Judge Dan Mancini has just as much respect for the dead as anybody around here.
Our review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), published March 22nd, 2004, is also available.
Inspired by a classic movie inspired by a True Story.
"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected, nor would they have wished, to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day."—Narrator
Facts of the Case
August 18, 1973. Twentysomethings Erin (Jessica Biel, Stealth), Kemper (Eric Balfour, Lie with Me), Morgan (Jonathan Tucker, The Ruins), Andy (Mike Vogel, Cloverfield), and Pepper (Erica Leerhsen) are tooling across the Texas desert in their VW microbus, on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, when they come upon a hitchhiker. The physically and emotionally battered girl just wants to go home, but when the kids unwittingly take her back into the heart of darkness from which she's escaped, all hell breaks loose. The group falls prey to an ill-tempered small-town sheriff (R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket) and the grubby, sadistic, and cannibalistic Hewitt clan. The most frightening Hewitt is a hulking, scarred manchild named Thomas (Andrew Bryniarski, Batman Returns), the man they call Leatherface because he wears masks of tanned human flesh and uses a chainsaw to slaughter his victims.
I first saw director Tobe Hooper's 1974 white-knuckler The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on VHS sometime in the early 1980s. I was in early adolescence and, like all teens in the '80s, I loved cheesy slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I thought The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was that sort of movie—a giddy, rollercoaster ride of goofy, sex-hungry kids being offed in entertaining ways by a faceless killer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Hooper's flick is a brutal affair, full of grave-robbing, cannibalism, murder, and backwoods weirdness. Its tone is dour. Shot on the fly with small 16mm cameras, it packs a seedy, almost documentary look that makes one's skin crawl. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is no good-time horror entertainment; it's a depraved phantasmagoria that places the viewer viscerally in the heart of madness. It's a great little horror movie. After seeing it for the first time I wanted to take a shower.
Which begs the question: Why remake it? For Michael Bay and his cohorts at Platinum Dunes, the answer was probably that a modestly budgeted horror spectacle with the Chainsaw moniker was almost guaranteed to turn a decent profit. And so it was that in 2003 they hired director Marcus Nispel, who'd previously worked in music videos, to take a stab (get it?) at a Massacre for the new millennium.
As a fan of Tobe Hooper's original, I honestly didn't expect to enjoy Nispel's remake. Despite my better instincts, I do. There has been a rash of unnecessary horror remakes in recent years and they tend to go in one of two directions. Either they're so slavishly devoted to the plot and beats of the original that they drown in predictability (see the second half of Rob Zombie's Halloween), or they're self-consciously goofy and lacking in the old school grit that made the original memorable (see the 2006 version of Black Christmas). Nispel's movie commits neither sin. It is a wholesale reinvention that evokes elements of the original Massacre without merely copying them (for instance, the famous meat-hook sequence is present, but significantly altered and with an entirely different grue-filled emotional core). It also avoids camp like the plague, maintaining the relentlessly bleak tone of Hooper's movie. It isn't a flawless movie. Nowhere near as powerful as the original, it is an intense and nerve-wracking experience that (to abuse a well-worn cliché) kept me on the edge of my seat. And isn't that the primary responsibility of a good horror flick?
One of the ways that Nispel's movie is inferior to Hooper's is its visual design. The 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks good, to be sure, but good in a way that makes abundantly clear that Nispel is a student of the gaudy, high sheen film school that is music video production. Both versions of Massacre were lensed by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, but he and Nispel show little sensitivity to the fact that much of the original version's power comes from the below-the-surface affect on audience psychology of its co-opting of documentary style. However off-the-wall the movie's Grand Guignol style becomes, its low-tech, handheld 16mm source lends it an air of disturbing realism. Nispel's remake has none of that scummy charm. It is all about crisp lighting, precise camera moves, and carefully dressed production design rendered in glorious 24mm gloss. It is as flawlessly perfect as Jessica Biel's booty in a pair of painted on low-rise bell-bottoms. But in a story like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, visual perfection is not an asset.
Pearl's work looks spectacular in high definition. The Blu-ray's 1080p transfer is crisp and beautiful—so crisp in fact that an elaborate special effects shot early in the film doesn't look anywhere near as seamless as it does on DVD. Perhaps most important is that black levels are supple and perfect. The transfer achieves true black when appropriate, but doesn't lose fine detail during dimly lighted sequences such as those that take place in the Hewitts' grimy, wet basement (someone in the family needs to invest in a sump pump). The uncompressed Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is equally impressive, delivering startling noise and bone-chilling atmosphere.
As for extras, the Blu-ray is a high-definition upgrade of the two-disc Platinum Series DVD release back in 2004. Nearly all of the supplements from that release are carried over here. There are three audio commentaries. The first is a production commentary that includes producer Michael Bay and director Marcus Nispel. The second is a technical commentary that offers thoughts from cinematographer Daniel Pearl, production designer George Blair, and others. The final track is includes Bay and Nispel, as well as the cast, and screenwriter Scott Kosar.
In addition to the commentary tracks, there is a wealth of video features. All are presented in standard definition (albeit high-quality standard definition). Chainsaw Redux: Making a Massacre and Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainsfield are feature-length documentaries that deal with the making of the film and the Wisconsin serial killer who inspired it, respectively. "Severed Parts" is a featurette that incorporates scenes deleted from the final cut of the movie. There are also alternate opening and ending sequences for the movie that, though they flesh out Jessica Biel's character a bit more, were better left out of the final film. Screen test footage for Biel, Eric Balfour, and Erica Leerhsen are also archived on the disc (all three actors turn in fine performances, by the way). There are 7 trailers and TV spots, and a music video for "Suffocate" by Motorgrater.
In addition to the video features, there are production design and make-up art still photo galleries. Missing from the two-disc DVD package is a script-to-screen DVD-ROM feature, as well as disposable tchotchke like a collectible metal plaque and some crime scene photos.
No, Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't as good as Tobe Hooper's. Yes, it is yet another Hollywood remake of a horror movie that didn't need to be remade (the original remains quite capable of scaring the pants off of audiences). I like it anyway. If that means I have to surrender my horror flick fan credentials, then so be it.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-ray, but considering the Platinum Series DVD has near-reference quality A/V for a standard definition release and that the Blu-ray contains no new extras, only the hardcore fan should invest in an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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