The best movie trailer Iíve seen all year, hands down, is the one for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I first saw it before the film Freddy vs. Jason and was blown away by the sense of horror and shock that were conveyed in what is, essentially, a two-minute commercial. The idea of remaking Tobe Hooperís classic 1974 slasher flick admittedly didnít excite me at first, but that trailer really made me want to see the film. Itís really too bad Ė and kind of pathetic in a way Ė that the trailer is much scarier than the movie itself.
The story begins with five non-descript young people driving through Texas on their way to a concert. The year is 1973, and the beat-up van chugs down an isolated road. Its passengers are Erin (Jessica Biel), her boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour), Pepper (Erica Leerhsen, whose other screen credit is Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which ought to tell you something), Morgan (Jonathan Tucker), and Andy (Mike Vogel). When they find a young woman wandering alongside the road in a daze, they offer to give her a lift. Once in the van, she pulls out a gun and blows her own head off. The group pulls over to a ramshackle country store to call for help. The sheriff agrees to meet them at a nearby factory, where he promises to help.
Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey), as you may know, is just one member of a seriously deranged family that proceeds to torture and kill the five-some. The most insidious family member is Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), a guy who hacks innocent people with a chainsaw, then sews parts of their flesh together to make a mask for his own deformed face. Most of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre involves Leatherface chasing the young people around and cutting off their limbs. As usual, one character (guess who?) manages to escape at the end.
The problem with remaking a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that you can never really recreate the feel of it. The original came out of nowhere. It was made by people who didnít work in Hollywood, didnít have access to a big budget, and didnít really know what they were doing. This new version Ė while budgeted at a low-by-Hollywood-standards $17 million Ė is way to slick and professionally made. Yes, director Marcus Nispel has given the film a dirty, grainy look. But itís a skillfully done dirty, grainy look. Too many production values get in the way here. Shock-horror movies shouldnít have sizable budgets and familiar faces in the cast. Thatís not scary. Shaky cameras, slightly out-of-focus images, and awkward editing add something to this genre. Lose them, and you also lose that primal sense of dread.
Think about it: would The Blair Witch Project have been as effective had it been made on 35 MM instead of digital video? If it had starred Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Paul Walker instead of the unknown Heather Donohue, Josh Leonard, and Michael Williams? If it had been budgeted at $20 million instead of $35,000? Shock-horror movies work better when you donít know what to expect. You donít know if the director had the budget to toss in a really gruesome special effect, so you sit there waiting anxiously. You donít know who these actors are, so itís difficult to say who will live and who will be chopped to bits.
Let me cite another example of how crucial casting can be. R. Lee Ermey is a wonderful actor who has been good in so many movies. He should not have been cast here. He brings a certain amount of baggage with him; we know he is not a homicidal maniac. The part should have gone to an unknown, who could bring a sense of danger to the character. Certainly I understand that actors play roles and many famous actors have done wonderful jobs playing psychos. Thatís all well and good; itís just wrong for this genre, which depends too much on pure shock value. I remember seeing actor Michael Rooker for the first time in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. He was scary because he played the part well, but also because Iíd never seen him before. That made him more believable. Could Rooker play the same role today? Yes, but the impact wouldnít be the same because now we would think of him as an actor and not necessarily as Henry.
Because it has been remade with good production values and a mostly-recognizable cast, this new Texas Chainsaw Massacre didnít scare me in the least. I confess, though, that I felt my pulse quicken during the scenes with Leatherface. As someone interested in the iconography of horror movies, the image of Leatherface wielding a chainsaw is hard for me to not love. So many slasher movies rely on the killer having a knife or a machete. Something about the chainsaw takes the horror to a higher level within our own minds. It has more menace. Maybe itís the sound, or perhaps the fact that itís capable of slicing and dicing someone, not just spearing them. Thereís something bottom-line intense about a maniac with a chainsaw that canít be denied.
What Iím saying is that the movie held my interest, but thatís just a polite way of saying that I wasnít bored to tears. I donít think itís very good, and I certainly donít recommend it. A film such as this should do more than hold oneís interest. It should frighten, shock, and disturb you. The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre does none of these things. The time and effort spent remaking the original should have been used to do something more original and, hopefully, more effective. Either that, or the makers should have played to the genreís strengths and gone for the renegade shoestring approach.
( out of four)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is rated R for strong horror violence/gore, language and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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