Friday, November 25, 2016

Worth Mentioning - Witness the Birth of Platinum Leatherface

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Cody goes back to the beginning 10 years later. Featuring a bonus interview from the archives!


THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006)

I was a fan of the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and even got some entertainment out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, and I resented the fact that the production company Platinum Dunes had the audacity to remake the '74 classic with their 2003 film. I wasn't happy that a remake existed, and I really wasn't pleased with the way Platinum Dunes, writer Scott Kosar, and director Marcus Nispel had handled the character of horror icon Leatherface. They gave him an unnecessary back story of having been picked on as a child, said he had a skin disease, showed his face. I didn't like any of this. I didn't even like the name they gave him. Thomas Brown Hewitt.


While I objected to its take on the material, the remake was well received overall and did well at the box office - and when that happens, especially with a horror movie, you can expect some kind of follow-up. However, the filmmakers had let Leatherface lose an arm during the climax of the remake, which is a very poor decision when you're working on what could be the first installment in a series. Presented with the opportunity to make another Texas Chainsaw film, Platinum Dunes decided not to deal with the fact that they now had a one-armed Leatherface on their hands. Instead of making a sequel, they decided to make a prequel.

It's like they were purposely trying to kill my enthusiasm for this franchise. They had already shown and told me too much about their version of Leatherface, and the last thing I wanted was a prequel that would delve even further into his story. No questions about Leatherface needed to be answered, there was no reason to see his back story.


Although I didn't like how things were going, I still went to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in the theatre when it was released in October of 2006, three years after the remake. I had to; it was a Texas Chainsaw movie, it had Leatherface in it, even if it wasn't Leatherface as I knew him.

It was with trepidation that I sat in the theatre, but then the movie began and proceeded to wipe out most of my worries. It's a prequel, but its focus isn't truly about exposing the history of Leatherface himself - we don't get the sort of scenes like I was dreading, where we'd see little Tommy Hewitt getting bullied in the school yard. The movie is actually about the Hewitts getting started with their killing spree, and most of the questions it does answer are completely ridiculous, showing us how things that were present in the remake, things I never gave a second of wonder to, came about.


Directed by Jonathan Liebesman from a script crafted by Sheldon Turner and David J. Schow (who also wrote Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), the prequel does start long before the August 18, 1973 setting of the remake (and the original film), introducing us to a woman named Sloane (Leslie 'L.A.' Calkins) - who is accused of being an alcoholic - as she works in a slaughterhouse in August of 1939. Sloane isn't feeling well, but her supervisor (Tim DeZarn) ignores her pleas for a bathroom break. Fluid runs down her legs and the guy just stares at her. Collapsing to the floor, writhing and screaming in pain, Sloane dies... as a hideously deformed baby slides out between her legs. Welcome to the world, Leatherface.

The supervisor tosses the newborn into a dumpster, where it's discovered by a poor woman named Luda Mae Hewitt (played in the 1939 scenes by Allison Marich) when she goes dumpster diving. Luda Mae rescues the baby and takes him back to the home she shares with her brother Charlie (R. Lee Ermey).


This is where things get dangerous, the prequel could have lost me at this point. But rather than showing any more of Leatherface's childhood, it uses the title sequence to jump ahead to July of 1969, by which time Leatherface, or Thomas Brown Hewitt, is working at the same slaughterhouse he was born in, tying a leather mask around the bottom half of his face to hide his deformities. When the slaughterhouse is shut down, condemned for health code violations, the supervisor finds it tough to get this hulking, mute beast of a man to leave the premises.

Leatherface does leave the slaughterhouse eventually... and then returns to the supervisor's office to beat the man to death with a hammer. Within 13 minutes, we have already reached the point in Leatherface's life that I want to see him at - the point when he's a giant, masked adult who's killing people.


After committing the murder, Leatherface grabs a chainsaw and starts walking back home. When local sheriff Winston Hoyt (Lew Temple of The Devil's Rejects) attempts to confront him, his Uncle Charlie takes care of the situation for him and shoots the town's only cop in the head with a shotgun. With the slaughterhouse closing, the town they live in is collapsing, most of the locals have moved away and even the last remaining cop was planning to leave as well, so there is no resistance when Charlie decides to steal the cop's identity and starts demanding that he be called Sheriff Hoyt even by his familiar.

There is a strong family pride among the Hewitts. The family has lived on the same farm property for six generations. When their ancestors died, they were cremated and their ashes tilled into the soil. Their town is being abandoned, but the Hewitts will not leave their home. Hoyt intends to make sure the town doesn't get overrun by bikers and hippies, and he's going to keep his family fed - by cannibalizing the people who stray through their town. The sheriff he killed becomes the first person the family eats for dinner. Within 20 minutes, the family has been established as the group of killers they were when introduced in the remake.


The remake was also very hesitant to insinuate that the Hewitts might be cannibals, but it is very obvious and out in the open in this film, as it should be. Leatherface's family has been cannibals since the 1974 film, everyone knows the meat they consume came from people, don't hide from it. Embrace it, like this movie does.

As Hoyt dishes out their first bowl of human stew, Luda Mae (now played by Marietta Marich) appears appalled. But it's not because they have killed and cooked a person, it's because Hoyt has failed to say grace.


With the Hewitts in place to do the killing, you need characters for them to kill and torment, and the "Hewitts Begin" scenes are intercut with the introduction of our victims and protagonists. Like every Texas Chainsaw movie aside from part 2, this one focuses on a group of youths who take a road trip, and this time around it's brothers Eric and Dean Hill (Matt Bomer and Taylor Handley) and their girlfriends Chrissie and Bailey (Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird). The Hills are about to ship out to Vietnam - Dean has been drafted into the war, and war veteran Eric is signing up for another tour in the country so he can watch out for his little brother. Dean has an idea for how he's going to watch out for himself and avoid the war altogether: he and Bailey are planning to flee the country.

Unfortunately for this group, they run into some trouble with just the sort of bikers Hoyt was concerned about. Being pursued down a country road by a shotgun-wielding female biker named Alex (Cyia Batten), they end up smashing into a cow that has escaped from its field, a collision that sends Eric's Ford Bronco flipping off the road and throws Chrissie from the vehicle.


Everyone survives the crash, but soon Hoyt arrives on the scene. Alex doesn't live long after meeting him, but these injured kids in the car, one of whom has partially burned his draft card, Hoyt needs some more time with them. As a terrified Chrissie watches from a nearby hiding place, Hoyt loads her friends into his squad car and drives them back to the Hewitt house.


Hoyt sends the man they call Uncle Monty (Terrence Evans) to pick up the wrecked Bronco with his tow truck, and by hiding in the vehicle Chrissie is able to find out where everyone has been taken. Viewers familiar with the remake may be mystified to see Monty walking around during this sequence, since he was in a wheelchair and didn't have any legs in August of 1973. Just stay tuned, because "What happened to Monty's legs?" is a question I never asked, but it's one Platinum Dunes saw fit to answer in this prequel.


While Chrissie desperately tries to get help for her friends in a lawless town, even enlisting the aid of Alex's biker buddy Holden (Lee Tergesen), Eric, Dean, and Bailey are put through a torturous experience. R. Lee Ermey's most famous role was as an intense drill instructor during the Vietnam war in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and in reality is a Vietnam veteran who also served as a drill instructor, so you can rightly imagine that he does an incredible job here as Hoyt plays drill instructor to a pair he suspects of being draft dodgers. While beating and berating the brothers, Hoyt tells a story about resorting to cannibalism while serving in the Korean War, but I don't know whether to believe him about that or not.

My focus is Leatherface, I have issues with how he's written in these films, but the true focus of these movies is Hoyt. Ermey carries both of these films on his shoulders, too a degree that they wouldn't be much different if Leatherface were swapped out for a generic slasher not connected to the original series. Ermey is awesome, and I would enjoy both movies more if I were actually watching them for him instead of out of reverence for Leatherface and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.


While all of these terrible things are going on at the Hewitt house, a character from the remake who is known as The Tea Lady (Kathy Lamkin) stops by a cameo, and here is something that actually does raise questions for me, but these questions - which I think actually matter, unlike ones we get answered like "How did Hoyt lose his teeth?" - don't get answered. Who is The Tea Lady? She seems to just be a neighbor, so why is she fine with the fact that Luda Mae has Bailey tied up under the kitchen table? And where is her remake companion Henrietta? That's all left up in the air.


Not only does Monty lose his legs over the course of the film and Hoyt lose some teeth, but we also see some more "first times" for Leatherface. The first time he kills someone with a chainsaw. The first time he puts someone else's face over his own. As in the remake, Leatherface is played in this film by Andrew Bryniarski, and I much prefer his performance and the way the character is presented in The Beginning.

I prefer pretty much everything about The Beginning over the remake. I find this film to be much more interesting and entertaining than its predecessor. I like its pace, style, and characters better, and it's more of a proper Texas Chainsaw Massacre film than the 2003 movie was. It has cannibalism. It has a dinner scene where Chrissie is captured and forced to sit at the table with the Hewitts. In my opinion, this is a better remake than the remake was.


Sure, I thought it was absurd that they felt the need to show us things like Hoyt getting his teeth knocked out, but I enjoy the movie overall. The remake failed to win me over, and its prequel succeeded where it failed. After watching this one, I felt satisfied with my viewing experience; I had just watched a solid new entry in the Texas Chainsaw franchise. I did not like the Hewitts after watching the '03 movie, but after this one I would have been fine with seeing more of them.


That didn't happen. The Beginning didn't live up to the success of the remake at the box office, and they never attempted to make a third film. Eventually the rights ended up in other hands, and something happened that has allowed me to retroactively enjoy both of the Platinum Dunes Chainsaws even more - Millennium Films/Lionsgate's Texas Chainsaw 3D ignored their existence and connected its story to the 1974 film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning are now simply their own contained two-film story that has no bearing on the broader franchise. Thomas Brown Hewitt is not the Leatherface we're stuck with for good, he's just the guy who took on the mantle for two movies. I can deal with that.

The Beginning isn't a classic, but it's a good slasher and it didn't disappoint this Chainsaw fan.



In the build-up to The Beginning's theatrical release in 2006, I conducted an interview with Leslie 'L.A.' Calkins, who played Leatherface's mother Sloane in the film, for the website Pit of Horror. To mark the film's 10th anniversary, I've pulled that interview out of the archives and am sharing it here:

What inspired you to get into acting? 

I was a shy kid. When I moved to Austin before high school, I felt as if I needed to take control of my life and make a move towards what I wanted to do. With acting, you can be whoever you want. I never thought that I would ever have the privilege of playing the birth mother of Leatherface. Ya hear that kids? Dream big and you may get to squeeze a homicidal maniac out of your loins too!

How did TCM: The Beginning come to your attention, and what was the audition process like?

I have an agent. She told me about the audition. At first, I was a little skeptical if it was a role for me. It called for a 300-500 woman, which I am happy to say, I am nowhere near. I went into the initial audition with the casting director and the scene consisted of the birthing. After that, I was called into a second audition with Jonathan Liebesman, the director. Less than a week later, I got the call from my agent saying that I got the part.

How was your experience on the set?

I had so much fun on the set. I worked a few days in December and June, which were definitely the most fun I have had on a shoot so far. I enjoyed getting bloody and screaming my head off. Apparently many of the cast and crew members could hear me on the other side of the set. The thing that was the hardest was propping my leg up forever without putting weight on my foot because of the slippery floor beneath it.

Are you a fan of the horror genre in general? 

Now who doesn't love a good scare once in a while? When I was younger, I would constantly be watching any scary movies I could get my hands on. Now, I guess I'm just a girlie girl -- I do love my chick flicks.

And specifically, had you seen any of the previous Chainsaw Massacres before being cast in The Beginning? 

I had seen the 2003 version of the film before my second audition. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any of the originals.

How does it feel to be the mother of a horror icon?

It's a bit bizarre. I personally have no children and and yet I am the mother of Leatherface. I guess it's a good conversation starter.

We know what your cinematic offspring goes on to do. Where does L.A. Calkins go from here?

Right now, I am auditioning for a few of projects. I'm currently working on an untitled short film shooting here in Austin, which has been a lot of fun so far. I'm also talking to a few people about starring in and co-writing a film that would shoot sometime next year. I'm a writer as well as an actor, so pretty much the rest of my free time is spent working on my short stories and book of monologues.

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