country to enlist in the Vietnam War. Parallel story structure and an ominous score foreshadow the inevitable collision of the teenagers and their murderer-to-be. Somewhere in between is an unexpected and incredibly bloody collision between their Jeep and a cow, setting the tone for the onslaught of violence that will ensue for 60 minutes.
This is one of the essential problems with the film. As the victim and victimizer are barreling toward one another onscreen, the only suspense left for the viewer is who will die first and how. In the 1974 original, Leatherface appears only seconds before he commits his first murder, making the violence sudden and unexpected. That suspense is lost on Liebesman.
Once the teens are in the clutches of Leatherface, the deaths are slow and grueling to witness. Meat hooks, bear traps and of course, a chainsaw, are used to full effect. But the victims are kept alive for so long that you wonder if they’ll die of tetanus before anything else. Suspense takes a back seat to gore, as Leatherface butchers the teens limb by limb. The film has more in common with “Cannibal Holocaust” and other Italian shockers than it does the original.
Another faux pas Liebesman makes is in the end of the film. The strength of the TCM franchise is in its masterful employment of the false documentary technique, later imitated by “The Blair Witch Project.” By presenting the Leatherface saga as having been based on real events, Hooper and subsequent directors added another dimension of fear to their films. It creates a sense of authenticity, suspending disbelief in the viewer. Liebesman doesn’t include his false stamp of authenticity until the last shot of the film, defeating the purpose of the technique on the whole. What good does it do after the film is over to say that it was true? Even the clumsy, first-time directors of “Blair Witch” understood the importance of putting the disclaimer in the opening credits.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” is another step away from intelligence in the horror genre, and an embrace of the gore-centered J-horror style. Instead of being as inventive as Hooper’s original, the film joins hundreds of other slashers in being just another cheap imitation.