The first pic to emerge from Michael Bay’s low(er)-budget production pact with Radar Pictures, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is an initially promising, but quickly disappointing retread of Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s hugely influential horror classic. Repping a considerable improvement over the three prior sequels/remakes, this new “Massacre,” nonetheless, is ultimately another subscriber to the bigger-is-better, too-much-is-never-enough mentality of contemporary horror filmmakers. While the Museum of Modern Art needn’t clear a place for this pic (alongside the original), short-term B.O. prospects look strong, given name recognition and the lack of any significant genre competition between now and Halloween.
In the press notes, one of the exec producers cavalierly notes admits that the idea for the remake stemmed from research showing that 90% of the film’s core, males-under-25 audience knew the title of Hooper’s film, but had never seen it. Few will notice, then, that screenwriter Scott Kosar and director Marcus Nispel begin their “Massacre” with surprising fidelity to its source material. For starters, there’s John Larroquette re-reciting the deadpan voiceover that also opened the 1974 film, informing that pic is based on a true story. (The very loose inspiration for all the “Massacre” films is the Ed Gein case that also inspired Robert Bloch to write “Psycho.”)
Then, the familiar-looking cargo van carrying its five happy-go-lucky passengers makes its way down a humid Texas highway, photographed in extreme long shot and framed near the bottom of the screen in a precise duplication of one of the original “Massacre’s” most memorably askew images. (To accomplish the trick, Nispel employed cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl, who was Hooper’s d.p. 29 years ago.)
The kids inside the van are a bit more airbrushed and horror-movie-ready than before. There’s the pothead-jokester Kemper (“Six Feet Under’s” Eric Balfour); his tomboy girlfriend Erin (Jessica Biel); blond, pretty-boy jock Andy (Mike Vogel); bespectacled, curly-haired nerd Morgan (Jonathan Tucker); and the flower-girl hitchhiker Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), who has already hopped aboard when the movie begins.
Early moments are true to the unfussy aesthetics of 1970s independent filmmaking, and feature a welcome absence of the postmodern humor that has nearly stripped horror pics of their primal ability to scare.
A large part of what made the first “Massacre” so indelible was its stark, evocative atmosphere — the slow encroachment of the chainsaw splatter on a placid, Georgia O’Keefe landscape. And when it begins, Nispel’s “Massacre” likewise suggests a picture-postcard pregnant with dread.
It’s only when the group stops to pick up another hitchhiker — a badly beaten teenage girl (Lauren German) wandering alongside the road — that things begin to go awry, both for the characters and for the movie. Rather than merely giving the protagonists a fright (the way her male counterpart did in the 1974 version), this hitchhiker blows her own brains out with a handgun. At which point, Nispel’s camera dollies back through the hole in her head and out through the even larger one in the rear window of the van.
The suicide causes the group to seek help at an innocent-looking farmhouse where they encounter chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. The suicide is also more explicit than anything seen in the original, and transforms Nispel’s film into an all-too-familiar shock-horror exercise — a movie with twice the gore of its precursor, but only a fraction of its filmmaking ingenuity.
In fact, nearly everything that follows is suped-up and overly stylized, dulling the film’s impact and making it seem interchangeable with any number of undistinguished contemporary-set genre pics. There is an artful pursuit of one victim through a tangle of sheets hung on a clothesline that recalls the similar chase in William Lustig’s “Vigilante.”
In an unnecessary bit, R. Lee Ermey (“Full Metal Jacket”) plays the local sheriff with such hammy gusto that the viewer wonders why Leatherface hasn’t long ago salted and stored him for the winter. Also, Leatherface’s extended “family” — always the weakest element of this story — is fleshed-out, suggesting a citywide, pod-people-esque conspiracy.
Pic then falls into a “Scream”-like self-referential abyss as Internet geek Harry Knowles shows up as one of the decapitated heads decorating Leatherface’s workspace. In the end, the cumulative effect is that everything that was abstract and nightmarish in the original is crudely literalized here.
In a minor variation on the role created by Marilyn Burns, Biel is sexy and appealing, though the filmmakers strain to turn her into too much of a Sigourney Weaver/Linda Hamilton warrior figure, right down to a mano-a-mano duel with Leatherface that feels tacked on for feminist-empowerment effect.