To provide a foundation for further analysis of TCM: the Beginning, a few general comments about the specific historical settings for the film must be addressed. The prologue, which takes place in August, 1939, evokes associations with the Great Depression, particularly through its bleak mise-en-scene and story action. The film’s 1969 story ostensibly takes place during the height of then-President Nixon’s increased military push in the Vietnam War. Despite the literal historical settings, each of these historical periods prompts metaphorical comparisons with U.S. social experiences in 2006.
As it turns out, the filmmakers of TCM: the Beginning were quite prescient about U.S. economic conditions in 2006. The financial fraud and mismanagement within large corporations, previously mentioned, were matched by increasing levels of personal credit card debt, balloon and interest-only mortgages for over-valued homes, and unemployment. In turn, these combined factors led to the near-collapse of the U.S. economic system in March, 2008, as the value of several giant financial institutions plummeted. But even before that economic earthquake, the growing number of mortgage bankruptcies and the increased cost-of-living in 2006 indicated a more general economic malaise permeating U.S. society. Thus, the ideological associations between the socio-economic backdrop of the Great Depression found in the film is not that far removed from the actual working-class socio-economic experience in 2006. In a speech to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco on November 6, 2006, Janet Yellen, President and CEO of that banking institution reported:
Echoing actual stress felt by many individuals in U.S. society, the film’s concern with economic insecurity and stress does not end with the prologue. When the narrative shifts to July, 1969, the environment is still economically depressed. The local slaughterhouse, apparently the livelihood of most people in that sparsely populated rural Texas setting, is closing. With respect to character motivation, this event prompts important plot developments.
First, the plant manager humiliates Tommy Hewitt as he unceremoniously fires Tommy as the last laborer at the slaughterhouse. Within the narrative, this humiliation as well as the actual firing prompts Tommy to bludgeon the plant manager to death with a sledgehammer. In a few seconds of plot development, Tommy loses his economic means of survival and unleashes his class anger. The sledgehammer shifts from a tool of labor to an implement of class warfare. As it turns out, both economic downturn and the release of repressed class anger shape the Hewitt family.
Through visual associations in the film’s mise-en-scene, the dilapidated exterior buildings of the Hewitt farm and the grimy, dust-covered interior of their house suggest that Tommy Hewitt is also the family’s main source of income. As an indication of the family’s tenuous economic situation, the mise-en-scene of the Hewitt house in the 2006 “prequel” is littered with tattered, shabby furniture. Despite the air of poverty, the setting has yet to deteriorate to a more chaotic, degrading state — which is a distinct visual element of the home’s mise-en-scene in either the 1974 source film and the 2003 remake of it. In the both of those films, the macabre interior set design of the cannibal family’s home emphasizes its regression to a primal existence. In the 2003 remake, live chickens and pigs freely roam throughout the house, wandering through the animal bones and carcasses strewn around. Here, their living with animals suggests that the family members are animals as well. This excessive mise-en-scene provides a visual index of the Hewitt family’s social and economic descent from blue collar working class to abject poverty, where basic survival and protection of one’s territory from interlopers become the only social rules that matter. Once the Hewitt family loses the tentative security of Tommy’s paycheck at the slaughterhouse, the 2006 “prequel” provides a clear association between Tommy’s class rage as he bludgeons the plant manager, the sheriff’s visit to the Hewitt house to arrest him for the murder, and the latter’s subsequent consumption as the main course for the Hewitt family meal. Facing both economic devastation and police oppression, the Hewitt family begins its regression to their primal state found in the 2003 remake. In the 2006 “prequel” their primal drives of eating and territoriality merge and become their means of survival in an economically hostile environment. They protect their territory first from the sheriff, then anyone else who happens to wander into their “feeding” area. In Hoyt Hewitt’s words, society in TCM: the Beginning has been reduced to only one rule: “Eat or be eaten.” Given the cannibalization and destruction enacted by corporations within both the domestic and global environment during the first decade of the 21st Century, this seems as well an overall mission statement for economic survival in the United States and an indication of economic anxiety.
In addition, the plant’s closure compels son Thomas to repurpose the butchering skills developed through his employment at the slaughterhouse for more pragmatic domestic purposes. In short, the first fourteen minutes of TCM: the Beginning foregrounds the issue of industrial corporate indifference to employees’ personal dilemmas and economic desperation. Initially, the film builds empathy, if not sympathy toward Tommy regarding his exploitation and ridicule at the hands of his employers. This does not completely evaporate until he eviscerates Eric, one of the young adults arrested by his stepfather, using a chainsaw in the basement of the Hewitt house. From this point on, the primal brutality of Tommy’s class anger becomes a source of dread. He lashes out at anyone who appears to occupy positions of social status above that of the Hewitt family, whether or not they have victimized the family or him. Despite the shift in emotional tenor toward Tommy, social anxiety about economic survival pervades the film’s overall setting.
The prologue, which takes place in the slaughterhouse in 1939, introduces several formal cinematic motifs that enhance the overwhelming impression of economic depression that permeates the film. Predominately, the opening scene mixes the use of chiaroscuro lighting, a monochromatic sepia-toned color spectrum and an emphasis on the shallow-focus close-up. The first establishing shot inside the slaughterhouse sets a tone of economic desperation, through its extreme use of dark shadows and limited lighting. With a bare overhead incandescent light bulb providing the primary source of diegetic illumination within the shot, several meat hooks, all empty save for one from which dangles a skinned cow’s head, present a failing business. The establishing shot is then followed by a shallow-focus tracking shot, showing close-ups that pass by hanging sides of beef, visually grey-brown and apparently rotting. While the use of shallow-focus draws the eye to the potential connotations of the side of beef, the tracking shot glides past the meat, visually suggesting its fading viability. This shot is then followed by a close-up of a hand arranging colorless meat in a piece of butcher paper on a grimy wooden table, conveying the idea of tainted factory production. Ending this short sequence of shots, an extreme close-up of a hand-stamp marking the packaged meat as ‘Inspected U.S.’ suggests government approval of questionable industrial practices, particularly where profit is concerned. The extensive use of close-ups provides information about the economic setting — rotting meat, industrial practice and failed U.S. regulatory practices — while the chiaroscuro lighting and dingy brown images communicate the emotional overtones about a decaying industrial economic system.
The implication of economic distress and corruption are further enhanced when Sloane, the heavy-set young woman packaging the rotting meat, goes into labor while seated at the production table. At this point, the script is ambivalent, as the narrative never explicitly reveals if the woman knows that she is pregnant. Given the use of the tight close-ups of her anguished face, the event appears to be a very painful surprise for her. In total disregard for the woman’s physical agony, the plant manager refuses to allow her to stop her production task in order to go to the bathroom. A series of close-ups of the woman’s face are matched by those of the plant manager, whose facial reactions suggest repulsion at her painful struggle, death and post-mortem delivery on the slaughterhouse floor of a facially deformed baby. In close-up, the wailing baby appears in a pool of dark blood between the woman’s legs. With a complete lack of humanity, the baby, wrapped in filthy burlap and soiled butcher paper, ends up in a trash dumpster. A young Luda Mae Hewitt discovers the baby while foraging for discarded meat scraps in the slaughterhouse dumpsters, her hunger yet another indication of the level of poverty that permeates the film. Her rescue of the baby sets in motion a chain of events that will have repercussions thirty years later. However, it is the baby’s violent birth on the slaughterhouse floor and subsequent disposal by the plant manager as human trash that provide the initial ideological connection between the inhumanity of the economic industrial system and the savage actions by Thomas Hewitt, the adult whom the baby becomes.
When the film’s setting shifts to 1969, the slaughterhouse has been condemned for the unsanitary and fraudulent production practices that have apparently continued unabated since 1939. Though the causes may be different, this narrative event resonates with the economic devastation experienced within the U.S. industrial sector since the late 1990s. At the time of the film’s release, as industrial manufacturing has moved to the more corporate-hospitable and economically beneficial locations of developing countries such as China and India, the elimination of U.S. working-class jobs has continued to grow. Within the context of TCM: the Beginning, Thomas is a blue-collar victim of forced downsizing, discarded by the very company and plant manager that had so easily considered him as disposable trash at his birth. He becomes a victim of the slaughterhouse for a second time.
Replicating the lighting and cinematic choices of the prologue, an abundance of shadows, sepia tones, close-ups and shallow focus define the narrative event wherein the plant manager fires, in his words, the “over-sized retard” and “dumb animal.” In the final moments of Tommy and the plant manager’s confrontation, close-ups convey emotional responses through reaction shots. On Tommy’s face is dogged determination. On the manager’s is the fearful realization that he will be the last living thing to feel the killing blow from the sledgehammer in the slaughterhouse. In addition, much of the physical action in this scene is captured in defocused images, adding to the destabilized emotions arising from the plant’s closure. In a scene visually mirroring the event of Thomas’ birth, it is the plant manager who writhes with fear and agony on the floor while Thomas towers above him, readying to perform the job for which he has been trained. As the sledgehammer falls and dark blood spreads out from beneath the plant manager’s body, a different type of birth is signified. Thomas sheds the restraints of corporate employment to strike out on his own entrepreneurial quest, not unlike the forced journey many U.S workers have undertaken as a ripple effect of industrial outsourcing and downsizing.
Initially, a mask covers Tommy’s face, from the bridge of his nose over his chin. Once he brutally kills the plant manager as a response to both the layoff and the personal taunts, the machine-stitched black leather mask is displayed in a detailed close-up. As an integral part of Tommy’s identity, the leather mask suggests an association with the cattle processed by the slaughterhouse. Within the corporate industrial context, both Thomas and the cattle are only useful to the production plant as long as his human labor or the beef carcasses generate a profit. As an allegory for many a laid-off factory worker in the bleak employment landscape of 2006, Tommy, with prompting from his adoptive father Sheriff Hoyt, learns to repurpose his slaughterhouse skills in the basement of his family home. As part of that process, he replaces the bovine leather mask, a visual identity that indicated his subservience within the industrial corporate world. In its place, Tommy appropriates the idealized, earnest face of Vietnam soldier Eric, whose duty to family and country clearly define his character values. In a twisted fashion, these values also come to define Tommy’s evolving identity within TCM: the Beginning, as his slaughterhouse skills both provide food for the family and are used as a means to secure it from potentially dangerous outside social forces. To switch from leather to the human mask also indicates Tommy’s shifting values. He evolves from victim of an economic system that defined him as disposable for corporate benefit into perpetrator of a destructive system wherein he disposes of other humans for the Hewitt family’s benefit. Ironically, Tommy and, in turn, the other members of the Hewitt family adopt the same values as the system that has disrupted and oppressed their lives. In a dark poetic turn, the Hewitt family’s actions expose the underlying ideological contradiction between the economic success of corporate capitalism and the economic failure of U.S. workers.
The Bush-Cheney Administration
As the narrative of TCM: the Beginning unfolds, several story elements prompt associations between the evolving monstrous Hewitt family and the George W. Bush Administration. As a denotative element, the use of the Texas farm road signs, in conjunction with the film’s title, firmly anchors the film within a Texas milieu. In part, this association was clearly promoted in the theatrical trailer for the film. It begins with two images of the farm road signs. An extreme long shot is followed by a close up of the farm road sign flapping in the wind. We see Sheriff Hoyt’s first public appearance in his appropriated official role, immediately after he steps onto the badly patched road and turns his gaze toward the horizon. This image provides his point-of-view perspective as he looks down the road, linking his stolen authority with the broad expanse of the Texas landscape. Throughout the film, the images of the flat landscape, deteriorating asphalt roads, dried grass and empty blue skies underscore the social isolation, economic desolation and psychological alienation that fuel every prominent character’s actions for self-survival in the film, especially the members of the Hewitt family. As the result of a particularly destructive auto collision on a farm road, even the young adults, in their confrontations with the Hewitt family, draw their own strength for self-preservation from the harsh landscape. On a general level of meaning, the rural Texas setting in the film echoes with the specter of the George W. Bush administration, in that he had previously been the Texas Governor from 1995 till 2000. More explicitly, the location of the Hewitt family home in rural Texas creates an immediate parallel to the Bush Texas ranch where the President often escaped from the stresses of public office.
In conjunction with the rural Texas setting, the architecture of the Hewitt family home, or the terrible house, provides another subtle association with the U.S. federal government, if not the 2006 Bush-Cheney Administration specifically. Both Robin Wood and Rick Worland have detailed the importance of the “terrible house” as a genre convention, a visual element in the mise-en-scene of nearly any horror film. Referring back to German expressionism in the way that artists externalized the interior or psychological state of the human mind, especially when shaped by external social anxieties beyond one’s control, Wood argues that the terrible house is “an objectification of the personalities of the inhabitants.” Explaining the roots of the haunted house in many horror films, Worland contends the terrible place is a metaphor for arbitrary power, corrupt nobility and hypocritical religious authority. The Hewitt house is certainly this, if nothing else. But, beyond the house’s generic function, its specific mise-en-scene and architectural design convey its inhabitants’ personalities and the corruption and social anxieties within it.
Interestingly, in its postmodern aesthetics, the terrible place, in both the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and TCM: the Beginning, diverges from the somewhat banal white clapboard farmhouse of the 1974 original. The production team for the films replaced the folksy, non-threatening threatening house of the original film (at least on the exterior surface) with an atypical run-down structure that is visually formidable. By “atypical” I mean that the architectural structure of the Hewitt house is atypical for the prairie states, including Texas. Typically, prairie farm or ranch homes built in the 1930s or 1940s were two-story, square, wood-framed white clapboard structures with large wrap-around porches. Wood-frame farm or ranch homes built later in the 1950s or 1960s used rectangular ranch style or split-level architectural design. In contrast, the Hewitt homestead stands out as something abnormal with its large two story columns and cinder-block construction. Surrounded by a weedy, overgrown lawn and crumbling out-buildings, the house appears isolated. The paint peels from the façade, suggesting the owners’ inability or a lack of desire to maintain acceptable public appearances. Visually, the Hewitt house is quite threatening as evidenced by the growing anxiety of anyone arrested and unlucky enough to be in the backseat of Sheriff Hoyt’s car as it pulls up in front of the foreboding structure.
Underneath the deteriorating surface of the Hewitt house, its architecture draws from the federalist style, a term connoting a patriotic association with the early republic. Granted, not everyone in the film’s audience will capture the architectural references conveyed by the Hewitt family house. The geometric emphasis on large columns, windows aligned in horizontal and vertical symmetrical rows, squares used to add both physical strength and visual depth to the porch and window mullions, the fanlight window above the front door coupled with sidelight windows flanking the front door, triangular crowns for porticos, and box-shaped floor plan — these are all hallmarks of the federalist architectural style. Federalist architectural style relies on Neoclassic mathematical building principles, principles that provide strength when using durable, heavy building materials such as marble and granite to erect large public structures. The federalist architectural style was originally favored by many of the United States’ founding fathers, perhaps with Thomas Jefferson being the prime promoter of the style. He hoped that such building principles would parallel the strength and durability of the Constitution and new democratic republic, both based on Neoclassic principles as well. As an available cultural reference for filmmakers, the White House is the most iconic federalist building within the national landscape, and every four years, it becomes the symbolic reference point within an ideological struggle to determine the direction and definition of the American experience. In our own times, since the beginning of the new millennium, the White House, as an emblem of the federal government, has accumulated a kind of symbolic tarnish stemming from accusations from both the right and left; these include public perception that the federal government could not stop external terrorist threats such as the 9/11 attacks; a growing xenophobia toward those of Middle Eastern and Latin American heritage; and the Bush-Cheney Administration’s misuse of power and authority to push its own political, economic and military agenda.
For those with knowledge of architectural style, the film’s postmodern “federalist quotation” in presenting the Hewitt house adds an extra component of ideological association and also political anxiety. With the home’s peeling paint and deteriorating façade, the film adds a dark poetic dimension to its own evocation of the White House, so that the terrible house evokes the ethical corruption and political decay of those who live inside it. Within TCM: the Beginning, the juxtaposition of federalist architectural elements with the deteriorating veneer of the Hewitt home suggests a similar siege mentality, xenophobic paranoia, and abuse of power and authority within that family, a family’s whose values do not seem all that different from those of the Bush-Cheney Administration. In particularly, the house objectifies the patriarchal personality of Sheriff Hoyt Hewitt, externalizing, in the style of German expressionism, his perverse psychological state shaped by the forces of economic depression and contempt for outsiders.