JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Sally barely escapes the clutches of the cannibal family in the apocalyptic ending of the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre,emblematic of Director Tobe Hooper’s anxieties about Charles Manson, the Vietnam War, and rural isolationism.

Echoing the economic depression of the new millennium, the decaying cattle heads tossed in the trash at the Blair Meat Co. foreshadow the fate of the hapless young adults who wander into the Hewitt family’s hunting ground in the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The seemingly pastoral farm house in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers potential help for the young adults. This prairie style architecture gives way to…

the foreboding Hewitt family fortress that looms in the landscape in the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

While the male Hitchhiker in the 1974 film frightens the young adults with his gruesome discussion of the slaughterhouse and self-mutilation ...

... the female hitchhiker frightens the young adults when she gives ‘birth’ to a bloody gun, using it moments later to commit suicide.

In the 1974 original film, the ‘helpful’ Cook warns the young adults to stay away from the old Franklin place. In the 2003 remake, he is replaced by …

... Luda Mae Hewitt, who warns the young adults about the insanity that permeates contemporary life.

The cannibal family acts irrationally in the family dinner scene from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre stands in contrast to ...

... the Hewitt family, who exhibits deliberate rational behavior during the baby’s feeding in the 2003 remake.

With the integration of women and children into the cannibal family, the overly protective mother struggles with the baby in the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The feral-like Hewitt grandson is framed by the bloody, jagged vaginal metaphor of the revised cannibal family. He ultimately befriends Erin in her escape from the Hewitt family basement.

As the image of a 21st century feminist, Erin severs Leatherface’s arm as she attempts her escape, as well as ….

… hotwiring the Sheriff’s car to escape the Hewitt family’s horror.

In a domestic moment Erin comforts the now-happy baby after she engineers a successful escape from the Hewitt family.

A few moments of youthful camaraderie before the young adults’ lives intersect with that of the Hewitt family in Texas Chainsaw: the Beginning.

 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
the Beginning
: a cultural critique of the Bush-Cheney Administration

by Rod Buxton

In October, 2006, New Line Cinema released Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, the latest in an extended franchise of sequels and one remake that drew from the original source of the 1974 low-budget horror film Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As explained by Tobe Hooper, director of the original film, the project was initially conceived as an exploitation film, but it then translated into a Hollywood career for co-scriptwriter Kim Henkel and himself. In addition, they wanted the film to raise the specter of Nixon-era social anxieties triggered by the Charles-Manson-family murder spree (which Hooper suggests marks the end of the hippie youth movement), the ongoing Vietnam war, the early 1970s gas shortage, and a vague anxiety about the insular behavior of rural U.S. citizens.[1]
[open endnotes in new window]

Even though this low-budget production is an example of exploitation filmmaking — shooting quickly and basing the film on then-contemporary events — film theorists such as Robin Wood consider the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre a work of cinematic art. Wood suggests that the film derives much of its power from a combination of its production style and subject matter, especially about the patriarchal family’s deteriorating stability.[2] In the dinner scene finale, for example, the use of hand-held camerawork and discontinuity editing visually correlates with the family’s social instability as the members bicker with each while tormenting their hapless captive, Sally. This match of production style and theme also resonates with Christopher Sharrett’s analysis of the film as referring to an apocalyptic crisis facing U.S. society in 1973-74.[3] Any sense of social stability formerly associated with the family, clearly defined gender roles, and job security within a hierarchical system of industrialized labor breaks down by the film’s ending, a shattering replicated by the disorienting production style. Only a feeble hope that Sally has finally escaped the cannibal family’s clutches provides any sense of release from the apocalyptic forces unleashed in the film. For Sharrett, the film frames its “communal belief in the contemporary world” in clearly pessimistic terms.[4]

Despite a rather murky economic history, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its central monster, Leatherface, became cultural phenomena across several problem-plagued sequels to the original, with each succeeding production facing a different set of production obstacles.[5] The final sequel to the original film was directed by Kim Henkel, one of the original co-scriptwriters for the 1974 film. Released twenty years after the original film, The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1994) was an attempt to revive life into the franchise with then-unknown actors Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey. According to Henkel, the studio wanted to delay the release of the film until after the release of Jerry Maguire (1996), in which Zellweger also co-starred, hoping to increase The Return’s chances for theatrical success. In contrast, McConaughey’s talent management firm did not want the film released at all, citing detrimental effects it might have on the young actor’s career. With lukewarm box office response to The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it seemed as if Leatherface’s chainsaw had finally run out gasoline.

In spite of disappearing for a while, iconic horror films have a way of returning from the economic graveyard. Co-owned by action-adventure director Michael Bay, Platinum Dunes, a production company specializing in the remakes of iconic horror films from the 1970s and 1980s, released a revised version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. The remake retains some elements of the 1974 original — for example, the isolated Texas rural setting, cannibal family and hapless young adults thrust into a savage world they never knew existed. Other narrative elements, however, are quite different. The 2003 cannibal family includes women and children, though still dominated by patriarchal power. Also gone is the white clapboard farmhouse of the original film, replaced by a federal-style two-story house isolated in the countryside.

In the remake, the ideological references associated with these young adults are specifically tuned to more contemporary pop culture themes. Unlike the clueless, aimless young adults that meet their demise at the cannibal family’s hands in the 1974 film, the young adults in the remake are drug smugglers, sexual exhibitionists and explicitly irresponsible shirkers, as evidenced by the males’ attempts to dismiss familial and social commitments. Gone also are the hysterical male hitchhiker and the older male cook of the original. The remake replaces the Hitchhiker with a hysterical young female hitchhiker who has apparently just given birth and then commits suicide inside the young adults’ van. Luda Mae, the older matriarch of the Hewitt family, replaces the Cook. Finally, the slapstick horror of the final family dinner is missing from the remake. The narrative emphasis moves away from depicting the irrational, self-destructive behavior of the original’s patriarchal family toward showing a more deliberate, yet psychotic behavior directed at any external threat to the cannibal family’s stability.

With these few important changes, the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre jettisons some of its progenitor’s focus, instead suggesting more contemporary social anxieties. While the atmosphere of economic depression permeates the 2003 film in much the same manner as the 1974 original, references to the Vietnam War and the gasoline shortage all but evaporate in the remake. Instead, the Hewitt family’s siege mentality as they slaughter outsiders raises the specter of post 9/11 paranoia.

The family’s inclusion of women and children also culturally suggests the growing presence and political power of mothers and traditional motherhood in the 2003 social landscape, especially as a rationale for aggressive domestic and international political action. In terms of U.S. history during this period, an overwhelming support of “soccer moms” for the Bush-Cheney Administration fueled the policing power of Homeland Security and contributed to the reduction of Constitutional civil rights, under the guise of protecting American children. Additionally, plot developments in the film, such as the hysterical suicide of the young female hitchhiker who has recently given birth and the climactic importance of rescuing that baby from the Hewitt family, point to a continued social anxiety around motherhood within U.S. social concerns. In this historical context, the increased importance of children within the narrative of 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre then takes on an ominous association. As the male authority figures within the film, both Sheriff Hoyt Hewitt and Tommy “Leatherface” Hewitt rationalize their violence against outside intruders, in this case the young adults, in order to protect the family’s children. Venting their male rage, they are framed within the narrative as monstrous agents of social anxiety.

While the monstrous patriarchal figures are either killed or metaphorically separated from the source of their threatening power, the film’s resolution also reinforces an ambivalent mixing of feminist values with a traditional ideology of motherhood. Using a meat cleaver, “Final Girl” Erin outsmarts Tommy, severing his right arm from his body. For all intents and purposes, he now becomes impotent in his male rage, only able to swing the chainsaw ineffectually with his left hand. Upon escaping from Tommy in the slaughterhouse, Erin finds her way back to the roadside barbeque stop, only to find the rest of the Hewitt family, including the baby, gathered. Apparently drawing upon combined primal forces of survival and nurturing, she kidnaps the baby from the clutches of the Hewitt family, hotwires the Sheriff’s official car, and runs over Hoyt three times to be sure he is dead before racing off into the dark of night.

In contrast, earlier, with its apocalyptic ending, the 1974 version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre suggests that nothing about the patriarchal family is redeemable. In particular, Sally is repulsed by her forced role as nurturer for the infantilized Grandpa. The 2003 remake emphasizes that hope exists not only in the form of a woman’s proactive perseverance against male aggression and rage, but also in her potential to nurture children, a choice that Erin clearly makes on her own. Against the political rhetoric of the Bush-Cheney Administration in 2003 that favored a strengthening of traditional patriarchal family structure and values and a renewed stress on motherhood, the remake then raises a confusing ideological conundrum. Obviously, the film suggests a single woman can persevere by overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles with cunning and hard work. Erin escapes with the baby, but what happens after that is an unanswered question. This focus on the patriarchal family and a woman’s role within that family is clearly a source of social anxiety in 2003, if the $107,071,655 in box office receipts for the film is any indication.[6]

Indeed, the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was so successful, that a prequel went into production. As noted in the DVD voice-over commentary for Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, the beginning of the monstrous myth of the rural Texas cannibal family had not been fully explored. Indeed, the family’s origination was not explained in the 2003 remake, thus providing little sense of motivation for their horrific actions. But even as the “prequel” went into pre-production and then production, more social anxieties, fueled by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a deteriorating economy, found their way into the cultural zeitgeist. In addition, the growing social power of the evangelical religious Right and blatant political corruption within the U.S. federal government further increased social anxiety. Whether these anxieties were consciously integrated into the script and the production of TCM: the Beginning or unconsciously assimilated by scriptwriter Sheldon Turner and director Jonathan Liebseman, the theatrical release of the film exploited them to produce a film of dark, brutal intensity.

Desperate and dark social events such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the subsequent U.S. military abuses at Abu Ghraib prison engender equally dark cultural texts, particularly within the realm of the popular horror film. From my perspective, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning (2006) is as thematically dark and poetically desperate as any horror film in the past decade. The film’s story spine is simple and familiar. A group of young adults — consisting of one young man who is headed toward his second deployment in Vietnam, his brother who plans to dodge the draft by heading to Mexico, and their respective lovers — collide with the rural Texas Hewitt family, who have suffered an economic downturn with the closing of the nearby slaughterhouse. This last event, in fact, decimates the family’s whole social environment, with most of the area’s population heading to the industrialized northern United States. Ultimately, the Hewitt family resolves to survive there at any cost, based on their professed belief in God’s will for their survival. Such religious fanaticism collides with the various idealistic perspectives of the young adults, with dire results for the latter. Despite the familiar story spine, ideological elements hang from it like shreds of carrion, fleshing out the film as a complex cultural critique of the George W. Bush Administration. As it unfolds, TCM: the Beginning makes monstrous associations with economic depression, terrorism, guerilla warfare, U.S military atrocities, and religious fundamentalism.

Upon its initial theatrical release, few popular film critics had little, if anything, good to say about the film, apparently missing the allegorical references to contemporary events that embellish the generic storyline. As an example of this perspective, Mark Palermo of The San Francisco Chronicle chides that Jonathan Liebseman, the film’s director,

“can’t move his horror beyond a bullying fraudulence…the focus in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning isn’t on the confrontation of demons, moral reckoning, or terror. It’s an unimaginative exercise in suffering.”[7]

Echoing a similar sentiment, Sam Adams in The Los Angeles Times notes,

“This is not a slick, jokey horror movie in the post- Scream mold, but a genuine attempt to strip the coating from the audience's nerves. It's nasty and brutish, if not particularly short.”[8]

Concurring, Peter Deburge, Variety, posted October 5, 2006, that Leibesman’s

“approach falls somewhere between the overwrought sadism of the Saw series and the giddy gore-for-gore's-sake energy of The Devil's Rejects, sharing those films' twisted notion that today's auds are willing to embrace such homicidal maniacs as heroes.”[9]

Ironically, for those attracted to the excessive gore of the torture porn horror film, TCM: the Beginning, seemed to fall flat. “Few surprises await connoisseurs of torture cinema...The director, Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls), has a strong graphic sensibility, and the overall tone is less punishing than you expect,” asserts Scott Foundas in his review for The Village Voice.[10] Matt Layden, in writing a review for Amazon.com, argues,

“There is some gore, not as much as I would have wanted, and it's not full screen gore either…the cuts were too quick to see the damage that was being done. You'll see the blood splatter on the faces of the characters, but only a quick glimpse of the actual chainsaw death.”[11]

Apparently, horror film audiences paid little heed to the negative reviews. The film did well at the box office. With a production budget of $16 million, the film was released on October 6th with an opening week gross of $18,508,228, generating the second highest ticket sales for that weekend. For the second week of release, the film ranked 5th in overall theatrical ticket sales; it remained in the top ten films for its third week of release. As reported by Box Office Mojo, the film generated $39,517,763 in domestic ticket sales and $12,246,643 in foreign sales, for a total of $51,764,406.[12] In the film’s DVD afterlife, it earned another $15,968,770.[13]

For the production company, Platinum Dunes’ gamble in the postmodern recycling of previously successful genre horror films paid off with both the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and the 2006 prequel. In an overview discussion of the social implications of popular film genres, Thomas Schatz has argued that an economically successful genre film indicates “cooperation between artists and audience in celebrating their collective values and ideals.”[14] In addition, as Douglas Kellner argues, popular films “raise issues and can provoke debate over salient concerns of the present moment,” including politics, the economy, terrorism and militarism, especially in the era of the Bush-Cheney Administration.[15] Certainly, some film genres, such as the screwball comedy, celebrate collective values through the feel-good resolutions of conflicts that reinstate the ideals of the social status quo. However, other film genres, such as the horror film, assault the audience with its collective social anxieties and fears, often offering an allegorical critique of the status quo. Robin Wood effectively argues that horror films culturally function as “collective nightmares.”[16] Since 1968 when George Romero and the Latent Image Company produced Night of the Living Dead, many economically successful horror films have not been constrained by studio demands to “celebrate” social norms or reinstate the social status quo at the end of a film, but rather can frame these values through ambivalence or outright critique.[17]

Within this analytic framework, I would posit that Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning—as measured by its success in producing box office and DVD receipts—resonated with the U.S. audience’s social anxieties. Despite, or maybe even because of the simple and familiar story spine, the film’s setting, characters, props and specific events were able to tap into the U.S. cultural zeitgeist shaped by the social demons gathering together in the fall of 2006. Indeed, the film generates more complex ideological meanings than might be gleaned at first glance, despite Palermo’s initial comments about its “lack of moral reckoning” or inability to confront social problems. To that end, I wish to cast a look back at a number of tumultuous events that fed the growing social anxieties festering in the United States’ ideological landscape.

Go to page 2


To topPrint versionJC 53 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.