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23 May, 2009



Year of Release—Film: 2003

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: New Line Cinema

Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, was a seminal film for the Horror genre; a transformational film that altered the way Horror movies were both created, and perceived. Shot on a shoestring budget, using an unknown cast, in stark settings that were terrifyingly realistic, Hooper’s masterpiece quickly became a modern hallmark of the genre, and Leatherface, the keeper of the eponymous instrument of mayhem brought to vivid life by Gunnar Hansen, an instant Horror icon.

So it was with a (by now) familiar sense of trepidation that I received word about eight years ago of a planned remake of this movie. Remakes, in my opinion, fall into two broad categories: Re-inventions, which start with the same basic plot but develop it in ways not done with the original; and true remakes, where the same script (same dialogue, staging, pacing, etc.) is used—the film is simply reshot. Though I can cite good and bad examples of both styles, my feeling is that the re-invented film is usually of higher quality; nothing insults my love of classic Horror quite as much as some young, no-name, arrogant director thinking he or she can improve on someone’s masterpiece by re-filming it in exactly the same way. Fortunately, this film falls in the first category.

Though I was unfamiliar with Nispel prior to this project, he does a credible job here in revisiting such an iconic subject. Remaking a film this well known is a task not without its share of dangers, but he smoothly avoids most of the obvious pitfalls and traps that are built-in to such a situation. The pacing of the film, while not as frenetic as Hooper’s original, never bogs down, and flows easily from a normal drive in the country into a descent into a hellish nightmare. He keeps firm control over the largely unknown cast, and makes superb use of the locale and scenery, evoking the isolation and desolation of the original. The camera work is excellent, and, technically speaking, it’s one of the smoothest films of the year.

The story, though basically the same as the 1974 original, suffers slightly in its unfamiliarity with the dictum Less is More. Part of the quality of Hooper’s original vision is its stark minimalism. It captured you, carried you along in much the same manner that it did the characters themselves. There were no answers offered, mainly because you were too breathless to ask the questions. It just… Happened. You went from a pleasant trip to the country to visit a cemetery, (funny how those have a way of going bad) to, with the simple act of picking up a hitchhiker, a detour into Hell itself. This updated script seek to answer some of the unasked questions, and, in so doing, loses some of the ability to inspire terror that the original possessed. It isn’t an equitable trade.

The cast, though young and relatively unknown, handles the material competently, though without any great effort or inspiration. Only R. Lee Ermey, as the Sheriff, rises above the average with his trademark brand of obscenely irreverent, humor-laden invective. His scenes, (most of the dialogue for which he ad-libbed) are the high points of the film, bringing just enough black comedy to the movie to keep it from being overwhelmingly bleak and disturbing. Though the rest of the cast are able to keep pace with the material, no one of them stands out as superior than the rest. Jessica Biel, though undeniably attractive, lacks the raw sexual appeal of an Eliza Dushku or Tara Reid; she’s more suited to the girl-next-door type of roles, which works very well in this film. It certainly helps that she has a certain “’70’s look” about her, which fits very well with the period in question. Her acting skills struck me as somewhat weak, and she never quite came across as believable, but overall Biel comported herself as well as the rest.

The only other member of the cast that does deserve mention is Andrew Bryniarski, who had the unenviable task of stepping into Gunnar Hansen’s formidable boots as Leatherface. Though given a new name (Thomas Hewitt) and a thoroughly unnecessary explanation of his fondness for his gruesome masks, he’s still pretty much the same chainsaw-swinging maniac that we first met in 1974. My only complaint lies not with Bryniarski’s performance; though I’m rationalizing that it’s really a different character, to keep from having to draw a direct comparison to Hansen’s. My only real complaint regarding the Leatherface character is that now, in the age of Dr. Phil and Oprah, we’re supposed to understand his motivations, to look to the frightened child inside. BULLCRAP. I don’t care one bit about what put the gas in the chainsaw; I just want to hear it fire up.

Though the Special Effects are well done, they are a minor part of what makes this film work so well, and that’s as it should be. With a minimum of high-tech CGI Effects, the old standards of latex, food dye, and Karo syrup are more than capable of providing the requisite gore. The best effects sequence in the film is the hitchhiker’s suicide, and it was one of the two scenes that needed editing to keep the film from drawing a NC-17 rating. Though there’s little here that will amaze the modern Horror fan, the effects are well-conceived, well-planned, and, for the most part, well-executed. Some of the body part prosthetics are a little too obvious, just a little too fake, but that’s a minor annoyance. Overall, though, the Effects do what they should, without becoming the focus of the film.

Though I seldom care what extras are included in a DVD release, it would be impossible not to mention the wealth of special features packed into the Platinum Edition of this DVD. From the three-dimensional metallic wall plaque, to the Ed Gein documentary, to the deleted scenes that are contained in their own documentary-style Featurette, everything about this two-disc set is top-drawer, high quality, meant-to-please-the-fans perfection. On the higher side of the cost scale, especially for a single movie, it nonetheless is worth every dime. It truly was the DVD Presentation of 2004.

To sum it up, though it really doesn’t compare to the original, it doesn’t really have to. It is a different movie; not very different, but just enough. And while it does have problems, they are few, and minor. My recommendation is simple: See it. If you’re a fan of the original, see it. If you’re not a fan of the original, see it. If you’ve never seen the original, see it. Though it’s not the Movie of the Year, it’s well worth the rental price; if you’re talking about the Platinum DVD, then spend the money, it’s a definite buy!

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