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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Written by Scott Kosar, based upon original characters by Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Principal Cast
Jessica Biel -- Erin
Jonathan Tucker -- Morgan
Erica Leerhsen -- Pepper
Mike Vogel -- Andy
Eric Balfour -- Kemper
Andrew Bryniarski -- Thomas Hewitt (Leatherface)
R. Lee Ermey -- Sheriff Hoyt
David Dorfman -- Jedidiah
Lauren German -- Teenage Girl
Terrence Evans -- Old Monty
Marietta Marich -- Luda May
Heather Kafka -- Henrietta
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

A remake of Tobe Hooper's 1974 original, Marcus Nispel's contemporary Texas Chainsaw Massacre hangs on to the knock-down, drag-em-out aggression of the classic and joins it to the slick production values only a major studio can afford. It is caustic, disgusting, visceral, and very nearly depraved. Yet it also has an attention to visual detail and something like an artistic spirit. Depending on your appetite for such destruction, Nispel's flick is either savagely intense or sociopathic -- your pick.

Set in the 70s, it begins with a van-load of free-spirited kids returning from a vacation in Mexico. They pick up a dazed young woman on the side of a dusty Texas highway, who mumbles something about how "they're all dead;" shortly thereafter, she pulls out a gun from between her legs and commits violent and gory suicide. Our Scooby gang heads for the closest roadside truck stop to do the right thing and call for the sheriff. (Trust me -- in this film, doing the "right thing" turns out to be a very, very bad idea.) When the shop's proprietor proves to be disturbingly insensitive to their plight -- or just plain disturbing -- one couple goes to a nearby farmhouse to use the phone, and the story quickly slides into hell from there.

Of course that house contains the lair of the hulking, chainsaw-swinging Leatherface, who wears one preceding victim's visage even as he dismembers another body. Running the household are the inbred, psychopathic nutjobs that Hollywood believes are the source of terror in the American South; used to represent the evils of conservatism, their terrorising of our well-meaning but dissolute hippies forms a subtext that harks back to the 1974 film -- a societal mindset that has never really left the American scene (consider the recent Wrong Turn or the infamous X-Files episode "Home" for further evidence). Call it The Ugly People vs. The Beautiful People. Leatherface is the family's misunderstood progeny, cast as a child victimised by outsiders and entering on a well-deserved adult vengeance. If you don't think "revenge of the nerds" makes for a legitimate motivation in horror films, then you haven't seen or read Carrie. Understand that I'm not saying Nispel and screenwriter Kosar want us to see this family as truly sympathetic (after R. Lee Ermey's performance as the sheriff, you never will) but are trying to infuse storytelling virtues into a tale of ravaging pain by linking it with psychic pain and a real distrust of the strange in our society. Quite often, this is the kind of jump that turns a forgettable horror film into a memorable one. For another example, consider the moment when Leatherface hooks one of his fresh kills and jerks him out of a bathtub. A wedding ring never given falls out of a pants pocket. Such tugging at heartstrings in a film like this is its own form of cinematic sadism.

This Massacre has a style antithetical to Hooper's classic, though cinematographer Daniel Pearl lensed both films. He passes over the docudrama textures he created in 1974 (with a scary exception) and creates a dread-inducing image that recalls the palpable murk of Se7en. The early daylight scenes have a golden sheen that slides off into dark reds and blacks within the same frame, hinting at the carnage to come. Both the house of the nutjob family and an industrial slaughterhouse, when photographed at night, have eerie, ethereal glows highlighting them against the roiling clouds of an impending storm. Even a short, daytime walk in the woods is notable for the hard-edged bars of sunlight sawing the space into sections. It feels odd to say this, but this is a beautifully photographed slasher movie.

All the actors acquit themselves without a trace of self-consciousness; I can imagine they all honestly wanted this movie to work. Jessica Biel is the decided star, and mark my words: she is going to become famous for this role. Biel endures a level of torture that is nearly impossible to watch, and the film's non-stop final act is fueled by her character's raw need to survive set against the killer's need to destroy all opposition. It's thrilling, if also repulsive for its sadism. Biel is given a redeeming few moments at the end that may or may not be acceptable to audiences wanting complete anarchy in their horror. (But don't worry; the filmmakers didn't forget about you.) In any case, it is impossible not to watch and sympathise with her.

Scary, tough, and brutal, this version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could become a modern classic alongside its first incarnation. Is that good or is that bad? It's up to you to decide. All I am going to tell you is: it delivers the goods.

Copyright © 2003 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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