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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Platinum Series (2003)

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Jessica Biel, R. Lee Ermey, Jonathan Tucker,
Erica Leerhsen, and Eric Balfour

Written by Scott Kosar, from a screenplay by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
Directed by Marcus Nispel

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Gus Van Sant, it appears, had the right idea. If you're going to remake a beloved movie, as he did with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1998, stick as close as possible to the original material. This way, the superfluous result can be easily dismissed as merely annoying and unnecessary, but in its faithfulness, will be considered misguided homage rather than brazenly stupid sacrilege.

There's something about Tobe Hooper's 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that is irresistible to defilers of cinema. A genre groundbreaker in its day, The Saw still holds up as a marvel of form, both in its mastery of maximizing the low-budget aesthetic and in its stunningly effective efficiency of narrative. As slasher films go, it is nearly perfect. In its set-up, it is slow and easygoing, with a verité style, natural performances, and the empathetic verisimilitude of the mundane. When the terror starts, however, it is unremitting in the pace of its onslaught of horrors. There is never a wasted moment, and this economy of plot precludes tension-breaking lapses of credibility. The film's effectiveness was so great that it convinced a generation of filmgoers and critics that it was one of the goriest films ever made, despite rarely displaying a drop of blood (they must have been hiding their eyes).

So why screw with it?

The first sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in 1986, was a broad comic satire, and that different style made it unwelcome to many die-hard fans of the original. Also directed by Hooper, however, it stayed faithful to the narrative of its predecessor, and, with the addition of abundant Tom Savini-gore effects, has built a worthy cult audience of its own.

Following that mixed success, however, the legacy of The Saw went hopelessly awry. Two more sequels, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III in 1990 (despite a great Arthurian trailer and the presence of Viggo Mortensen) and 1994's The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (starring emerging talents Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey), both viciously raped the franchise, disregarding established story and character with bizarre and ill-informed revisions. These two failed reinventions were appalling, ludicrous, and embarrassing, and had confused fans of the original begging for no further desecrations.

In that sad context, it could be generously proclaimed that the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is only the third worst attempt to exploit its notorious namesake. That said, it is simply awful, and if anyone needed any further reason to despise Michael Bay, this is it. The most ostentatiously overbearing director of the 1990s (Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), Bay felt that his career needed a "low budget" edge to it, and his first effort was to produce this errant project.

*          *          *

Like the original, the 2003 remake of The Saw follows five road-tripping young adults who become prey to a murderous clan in rural Texas. Also like the original, one of the murderous clan is Leatherface, a monstrous hulk masked in a patchwork of skin from his victims. Even further like the original, there is also bit of narration by John Larroquette. This is where the similarities end.

Apparently for Bay, "low budget" means no slo-mo shots of heroes outrunning gigantic explosions, because just about every other overblown affect of his TV-commercial aesthetic is on display here: Every shot is conspicuously framed and lit like a stylish music video, every scene revolves around some foolishly contrived bit of conflict or an overplayed bit of sinister business, no small detail is left without an obvious close-up to draw attention to its significance (or, if insignificant, its aesthetic value). Remarkably, Bay somehow managed to find a director (Marcus Nispel) who matches his lack of acumen for storytelling, character development, or subtlety.

The screenplay by first-timer Scott Kosar reeks of low-confidence (not to mention hate for the material's inspiration): every moment is busy, every crisis is high maintenance, and, as a result, the characters are consistently forced into bad decisions and dumb plans that divorce the audience's sympathy from their excruciatingly overwrought plight. Where the original effectively relied on horror of concept for its impact, this Bay-Nispal-Kosar version eschews narrative concept for aesthetic overkill. Further, the remake's emphasis on graphic gore replaces the visceral terror of the original with a tastelessly glib sadism (for well-done tastelessly glib sadism, viewers looking for creative Saw-derivative horror would do well to check out Rob Zombie's impressive House of 1000 Corpses, which is far more interesting both in concept and execution, also released in 2003).

Beyond the plain misguidedness of the filmmakers' approach to the remake, every deviation they make from the original dilutes its intended effectiveness. Fans of the original will (or should) be outraged by the remake's compulsive need to over-explain and overemphasize, by the cartoony performances and the ghastly added melodramas. Taken on its own merits, the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a very bad movie. Compared to the original, it is a case-study in ego and ignorance.

*          *          *

New Line's two-disc Platinum Series release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and DTS audio mixes. You can almost tell these days how bad a movie is by how gimmicky the special features on the corresponding DVD release are. Telling features include a tin faceplate (which is useless once the shrinkwrap comes off) and the enclosed envelope of "crime scene evidence" that betrays the filmmakers' lack of understanding of or interest in the subject or legacy of their movie.

There are three audio commentary tracks. The first track features Bay, Nispel, and executive producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, all whom come off as self-satisfied. In their disinterested attempt to make a "snuff film," they went out of their way to contradict that genre's lo-fi appeal at every turn. Worse, Nispel seems to actually believe that his movie is based on a true story. Another track features Nispel again, along with many of his key technical crew. Still a third track features yet more of Nispel, along with Bay, Form, Fuller, Kosar, and several cast members. Listening to Nispel and Kosar explain their intentions is bewildering. Moreover, the inclusion of three commentary tracks with several repeat performers is little more than an exercise in hubris.

Disc Two includes the deleted scenes documentary "Severed Parts," including an inexplicably terrible alternate opening and ending; the feature-length "making-of" documentary Chainsaw Redux: Making a Massacre (in which fans lining up to see the 30th anniversary screening of the original predict that the remake will "suck"); the new half-hour documentary "Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainfield," about the real-life killer who inspired only the more gruesome characteristics of Leatherface (as well as Psycho's mother-fixated Norman Bates); screen tests for Biel, Balfour and Tucker; art galleries featuring Leatherface concept art; trailer; TV spots; and the Motograter music video for "Suffocate."

— Gregory P. Dorr

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