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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The beginning of a review is as good a time as any to confess a shameful secret: I've never seen Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And certainly, after watching video director Marcus Nispel's remake, I still haven't. Long carrying the reputation of one of the scariest films ever, Hooper's tale of a cannibalistic family has a firm hold on the public's imagination. Though extremely loosely based on a true story (or three, perhaps), Leatherface and his clan have a life of their own.

So why remake something reputed to be so perfect already?

Hooper himself has shrugged it off as just the nature of the business. And although ultimately uncredited as screenwriter, he and original writing partner Kim Henkel did make a pass at updating their seminal work for modern audiences. However, Nispel and executive producer Michael Bay wanted to keep it in its original time, perhaps in an effort to pay tribute to its humble and effective beginnings.

But along with screenwriter Scott Kosar, the team has ended up with something that owes as much to everything that came after that low-budget classic. Thankfully, because they also decided to play it without a sense of irony, the Frankenstein monster that is the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre can stand on its own.

It's alive, but the seams are showing.

Still narrated by a stentorian John Laroquette, the film poses as pseudo-documentary. The conceit disappears about five minutes into the story, leaving a faint aftertaste of The Blair Witch Project. (One of the two young nubiles, Erica Leerhsen, starred in that film's sequel, The Book of Shadows.)

From there it's pretty standard stuff, with five young adults of varying likability quickly establishing themselves for the pleasure of your wagering on their life expectancy. On the way to Dallas to see a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (and that's no doubt a dark vague pun considering their fates), they pick up a young woman wandering on the road. If they didn't know they were on the road to Hell, this passenger pretty much points it out.

Nispel takes his time developing the characters, doing a good job of building the suspense. Unlike a lot of former video directors, including his mentor Bay, he seems to have a sense of story that overrides his desire to achieve cool shots at all costs.

Not that he doesn't get arty on us. He may not be the first to use the "head wound cam," (it seemed vaguely familiar) but it sure works here. In some shots, the lighting composition gives things a dreamy state, especially a couple of cool views of Leatherface's (Andrew Bryniarski) family mansion.

The only time the artiness overpowers the story is in a strange crucifixion sequence. Heroine Erin (Jessica Biehl) tries to save one of her friends from the horrors of Leatherface's basement (here, by the way, he's known as Thomas Hewitt). It begins with him spread as if on a cross, and ends with her bathed in his blood sobbing for forgiveness. As metaphor it fails, and otherwise just putting the bit in for its own sake seems out of place.

When Nispel allows for subtlety, though, he pulls it off quite well. If you watch closely, there is more than one moment when the director's desire to quietly show the lost potential of these kids shines.

So he can tell the story without resorting to bells and whistles. The script still relies very heavily on a lot of modern turns. Though the rest of the Hewitt family seems sort of hazy in characterization and purpose, Thomas himself has become a monster in line with giants of the field like Michael Meyers and Jason, all the better to do clever, supernatural-like things. For a guy who lumbers with a chainsaw, he sure manages to sneak around a lot.

The man they would call Leatherface also has motivation, another sure annoying modern touch. You see, he has a skin condition, and the taunts of the children have driven him to be a killer. He may still be a cannibal, but this version downplays that element in favor of inbred decay.

To laud Bryniarski for his portrayal seems moot. He hulks extremely well. But for whatever reason (and Freddy vs. Jason suffered this, too), the modern Leatherface looks more like Rubberface, thus lessening his visual impact somehow.

If anything, seeing this sharpened my interest in finally catching the original. It works, but in some places way too hard. By reputation, Hooper's version understood that less is more, and not just out of necessity. It came from a time when sequels weren't automatically planned, and tacking the possibility on in this new version seems almost insulting.

Don't be surprised if we soon hear of a Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Leatherface. But also don't be surprised if it turns out to be only mildly entertaining.



Derek McCaw

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