There have been eight movies in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” series, but only two are worth watching if you want to feel real horror. One is the original film, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which was released by director/co-writer Tobe Hooper in 1974 and is rightly regarded as a classic. Like “The Blair Witch Project” a quarter-century later, it did not allow its low budget to get in the way of creating a uniquely creepy aesthetic, cleverly using practical effects and skillful pacing to scare viewers. Its villains— a family of sadistic cannibals lives in rural Texas and preys upon unsuspecting passersby — stick in your mind long after the credits have rolled. The film isn’t just influential; it still manages to terrify decades after being released.
The same thing can’t be said about six of the seven films which followed it. There are two timelines that are considered to serve as direct sequels to the original — one has three films (released in 1986, 1990 and 1995) and the other a single entry (2013) — and all of those movies are campy. The directors try to gross you out with gore, but their tongues remain firmly planted in their cheeks the entire time. They are fun, but about as scary as a fake haunted house someone decided to make a little more “adult.” The same observation can be made of a prequel to the original, 2017’s “Leatherface.”
That leaves the reboot series released in the mid-00s by Platinum Dunes, a production company co-founded by director Michael Bay. The 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” had a strong opening half, one that could work as a suspenseful short film about a group of likable characters struggling with a severely traumatizing event. Unfortunately it quickly pivots toward being a bland rehashing of the basic story beats from the 1974 original, leaving unrealized its potential for a distinct creative vision of its own.
That leaves the 2006 installment, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.” Of this, what else can be said than: Andrew Bryniarski is the definitive Leatherface, as R. Lee Ermey is the definitive Texas country cannibal paterfamilias, in this underrated horror gem.
There are four main things that this movie does right:
1. Leatherface is a behemoth, lingering ominously in the background or barreling toward his victims with barely suppressed animalistic rage in his eyes. Bryniarski nails the physicality of the performance and is aided by top notch make up effects.
2. Speaking of those effects: One thing that lesser “Texas Chainsaw” movies forget is that the stories only scare you when they blend the right atmosphere with the right characters. “The Beginning” gets this by resurrecting Texas circa 1969: Demolished by helpless poverty, overrun by hippies and bikers, struggling to adjust its mores to the ideals of the Sixties. As the protagonists and antagonists grapple in their own ways with these issues, they are surrounded by meat, gristle, blood, viscera and all of the pathogens that can accumulate around them. The main house where the action takes place looms forebodingly like an archetypal Southern mansion that just barely conceals a perverse aura. (The blue tinge over most of the frames adds to the effect.) Everything about this movie’s world-building feels right. It does not make much sense on a logical level — these baddies would have been caught almost immediately, even in 1969 — but that isn’t the point of these films. They are supposed to feel like nightmares, and between its visions for Leatherface and for a gruesome alternate universe, “The Beginning” has the look and feel of the worst kind of dream. It takes our real world (as it was in 1969) and bends it just a little farther toward the macabre than it is supposed to go.
3. The movie has complex, interesting characters. The Hill brothers, Eric and Dean (Matt Bomer and Taylor Handley), have a seemingly authentic and complicated bond as one embraces the Vietnam War and military life while the other plans on dodging the draft. Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey) steals the show as a deranged former POW whose seething hatred for a world he can’t understand has made him suppress violent instincts for years. When he and the rest of his family lose their jobs at the local meat processing plant, he decides to sustain his clan through cannibalism and be sadistic to his victims all the way through. He is taking a stand for a dark form of American masculinity, just as Eric stands for more flattering forms of those same old-fashioned American values. Dean and the brothers’ girlfriends, who are woefully underdeveloped, represent the new way of life. Around the periphery we have memorable grotesques like the morbidly obese Tea Lady (Kathy Lamkin) and sing-songy matriarch Luda Mae (Marietta Marich). They add further horror spice to the proceedings.
4. Spoiler Alert: The movie ends with the good guys all dying and the bad guys completely winning. (Obviously this does not remain the case for the antagonists in the 2003 film, which takes places after the events of this one.) This is as it should be. When your iconic villains are nihilists and your movie is a scary one, the ending ought to confirm the baddies’ point of view.
This is not only the best film in the “Texas Chainsaw” series, aside from the first; it is arguably scarier even than the first, which at least allowed for a survivor girl. Either way, this is one of the best horror films made in the 21st century. If you watch it and feel disgusted with the brutality, that is because it worked.