The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

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I'm reluctant to say I'm encouraged by the new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. "Encouraged" may be too strong a word. However, if the makers of these other remakes take a similar approach to their work as Marcus Nispel and his crew, we may be in pretty good shape, after all.

We've all been burned by the glut of Hollywood remakes. It's a trend that I'm not too happy with, especially since it means several original projects by new talented filmmakers are often pushed to the side. We have all felt the sting of what happens when people take creative license with an old favorite. Jan De Bont's THE HAUNTING may be the best (or worst) example, dumbing down the original classic and obnoxiously shoving that film aside for the sake of it's cheesy presentation. A "re-imagining" of fantasy films is no great encouragement either. I've seen Charlton Heston. I've admired Charlton Heston. Charlton Heston is an old favorite of mine. You, Marc Wahlberg, are no Charlton Heston. So, remakes should treat the originals with unflinching reverence, right? I've got four words for you: Gus Van Sant's PSYCHO. Yes, it truly seemed like remakes were a no-win situation.

Tobe Hooper's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is one of the greats, an all-time classic that is often imitated, never duplicated. In that film, every movement of the camera in that film, every creak in the woodwork, every glance of the eye permeates with a chilling feeling of dread. It's something truly amazing, a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's a film where even a closeup on a woman's eyeball seems to evoke absurd feelings of pain and torment. Quite simply, it's one of the finest horror films ever created by anyone.

So, when I heard that they were going to remake THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, I was understandably pretty upset. What's worse is the film was going to be produced under the watchful eye of Michael Bay. I could not imagine a worse choice. I've liked some of Bay's films, BAD BOYS and THE ROCK particularly. But let's face it, Bay is Mr. Hollywood Glitz more than anything. Never was this more apparent than in PEARL HARBOR. It's a film that had the potential for drama, but chose cliches. Bay seemed to often confuse the ability to do certain shots with the reasons for doing them. Oh sure, producers are not directors and thus, their style is not an assured thing. But let's not forget Bay came from the school of Jerry Bruckheimer. Tell me, with all due respect to their original directors, do CON-AIR, GONE IN 60 SECONDS and ARMAGEDDON really look like the work of three completely different filmmakers? And now Bay was going to tackle a film whose very existence as a grimy 16mm piece of roadshow sleaze was crucial to it's effectiveness. How could this be anything but a big mistake? What were they going to do to my beloved movie?

Thankfully, I overreacted. This new film is very wise in its approach. It does not ignore the existence of it's predesecor. Nor does it presume to unsurp the original's title, claiming to be a bigger and badder version. It does not even lift the screenplay and throw it into the new groove. No, the filmmakers claimed it would do none of these things, and for once, they were not kidding.

Here is a film that says, "I know what you're expecting, and I don't blame you. I love the original too. I'm not going to tread on your baby. I'm not going to regurgitate what made it great in a watered-down version. All I'm here to do is to give you something new, something that takes from the basic storyline of the original and draws inspiration from it's creepy vibe. I'm not going to presume to tell you how you'll react. But here I am, and hopefully, this will make a nice little companion piece to the original. Horror fans, the verdict is up to you."

The only blatant nod to the original comes in the opening moments of the film. John Larroquette narrates the film much as he did the original. What's different this time is that his narration is far more complex, accompanying some digitally decayed-looking Super 8 film stock. We then start out with the film proper, which starts out with the familiar vision of kids in a van. The subtitle tells us that we're back in 1973.

We have the usual suspects, with a little added spice. Andy (Mike Vogel - GRIND) is the narcissistic pretty boy who is constantly making out with a free love hippie girl named Pepper (Erica Leerhsen - the equally exhibitionist witch in BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2). Morgan (Jonathan Tucker - THE DEEP END, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) is the stand-in for the original's wheelchair-bound Franklin. In addition to walking on his own two legs, Morgan is a bit more acidic and not as na�ve. Our Marilyn Burns-esque good girl, Erin (Jessica Biel - THE RULES OF ATTRACTION, 7TH HEAVEN) doesn't drink or do drugs and just wants to get married to her boyfriend, Kemper (Eric Balfour - 24, SIX FEET UNDER).

As the film opens, this group of five young people is driving down a texas road in their beat-up van. They talk about going to a concert as Lynard Skynard's "Sweet Home Alabama" plays on the soundtrack. But then, destiny rears its ugly head. Sorry kids, you're not in Alabama anymore. You're in Texas.

They pick up a hitchiker (Lauren German - A WALK TO REMEMBER) in what is already a major departure from the original TEXAS CHAINSAW. In that one, they picked up one of the loonies on the road who freaked them out with his eccentricities. Here, they almost run over a dazed teenage girl. They put her in the back seat and try to get her help. She keeps muttering random phrases like, "They're all dead. I just want to go home..." To the kids, it sounds like random gibberish. To the viewer, it sounds like these kids just wandered into a world of hurt. And then - SOMETHING HAPPENS.

The group gradually becomes acquainted with the people who populate this town. There aren't many in town, as it seems to be one of those isolated communities of a few dozen, tops. We don't even meet all of them here, I'm assuming. What they do seem to have in common is that they are all crazy. "What's wrong with you people," Erin screams as she's being restrained. To this, her captor seems to smile as if he'd never heard anything so ridiculous. "Why, there's nothing wrong with us," he answers, almost comforting in his tone.

Of course, the title power tool does make an appearance. Actually, it is used more here than in the original, and it is again weilded by Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski - HUDSON HAWK Holy shit, it's Butterfinger!). What may catch some people off-guard is that they actually give Leatherface some pathos, which upon reflection I guess I won't divulge here. Given that they've changed so much around here, and this plays like a different film, I didn't mind it too much. Still, I admit I did want to plug my ears when Leatherface's family utters (gasp!) his real name.

For his part, Bryniarkski does a fine job filling Gunnar Hansen's size 15 shoes. Sometimes, it feels like a channeling of Hansen's Leatherface but most of the time, it's a new character. One of the last scenes of the film features a wonderful glare from our Black & Decker-loving maniac that will send shivers down your spine. After WILLARD, R. Lee Ermey makes his second villainous appearance in a 70s horror remake this year. His performance in assured and creepy. While Ermey's work has not reached the powerhouse he gave in his DEAD MAN WALKING cameo, it's nice to see he's finally doing more than recycling his old drill sergeant incarnation - a role he first brought to the screen brilliantly in Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET.

Give the filmmakers credit for having the balls not to make the kids generic cardboard cut-outs this time around. We learn before everything starts going downhill that the group is smuggling Marijuana into the States from Mexico, with the intention of selling it and making a fortune. This is a fact that they hide from Erin. One could easily make the case that things tale a turn for the worse, not when they pick up the hitchhiker, but when they begin to decieve one another. Even though Kemper's motives at least are noble, the hurt and the lies are still present. Don't think Erin in a complete innocent however. It's refreshing that as the film goes on, she relies on her delinquent past in trying to evade the family. If she's a goody-two-shoes now, she seems to have her reasons.

Pepper has a screaming freak-out early on, wondering why they;ve been plunged into this situation. More than anything, however, she's wondering why she's the one fate is having its way with. "Why did she do it and why did it have to be us?" she screams over and over again. It's a telling statement that continues to resonate. Pepper's hippie free spiritedness is betrayed by her ego, and it's one of the film's most effective scenes. Moreso than when the film pushes things a bit too far. Morgan and Andy both prove themselves to be incredibly selfish and lacking in some basic moral faculties. More than once, they both advocate leaving their friends behind and getting out of town. And that's before things get really bad. This last touch seems a bit much and succeeds in making a couple of the characters very unlikeable. It's hard to feel too bad for them and the film's insistence on dwelling on a couple of these character traits makes it awfully hard to enjoy in spots.

Some of the characters bring the film down a notch, although the actors are good in their parts. Give the film points for trying not to slip into cliches, but when it does it's a shame. The ending particularly left me a bit cold, climaxing pretty much as I feared it would with some enticing exceptions.

While Ed Gein was the inspiration for the flesh masks and the creepy furniture made out of body parts (the latter being absent in the remake), the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE had more to say about life in the 1970s than the 1950s. The idea of a family of psychotic, kill-crazy lunatics was not completely out of the realm of possibility. After all, weren't several Hollywood shooting stars and could've-beens slaughtered by a group calling themselves "the Family" in the mid-sixties? Average youngsters being at the mercy of an irrational, driven, homicidal family is something that had a deep-seeded connection to the decade. They were also a victim of the economic recession. You will recall they made referneces to being laid off of the local slaughterhouse when their jobs were given to a more efficient machine. "Aw, the machine's no good," one of them said, as he contemplated a way to apply his trade to the real world.

While the Manson connection is not clear given the 29 years that have passed since the original, Marcus Nispel does a decent job of alluding to the downsizing of America in this new version. The meat-packing plant can be seen in several scenes, looming like an untouchable mechanized god. It may have once been a friend to the society in Travis County, now it is a symptom of its decay.

Nispel's direction is surprisingly good. It was a wise move to get the original CHAINSAW's D.P., Daniel Pearl, and an even wiser move not to have him repeat his previous work. No matter what comparisons I have drawn in this review, my statement from earlier stands. This feels like a different movie. Call it TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 5 if you must. It does manage to be better than both parts three and four in the series (I'm actually a big fan of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2).

The film definitely looks a bit slick and many shots obviously took a lot of planning. But there is still plenty of gristly effects in the offering. Leatherface sews new masks, new faces and new emotions. But the masks don't often say what he feels underneath. His eyes do all the talking and they say he feels something, although you might not be able to repeat it in pleasant company. Victims are layed out, mutilated and bled dry. I laughed out loud when I spotted a certain internet film critic's head on a silver platter. No, not me, this is someone with money and fame. There is plentiful gore (more than in the mostly suggested Hooper film) and by the end of it, people are drenched in blood, sweat and vomit. Good God, this film is nasty!

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is mostly a success. It's one of those rare horror films that you admire looking back on it, even more than when you're experiencing it. It's not a film designed to replace or copy the original. It's designed to stand beside it. And while the magic of Tobe Hooper's classic will likely never be captured on film again, I am immensely pleased that the filmmakers believed in a hardcore horror film this much to give it a push towards the masses.

We're going to put up with a lot of remakes in the coming months, people. And as I said in the beginning, I'm not quite ready to think everything is going to be smooth sailing. Likely, there will be films that make us want to throw things at the screen and hunt down the producers' families. But in this case at least, we have a fine example of horror filmmaking that even with it's faults, plays it's cards just right. If more films took an example from the new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, there would be a lot of happy horror fans out there.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis