The Texas Chainsaw franchise has either roared through the box office or limped along, by turns, since 1974. I'm sure Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel and other cast and crew involved with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had no idea it would spawn three sequels, a remake, and now a prequel: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. (Hooper and Henkel are listed as executive producers on this latest film, but seem to have little to do anymore with the series.)

I'd heard that Beginning would recount the story of Leatherface and his family (the Hewitts) before those days when the young people in the van picked up a hitchhiker and ended up in a world of trouble ... and chainsaws. I imagined the prequel would recount the story of young Tommy "Leatherface" Hewitt growing up -- would it be an idyllic childhood, spoiled by some traumatic event or would he have a miserable youth, taunted and mocked endlessly until he had an epiphany, perhaps while sawing firewood? Perhaps he was a child genius who suffered some tragic accident. The imagination presents so many possibilities.

However, in Beginning, Tommy Hewitt's birth and childhood are disposed of quickly during the opening credits. In fact, the opening credit sequence was one of my favorite parts of the film -- a smooth, intriguing montage hinting that Tommy was considered a disturbed child by teachers and doctors, practically from birth. His birth, in the teaser before the credits, is also a fascinating little story.

The bulk of the movie, however, is set only a few years before the original movie. The prequel employs many actors from the 2003 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, returning for another round of slaughter and cannibalism. The town where the Hewitt family lives is dying fast, with no jobs available after the slaughterhouse closed for health violations. The family immediately turns violent: Tommy (Andrew Bryniarski), wearing a black leather mask in these early days, takes revenge on his foreman at the slaughterhouse, and his grandfather (R. Lee Ermey) "kills the entire police department" and dons the sheriff's outfit and identity. I wanted more background. Had any of these people killed others before, or had they lived unremarkable lives until the opportunity presented itself? The movie doesn't say.

Instead, we meet four new characters, all young people, driving across Texas in a Jeep. Dean (Taylor Handley) has been drafted for the Vietnam War, but he and his girlfriend (Diora Baird) plan to escape to Mexico instead. Dean's older brother Eric (Matthew Bomer) has just returned from a tour of duty but seems eager to return, although his girlfriend Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) isn't happy about it either.

A carload of twentysomethings, obliviously driving through the town where the family of cannibals lives ... is there anyone who doesn't know what's going to happen? Worse yet, this is a prequel to the events in the first movie and the 2003 remake. Think about that. Or better yet, don't think about it, because it'll kill any suspense you might possibly sustain about the outcome.

The movie focuses more on Ermey's character, known as Sheriff Hoyt, than it does on Leatherface, who serves more as an icon. Hoyt, in a uniform he's not accustomed to, with a wild and skewed sense of morality and practicality, is the poor man's Pike (William Holden) from The Wild Bunch. Again, you just know that if there's a potential draft-dodger in the same film as an R. Lee Ermey character, the two will collide in an unpleasant way. I was disappointed, however, in one scene where he called a woman an asshole -- it seemed out-of-character. Hoyt obviously had no qualms about hurting or killing female prey but it seemed unlikely that he'd use that particular term towards them. (It's a Southern thing.)

Beginning reflects a contemporary sensibility about horror movies. Although the film is rated R, and had to trim the gore to avoid an NC-17, there's almost no nudity and only one sex-related scene near the beginning of the film. Brewster's low-rise shorts as as nubile as the film gets. There are a couple of quick and spectacular chainsaw deaths, but like Hostel and Saw, a great deal of the shock and horror is derived from torture. Hardly anyone dies quickly in this movie, but instead everyone gets to suffer. A lot. Bits are cut off, and not just with chainsaws, which are no good for the finer work -- scissors, saws, and the good-old fashioned meathook are also featured prominently. Beginning also resorts to cheap gimmicks to shock the audience: a handheld camera that gets almost nauseatingly wild at times, yet without conveying the sense of verite that made the original movie so frightening; and the occasional sudden loud noises guaranteed to make audiences jump.

Ermey and Brewster are the strongest parts of Beginning, with a notable assist from Matthew Bomer the Vietnam vet. Brewster is no scream queen, but the days of scream queens may be fading in favor of more active, less victimized heroines. Brewster's character Chrissie could have avoided harm by hiding in more than one scene, but she is determined to save her friends at any cost. When she does scream, it's when she witnesses events that would make anyone react noisily. I especially liked the sequence in which she resembles a female Rambo, which is slightly amusing but highly gratifying in terms of the lack of kickass female characters in films. The sequence also refers back to an earlier, similar scene in the film, subtly but not without humor.

In Beginning, we do learn the origin of Leatherface's appalling mask that he wears in subsequent movies. And I was charmed by the epilogue and the way it was delivered (you'll have to see the movie to understand what I mean). Ultimately, however, Beginning is a garden-variety horror movie that provides no innovation on the old "kids stranded in the woods with a scary monster" plot. While it's an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes -- if you like torture scenes as part of your entertainment -- the film has no real staying power.