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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre   B

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Marcus Nispel
Writer: Scott Kosar
Cast: Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Eric Balfour, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vogel, Lauren German, Andrew Bryniarski, R. Lee Ermey.

Review by Rob Vaux

There was nothing cool about the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It didn't nudge you in the ribs or tell you how slick you were at figuring out its little jokes. It was exploitation distilled to its purest essence, a work of art designed only to disturb. Its slow descent into a horrifying (and strangely convincing) hell found power by reaching the most primal part of the psyche, that animal instinct that screams run, run, for God's sake run. In that regard, it went farther than any film before or since, sheltered by its quickie production and affirmed by its subsequent status as a horror classic.

The modern remake isn't quite so courageous. It doesn't have the freedom to push the boundaries as much, and the current filmgoing environment simply can't support that level of relentlessness. Simply put, it's not in the same league. But there are a few wonderful, horrible moments where it finds those primitive fundaments, reaching down into our lizard brains and pulling back something black and dripping. Those attuned to such depths will relish the experience, no matter how second hand it may be, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers enough in the interim to make the rest worthwhile.

The story -- almost abstract in the original -- has a little more meat on its bones this time around, centered on five unlucky teenagers who knock on the god-king of wrong doors. Breezing through rural Texas on their way to a Skynyrd concert, bright and beautiful as only young film actors can be, their joyride is interrupted by a near-collision with a young woman wandering aimlessly down the road. Their efforts to help her soon land them in the clutches of the area's only apparent residents -- a demented clan of cannibals whose Black-and-Decker-wielding heir (Andrew Bryniarski) wears a mask made from his former victims' faces.

The terror of the scenario lies less in the violence and mayhem (which Massacre detrimentally indulges in) than in the sense of a hidden universe -- hateful and cruel -- which innocents stumble into through sheer dumb luck. Normal people, reliable institutions, the barest precepts of morality... they all vanish, replaced by an alien landscape full of leering monsters. There are rules here, but they defile everything we understand, and the natives hold all the cards. The Jungian Other has invited you to dinner and he's not taking no for an answer.

Director Marcus Nispel grasps this concept well enough to adequately channel the first film's relentless atmosphere. He and DP Daniel C. Pearl infuse wordless dread into the Texas countryside, which gradually reveals the decaying farmhouse where the true horrors take place. The dividends really pay off in the middle third of the film, as the family's grotesqueries come creeping into the frame. Here, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre finds its most effective moments, grabbing us by the throat and delivering brutal shocks on par with its predecessor. Nispel has a few trump cards to help it along (including an appearance by R. Lee Ermey, who can pin you to the back of the theater seat like nobody's business), and gives a surprisingly thoughtful contrast between the freakish killers and their Hollywood-gorgeous victims. The protagonists are all appealing (though possessing the usual dumb teenager clichés), and we genuinely feel for them as their world dissolves into nightmare.

Sadly, the mood never takes permanent hold, existing instead in all-too-brief snatches. Nispel punctuates the better elements with tired tropes of contemporary horror -- gruesome jokes, youth-as-transgression, and buckets of gore designed to shock without really terrifying -- which consume far too much of the opening and closing acts. The climax is reduced to a lot of running through the woods, and while Pearl's work keeps it visually interesting, the terrors of the middle section inevitably start to fade.

Massacre also betrays a little too much sympathy for its audience, relaxing the vice when it should be ratcheting it tight. This is particularly true with the eventual heroine (well-played by Jessica Biel), whose updated empowerment is a welcome sign of the times and yet still diminishes the final payoff. Mercy had no place in the original -- an integral part of its strength -- and the remake's desire to throw us a bone (however welcome it appears at the time) feels too much like a cop-out once the dust has settled.

Still, for sheer brutish effectiveness, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does the job. If it never clears the shadow of its predecessor, it at least evokes a semblance of the same energy... which should keep its intended audience happy. Nispel gives a proper tip of the hat to his roots (Pearl also shot the original film, and John Larroquette returns as the chillingly officious narrator) while keeping enough of his own vision to justify the exercise. If nothing else, it should give newcomers an idea of what the first film achieved, and encourage those of the right mindset to give it a look. Remakes are invariably a letdown; this one, at least, doesn't slip too far.

Review published 10.16.2003.

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