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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

(2006) * 1/2 R
84 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Jonathan Liebesman. Cast: Jordana Brewster, Taylor Handley, Andrew Bryniarski, R. Lee Ermey, Heather Kafka.

Sadists rejoice! If you're the kind of guy or gal who isn't happy unless there's a fresh helping of skin-crawling viscera and nasty laughs at the expense of horrified soon-to-be-dead people, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is just the flick for you. Jonathan Liebesman's prequel to the 2003 remake of 1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proves once more that this sort of picture is too creatively exhausted to be witty or more than a mechanical stomach-churner. Even though the new film has its moments, "pointless but watchable" is no recommendation.

Screenwriter Sheldon Turner begins in 1939, with the birth of the incoherent, lumbering, homicidal man-child Leatherface. The ludicrously traumatic birth yields to a ludicrously traumatic childhood (hastily played out in a leapfrogging title sequence). With the launching of the film's primary narrative—a batch of pretty young things runs afoul of Leatherface's supremely fucked-up family, circa 1969—Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) recedes to the background, held in reserve and used only sparingly until the inevitable eat-and-run chase sequence.

Things are looking down for Chrissie (Jordana Brewster of The Fast and the Furious), whose Vietnam vet boyfriend Eric (Matthew Bomer) is about to ship off for a second tour of duty. Eric's younger brother Dean (Taylor Handley) has a more fun-loving girlfriend in Bailey (Diora Baird); she's convinced her man to burn his draft card and let Eric go back to 'Nam unaccompanied. The conflict allows some emotion to seep in amongst the "suspense" (limited, as we know who must survive to the sequel and who can't).

R. Lee Ermey returns as Hoyt, the gleefully sadistic patriarch of Leatherface's adoptive family of out-of-work meat packers. Hoyt's backstory cheekily plays off of Ermey's own military association. A God-fearing Korean War vet, Hoyt understands life-threatening deprivation and, like Scarlett O'Hara, swears to God "we'll never, never go hungry again"...even if he and his cannibalistic clan have to snack on passers-by until the cows come home.

The outbreak of religious hysterics falls in line with a scattershot, superficial criticism of the worst-case scenario from the religious right: self-oblivious, hypocritical, and dangerously desensitized true believers justifying all manner of behavior with platitudes. "Freedom ain't free!" Ermey bellows at the would-be draft dodger. Hoyt evinces some respect for his fellow vet, but only as a prelude to putting him on the dinner menu. Hey, a guy's gotta eat.

As for the TCM mythology, Turner halfheartedly proffers some explanations for how the family wound up slaying, flaying, and buffeting, but the feints at characterization or deeper meaning aren't enough to shake the impression that the film's impulses are strictly commercial and not creative. Turner has one local wag dub Leatherface a "creature," diction echoed when Sheriff Hoyt calls his prey "creatures."

Okay, so intolerance breeds intolerance, and Liebesman gets some sick-comic mileage from portraying Hoyt as a proud surrogate papa (almost misty at the sight of Leatherface—a.k.a. "Tommy"—scampering after a victim in hot pants, Hoyt sighs, "There's a time every boy becomes a man"). The director also succeeds in replicating—and, it goes without saying, sprucing up—the settings and color palette of Tobe Hooper's original film (and John Larroquette saddles up one more time for a joylessly rote voice-over). Liebesman has a talent for orchestrating seat-jumping moments, but has no grip on suspense tactics; quite the contrary, he telegraphs an instant reversal whenever a character conveys happy hope of escape.

Ultimately, inviting comparisons to Hooper only underscores how each replayed premise (like the demented family dinner) pales in its latest incarnation. Worse, the prequel unintentionally raises as many questions as it answers about the dynamics of Leatherface's family. For example, the same woman who rescues bloody babe Tommy from a dumpster unaccountably proves both impractical and inhumanly amoral when it comes to wanton murder. Why bother coming up with motivational hoo-hah if only to toss it all away and confess, "Nah, just kidding. All these people are just freakin' nuts"? Ours is not to question why; ours is but to watch 'em die.

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