Producer Michael Bay goes back to the bloody (and bloody lucrative) well with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, a prequel to the 2003 remake (which he produced) of the 1974 Tobe Hooper classic that itself spawned three sequels. Despite its lineage being convoluted, however, its construction isn’t, as this entry in the increasingly tarnished franchise is little more than an uninspired rehash of its immediate precursor that’s been stitched together with cheaper materials. Featuring downgrades in virtually every significant area, this latest Leatherface saga swaps sexy screamer Jessica Biel with blandly cute Jordana Brewster, flashy music video director Marcus Nispel with middling imitator Jonathan Liebesman, and a tale about 1960s teens hunted by Southern maniacs with a similar one that also comes equipped with the lamest of origin stories. Nonetheless, in an effort to mask the fact that it’s basically peddling the same ol’ slop, The Beginning slightly tweaks its creaky template, offering up protagonists who, far from its predecessors’ blissfully overconfident, sheltered dolts, have been painfully affected by the country’s involvement in Vietnam.
With Dean (Taylor Handley) planning to burn his draft card and flee to Mexico with girlfriend Bailey (Diora Baird), and his Nam vet brother Eric (Matthew Bomer) poised to reenlist so he can look after his younger sibling, Sheldon Turner’s screenplay initially suggests an intriguing scenario in which Leatherface, his foster father Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey), and the rest of their cannibalistic clan set their vengeful sights not on de facto flower children—and, by extension, the liberal, carefree counterculture—but, rather, military men intimately familiar with life’s brutality. Such promise, alas, soon turns to pulp as it becomes clear that Liebesman’s film is only interested in playing glib lip service to such dynamics—as well as its narrative’s parallels between overseas wartime atrocities and Leatherface’s domestic carnage—before callously dispatching with its men, having its attractive females terrorized while wearing low-cut jeans, and restaging familiar series staples like a twisted dinner gathering and nocturnal chase through the mist-shrouded countryside.
With a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek and gleeful sadism in his eyes, Ermey delivers some amusingly perverse humor that sporadically helps alleviate the crushing tedium generated by gory but fright-less set pieces, undeveloped cultural war subtexts, and the director’s penchant for shooting everything in precisely calibrated green and yellow hues that lack the ferocious raggedness of the original’s low-budget visuals. The facially deformed Leatherface, meanwhile, is saddled with a backstory—he popped out of his mother while she died on a slaughterhouse floor, was rescued from a dumpster by Hoyt’s wife and mercilessly teased by playground children, and found himself driven to kill after losing his job at the foreclosed abattoir—that, instead of enhancing the fiend’s imposing mystique, winds up sapping him of his mysterious, primal horror. Reducing the iconic brute to a victim of childhood neglect and abuse? That’s not, as The Beginning‘s tagline boasts, “The Birth of Fear.” It’s the death of it.