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Slasher Summer: The Texas Chainsaw Reviews - Page 2

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

The Premise: A group of young adults on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in 1973 pick up a disturbed hitchhiker who commits suicide in their van, leading them to seek help from the locals, who turn out to be far more terrifying than anything they could have imagined.

The Verdict: The first and most successful of the early 21st Century spate of classic horror remakes produced by Platinum Dunes, 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an intense, gory ride that reimagines the original story. It still follows the basics: five youths on a road trip pick up a hitchhiker; there's a crazy, murderous hillbilly family featuring a chainsaw-wielding brute with Ed Gein fetishes that tries to kill them all; and only one young woman manages to survive. However, it features much stronger and more interesting characters, takes away the graverobbing and cannibalism angles (but keeps the obvious human slaughterhouse motifs), and removes the single most memorable moment from the original in the dinner scene. The movie is no less powerful for it, and the more Hollywood-style cinematography and structure lend themselves to some unnervingly beautiful shots and more emotionally manipulative plot beats. It's worth noting that the cinematographer is the same man, Daniel Pearl, for both movies.

What could have been a straight-forward and forgettable remake like some of the others we've covered this summer reveals itself to be an intelligently crafted film that rewards repeat viewing and deeper analysis. (I could write an entire series explaining the film's thematic use of family, childbirth, and the nature of parenting, whereas the original film's themes are far more obvious and simplistic.) Relying more on high-strung tension than the tedious suspense of the original, the remake has many memorable, unique scenes like the "sheriff" insisting that one character re-enact a suicide while sitting in a dead girl's scattered brain matter. While the effects of the original were startling for their realism, they are no less practical or visceral in the 2003 film, which benefits from a much higher budget.

The acting, above all, is superior, including a surprisingly great performance from Jessica Biel (who reveals just enough to conclude her character is pregnant without it being obvious) and a masterful use of R. Lee Ermey, who steals the entire movie. Leatherface (as played by Andrew Bryniarski) is at his absolute best, too, more scary and relentless than ever before or since. It's also a smart remake by not trying to match the most iconic moments of its forebear, doing away with the cinéma vérité, and daring to take things in new directions. It's not perfect--the horror gets dangerously close to overly graphic torture porn territory which purist fans of the original might take major issue with, and it relies on too many close angles and jump scares--but for my money, 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the very few remakes in cinematic history that manages to be unquestionably superior to the original.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

The Premise: Three years before the previous movie, immediately after the shutdown of the local meat plant, the Hewitt family finds a new way to thrive when four young adults on their way through town get into a car accident.

The Verdict: As a by-the-numbers Texas Chainsaw flick, there's nothing terribly wrong with this movie. The acting is decent, the characters aren't terrible, the horror is intense, there are a few memorable and original scenes, and there's a vague theme about manning up (or "womanning up") and facing your fears for the sake of others. That theme is a little muddy on the morality, though, since it applies both to our tragic heroes and to Leatherface embracing his homicidal tendencies to protect his family. Unfortunately, since this film is a prequel set only a few years prior to known events, it's unable to sustain much suspense and fails to deliver any genuine surprises. A prequel allows R. Lee Ermey to return, since his character is pretty definitively dead at the end of the previous film, but the script doesn't give him much to do aside from relive his glory days as a sadistic drill instructor turned up to eleven. Additionally, by making it abundantly clear he's not really the sheriff, the writers remove one of his most inherently frightening traits. As if that weren't problematic enough, the script follows its predecessor a little too closely as well, failing to learn the lesson of the remake: you can take a familiar story and alter it successfully. This is most apparent in the final act, in which this film tries to recreate the climaxes of both the original film (the dinner scene) and the remake (the cat-and-mouse in a slaughterhouse), but predictably fails to live up to either. It's a competent film and can be entertaining (as long as you don't expect anything terribly new and are interested in finding out why Uncle Monty is in a wheelchair or how "Sheriff Hoyt" lost his teeth), but a true sequel would have been a much better idea.

Texas Chainsaw
Texas Chainsaw

The Premise: A young woman discovers she was adopted as a baby from "the family" (from the original 1974 film) and goes on a road trip with some friends to a Texas house she has inherited. Unfortunately, something sinister is waiting for her in the basement.

The Verdict: If a prequel is a misstep for the franchise, it's nothing compared to deciding to reboot the whole thing again despite the amazing success of the last reboot. I simply can't understand why the producers decided to go in this direction instead of giving their most profitable and beloved entry since the original (the 2003 remake) a bonafide sequel of its own. It's infuriating. A layer of stupidity is added to this reboot concept through an inconsistent and confusing timeline in which most of the characters have only aged twenty years (at most), even though forty years have passed. (Would it have been so hard to either make the protagonist the daughter of a survivor or set the movie in the early nineties? That's like two hours of script editing, tops.) Also, the characters are god-awful and moronic, with whiny, poorly-developed millenials leading the charge behind an army of offensive, one-dimensional Texas stereotypes. When I watch a slasher movie, I don't usually root for the slasher, and when your most likeable character is a mute, remorseless, faceless psychopath, you've clearly done something wrong (especially when that's what you're trying to do). As if that weren't enough to make this one of the worst slasher sequels ever made, there are a bunch of gimmicky 3D effects, bad CGI, cutrate acting, thoughtless clichés, humor that never lands, a dumb third act switch of antagonists, uncreative murder scenes that use gore for gore's sake, and a story that feels like the writer is making it up on the fly. In case I'm not being clear enough, this is not only an awful movie, but an offensively perplexing waste of potential for the series as a whole.

Having gotten all that off my chest, I recognize that this film has its fans and I can respect it for trying to do something different with the series. Some better writing, more nuanced characters, and a timeline that actually makes sense would go a long way towards making this a good Texas Chainsaw flick. The first half, while it stumbles here and there on its own recycled nature, has some good moments of guilty fun, and the second half dares to take the series someplace new. Unfortunately, the "new" place involves a ridiculously unoriginal Southern-style family rivalry (where we're supposed to root for the side of the cannibalistic psychopaths) and groan-inducing themes about the evils of Texas-style vigilante justice, even though the story ends with our "heroes" embracing Texas-style vigilante justice. I'm sorry, but no matter how you frame him in the middle of a bunch of one-dimensional redneck cartoon villains, Leatherface should never become the hero in the final act of a Texas Chainsaw movie. That's just idiotic, not to mention how insane it is to believe the protagonist would be fine with the maniac after he spent the first half of the movie brutally evicerating all of her closest friends, including her live-in boyfriend. If there were a genuine break in the film's morality and the protagonist is turned into an evil person by the end, it could work and be provocative, but unfortunately, there isn't anything even remotely as subtle and intriguing as that going on beneath the surface of this half-baked reboot; it's just not that smart, and its characters aren't nuanced enough for such a turn to work.

Still, I'd rather watch 2013's Texas Chainsaw than 1994's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, so I guess that's something.

Leatherface 2017
Because everyone is clamoring for another horror icon's convoluted origin story, aren't we?

One can look at Tobe Hooper's original film and see the reflection of a confused society in early seventies America, with a group of harmless, innocent, free loving hippies coming face to face with a family of cannibals. Some film theorists smarter than myself have suggested the movie was a way for the counter-culture of the sixties to re-evaluate their lives in the wake of the Manson family murders. The disillusionment and horror is incredibly visceral, despite a surprisingly low amount of blood and gore. As a franchise, though, there are few themes to latch onto throughout--aside from the potential wisdom of vegetarianism--and despite several attempts and reboots, the series never finds direction or forward momentum. By trying to shoehorn Leatherface into the shoes of the slasher icons of the eighties, producers and filmmakers have unduly limited themselves over the years, ensuring that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre confines itself to a restrictive slasher formula with little room for growth, depth, or updated relevance. The 2003 reboot stands out as a solitary exception, but even it couldn't be labeled particularly relevant for its time.

As for its future, the series looks to continue its recent pattern with yet another prequel/reboot entitled Leatherface. The film, which stars Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, and Finn Jones, was filmed back in 2015 and is eyeing an October 2017 release. It's unclear, but interviews with the filmmakers indicate that it's set in the same continuity as the original film, but will serve as a prequel that references characters and events that happen in other movies in the franchise. It follows the story of a young Leatherface escaping a mental institution with three of his deranged peers and a kidnapped nurse, and it involves some kind of "mystery" surrounding the titular character's true identity. Though it's been in development for a painfully long time, this writer does not recommend getting hyped, as none of those details sound particularly promising. Instead of wasting your own money if and when the film finally comes out, watch this space for my review. I'll take the force of the blow for you, my dear readers; it's the least I can do.

[NOTE: I've seen Leatherface. Click here for the review!]

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-e. magill 7/13/2017

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