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New ‘Beginning’ enlivens old horror series

Erin McGinn | Tuesday, October 24, 2006

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” keeps up the tradition of previous “Chainsaw” films with its high quotient of slasher-flick techniques. Serving as an origin story for the Leatherface legend, “The Beginning” is a good foundation for an off-kilter film series.

The movie follows siblings Eric (Matthew Bomer, “Flightplan”) and Dean (Taylor Handley, “The OC”) who are traveling through Texas with their girlfriends Chrissie (Jordana Brewster, “The Fast and the Furious”) and Bailey (Diora Baird, “Accepted”) before the brothers ship off to Vietnam. Eric is returning to Vietnam for his second tour, with Dean supposedly joining him. Unbeknownst to Eric, however, Dean is planning on running away to Mexico with Bailey. When Dean tries to burn his draft card in the backseat, the four of them get into a severe car crash.

Self-proclaimed Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey) takes Eric, Dean and Bailey back to the Hewitt house of horrors to become their first victims. In the meantime, Chrissie makes the standard horror-movie decision to locate and rescue her friends.

The basic premise of the film is similar to that of most other slasher flicks – a group of young travelers are systematically captured, tortured and killed – but there are some differences in the formula that stray from initial expectations.

For starters, the protagonists are already facing horror in their own lives with the Vietnam War before entering a wholly different realm of horror. Secondly, even before Leatherface enters the picture, the teenagers are already placed in a frightening situation when they total their car and are then taken prisoner by the Sheriff.

Additional creepiness is comes simply from knowing this is a prequel to the other “Chainsaw” flicks – in this film, the Hewitt family is just beginning their murderous careers, leaving the audience to witness the transformation of the family from human to monster.

Similar to the recent retelling of “The Hills Have Eyes” (2006), there is a great deal of social and political commentary in the film. Historically, horror films have often been a reflection of deeper societal fears. In the last few decades, however, the genre’s sense of social commentary has often been lost in the quest to be the goriest or scariest display.

This film is once again joining the senses of horror and reflection together. Besides the conflicting feelings of the teenagers towards the Vietnam War, Sheriff Hoyt reflects on his time spent as a P.O.W. while he served in the Korean War. Like “The Hills Have Eyes,” the movie’s villains aren’t portrayed sympathetically, but there is attention paid to their initial plight as slaughterhouse workers who have lost both their jobs and their livelihood.

Director Jonathan Liebesman (“Darkness Falls”) does an excellent job of maintaining both a suspenseful atmosphere and tight pacing throughout the film. The movie also returns to its roots by retaining the grimy and almost documentary-like style of the original film.

Brewster is successful as the strong-willed heroine who keeps fighting until the film’s final moments. Bomer and Handley play the brothers well, and do a good job of demonstrating the inherent conflict of the Vietnam War. R. Lee Ermey arguably steals the show as the mean-spirited and funny Sheriff Hoyt.

Because “The Beginning” is a prequel, the audience already knows that the Hewitts and Leatherface won’t be defeated. The big question of the film is the fate of Chrissie, the only uncaptured teenager, and Liebesman maintains the suspenseful nature of her story for the film’s entirety.

With numerous genuinely frightening moments, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” is as good as a slasher film can get and a great fit for the Halloween horror season.