This extreme close up of a crucifix is the first iconic evocation of Christianity and sacrificial suffering to appear in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning.
Sherriff Hoyt’s crucifixion of Dean and Eric visually echoes…
…the physical stress position of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib.
Under Sherriff Hoyt’s direction and by Tommy Hewitt’s hand, Eric, the stalwart soldier, is the first sacrificial victim of the hapless young adults.
In a grotesque presentation of traditional patriarchal values, Bailey, who is barefoot, is tied to the leg of the Hewitt family’s kitchen table.
Sherriff Hoyt presides over the Hewitts’ grotesque re-enactment of the last supper, blessing the food and spouting an invective against those who would undermine traditional family values.
Underscoring his less-than-humble birth, the baby Tommy Hewitt is discarded into waste and debris of the factory’s trash dumpster, not unlike Moses set adrift in river brushes.
A young Luda Mae Hewitt discovers the baby swaddled in butcher paper and meat scraps, a grotesque visual reference to both the Judeo-Christian beliefs in Moses found among the brushes and the baby Jesus in the stable manger.
In his first appearance in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, Eric emerges from a dirty motel swimming pool, suggesting a light-hearted parody of…
... Willard’s rebirth from the primal river as prepares to assassinate Col. Kurtz in the finale of Apocalypse Now.
In the final showdown between Chrissie and Tommy Hewitt in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, the Apocalypse Now visual reference to Willard’s heart-of-darkness moment surfaces again, though in straightforward emotional tone.
As Chrissie prepares to attack Tommy Hewitt, she is transformed from her earlier identity as the traditional homemaker and mother into a figure of feminist fury.
The visual association of Dean’s first image, lying prone on a dirty motel mattress while a ceiling fan circles overhead, visually resonates with…
…the similar introduction of Willard’s character’s in Apocalypse Now.
While economic depression and allegorical references to the Bush-Cheney Administration military policies are alluded to throughout the film’s narrative, TCM: the Beginning also introduces Christian iconography; this is something new, not part of the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Actually, religious reference marked the theatrical trailer for the “prequel” where, in addition to the children’s lullaby of “Mockingbird” that Luda Mae sings to Bailey at the kitchen table, the trailer ties together images from the film with “Amazing Grace” on the soundtrack. Through the repeated use of Christian iconography in TCM: the Beginning, conservative religious ideology comes to define the Hewitt family’s identity and actions. When the first pangs of childbirth interrupt Sloane’s work, she grabs a rosary-like necklace around her neck, presented in extreme close up with a cross dangling; highlights in the image emphasize the crucified Christ figure in the center of the visual frame. Even though the young woman clasps the crucifix as a source of solace, it fails to offer her any relief from the painful, fatal birthing process or the subtle sadism of the plant manager, a pessimistic comment on religion.
The crucifixion imagery continues as a visual motif once the Hewitt family has gotten their hands on the young adults, especially with respect to Eric, the Vietnam soldier. Sheriff Hoyt suspends both Eric and Dean from large beams of hanging wood, employing a rationale of coercing information about the burned draft card to “justify” his brutalization of the two for trespassing onto Hewitt family territory. This image and his action replicate the crucifix’s original staging as well as the physical stress positions from Abu Ghraib photos. Rather than salvation, the film continues associating the crucifix with sadism and suffering, but it also weaves in associations with Sheriff Hoyt’s unauthorized and unregulated political authority. Ultimately, the narrative comes to frame Eric as a Christ-like figure, one whose prolonged suffering at the hands of the Hewitt family echoes the Biblical accounts of Christ’s treatment by his captors. For example, Eric’s placement on Tommy’s “work table,” though slightly altered in the layout, reverberates with the concept of crucifixion. The victim’s hands and ankles as well as his neck are strapped to the wooden table, replicating the spirit, if not the direct imagery, of Christ’s hands and feet nailed to the cross. In addition, the dissected arms provide a visual indication of the physical suffering implemented by Tommy’s industrial skills.
This image culminates the film’s framing Eric as a Christ-like figure. Initially, he sacrifices his dream of building a nuclear family with his girlfriend Chrissie, a dream complete with a house and two children, to return to Vietnam, seeing it as his patriotic duty. After he is able to engineer an escape from his own cross-like constraints in the barn, he attempts to rescue Bailey, Dean’s girlfriend, from her own hellish form of crucifixion. Ultimately, Eric’s attempts end with him strapped to the wooden worktable in the Hewitt basement, sacrificed like Christ for his efforts to save his family and friends.
Despite Eric’s Christ-like sacrifice, Sheriff Hoyt’s perverse interpretation of Biblical scripture dominates the family’s vengeful social philosophy, a clear association with the values of the conservative Religious Right. The most obvious example of Hoyt’s use of scripture appears as he delivers the blessing before the “Last Supper.” Here, he recites, “I was hungry and you gave me meat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in.” But the family’s actions offer an ironic counterpoint to the scripture, revealing Hoyt’s dark self-serving interpretation of it. For the Hewitt family, strangers are the meat. In the film’s narrative, this religious fanaticism is framed as monstrous.
Instead of enduring the more recognizable crucifixion in the barn as did Eric and Dean, Bailey, the non-traditional female member of the young adult group, is bound barefoot to a wooden table leg on the filthy Hewitt kitchen floor, a grotesque visual metaphor of traditional patriarchal values that define a woman’s role in the home, values integral to Religious Right ideology. Additionally, this image echoes those of Abu Ghraib prisoners handcuffed to prison bars, comparing a woman’s subservience within a traditional patriarchal society with that of a prisoner of war. As noted earlier, Luda Mae’s primary role located in the kitchen cooking or pickling human meat is another indication of the limited role available to women in the traditional Hewitt family. After the food has been prepared, Sheriff Hoyt serves up the victuals at the family meals, as he performs a twisted version of grace both thanking God for the food on the table and promising to punish those who would undermine traditional family values. The combination of prayer ritual and patriarchal authority in the film echoes much of the ongoing rhetoric that has defined the ideology of the contemporary Religious Right, a source of much social conflict in contemporary U.S. society. Indeed, the final meal in the film becomes a gruesome performance of the Eucharist, a “Last Supper” performance that crystallizes the underlying apprehension about the impact of Christian fundamentalism on the American social landscape. As the family gathers at the table to dine on Eric stew, this narrative event foregrounds the symbolic cannibalism that is an integral aspect of Christian ritual. [open endnotes in new window] It is this event which prompts Chrissie, initially the most traditional of the four young adults, verbally and physically to reject the Hewitt family’s ideology as both monstrous and destructive. Christian rituals, social hierarchy, male patriarchal abuse, and class rage converge in the final gathering to define the identity of the monstrous traditional patriarchal family, especially as these values destroy the lives of all four young adults.
Even in the prologue, the discovery of the discarded infant in the trash bin by the young Luda Mae Hewitt invokes grotesque images borrowed from Judeo-Christian beliefs. Symbolically, Moses found among the brushes converged with the image of the Christ child swaddled in cloth, both images suggesting important events that define Religious Right ideology. Anchoring the Hewitt family values in both the Old and New Testaments, this pastiche of Christian imagery is interwoven with the economic factors of industrial deterioration. Within the narrative, this prologue creates volatile circumstances that push the Hewitt family to reject the social order that has oppressed them only to create an equally oppressive one based on a perverted interpretation of the Bible. For those who fear the growing power of the Religious Right in U.S society, this cinematic representation is not all that far removed from an actual overriding anxiety. Though not limited to lesbian, gay and various queer communities that have been fighting for equal rights in the context of contemporary U.S. society, those groups are explicit targets of emboldened theocratic attacks against them, fueling anxiety about religious fundamentalism’s oppressive power.
Destruction of youthful idealism
In order for TCM: the Beginning to emphasize its nihilistic ambiance, the film initially provides a mosaic of four archetypes of youthful idealism. This is quite distinct from the 2003 remake wherein the young adults smuggle drugs, engage in promiscuous sexual activity, and clearly shirk from any sense of adult responsibility. In comparison, the young adults in the prequel exhibit the character traits of military valor, political awareness and familial aspirations. All four are ultimately destroyed by the Hewitt family’s military-industrial-religious belief system, a replication of the Bush-Cheney Administration’s values of aggressive military action, destructive and corrupt capitalist practices, and reliance on evangelical born-again Christian religious fervor. Two of the younger archetypes slant toward more conservative ideals and two lean toward more progressive ideological viewpoints. On the conservative side, Eric is a patriotic young man who believes in selfless duty and sacrifice for his country. He, along with his girlfriend Chrissie, spends his last weekend at a dilapidated motel before he heads back for a second tour of duty in Vietnam. Interestingly, Eric’s pending return to battle better parallels the experience of those individuals deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq who served several tours of duty. In the context of the Vietnam War, soldiers embarked on a single tour of duty lasting “12 months for most branches of the military, except the 13 month tour for Marines.” In the film’s narrative, Eric’s second deployment corresponds to the experience of military personnel more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. This similarity suggests that TCM: the Beginning is as much about the contemporary backdrop of these military actions in 2006 as it is about the film’s historical setting of 1969.
When first introduced within the narrative, Eric surfaces from the depths of a leaf-covered swimming pool, an image that draws upon a cinematic reference from Apocalypse Now (1979). The character blocking and camera framing mimics the earlier film, albeit in a lighter tone. In the earlier film, Willard emerges from a river of mud to enact his destruction of the renegade Colonel Kurtz, an embarrassing political liability for the U.S. military establishment during the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now, the image indicates Willard’s rebirth from his initial ambivalence toward Kurtz to his newfound determination to kill the rouge colonel.As it turns out, Eric, along with his companions, must face TCM: the Beginning’s own version of the renegade Colonel Kurtz, in the guise of Sheriff Hoyt Hewitt. As the patriarch of the Hewitt family, Hoyt is a psychologically damaged Korean War veteran and former prisoner of war who holds his own set of extremist military and religious ideals that are not dissimilar to those of Colonel Kurtz. Unlike Apocalypse Now where Willard does assassinate Colonel Kurtz, Eric is the first of the four young adults to die from the Hewitt family’s actions. He becomes the victim of renegade militarism rather than the solution to eliminate it. In an ideological turnabout, any sense of hopefulness for the future that Kurtz’s death suggests at the end of Apocalypse Now is replaced with the catastrophic vision of the future for the young adults that begins, but does not end with Eric’s death on the Hewitt family basement butcher table. In 2006, the patriotism that grows from the ideals of democracy and self-sacrifice embodied in Eric’s character cannot survive the savage onslaught of militaristic vehemence employed by the Hewitt family.
Chrissie, Eric’s girlfriend, personifies another conservative ideal, that of the traditional patriarchal nuclear family. Sitting passively on the side of the pool, she waits as Eric swims to her. Once Eric proposes to her, complete with a dimestore ring, Chrissie voices her dreams of marriage and children. These dreams are tinged with misgivings because of Eric’s pending return to battle. Given the more passive, traditional values that initially inform her character, Chrissie experiences the most radical transformation of the young adults in the film. When Sheriff Hoyt captures her friends in the fallout from a roadside auto accident, Chrissie must shift from passive to aggressive behavior. She infiltrates the Hewitt house to save her friends, sharing a sense of social duty with Eric. This soon erodes as she comes face to face with the cannibal family. Chrissie observes her friends’ executions before facing her own final showdown with Tommy Hewitt. First, she hides under the butcher table as Tommy skewers Eric with a chainsaw. Later, at the grotesque reenactment of the Hewitt family’s version of the Christian Last Supper, Chrissie watches, while tied to a chair, as Tommy slices Bailey’s neck with a pair of household scissors. It is at this point in the narrative where Chrissie explicitly rejects her former idealistic beliefs in traditional patriarchal family values. While Chrissie’s initially subservient behavior began to erode once she set foot on the Hewitt family’s property, her previously repressed feminist anger erupts in full force at the dinner table. Accusing the Hewitt family of incestuous, perverted sexual behavior, she literally screams out her disgust with and defiance of them.
In one opportunistic moment, Chrissie stabs Tommy with a screwdriver, a feminist appropriation of a traditionally masculine tool. Using the chaos created by this attack, she escapes from the destructive environment of the Hewitt house, only to end up in the decaying confines of the slaughterhouse. The cinematic reference to rebirth from Apocalypse Now reappears, this time replicating the ominous tone of the original source. Having hidden from Tommy in one of the slaughterhouse’s blood vats, Chrissie emerges at the surface, covered in coagulating blood and wielding a large butcher knife. Drawing upon her new-found sense of aggressive feminist anger, she lunges at Tommy, an icon of unleashed male rage, a product of the traditional home and factory. As the narrative setting from which Chrissie last escapes, the slaughterhouse, with its atmosphere of death and decay, suggests that the routine labor of the factory system offers even less personal fulfillment for a young woman than domestic slavery. Chrissie wounds Tommy, although not fatally. After fortuitously finding the dead plant manager’s car keys on the slaughterhouse office floor, she makes one last dash for survival in his automobile parked outside of the slaughterhouse. She frantically drives onto the west Texas farm road to escape Tommy’s wrath. Unfortunately for Chrissie, Tommy has found the car first. Rising up from the back seat, he impales her with the grinding action of his chainsaw. The car careens into both a highway patrol car and a stopped motorist. Only Tommy walks away from the scene unscathed, a monstrous index of male rage. With Chrissie’s death, both her previous beliefs in the traditional family and her newly acquired feminist consciousness are decimated as she slumps post-mortem in the car. Neither set of values survives the onslaught of the extreme militaristic religious patriarchal actions of the Hewitt family.
While TCM: the Beginning dismembers conservative ideals, progressive values fare no better. As Eric’s brother, Dean exemplifies the idealistic pacifist who questions the underlying agenda of U.S. political and military actions. In another visual reference to Apocalypse Now, the film introduces Dean, on his back, his arms and legs splayed over a motel bed with wrists and ankles tied to its four corners. Through an overhead shot sliced by a slowly turning ceiling fan, this image recalls the introduction of Willard in the earlier film in which he stares up at a slowly revolving ceiling fan. Just as the slowly revolving fan conveys Willard’s ambivalence to hunt down the rogue Colonel Kurtz in the jungles of Cambodia, Dean’s introduction in TCM: the Beginning parallels his lack of enthusiasm to ship out to Vietnam. By the end of the film however, Dean morphs into the selfless warrior who understands that he must destroy Sheriff Hewitt at any cost, thus discarding his previous values of pacifism in much the same manner that Willard abandons his moral veneer to kill Kurtz.
Even so, the ideological conflict, between Eric’s patriotic values and Dean’s pacifism, sets in motion the chain of events that pulls the young adults into the Hewitt family’s lair. When Dean defiantly burns his draft card as the young quartet drives down the dusty Texas farm road, he elicits a negative reaction from Eric, who is steering their Jeep. It is the ideological confrontation between brothers which contributes to Eric’s distraction and the car accident. This, in turn, leads to Sheriff Hoyt’s interaction with the young people, and ultimately leads to their imprisonment and torture by the Hewitt family. In particular, Hoyt’s wrath falls on Dean, as a young man who dares to challenge the authority and ideological stance of the U.S. government. Under Hoyt’s torturous tutelage, Dean develops his own militaristic brand of survival, eschewing any sense of pacifism in his last confrontation with the sheriff on the Hewitt’s front porch. Dean pummels his opponent while regurgitating the older man’s words and actions back at him.
Bailey, Dean’s girlfriend, is the young woman who initially exemplifies both sexual and feminist liberation. As a mild version of a dominatrix, it is she who has loosely bound Dean to the motel bed in attempt to spice up their sexual encounter. Evidently, Dean has agreed to this gender role reversal as he quickly slips out of the binds when his pre-occupation with their plans to escape over the Mexican border interferes with his ability to perform sexually. Once Sheriff Hoyt captures the young people, the cannibal family works to break down Bailey’s non-traditional feminist independence. First, the family literally trusses her to a kitchen table leg where she becomes a personification of the old patriarchal adage that women belong barefoot in the kitchen. Later, Bailey is bound to Hoyt’s bed, in a much more ominous manner. This image evokes her crucifixion for Hoyt’s sadistic sexual gratification, an act that clearly indicates the religious source of his sexual repression while subordinating her to his patriarchal authority. Towards the end of the film, the Hewitt family ultimately finds Bailey to be too tainted to be reintegrated back into the traditional patriarchal family fold. With a slice of the blade of a household scissor across the throat, Tommy “releases” Bailey from her previous indiscretions, evoking the destructive power that traditional patriarchy has upon women who exert their social and sexual independence.
It is the introduction and destruction of the different types of youthful idealism that provides the counterpoint to frame the various beliefs and actions of the Hewitt family, especially those of Hoyt and Thomas, as monstrous and socially dangerous. Wood argues that one of the most terrifying aspects of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that young adults are devoured by the demands and traditions of the past. As a source of dread, the torment and destruction of the young adults and their idealism by the Hewitt family elders culturally functions in the same manner in the TCM: the Beginning. The Hewitt family’s xenophobia about “hippies, bikers, and draft dodgers” grows from their generational and class anxiety that the young adults are a threat to their values and way of life. One could interpret the film, as Deburge does, as a call for audience members “willing to embrace such homicidal maniacs as heroes.” But such an interpretation ignores the rampant destruction throughout the film and its nihilistic ending. By the point of the “Last Supper,” the Hewitt family sustains that maniacal way of life by ingesting the energy supplied by soldier Eric’s body, in much the same way that the Bush-Cheney Administration maintained its political and social power through the deaths of young soldiers in a questionable military invasion. The other young adults are collateral damage. While the Hewitt family values prevail at the end of the movie, their success in destroying all of the young adults provokes dread rather than celebration. TCM: the Beginning thus provokes a strong critique of the family’s values and actions.