Marcus Nispel’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was billed as a “re-imagining” (the new Hollywood buzzword for “remake”) of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 low-budget original. And since every reputable and disreputable movie critic has compared the two films side by side, it’s a good thing I’ve never seen Hooper’s original, and won’t be offering you yet another comparison. Thank God for small miracles.
“TCM” opens with four friends and a hitchhiker on their way back from Mexico where Morgan (Jonathan Tucker) has just scored a hefty load of weed. This doesn’t sit well with Erin (Jessica Biel), our Fair Hair Lead, who just wants her long-time boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour) to get them to a Lynard Skynard concert and marry her already. Soon the friends encounter a young woman walking haphazardly in the middle of an empty stretch of Texas back roads. They bring her along, but she starts to babble about not wanting to go back in the direction the friends happen to be driving, and produces a gun and commits suicide in the back seat.
Understandably shocked and entirely out of their element, the friends call for help, but only get a sadistic backwoods sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) who seems less interested in helping the kids than he is with toying with them. While Morgan, Andy (Mike Vogel) and Pepper (Erica Leerhsen) deals with the foul mouth sheriff, Erin and Kemper find themselves at an old mansion in the middle of nowhere. In short order, they run into Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), a deformed killer wielding a chainsaw who has eyes for Kemper. Or, to be more exact, on Kemper’s skin…
If this “re-imagining” of “TCM” is not the cup of tea with movie critics, then it will surely sit extremely well with fans of the genre. Without the burden of a low budget, former music video director Marcus Nispel offers up one of the better looking, polished, and downright atmospheric Teen Slasher in recent memory. Even the equally effective “Wrong Turn”, which shares similar pedigrees with “TCM”, looks almost pedestrian compared to the style and visual flairs Nispel and cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who was also the cinematographer of the original) shows here. This film looks fantastic.
The script was written by Scott Kosar, who successfully gives the four friends individual and believable personalities. The least successful character is hitchhiker Erica Leerhsen (“Blair Witch 2”), who seems out of place and is mostly there to hike up the sex factor and scream a lot. Speaking of sex — is there any doubt that lead Jessica Biel, besides being a talented actress, was put into various stages of physical danger to — shall we say — augment her natural assets? While it’s true that Biel has the physicality and thespian skills to pull the role off with great conviction, the fact that she’s insanely fit and attractive doesn’t hurt.
But unfortunately Teen Slasher films aren’t known for giving their Fair Hair Leads a lot to do other than run around, scream a lot, and then finally battle the villain at the end to justifiably lay claim to their Inner Badass. Nevertheless, Biel (“The Rules of Attraction”) manages to bring more to the role than her archetype usually requires, and as a result you really feel for her as she tangles with Leatherface and his brood of inbred family members. If this isn’t a star making turn for Biel, I will be surprised.
As the deformed Leatherface, Andrew Bryniarski makes for a menacing figure, but one suspects he wouldn’t really look so tough without that shrilling chainsaw of his. The rest of Leatherface’s family goes by in a blur, and are mostly window dressing. They’re more “back woodsy” — and all the stereotypes that comes with that description — than actually dangerous. On the other hand R. Lee Ermey (“Full Metal Jacket”) was born to play the sadistic authority figure, and he does so once again with great effectiveness. In a lot of ways, Ermey’s sheriff is more frightening than Leatherface simply because his evil is more “human”.
I couldn’t tell you if Nispel’s version is close to Hooper’s original. Thankfully I don’t enter “TCM” with the proper Horror Movie IQ that could have dampened my favorable impressions of the film. As a standalone Teen Slasher, “TCM” offers the fans everything they could want or ask for. The nice polish Hollywood shine is a welcome addition after so many low-budget offers; even better, the movie delivers the goods with glee. If you want blood, you’ll get blood. If you want vicious kills, you’ll get vicious kills. If you want a lot of Leatherface, you’ll get a lot of Leatherface. The first kill comes out of nowhere, but as soon as it occurs the film becomes a nonstop screamfest, culminating in a 20-minute chase/stalk sequence that’s possibly the longest nail-biter yet.
In a lot of ways, films like “TCM”, “Wrong Turn”, and “Cabin Fever” gives me hope that Hollywood has begun to respect horror and its fans after slapping us in the face for so long. One bright sign that things are looking up is that the directors of all three films seem to know what their audience wants and how to give it to them. Despite their seemingly intimate knowledge of genre conventions, they nevertheless manage to throw some minor variations on the old formula. Had “TCM” or “Wrong Turn” been made just a few years ago, I very much doubt if their directors would be so willing to satisfy genre fans; in fact, I very much doubt if the directors would have been genre fans themselves.
Marcus Nispel (director) / Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper (1974 screenplay), Scott Kosar (2003 screenplay)
CAST: Jessica Biel …. Erin
Jonathan Tucker …. Morgan
Erica Leerhsen …. Pepper
Mike Vogel …. Andy
Eric Balfour …. Kemper
Andrew Bryniarski …. Leatherface
R. Lee Ermey …. Sheriff Hoyt