"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" has been advertised as a remake to the
disturbing, genuinely unsettling 1974 classic of the same name, and
it has been called a "reimagining" from first-time feature director
Marcus Nispel and producer Michael Bay. Hence, it unavoidably invites
a constant comparison, sometimes unwarranted, that it not once lives
up to. In all of its similarities and sly homages and in all of i
ts narrative and filmmaking differentiations, this updated version
strikes a glaringly inferior note from beginning to end. Get ready
for a review that will ultimately come off as more negative than positive,
only because of its lofty source material. Truth be told, "The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre" is no more a remake to the original than any of
its sequels are; they all have stories that are reminiscent of each
other, but not exactly identical. Judging the film in question as
a remakea generously loose one at that, but one advertised as suchthe
movie is an astounding disappointment that does at least a hundred
things wrong. However, judging it on its own merits and placing it
up against other recent genre films exposes it to be a pretty good,
stylishly crafted slasher flick.
It is August 18, 1973, and five young friendslovebirds Erin (Jessica
Biel) and Kemper (Eric Balfour), horndogs Andy (Mike Vogel) and Pepper
(Erica Leerhsen), and single man out Morgan ( Jonathan Tucker)are
headed across the dusty backroads of Texas to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
When they make the wrong decision in picking up a dazed and horrified
teenage girl (Lauren German) wandering along the road, they are thrust
into a living nightmare involving a family of demented cannibals.
Their biggest culprits: the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Andrew
Bryniarski), who constructs faces out of human flesh, and the necrophilic
Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey), who turns out not to be the savior the ill-fated five expect.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is serious about recapturing the stark
feel of its 29-year-old predecessor, and admirably so. Unfortunately,
it isn't always successful. As written by newcomer Scott Kosar, the
story is needlessly complicated and drawn out when the simpler, to-the-point
1974 feature was tighter and more effective. Why must Erin, for example,
return to the killers' lair multiple times before she realizes her life is in danger?
Other changes in the pace and narrative are maddening in their misguidedness.
The Leatherface from decades' past was so very frightening, as was
the film, because he knew exactly what his murderous mission was and
wasted no time in disposing of his victims when they trespassed on
his property. When they walked in his front door, he would abruptly
show up and hit them over the head with a hammer, as fast as that.
Here, Leatherface, and again also the film, is less threatening and
unpredictable because he follows the tired tried-and-true staples
of other horror villains, springing up on his victims only after they
have wandered around his house for five minutes. In other words, Leatherface
lacks the force and go-getter attitude he has been known for in the
past, and it does nothing but hinder the film as a whole.
Additionally, every shot paid tribute to from the original seems to
hold less weight here, with some worthlessly truncated and others
mysteriously absent (where the heck is t he quintessential under-the-swing
dolly shot?). Certain scenes that played out in the original in startling
unbroken shots are robbed of their unremitting dark power by Glen
Scantlebury (2001's "Joy Ride"), whose editing is so choppy, artificial,
and MTV-ish that the action onscreen is occasionally unintelligible.
Try as he might, the cinematography by Daniel C. Pearl (who also did
the first film) can't even begin to match the authentic grittiness
and moody atmospherics of the original. The house the killers live
in is more unconventional and outwardly questionable, whereas the
normalcy vs. grotesquerie of the 1974 abode (not to mention the flawless
production design) was infinitely scarier and more memorable. The
family of cannibals is overpopulated, less plausible as cold-blooded
savages, and their relationships with each other even more slight
and undistinguished. The wraparound sequence of purported real-life
footage of the family's home and the aftermath of their victims, while
perfectly narrated by returnee John Larroquette, isn't totally necessary;
the reliable black-on-white narration crawl would have been more welcome
and less blatantly derivative of "The Blair Witch Project." And, finally,
a climactic plot point involving a stolen baby is a truly worthless
and cornball addition that should have been discarded at the pre-production stage.
Wow. So I hated it, right? Not quite. For all of its missteps, great
and small, the film is crafted with respect and tension, and the horror
is more palpably felt than the norm thanks to some first-rate performances.
Usually in the horror genre, victims and heroines scream and run,
but you can always tell that they are acting and their lives are not
really in danger. As the strong-willed but terrified Erin, Jessica
Biel (2002's "The Rules of Attraction") is exceptional in what could
only have been an emotionally and physically exhaustive experience.
Biel screams, bawls her eyes out, shakes, sprints from killers, and
faces some pretty serious moral dilemmas, and she does it all with
such a rare intensity that you can't help but be convinced and involved
in her plight. The other actors, none more so than a standout Jonathan
Tucker (1999's "The Virgin Suicides"), follow Biel's lead with realistic aplomb.
Likewise, director Marcus Nispel and screenwriter Scott Kosar have
come up with a handful of imaginative plot delineations that actually
do work, including the face of a major character that Leatherface
skins and wears in a key scene, and a climactic chase through a real-life
slaughterhouse. In fact, the final thirty minutes are easily its most
suspenseful an d positively cringe-worthy section, as Biel's Erin
is chased and chased and chased some more by Leatherface, in what
has to be one of the longest cinematic on-foot chase scenes in history.
It's actually quite impressive. Getting there, ultimately, takes way
too long and gets tangled in too many extraneous subplots.
1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," directed by Tobe Hooper, was
a ghastly, unshakable, one-of-a-kind motion picture, made with few
resources but a lot of dedication and filmmaking artistry. It has
not in any way been threatened by 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,"
which is sporadically intense rather than outright scary, thoroughly
conventional in its horror movie cliches, and more predictable than
it would like to be. Even as far as this year's '70s-style horror
flicks go, it isn't the bestboth "House of 1000 Corpses" and "Wrong
Turn" are superior in frights, originality, and accuracy to the time
period. Ardent fans of the original "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"
will not be happy with what they see in this bigger-budgeted, glossier
update. Direcor Tobe Hooper captured luck in a bottle some 29 years
ago, and it has not be masterfully replicated here. If they can do
away with their deep-fermented memories and view this one as a stand-alone
feature, however, what they will find may surprise them: a notably
more inspired genre effort than first meets the eye.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman