Not so much a sequel as an unofficial remake, Kim Henkel’s “The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre” manages the difficult feat of being genuinely scary and sharply self-satirical all at once. Pic may be too restrained in its violence to satisfy the full-bore gore hounds, but that shouldn’t keep it from grabbing a hefty slice of B.O. revenue and video rentals.
In his first effort as a feature director, writer Henkel (who co-wrote Tobe Hooper’s original 1977 horror classic) is borderline sadistic when it comes to sustaining a mood of high-voltage dread. Even some jaded horror fans will find it hard to take many extended scenes in which the threat of sudden, lethal brutality seems just a scream away.
The tension has little do with brandishing chainsaws, though there is plenty enough of that. It has everything to do with priming an audience to expect the worst, then taking your own sweet time about delivering the goods.
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After a straight-faced, tongue-in-cheek introduction that dismisses two previous sequels as “minor but seemingly related incidents,” new pic quickly gets down to the business of spinning a familiar story with uncommon flair.
Renee Zellweger (“Love and a .45”) stars as Jenny, the sort of virginal wallflower who’s inevitably the heroine of this sort of pic. On the night of her senior prom, she and three friends take the wrong turn down a dark country road and wind up terrorized by Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey), a homicidal tow-truck driver.
Jenny seeks refuge in the secluded office of Darla (Tony Perenski), a voluptuous, silicone-enhanced real-estate agent who’s fond of flashing her breasts at uninvited visitors. Unfortunately, Darla is in league with Vilmer.
Even more unfortunately, both Darla and Vilmer are in league with Leatherface (Robert Jacks), the chainsaw-wielding maniac who, in Henkel’s revisionist version of the story, has a lot in common with the gender-bending killer in “The Silence of the Lambs.” The latter is one of several offhandedly lunatic touches that Henkel tosses about freely in “Return.” Some are funny, a couple are quite shocking, and a few others don’t work at all. In the latter category there’s a silly subplot involving a mysterious conspiracy of thrill-seekers who exploit Leatherface and his “family” for their entertainment value.
Henkel is far too impressed with his own cleverness while following this conceit to an illogical conclusion. This triggers an unsatisfying resolution to an otherwise gripping narrative. The final scene pays homage to the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but only people with vivid memories of the 1977 pic will fully appreciate this twist.
Until it begins to fall apart in the last reel, “Return” is adept at keeping its audience in a constant state of jumpiness as Jenny tries to escape the old dark house where the Leatherface clan resides.
McConaughey goes way, way over the top with his mood-swinging menace and trip-wire temper. And he often is hilarious in his efforts to control his high-tech artificial leg (shades of “Dr. Strangelove”). But instead of seeming like a comic figure, McConaughey’s Vilmer is all the more terrifying for his utter lack of restraint. He seems the very embodiment of the old expression “He’d kill you just as soon as look at you.”
During the mercilessly protracted scenes in which Vilmer sadistically taunts the captive Jenny, “Return” goes far beyond self-parody and begins to fulfill every feminist critic’s worst suspicion about the misogyny of modern horror movies.
Just when things appear completely out of hand, however, Jenny stands up for herself and defies Vilmer, Leatherface and every other member of the “family” that slays together. Early in the pic, it’s revealed that Jenny has long had to defend herself against the sexual advances of her mother’s husbands and boyfriends. After those experiences, “Return” appears to be saying, it will take something a lot more formidable than some masked dufus with a chainsaw to keep her intimidated for very long.
Zellweger makes Jenny the most formidable scream queen since Jamie Lee Curtis went legit. On the other side of the coin, Perenski makes Darla the most stunningly sexy sociopath to hit the screen since Linda Fiorentino steamed up “The Last Seduction.”
On a tech level, “Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is everything it has to be. Cinematographer Levie Isaacks and editor Sandra Adair do much to intensify the clammy terror of scenes in which Jenny is pursued by one or more villains. They also do much to give the entire pic the look and feel of a wide-awake nightmare.