Friday, April 18, 2014

TCM At 40 Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Director:  Marcus Nispel
Starring:  Jessica Biel, R. Lee Ermey, Eric Balfour, Jonathan Tucker, Mike Vogel, Erica Leerhsen, Andrew Bryniarski
Rated: R

You kids shouldn't have messed with that little girls.  You brought this all on yourself.
                                  ~Sheriff Hoyt

While Gus Van Sant's Psycho kind of opened the floodgates for "Well, if this can be remade, then ANYTHING can be remade!", I credit the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for being the maiden voyage of leading us to a cinema going experience full of remakes, reboots, reimaginings and the like.  The Platinum Dunes produced film was a pretty surprising success which resulted in the clean slate approach that would then be provided to a lot of franchise horror films as well as remaking classic 70s and 80s horrors.  I think due to the success and some critical praise of these, it then allowed for more mainstream genres to try it out (Batman Begins being the next step in this process).  To me, it was pretty crazy they were remaking it.  The original was a bonafide classic and rather perfect horror film.  What more could they do to it, there was already a great one in place.  
In thought and reading about it, I thought "why", but once the first trailer dropped, I was fully onboard.  It was a damn good horror trailer.  They incorporated the flash bulb perfectly and had a great moment with the screen pitch black and the surround sound going buck wild.  If you saw this trailer in the theater it was indeed a real treat.  The film looked really polished.  And damnit, it looked really terrifying too.  When I last left this franchise it was a massive joke and lost its damned mind.  Thank god they cut it off.  This is a situation that NOBODY wanted to see where the story went from there.  Of course that means we are going to get the 4th iteration of the outline of story set in the first one, but oh well. How well did they do it this time, right?
So how was it?  Back in 2003, I was sort of conflicted on how I felt about the film.  On the one hand, it was a pretty damn thrilling film drenched in dread and suspense.  Leatherface was scary again.  However, the film felt sort of like something else disguised as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It had Leatherface, the setup, the locale and even followed beats of the original film.  But, it was lacking a lot of the very heart and soul of what makes the whole thing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Completely gone was the cannibalism angle.  The thing that was what the original and series is all about.  Instead its just a hack and slash...for reasons...well...just BECAUSE it almost feels.  This town is full of creeps and scary disgusting people, but they all ring incredible hollow.  Just there to be disturbing and scary, which to the film's credit does overcome some of its depth shortcomings because its good that factor.
I went with a big group to see this movie opening night and I was the only one who was familiar or readily familiar (aka the geek the knew the original up and down) with the original.  After the film, I was curious, so I asked everyone if they understood that the family was cannibals and that the victims were being prepared for dinner.  Not one of them even remotely thought that or even sensed cannibalism.  So, I then inquired what the family's motivation was and basically like my own thoughts "because. evil." was the answer. The film is a reimagining of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it kind of misses the whole entire basis for what that movie is. '
All the haters are probably applauding my last two paragraphs, but here's where I stop them because this is a pretty good horror film.  Daniel Pearl, DP from the first film, returns to shoot the remake.  And its slick looking that feels different, but keeps in spirit with the original.  It was really cool to see so much money and polish put for to effort on something that was such an incredible small and cheap production before.  As I said before, the film is rather thrilling.  There are many moments of surprise and suspense.  By making the choice to reimagine rather than remake, Marcus Nispel has a fresh cast of characters and newly crafted events that keep things unpredictable and new.  There's odd changes (why are they now the Hewitts and not Sawyers?), but its ones that keep this thing in its own territory and keeps from comparison to the original where there isn't a place for it to be made.
Leatherface is here and he's bigger and meaner.  He's more a violent killer with a penchant for sadism and yet he's not the worst.  R. Lee Ermey steals this show right from under him.  At the moment he arrives he just commands the screen.  I almost wonder if they went the prequel route with the next one JUST so they could bring him back.  He brings his normal self to the picture, but with a darker edge and it just works.  He's one vile SOB and he sure makes feel uneasy when he's in the frame.  Ermey plays a true wild card and its unsettling but fun to watch him in action.
This film could have been so much stronger had they not deleted the biggest and most essential plot element from the film.  Originally Erin is pregnant.  Yup.  Now all these little things from the film start tying together and her arc gets even better, stronger and makes a little more sense with that in play.  Considering she does indeed survive the film, I can really understand as to why it was excised.  The drama with the youngsters plays and works so much better with this in play.  It also makes Kemper's death just that much more of a gut punch when it comes out of nowhere.  This film had an incredibly great hook that would have made the film much much stronger on an emotionally engaging arc and they dropped the damn ball on it.  Does anyone know why?  

All in all, I still enjoy this movie.  It may fall flat on its face on being everything a Texas Chainsaw Massacre truly is, but its still pretty thrilling and engaging.  The film features some great suspense sequences, chases, some earned jump moments and actual full fledged production value.  Its also the first film since the original that wasn't a troubled production and completely compromised film.  There are some fantastic things that it brings on its own as well as I haven't mention.  The Hewitt house and the moment Erin sees Leatherface wearing Kemper's face are truly of iconic stature.  And one thing I do enjoy a lot is that it ISN'T the same, thing, but a fresh story crafted off the original that brings its own flare and plays with moments that remind you of the original.  As a Texas Chainsaw Massacre done by way of slasher-thriller, I'd say its pretty top flight and competent.  It does well enough in other horror and thriller areas to make it easy for me to overlook its shortcomings as a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film and the fact that its sort of missing some substance behind its evil.  

There is a lot of horror fanboy disdain for this movie along with a hatred toward Platinum Dunes and I have an incredibly difficult time seeing it.  Its largely unwarranted because they just hate when things are remade in general and new can never be better than old let alone stand on its own merits.  These same haters will also praise Hammer Horror yet, they were doing the same thing back in the day for Universal classic monsters as Platinum Dunes was doing with horror films of 70s and 80s.  Yet, somehow that's ok, but this isn't?  I'll never understand just hating something on principle and not giving it a chance to work on its own accord.  No, I'm not praising everything Platinum Dunes has done, but there are truly horror fans out there that thing The Next Generation is a better work than this film, and that is just crazy talk.  

Next Time:  Jordanna Brewster gets her turn at jumping through a window.

This still remains one of my favorite trailers from the 00s

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