2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
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.[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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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.”
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. In the film’s DVD afterlife, it earned another $15,968,770.
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.” 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. 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.” 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.
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.
Historical context of U.S. society in the new millennium
Threats to ideological stability lurk below the surface in even the seemingly most stable social periods. The new millennium’s first decade was particularly tumultuous, particularly within the U.S. social context. For example, anxiety about our reliance on computer technology to organize economic processes underlay the Y2K crisis on the eve of the new millennium, setting the tone for the social paranoia that was to follow throughout the decade. At the end of the 1990s, many computer data systems had been programmed to abbreviate a four-year digit to just the last two digits of the year. Presumably, the databases could not distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900. Fueled by a news barrage, predictions of global banking failure, and the failure of energy utility services, many individuals adopted a survivalist response, hoarding food and water.
A similar crisis of faith in the U.S. political system erupted the following November. In the highly contested 2000 Presidential election, charges and counter-charges of mismanagement, manipulation and outright corruption in the election process undermined democracy’s ideals as George W. Bush, former Governor of Texas, became U.S. President because of a very close, contested vote count in Florida. Problematic punch ballots, the questionable deletion of 50,000 voters as felons, mostly African-Americans and registered Democrats, and a contested intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted the ballot recount, finally contributed to Florida’s Electoral College votes being cast for George W. Bush. In the month before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its controversial decision, Republicans and Democrats accused each other of ballot manipulation and corrupt practices. Aftershocks of distrust about the election process’s validity continued in the wake of that ideological controversy.
With President Bush only nine months into office, enacting his administration’s economic deregulatory policies and personifying born-again religious social fervor, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. shook the nation’s ideological confidence in U.S. political and military prowess. The shattered myth that the U.S. was impervious to domestic attacks from outside forces fueled more collective social paranoia. On October 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attack, the Bush-Cheney Administration, along with the United Kingdom and the United Nations, launched forces into Afghanistan to hunt Osama bin Laden as a show of military might against Al Qaeda forces.
In addition, different Federal policing organizations, especially the CIA and the FBI, chastised each other over bureaucratic ineptitude, inefficiency and territory because they had lost the opportunity to share information that might have prevented the terrorist attack. To counter this bickering over federal police authority, the Bush-Cheney Administration created the Office of Homeland Security in 2002. Given wide latitude of authority, this organization wielded power that could disregard the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, thus initiating more social paranoia, particularly in matters of domestic surveillance.
The Bush-Cheney Administration exploited the myth of surveillance’s usefulness, using misinformation about various types of weapons of mass destruction to support the invasion of Iraq. While the invasion eventually toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, U.S. troops found no weapons of mass destruction and left the social fabric of Iraq in tatters. This fiasco further undermined the trust that many U.S. citizens had in their leaders and Federal Government. Ironically, to bolster public support both for the invasion of Iraq and President Bush’s credibility as a leader, his advisors created a public relations photo opportunity on May 1, 2003 where he could indicate that the Iraq invasion was a “Mission Accomplished.” In a grandiose display of military might and wasted taxpayers’ dollars, the President, dressed in full military flight apparel, arrived by S-3 Viking fixed-wing aircraft to parade on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, a ship returning to California port after deployment in the Persian Gulf. The photo op implied that the U.S. military operations had been a success a mere month and a half after the initial invasion of Iraq. However, guerilla warfare had already increased the violence in Iraq. Furthermore, the appearance of the President in full military flight apparel again raised questions about his truthfulness about his own military service, an issue that had surfaced during the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, sadistic U.S. troop and governmental behavior came under scrutiny in late April 2004, when the world discovered the degree to which the Bush-Cheney Administration sanctioned torture. In early spring 2002, several of President Bush’s top cabinet members, including Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and John Ashcroft, began evaluating the Central Intelligence Agency’s plan to set up an interrogation unit first for Al Qaeda prisoners of war and then for those from Iraq. In conjunction, the Justice Department narrowed the definition of unacceptable torture techniques as outlined in Geneva Convention, essentially disregarding that document to sanction interrogation practices previously considered illegal. Newly acceptable interrogation practices included, but were not limited to the use of stress positions, sleep and sensory deprivation, stripping prisoners naked for purposes of humiliation, the use of sexual harassment and abuse, and the threat of dog attacks. Members of the Bush-Cheney Administration drew up an official authorization for the use of these interrogation techniques in a document signed by Donald Rumsfeld in December 2002.
Visually, dramatically exposed to the whole world through photographs taken by members of the Military Police Brigade at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the environment for monstrous behavior, in fact, had already been set up by U.S. official authorization and acceptance of various forms of torture. While the young MPs at Abu Ghraib certainly victimized those prisoners in their charge, they themselves were victims of an ideological system that not only sanctioned their behavior, but ultimately prompted them to engage in it. When in 2004, emerging news stories and disturbing explicit pictures of the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison rippled throughout U.S. culture, spilling across different cultures via the Internet, the dissonance exploded — between the ideals behind the invasion, to eliminate the dictatorship of Sadaam Hussein and foster democracy in Iraq, and the visible behavior of U.S. military personnel who clearly ignored professed American values of humaneness, fairness and tolerance.
In addition to these highly disruptive events, other ongoing phenomena contributed to the growing U.S. social anxiety in the new millennium. The Religious Right, or evangelical Christian social conservatives, exerted much power in the Republican political party, and in turn, in overall U.S. politics. They helped to elect George W. Bush to two terms as President. As well, the Religious Right challenged the maintenance or expansion of Constitutional rights, specifically with respect to the issues of gay marriage, abortion and even economic regulation. These challenges helped to polarize the U.S. population into the factious social groups of Red States (primarily social conservatives) and Blue States (more socially moderate or progressive). With continued economic deregulation, overseas outsourcing of commodity production undermined the prospect of achieving the economic American Dream for many workers. During the early part of the new millennium, the economic disparity between the very wealthy top five percent of the U.S. population and everyone else continued to grow at an alarming rate.
Also, a renegade corporate mentality, one that manipulated markets and abused accounting practices, blossomed within the U.S. economic environment and was first signaled by the 2001 Enron scandal in which Enron corporate executives unethically controlled the energy market, raided worker pension plans, and fraudulently manipulated the corporation’s accounting reports. Enron was the millennium’s first financial scandal, but it certainly was not the last. The lack of arrests and light punishment for those at the top levels of society who abuse and manipulate U.S. economic and political systems has perpetuated a cynicism about civic life in the United States.
While these events do not exhaust the potential sites of ideological contradiction fostering social anxiety in U.S. society in the 21st Century, they certainly provide a strong basis to begin discussing the cultural resonances TCM: the Beginning has for its audience. Many negative consequences of the Bush-Cheney Administration policies — outsourced manufacturing, deregulated capitalism, political manipulation, military aggression, and religious fanaticism — have had an impact on young adults. As they move into the workforce, young people face more competition for fewer job positions, often with lower pay and longer working hours. Before either the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, many young adults at the lower end of the economic spectrum joined the National Guard for extra income or college tuition. While the possibility of wartime deployment to foreign soil has been an option for those who have joined the National Guard, this alternative had seldom been used as a way of building the main U.S. fighting force before the 9/11 attacks. Instead the National Guard has been used in the U.S. domestic environment, either as a response to natural disasters or to domestic civil unrest. Rather than reactivate the conventional draft for its new military offensives, which could very well have undermined support for these actions, the Bush-Cheney Administration activated the National Guard and military Reserve Units to flesh out and relieve traditional enlisted troops. Once the Invasion of Iraq was under way, those young adults who had enlisted in the National Guard to better their economic social status found themselves on the way to the Middle East, not to college. Not unlike in the Vietnam War, young adults, many from the poorer sectors of society, end up serving in the military actions instigated by politicians, with older (mostly male) adults controlling the U.S. political system. As reported by the Associated Press on October 8, 2004, 160,000 individuals on active duty in the Middle East out of 660,000 came from the National Guard and military Reserves. Once the federal government instituted the 24-month rotation for active duty in the Middle East for those in the National Guard and Reserves, both organizations began to see a decline in successful recruitment and retainment of soldiers. The national government’s plan to avoid activating the draft by forcing those enlisted in the National Guard and the Reserves into longer tours of duty in the Middle East began to boomerang. The benefits of college tuition or extra income no longer outweighed the potential dangers of extended active duty in a dangerous hostile environment such as Iraq. While contemporary young adults did not burn draft cards as did young men in response to the Vietnam War, the 2004 decline in recruitment and retainment of soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves suggests youth’s similar disdain for the military invasion of Iraq.
With all of these actual social anxieties from which to draw its dark dystopian view of U.S. society, TCM: the Beginning offers a perfect example of what Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard define as the “postmodern cinema of mayhem.” For Boggs and Pollard, the cinema of mayhem has surfaced in periods of great social unrest. For the family and the individual, this everyday social unrest and chaos provokes a condition “defined by a reign of extreme individualism freed of constricting rules, norms, and traditions,” prompted by an underlying “brutal struggle for survival.” Beyond the potential threats from external forces in 2006, chaos underscored many, if not most domestic social, economic and political arenas, as partisan groups within a fragmented U.S. society openly fought with each other. Thematically, this postmodern cinema of mayhem examines the social institution of the family — disrupted by chaotic changes in the workforce, suburbanization, social unpredictability and disorder — through a filter of relentlessly harsh cynicism and criticism. Within TCM: the Beginning, “individualism freed of constricting rules, norms and traditions” describes the actions and values that underlie the cannibal Hewitt family, in general, and Sheriff Hoyt, in particular.
Formally, TCM: the Beginning incorporates a characteristically postmodern style of bricolage. The film appropriates ideas and images from a wide variety of preceding sources and cultural formats. Obviously, the “prequel” draws part, though not all, of its narrative from the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which itself had borrowed from the initial 1974 film. Beyond that, the filmmakers of TCM: the Beginning incorporate references such to such imagery as derives from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, news coverage of the military invasions in the Middle East, images and stories from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, as well as war films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket — to name the most explicit cultural references used in the film. At this point, I would like to examine the cinematic setting, characters, props and narrative events and trace their symbolic connections to both preceding cultural texts and contemporary events in order to see how a popular culture text might enact social anxieties from the first decade of the 21st century, many the direct result of policies enacted by the Bush-Cheney Administration. Ultimately, the film implies, through the metaphoric blow of a sledge hammer and the poetic churn of a chainsaw, that the Bush-Cheney Administration’s actions are monstrous.
Economic instability and social anxiety
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:
“…it is tempting to conclude that most Americans are feeling 'better off.' But a glance at the newspapers suggests that this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, poll after poll shows that many Americans feel dissatisfied with the long-term direction of the economy and are worried about the future. Recent polls by the Pew Charitable Trust, the New York Times and CBS News, and various labor organizations indicate that growing shares of respondents feel that they and their children will experience a diminished quality of life in coming years, and that, even today, working conditions are marked by more insecurity and stress than they were a generation ago.”
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 and social anxiety
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.
As the voice over commentary on the DVD release states, the production company for TCM: the Beginning was able to use the very same run-down house, with its federalist style, that was used as Hewitt family house in the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original use of a decaying federalist style house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 may have been purely accidental, a fortuitous decision that shaped the production for TCM: the Beginning. Accident or not, the poetic function of the federalist-style house bears increased ideological weight when conjoined with the additional ideological associations prompted by many other narrative choices in the “prequel” that were not included in the 2003 remake. The semiotic elements of the Hewitt house interweave with new references such as allusions to the sanctioned torture at Abu Ghraib prison and explicit evangelical Christian references — in addition to allusions to economic depression and the abuse and corruption of political authority that had already surfaced in the remake. While Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) vaguely suggested anxieties associated with the Bush-Cheney Administration, TCM: the Beginning allegorically pummels them to death.
Within the narrative action, political corruption surfaces quite early in the film. Charlie Hewitt, patriarch of the family, acquires an alter-identity that reverberates with events associated with the Bush-Cheney Administration. As Sheriff Winston, the last remaining legitimate law officer in the area, attempts to arrest Thomas for the bludgeoning death of the slaughterhouse plant manager, Charlie steals the law officer’s shotgun from the official sheriff car’s dashboard, shooting Winston in the back of the head. Discarding his previous identity, Charlie steals identification to become Sheriff Hoyt, complete with freshly laundered uniform, shiny badge, and a new name tag. Charlie’s metamorphosis into Hoyt conjures up cultural memories of the contested 2000 Presidential election in which candidate Al Gore held the popular vote whereas George Bush became the national leader, suggesting metaphoric associations with illicit political manipulation. Hoyt’s identity personifies, in part, that sense of stolen authority. His representing the law of the land parallels the anxiety about leadership in the 2006 U.S. political landscape. With such cultural associations, TCM: the Beginning establishes allegorical links between the growing monstrousness of the Hewitt family and its allegorical cultural association with the Bush-Cheney White House.
For Tommy, the facially deformed, adopted son of the Hewitt family, how the characters regard him is fueled by the various masks he wears and his large physical stature. Outside of the Hewitt family, people taunt him as a freak, an animal, and a “retard,” basing much of their evaluation on his physical surface appearance. Within the categories that define the film’s social order, he lacks the surface qualities that define “normal” human appearance. As an abandoned infant in the slaughterhouse dumpster, much of his face is covered by crumpled butcher paper, leaving the full extent of the facial deformity to the viewer’s imagination. Given that the film does not offer an explicit image of Tommy’s face then, the viewer must wonder about the extent of his facial deformity. Fueling this curiosity, as the backdrop for the opening credits that follow young Luda Mae’s discovery in the dumpster, a visual montage of still images, newspaper clippings, bureaucratic paperwork, and a few short moving images provide some plot information that suggests that Tommy, from a very young age, practices self-mutilation as well as mutilates animals. Even so, the film does not offer clear visual indications of the extent of his natural deformity, of his self-inflicted mutilations, or of the combined ratio of the two. This narrative approach is somewhat perplexing, as the 2003 remake provides a close-up of Tommy’s mutilated/deformed face, wherein the complete absence of his nose and scared cheeks are quite pronounced. In contrast, TCM: the Beginning emphasizes the importance of the various masks rather than show Tommy’s face, adding ideological weight to this aspect of his identity.
Such a visual “teasing” continues throughout the film as the viewer never gets a clear visual image of Tommy’s deformed face. When the adult Tommy moves from the use of a stitched black leather mask to a human face, no random appropriated human face will do. In one of the film’s most visually explicit grand guignol moments, he flays the face of Eric, the Vietnam soldier, to wear as his own. In this case, the face is a horrific metaphor of appropriated military identity. On one level, it references the more acceptable charade by President George W. Bush, attired in a military flight uniform as he boarded the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Because he had such a questionable military service record, President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op can be viewed as just as much a travesty of military heroics as Thomas’ visceral appropriation of Eric’s face. On another level, this narrative event creates an association between Eric’s socially approved actions as a Vietnam soldier and Tommy’s violent reactions against his social environment. This association and this contrast between Eric and Tommy, and their “face,” can be read allegorically in terms of the new war, the Iraq war, and the new kind of social anxiety it has generated. The war is accompanied by massive contradiction. The U.S. sanctioned the invasion of Iraq, expecting to find weapons of mass destruction that were not there. At the same time, the neo-cons so influential in the Administration falsely assumed the U.S. armed forces would be welcome and the U.S. presence would improve the lives of Iraqi citizens. And then, in a dramatic way the abuses of military authority at Abu Ghraib prison were perpetrated by young soldiers with prototypical boy or girl-next-door appearances. For the U.S. public, all these aspects of the war undermined any idealistic sense of U.S. military actions in Iraq.
In the film the script condenses such social anxieties with the horrific nature of Tommy’s stealing Eric’s face. Plotwise, this narrative event becomes a powerful metaphor. Throughout the film Hoyt prods Tommy’s murderous rampages, one of which ends with Tommy appropriating Eric’s face. The multifaceted metaphor echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s promotion and sanction of acceptable torture techniques for U.S. military intelligence to gather information from prisoners of war, as well as the prison guards at Abu Ghraib who enacted such policy and more. It also harkens back to the President’s own appropriated military identity. Tommy’s theft of Eric’s face is a monstrous action metaphorically parallel to those taken by members of the Bush-Cheney Administration or people under their command.
The invasion of Iraq and social anxiety
In conjunction with the previously discussed anxieties, the hovering backdrop of the Vietnam War in TCM: the Beginning also reverberates with social anxiety about more recent U.S. military actions.In October, 2006, the country was still mired in ideologically divisive military actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The body count, both of young U.S. military and of the Iraqi people, continued to grow in daily news reports. In contrast, clear progress to “secure” social stability in Iraq existed mainly in U.S. government public relations reports rather than being substantiated by verifiable evidence, especially through the later part of 2003 up through 2006. Indeed, this cognitive dissonance paralleled similar circumstances from the Vietnam War era where the news and the White House provided such different reports and “statistics.”
In the film, the Vietnam War influences character motivation, especially the prisoners’, with Eric’s patriotism and Dean’s pacifism. Eric’s previous experiences in Vietnam fuel conflicting emotions — patriotic duty vs. growing alienation arising from the cruelty and savagery he had confronted while in battle. In terms of plot development, Dean’s burned draft card triggers Sheriff Hoyt’s generational and class rage against hippies, bikers and draft dodgers. In a manner similar to Tommy’s job loss and its effect on that character in the prologue, the burned draft card unleashes Hoyt’s physical and psychological sadism. As he punishes both Eric and Dean for the burned draft card, Hoyt comes to embody a complex ideological mixture of psychotic reactionary patriotism mixed with religious fundamentalist fervor, deriving from his reaction to the Vietnam War. By building in plot developments that are based on the response of these three characters to the experience of the Vietnam War, the film provides a cinematic allegory extending the reference to contemporary conflicting perspectives toward current military conflicts, especially in Iraq — here from the xenophobic fanatic, the anti-war isolationist, and the duty-bound patriot.
Furthermore, the character Chrissie’s evolution is another index of how contemporary factors shift the historical reference of the film. By the end of the film, she transforms from a traditional woman into a warrior woman fighting to save her friends’ lives and her own. In this sense there has been an historical shift with the invasion of Iraq, where more women military have participated in direct battle, indeed become casualties, than in the Vietnam War, where U.S. women soldiers did not participate in combat. Consequently, Chrissie’s character shift indicates a concern with the changing role of women in contemporary military operations rather than reference to the Vietnam War.
Beyond the literal setting of TCM: the Beginning, the rural Texas setting resonates with more contemporary events. As part of the general setting for the film, the geographical location of rural Texas, with its desolate sense of environment, also can be seen to refer to the desert landscape of post-invasion Iraq. This is part of the film’s narrative setup. In quick succession, several narrative events converge as the youths, soon to be prisoners, ride in their Jeep on a deserted Texas Farm Road. These events push them reluctantly into a small-scale military battle. Distracted by their own argument over the burning of the draft card, Eric and Dean fail to notice a female outlaw biker, complete with sawed-off shotgun, gaining ground behind them. As she fires at the Jeep, Eric exchanges gunfire with the her, taking his eyes off the road in front of him. This turns out to be a fateful mistake.
The Jeep collides with a large steer crossing the farm road in the wide-open expanse of the rural Texas landscape. Eric ends up in front of the decimated vehicle; Dean and Bailey are trapped in the backseat while Chrissie has been ejected into brush at the side of the road. With pieces of the Jeep and cattle carcass strewn over the road, the female biker proceeds to rob the three young adults still left with the wrecked vehicle. To add more confusion to the situation, Sheriff Hoyt pulls up, killing the female biker in a showdown straight out of a classic Hollywood western. He discovers the partially burned draft card that sets off his reactionary patriotic tirade against Eric and Dean. In trying to protect his younger brother, Eric professes that he is Dean, an identity switch, which when discovered by Sheriff Hoyt, provides him further rationale to engage in his sadistic interrogation and torture of the young adults. In the DVD’s voice-over commentary, Director Liebesman says he intended to convey that Hoyt always knew that the two brothers were lying to him, since the distinct difference between Eric’s and Dean’s haircuts — one with a shorter military cut and the other with a longer “hippie” hairstyle — implies who is the soldier and who is not. Again, this moment provides insight into Hoyt’s character. Ultimately, because they are both interlopers into his territory, he will direct his rage at both young men, patriot and draft resister.
Within the few minutes of screen time that it takes these story events to occur, the script constructs a setting of lawlessness; it is common in horror films to create a setup where it quickly becomes clear that the social rules and social identity with which the young adults/victims are familiar no longer apply. In the place of a “civilized” social order, the more savage rules of “eat or be eaten,” as stated by Sheriff Hoyt in his torture of Dean, become the norms for survival in this inhospitable milieu. Based on reports young U.S. soldiers have given about their experience in Iraq, such plot events resonate with the reported lawlessness that permeated Iraqi society right after the invasion, the ongoing sense of animosity projected by Iraqi locals toward the young soldiers, and even the individual trials of isolation and alienation experienced by young U.S. soldiers who find themselves in sudden and confusing military engagement.
Furthermore, after the collision, the imagery of strewn automotive debris evokes strikingly similar iconography recorded during the invasion of Iraq where wasted automobile shells and military machinery littered the roadsides. A similar image appears in the final scene of the film, in the wake of Thomas’ final confrontation with Chrissie, reinforcing the associations between the rural Texas setting and images of roadside destruction in Iraq. The Hewitt family wages war on anyone who happens to cross their path. In the film, the war-like events and images intersect with the other social anxieties rising from the influences of economic depression to conjure the military practices and policies of the Bush-Cheney Administration. Connotations with the invasion of Iraq become stronger once the narrative turns its focus on the brutal torture and sadism inflicted by Sheriff Hoyt and Tommy upon the hapless young adults, acts that perhaps draw their inspiration from the disturbing images of U.S. soldiers’ conduct with Iraqi detainees in the military prison of Abu Ghraib.
Social anxiety about Abu Ghraib and the failure of U.S. ideals
In early 2004, a series of horrific images began to circulate through the Internet that exposed the sanctioned practices of torture affected by members of the 800th Military Police Brigade on prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison. Later, an official military report prepared by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba supported the initial allegations of torture. In terms of general cultural awareness, internationally, the photos were shown on extensive news media reports by 60 Minutes II on April 28, 2004 and in articles posted by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker. The images and the narratives around them conveyed instances of psychological humiliation, which exploited the prisoners’ sexual, gender and religious identity, and physical torture. In particular, the images that circulated via the Internet, originally among soldiers, fueled social anxiety — about the “benevolence” of a U.S. military presence in Iraq, the potential savagery of ill-trained American reservists, and a growing sense that the “solution” for Saddam Hussein’s barbarous treatment of the Iraqi people was as demoralizing and dangerous for them as their former leader’s own edicts and behavior.
In the trajectory of the film’s plot, having captured Eric, Dean and Bailey in the wake of the farm road skirmish, Sheriff Hoyt’s psychological humiliation and physical sadism, especially toward Eric and Dean, resonates in the viewers’ minds with what they know of the behavior of the military police at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, within the film these scenes are constructed and acted with intense emotional brutality. Much of this effect is due to the actors’ willingness to perform, with the physical verisimilitude of an extreme method-acting style, Hoyt’s acts of torture and humiliation on Eric and Dean. As described on the DVD’s voice-over commentary, the young actors endured the physical brutality of stress positions, suffocation, and blows from Hoyt’s truncheon. In the push-up scene, actor R. Lee Ermey (Hoyt) delivered body blows with a hard rubber truncheon to Taylor Handley (Dean), with at least one of the blows inflicting physical damage, seen in fact when Handley limps across the yard in his escape attempt. Matt Bomer (Eric) suffered short periods of suffocation when his face was enveloped in plastic wrap as well as a painful fall to the ground when he finally escapes from his forced-hanging stress position. Ermey, whose acting mantra on the set was “more is more,” adds a level of chilling realism to Hoyt’s caustic taunts and humiliation as well as his physical blows that amplify the dread associated with that character. The emotional intensity that results from the actors’ total immersion in their roles lets them exaggerate the inequality of social power between their characters. Consequently, the emotional intensity of the torture scenes deepens their metaphoric ties to the circulating photos and news stories about U.S. military police atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison.
Ermey’s performance as Hoyt Hewitt also echoes Gny. Sgt. Hartman, a similar character Ermey created for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, set during the Vietnam War. As a drill sergeant preparing new recruits for deployment, in that film Hartman unrelentingly humiliates out-of-shape, overweight Pvt. Pyle, especially during obstacle course training. In one scene, Hartman layers both psychological and physical abuse onto Pyle who cannot complete one chin-up, a sign that the young man is not fit for military service. Both films, through the roles created by R. Lee Ermey, present cinematic metaphors of abusive police authority. In the same manner that Hartman persecutes Pvt. Pyle, Emrey’s Sheriff Hoyt visits a similar psychological and physical torture on Dean. After Dean confesses his actual identity and that he was the one to burn his draft card, the faux sheriff drags the young man into the open expanse of the Hewitt family farmyard. As both a means of punishment and training, Hoyt offers the young man a chance at freedom. If Dean can perform ten correct pushups as a sign of his fitness for military duty, he will be free to walk off the farm. Of course, Dean’s task is not that simple. With a truncheon, Hoyt pummels the young man in his lower back and legs as he tries to push off of the ground, thereby thwarting Dean’s endeavor. Based on the depositions taken from prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Hoyt’s verbal and physical abuse of Dean and Eric compares to several instances of prisoner abuse carried out by SPC Charles A. Graner Jr., the military policeman sentenced to 10 years in prison for the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of prisoners, including beating them with a solid plastic stick.
In addition, in TCM: the Beginning, Hoyt hangs the two young men crucifixion-style in a stress position to set the stage for his interrogation of them. As an alleged punishment for the burned draft card, he wraps the presumed Dean’s/Eric’s head in plastic wrap. Such an image of the young man struggling for his breath and life is eerily reminiscent of several images that captured a particular form of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, that of wrapping a naked detainee’s head in women’s underwear while his outstretched arms are shackled to the metal frame of a prison bunk bed. In addition, the use of the plastic wrap as a means of suffocation echoes the practice of water-boarding, an interrogation technique that the Bush-Cheney Administration condoned.
References to Abu Ghraib mount as the Hewitt family increases to demoralize and physically attack their four young adult captives. Whether the filmmakers consciously appropriated the images and news stories from Abu Ghraib or drew from the unconscious zeitgeist that has festered in U.S. culture, the correlation between the sadistic behavior and tortuous actions of the Hewitt family, primarily Hoyt, and those of the military police is pronounced, indicating a dark cultural acknowledgement of the social anxiety produced by the events at the actual prison.
Social anxiety about family values and the Religious Right
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. 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.
Formal motifs conveying anxiety
According to remarks made in the DVD voice-over commentary, the production team set out to make TCM: the Beginning look more like the 1974 original, at least with respect to the camerawork. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses a lot of hand-held camera work and erratic editing that provides the film with much of its emotional energy and replicates much of the characters’ neurotic anxiety. In contrast, the 2003 remake of that film favors more conventional camera work, using stationary camera or smooth camera movement. As a result, the remake lacks the original’s adrenalin energy and emotional impact. TCM: the Beginning uses a production style that synthesizes formal elements from both of its predecessors. The prequel appropriates the use of hand-held camerawork as well as emphasizes off-screen narrative space, a cinematic technique utilized effectively in the original film. From the 2003 remake, the 2006 film liberally borrows expressionist chiaroscuro lighting techniques that visually define the Hewitt family’s “terrible house” as well as the slaughterhouse.
Several aesthetic patterns contribute to the dark poetics and cultural critique. As noted earlier, near monochromatic images suggest a bleak social environment grounded in a rigid social hierarchy. Remembering that Sheriff Hoyt’s psychological and physical torture techniques are not the same thing as Tommy’s expertise in vivisection, the film provides plenty of the former while sparsely integrating the latter. The manipulation of light and shadow, hand-held camera framing, and rhythmic pacing of the editing withholds as much information as it explicitly reveals. As noted earlier in Layden’s amazon.com criticism of the film, the imagery is heavily drenched in blood splatter but relatively free of explicit on-screen bodily penetration by a revved-up chainsaw. While Layden perceives this cinematic technique as a weakness in the film, it can just as easily be viewed as the film’s strength. The combined cinematic techniques prompt, to a large degree, a greater reliance on the viewer’s stitching together the horrific mayhem, potentially accessing darker anxieties than even the filmmakers could have explicitly presented.
In the dark basement where Tommy plies his butchering skills, the extensive use of shadows reveal sideway glimpses of his vivisection of Eric. Similarly, the extensive use of off-screen story space often implies monstrous narrative action rather than showing it. This technique prompts the viewer to fill in “the blanks” of horrific acts, heightening his or her anxiety more than explicit on-screen gore exploited in torture porn films such as the Saw franchise (2004-2009). As noted, skillful rhythmic editing works in tandem with the manipulation of off-screen space. As Chrissie hides under Tommy’s work table where Eric lies shackled, images quickly cut between hand-held close-ups of Tommy’s hand as he revs up the chainsaw and both Chrissie’s and Eric’s horrified facial reactions. As the attack continues, the shots are linked together on the soundtrack through the overarching sound effect of the chainsaw. These shots are then followed by a medium close up in which Tommy raises the chainsaw. A side-view canted lower-angle shot of the saw touching Eric’s abdomen implies that it has penetrated his flesh, but no explicit display of saw ripping into meat is included in the sequence. Rather it is the blood splattering from off-screen over characters’ faces and hands that indicates that the chainsaw is in the process of penetration. These are followed by a close up and quick camera pan as the chainsaw blade penetrates below the worktable in front of Chrissie’s face. For the most part, the images are captured through hand-held camera work and linked together using quick pacing and shot order to convey the horror of the situation and increase narrative anxiety.
According to the DVD voice-over commentary, the filmmakers conceived this scene as the visual and narrative centerpiece in TCM: the Beginning. From a narrative standpoint, this action defines Tommy’s emerging identity as he pursues his monstrous goals through his own volition, rather than Hoyt’s direction. It is a transformative moment for Tommy. He abandons any reluctance to pursue his own perverse desires. Here, Tommy’s narrative function shifts from that of a victimized man whose actions are motivated by economic, social and biologic forces beyond his control. Now he becomes the monstrous figure, unleashing his class rage. As a result, audience sympathy fully shifts to Eric and Chrissie. Formally, the predominant use of close-up reaction shots and point of view shots, an allusion to horrific action happening outside the visual frame, and an exaggerated amplification of the chainsaw’s grinding sound foreground both Chrissie’s and Eric’s emotional suffering and Eric’s physical destruction.
The emotional intensity of this scene’s construction — among many others in TCM: the Beginning —illustrates the cathartic function of the U.S. cinema of excess. Mike King argues this cinema of excess is a national cultural form that exposes the obsessive, paranoid, and destructive underbelly of American values, values such as narcissistic individualism, exploitive manifest destiny, distrust of the federal government, fear over the loss of a standard of living, and a pessimistic pre-millennialism. King bases his critical framework on Aristotle’s model of tragedy. Building from Aristotle’s basic ideas, King argues that cinema of excess must embrace the emotions of pity, aroused by unmerited misfortune, and fear, aroused by the misfortunes of someone similar to ourselves. The formal qualities of a cinema of excess encompass transgressive acts.
“The term ‘transgressional’ means here a cultural production that offends against mores or taste, dealing with such extreme matters as death, torture, rape, suicide, or which presents marginal ideas and experiences which challenge the norm.”
However, the trangressional must be framed by narrative plausibility, especially that no dues ex machina extracate tragic characters from their predicament. The cinema of excess emphasizes the emotions of pity and fear through scenes of intense suffering, which are in turn bracketed by narrative pauses that provide time for an audience to absorb the moral implications of the suffering. In a cinema of excess, formal elements are organized in a serious manner to evoke the emotional intensity of the tragedy. Ultimately, the cultural function of the cinema of excess is to provoke catharsis, wherein the audience that has witnessed the film faces its worst fears, develops compassion for the tragic characters, and is in better shape to deal with its actual world experiences.
During this most emotionally intense scene in TCM: the Beginning, Tommy’s transformation into his pure monstrous identity is also the most transgressive moment in the film. Initially, he is a victim of economic downsizing and a dysfunctional family. However, unlike a character who overcomes both external and internal obstacles to become a “better” individual, Tommy’s character inverts this narrative process. He loses any shreds of humanity due to the chaotic disorder of the Hewitt family, reverting to an animalistic primal state. Here, the invasive insanity of the chainsaw ripping into Eric’s midsection invokes a similar disgust for the insanity associated with the invasion of Iraq and the prison atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Dread and guilt about those national acts erupt as cinematic blood splatters in the Hewitt basement.
While Tommy loses his status as the tragic figure in the film, the young adults, especially Eric and Chrissie, become the tragic focal points in this scene. As the characters that engender pity from this point on in the film, Eric and Chrissie are the victims of a different type of unmerited misfortune. They are in the wrong place, the Hewitt family territory, at the wrong time. Given Eric and Chrissie’s youth, these unlucky characters closely mirror the most likely demographics of the film’s target audience, thus providing an audience with identification points for the fear, dread and social anxiety that surface in the film. Given the volatile social context in 2006, could such young people become either victimizer or victim if unwillingly forced into an insane military battle not of their choosing, such as the Invasion of Iraq?
Certainly, no deus ex machina rescues Eric from his tragic plight on Tommy’s butchering table. Indeed, no one rescues any of the hapless young adults. While it has become a common convention that one character escapes from the homicidal monster at the end of a contemporary horror film, this film frustrates even that sense of cultural refuge. Just as Chrissie, the final girl, seems primed to make good her escape in the slaughterhouse manager’s car, Tommy plunges the chainsaw through her from the backseat. In both instances, the film builds compassion for the two ill fated victims. Following both Eric’s and Chrissie’s deaths, TCM: the Beginning pauses the narrative action, providing moments to contemplate the moral implications of their suffering. At the end of the scene where Tommy murders Eric, the narrative action and editing pace of the film decelerates. Presented with events primarily from Chrissie’s point of view, we see Tommy deliberately sew the cord that will hold Eric’s face in place as his mask and then stand before a deteriorating mirror as he places the mask over his own barely visible mutilated face. He stares into the mirror, as if to ask himself: What does it mean to steal someone’s identity, especially that of a soldier? What does it mean to lose all sense of social constraint to torture and kill those who are only imagined to be a threat, but are no threat at all?
Horror in the era of the Bush-Cheney Administration
In his germinal work synthesizing the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, Robin Wood argues that the psychological heart of the horror film is a particular culture’s attempt to deal with the repressed ideological inconsistencies and contradictions that structure its social environment. Given the historical context of U.S. society in 2006, TCM: the Beginning taps into a cultural zeitgeist of ambivalence toward and paranoia of those in authority at that time. In the film, the Hewitt family is the symbolic nexus of these conflicting and contradictory values and practices. On the one hand, this administration advocated a return to traditional patriarchal family values. These values grew in large part from the ideological demands of the conservative religious right, a social movement integral to the ascension of the Bush-Cheney Administration to political power.
In contrast, the Bush-Cheney Administration’s economic policies continued to support the corporate capitalist practice of deregulation and outsourcing industrial production that undermined, and continue to undermine the economic security and social stability of blue collar and white collar families in contemporary U.S. society, especially the traditional patriarchal family with a single male income provider. This ideological conflict of interest, in turn, has generated social anxiety about the basic survival and viability of the traditional U.S. family in the new millennium. The practices of the Bush-Cheney Administration have been the source of this anxiety. Faced with the decay of the domestic industrial economy that has been the economic basis for the traditional patriarchal family, the Hewitt family’s anxiety about basic survival erupts into the both Hoyt’s and Tommy’s psychotic and monstrous behavior. In fact, based on their narrative actions, the Hewitt family’s identity, in particular as defined by its paranoid territoriality, xenophobia, militarism and evangelical religious conservatism, corresponds to recent U.S. global identity, now perceived as aggressive, self-serving, savage and horrific. Contrary to Palermo’s popular review of TCM: the Beginning quoted near the beginning of this essay, the film does confront contemporary U.S. social demons, particularly those summoned by the policies and actions of the Bush-Cheney Administration.
The ideological tone of a particular film depends on the organization of story events, characters and the setting that construct meaning within it. A horror film can have a reactionary, conservative cultural function that reinstates the initial social norms that begin the film. As Wood argues, this is usually indicated by the destruction of the monster at the film’s climax and the escape of its protagonist(s). Or, a film can have a radical cultural function that offers a critique of those ideological norms, signaled by the inability to clearly destroy the monster or restore society by the end of the film. In his analysis of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the values of the young adults are presented as the norms of society while the actions of the male cannibal family are presented as aberrant. What Wood’s discussion does not clearly address, however, is a horror film in which monstrous values and actions are synonymous with ideological social norms, defined as such from the beginning of the film and remaining in place at the end of it. In the case of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, the Hewitt family values and actions define acceptable norms of attitudes and behavior. Given that the resolution of the film does not leave the Hewitt family in a better social position from where they begin, the narrative is hardly a celebration of either their values or their actions. Rather, the failed implementation of those values as a means to prosper becomes a cultural critique of them.
The film foregrounds both iconographic and ritualistic elements of conservative evangelical Christian religious practices, which here literally rip apart the bodies of the youthful protagonists. In only a slightly more subtle manner, the film integrates anxieties about political corruption and ineptitude that surfaced in the Bush-Cheney Administration. Finally, the militaristic conundrum of the Iraqi War — enacted in the film through Sheriff Hoyt’s military jingoism, his reliance upon physical and psychological torture as methods of social degradation, and the young adults’ immersion into an unstable social environment -- also contributes to the overall critical tone of the film. In particular, the Hewitt family’s value system, as an allegory for the Bush-Cheney Administration’s insane political, economic and militaristic policies circa 2006, are framed by the film’s ending as not only dangerous, but apocalyptic as well.
When popular film critic Roger Ebert reviewed the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he derided the film for causing “disgust and hopelessness in the audience…” while it “…wipes its feet on our dreams.” In effect, he found the film to be a toxic series of gruesome events. The hopelessness in that film is mild when compared to that found in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, especially given its nihilistic ending where none of the young adults make it out alive. Perhaps out of touch with that part of U.S. society occupying the lower economic strata in 2003, Ebert’s comments assume that audiences did not already feel hopeless before viewing the film. In contrast, Boggs and Pollard argue that any example of a postmodern cinema of mayhem resonates more closely with the contemporary audience’s social experience, precisely because of its cynicism and hopelessness.
“If postmodern cinema is bleak, it is probably not much bleaker than the lived social relations it has come to encapsulate, however unevenly or melodramatically.”
By 2006, many of those living at the lower end of the U.S. socio-economic scale had few dreams left to soil. They were becoming further disenfranchised from the American dream by official policies favoring the social and economic elite. Moving into the second decade of the 21st Century, the global financial crisis, continued U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and the political rise of the anti-government Tea Party are the most obvious legacy of the Bush-Cheney Administration’s policies. Eschewing the politicized polar oppositions of Wood’s reactionary and radical cultural functions for the horror film, King suggests a different cultural function for films that explore social mayhem through cinematic excess. A culture must recognize its social insanity in order to maintain even a tentative hold on its sanity, King suggests.
“If a nation can talk to itself in a relatively untrammeled way through its cultural productions, then it is at least partly sane, even if those various productions look at times like ‘poison.’”
Certainly, TCM: the Beginning is bleak and cynical in its ideological perspective. It is excessive in its depiction of brutal psychological and physical torture. Because of these characteristics, not in spite of them, the film is a significant cultural index of the social, economic and political chaos set loose by the expanded financial deregulation, militarism, xenophobia, and social conservatism in the United States.
After the emotional intensity of Chrissie’s death, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning offers a few final cathartic moments to contemplate the mayhem that has preceded it. As Tommy lumbers along the Texas farm road toward the foreground of the image, the film focuses on his character as the source of the social destruction behind him. The film celebrates neither the success of the Hewitt family in its ability to survive nor the ability of the idealistic young people to persevere in the face of repressive authority. However, the final shot of Tommy walking away from the roadside carnage into the darkest apocalyptic night offers a few moments to critique the destructive potential of the Hewitt family values. As Boggs and Pollard have pointed out, U.S. cinema, since its inception, has used the narrative device of the family as “a repository of established values,” initially in celebration of those values. There is no idealized deux ex machina to save the young adults, and in turn the audience, from the Hewitt family insanity; no easy solution to the social disorder and chaos of U.S. society in 2006. In the era of the Bush-Cheney Administration, established values have been pushed to extremes that border on insanity if not encompassed by it. Consequently, the film, through the personification of the Hewitt family, vividly captures the overall psychological malaise of this particular desperate period in recent United States’ history, wrapping it in a dark poetic shroud. With its cinematic finger on the audience’s ambivalent cultural pulse, this particular horror film creatively draws, with dark and foreboding strokes, the social anxieties circulating in the collective social landscape of 2006.
1. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Shocking Truth. Produced and Directed by David Gregory. With Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel. A Blue Underground Production, 2002. [return to text]
2. Wood, Robin.
3. Sharrett, Christopher. 302-307.
4. Ibid. 318-319.
5. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Shocking Truth. Produced and Directed by David Gregory. With Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel. A Blue Underground Production, 2002. This documentary explores in greater detail the creative bookkeeping and powerful intervention of Mafia forces in the ownership and distribution of profits that shaped the film’s troubled economic history. In addition, the documentary chronicles the problems faced by each of the sequels.
6. Box office information retrieved from
7. Palermo, Mark.
9. Deburge, Peter.
10. Foundas, Scott.
11. Layden, Matt.
12. All data retrieved from
13. “The Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning Box Office Data, Movie News.
14. Schatz, Thomas. 15.
15. Kellner, Douglas. 17.
16. Wood, 70.
17. For a detailed exploration of the genre changing influence of Romero’s classic horror film, Ben Hervey argues in Night of the Living Dead that the film’s ambivalent framing of the main protagonist, the at-times sympathetic presentation of the horrorific zombies, and the negative construction of the militaristic humans shifts the ideological function of the horror film away from the celebration of the values and ideals of the status quo to a cultural critique of those same values.
18. Madden, Mike. <http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2009/04/22/madden>.
19. “Comments on: U.S. Officials: Afghan Military Campaign Failing.” CBS News.
20. Associated Press, “U.S. Army Streteched to Breaking Point.” 2.
21. Ibid. 164-165.
22. Boggs, Carl and Tom Pollard. 105-126.
23. Yellen, Janet. “Economic Inequality in the United States,” 1.
24. The theatrical trailer for Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the bonus features on the U.S. DVD release of the film.
25. Wood, 82.
26. Worland, 28.
27. “Federal – popular 1780 – 1820.”
28. “Federal Style Architetcture in Buffalo, NY: 1790-1830.”
29. Danner, 279 – 328. Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror by Mark Danner. In addition to “The Taguba Report,” this book contains most of the public official documents circulated between members of the Bush Administration as the definition of torture was refined and actual torture practices widened. In addition, the book contains many of the photos from Abu Ghraib and official government reports generated as a response to the military abuses at and photos from Abu Ghraib.
31. Danner, 225 – 248.
32. The idea for this horrific representation of the Eucharist came from the students in my American Nightmare class at the University of Denver.
33. Information found at http://www.skytroopers.org/tourduty.htm.
34. Wood, 82.
35. King. 28 – 41.
36. Ibid., 15.
37. Ibid., 12 – 13.
38. Wood. 64 – 65.
39. Ibid., 80.
41. Boggs and Pollard. 126.
42. King, 237.
43. Boggs and Pollard. 105.
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