Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Recent Watches: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

For nine years, Leatherface’s chainsaw was silent. The oddness of “The Next Generation” had successfully killed the franchise for nearly a decade. That is until explosion meister Michael Bay and his partner Brad Fuller had an idea. A horrible, sacrilegious idea. Their new company Platinum Dunes – as in a shiny, artificial version of something meant to be gritty and natural – would specialize in remaking classic horror films. And the first beloved title on the butcher’s block was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The final product was blasphemous to true horror fans. Despite that, the remake became the highest grossing entry in the series, birthing a new trend in horror that lasted for the rest of the naughties. Leatherface would only be the first horror icon to be re-imagined for insipid modern audiences.

2003’s “Chainsaw Massacre” loosely adapts the original. A group of teens are traveling across Texas, this time to a Skynyrd concert. They pick up a female hitchhiker, who then commits suicide. Attempts to contact local authorities put them in the path of Leatherface and his saw. Remnants of the original story remain: The number of teens, the van, the hitchhiker, a male lead getting a hammer to the head, the heroine escaping Leatherface only to wander into one of his family members. Otherwise, the story is very different. The remake even leaves some major elements, like the dinner scene, on the butcher house floor. The main aspect 2003 takes from 1974 is the fake “based on true events” element. The story takes place in 1973 while the opening claims original police evidence – from the “actual” crime scene – inspired the film. 

After this “Massacre” made money, a lot of famous horror films from the seventies and eighties would get remade. Many of these films would imitate “Texas Chainsaw’s” visual style. The color palette is mostly grey, with storm cloud-choked skies always overhead. That is when it isn’t black. The aesthetic can best be described as grungy. Every surface is seemingly caked with dirt or grease. The characters are sweaty, the grass is long, the homes are filthy. As sleazy as the film’s look is, it’s also simultaneously slick. The contrast between the whites and blacks is high. The slime and sweat are carefully placed. It’s the car commercial version of Southern fried insanity. There’s none of the natural clutter of the original. Every aspect is calculated and predetermined. This is studio mandated filth, factory made squalor.

The original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” famously kept most of its gore off-screen. The sequels, generally, did not. The remake follows that lead. Leatherface cracks heads and severs legs, resulting in weeping wounds. We even get a peak into his work shop, seeing him slit bodies and cut faces. Like the torture horror that would become popular soon afterwards, the remake’s violence is sleekly sadistic. A victim is hung on a meat hook, dangling, struggling and suffering. Later, Leatherface dispatches a male crotch first. When the big guy isn’t cutting people up, his family members are playing cruel head games with the teens. This produces a hopeless atmosphere. The original was hopeless too but in pursuit of a wider point. About small town businesses or meat or violence or family. The 2003 version, meanwhile, is the textbook definition of trendy nihilism. The remake is grim without reason, brutal for its own sake.

Another thing I hate about the horror remake fad is how beautiful the casts are. Listen, I like looking at beautiful people too. However, populating your cast with nothing but supermodels removes the material from reality. Further more, many of these actors are badly cast. Eric Balfour as Kemper, the heroine’s boyfriend, is a blank presence. Mike Vogel as Andy is totally indistinct. Jonathan Tucker as stoner/nerd Morgan brings a jangly nervousness but nothing else. Erica Leerhsen plays hippy chick Pepper, degrading into a bitch stereotype before too long. Jessica Biel was the break-out star of the film, mostly because of the tied-off tank top and vacuum-sealed jeans she wears. Biel’s Erin has the most personality of all the teens and even she is mostly defined by her search for her boyfriend. Despite the seventies setting, none of these kids look like they’re from that decade.

Continuations of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” have a bad habit of fucking up Leatherface. Apparently, the hulking man-child of the original – whose personality was dictated by which mask he wore, who saw humans as a butcher sees pigs – is too complex for hack filmmakers to understand. The remake does the greatest disservice to Bubba Sawyer, who is renamed Thomas Hewitt. Leatherface now wears a mask made of human flesh to hide a deforming skin disease, which has rotted away his nose. He has a tragic backstory, being teased as a child. The cannibalism is barely referenced and his fascination with the flesh is gone. All the personality is sucked out, the most fascinating of modern horror villains reduced to a generic maniac. Andrew Bryniarski brings no subtly or pathos to the part. He’s a shrieking, murdering monster, nothing more, nothing less.

The entries in the franchise not directed by Tobe Hooper also tend to miss the boat on Leatherface’s family. One of the biggest clichés Platinum Dunes rely on is standard anxieties about the American south. See, the teens that traveled from the city are beautiful. The redneck deviants who slaughter them are ugly. Old Monty is a double amputee, showing off his stumps and his colostomy bag. (He also feels up Jessica Biels, if you didn’t already get that he’s a creep.) Leatherface’s mom is morbidly obese. His sister has sunken, meth addict eyes. They’re all generic Southern fried sickos, without the specific eccentricities or personalities of Hooper’s original. Among the villains, only R. Lee Ermey’s Sheriff Hoyt is given anything to do. Even then, Ermey just once again trots out his sadistic drill sergeant act, that cruelty contributing to the film’s already overbearing malice.

1974’s “Chain Saw Massacre” unnerved the audience by simultaneously feeling like a newsreel and a dispatch from a world gone totally mad. Tobe Hooper wanted to make a scary movie and he succeeded. I don’t even know if the remake is trying to be scary. The only real shock tactic in its toolbox, besides the cruel violence and fake-gritty visual design, are lame jump scares. Figures dash through the foreground, accompanied by loud stings on the soundtrack. There’s even a fucking spring loaded opossum. There’s nothing charming about the movie’s desperation to get scares. Instead, it’s a crass and obvious maneuver. “It worked before,” the filmmakers figured, “It’ll work again.”

The producers were intent on making a commercially successful horror film. So they bought the rights to a recognizable name, ignorant of and disinterested in that name’s significance. They cast actors who were up-and-coming and ridiculously photogenic. They hired a director – music video and commercial veteran Marcus Nispel – who would deliver a visually slick film. They utilized the then-trendy elements in mainstream horror, such as grisly gore and a downbeat tone. When that didn’t work, they relied on the same shit talentless genre directors have been using for years, like cheap jump scares and creepy hillbillies. And this blatant, cold and logical calculation fucking worked. Stupid teenagers went in droves, threw their popcorn into the air and leaped into their boyfriend’s laps. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” made a lot of money and Brad Fuller would apply this same formula to future films. Everybody won except for people who expect something meaningful or creative from their movies. [3/10]

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