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THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Platinum Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jessica Biel, Jonathon Tucker, Mike Vogel, Eric Balfour, Erica Leerhsen, R. Lee Ermey
Director:  Marcus Nispel
Audio:  Dolby Digital EX 5.1, DTS ES, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  March 30, 2004

“Come on, boy…BRING IT!!!”

Film **1/2

Filmmakers seem to incorporate mathematical formulas into horror remakes…most notably, that more blood, more gore, and more action equals a better film.  The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was low budget, marginally acted, minimally stylish, and yet undeniably effective.  The remake of 2003 actually has a sense of cinematography, lighting, a terrific lead actress and a much grislier approach.  But it doesn’t have the same impact.

Some horror movies are like sprints; they come out of the starting gate full throttle.  Some are like marathons, where the leisurely pace creates atmosphere and suspense.  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is more akin to one of those endurance challenges so popular on television.  If you can make it through to the end, the rewards are quite satisfactory.  But the challenge will be putting yourself through what comes before, which is an exercise in unbridled unpleasantness with an unapologetically sadistic flavor.

The basic formula remains sort of intact…a group of young people are driving through barren Texas territory in a van, pick up a hitchhiker, and find themselves face to face with the ultimate dysfunctional family.  In the original, it was a family of cannibals.  Here, there is some kind of attempt at explaining why the villainous Leatherface is the way he is.  But for the most part, the film goes for the kind of crude southern stereotypes first made creepy in Deliverance.  That’s pretty much all the reason you need to be freaked out.

While the first film wasn’t nearly as gory as reputed (only four deaths, and only one coming via the chainsaw), this movie piles it on, not just gratuitously, but stylishly as well.  Consider the girl who commits suicide in the van…have you ever seen a camera shot track through the bullet hole in someone’s head before?

What follows is murder and mayhem, as Leatherface starts picking off the kids one by one, in mostly the same pattern as the original, but more so, if you get my meaning.  Every act of violence is designed not only to be gruesome, but constantly elevated from what came before.  What’s worse that sawing off a limb?  Rubbing salt on the stump, of course…

The film, which was produced by Michael Bay, is really designed to sicken and unsettle rather than scare.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many people nowadays who seem to understand the difference between what’s frightening and what’s merely going for the gag reflex.  My nerves don’t react to the kind of scenarios depicted in this picture.  My stomach does.

But the final stretch delivers a sequence that makes the whole experience worthwhile.  It doesn’t duplicate the infamous dinner table scene of the original, but rather re-imagines the finale in a remarkably effective way.  We’ve all seen homicidal killers stalking innocent girls more times than we care to count, but I dare say, it’s never been done as well or with as much real tension and imagination as here.  The climax will just about drive you out of your skull.

The other redeeming factor is Jessica Biel in the starring role.  In a picture where most of the characters, good or bad, are not very likable, she brings the movie its only true human face.  Her performance is what keeps us invested for the long haul.  Oscars were probably to much to hope for, but she almost should be considered for a Purple Heart for the exhaustive physical ordeal her character goes through.  The rest of the cast is kind of bland and uninteresting.  R. Lee Ermey once seemed like a promising character actor, but his career has been relegated to the role of caricature actor instead.  This performance won’t help him break out of that rut.

Marcus Nispel is a talented director, and original cinematographer Daniel Pearl returned to man the cameras for this remake…I have a feeling this is more akin to what he would have done with the original had there been more money and time.  The construction and execution of the film are flawless, but as I said, the overall effect is lacking…which proves, I suppose, that talent bloated on money is not as conducive to creativity as talent left hungry to prove something.

In the end, I think producers ought to stop looking at classic cult films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Dawn of the Dead and thinking, “These are good…with more money and more special effects, they’d be great!!”  Instead, they should be studying the films and asking themselves how they managed to be so successful without millions of dollars or state of the art technology.  That will be the point when horror films will start becoming great again instead of merely mildly intriguing.

BONUS TRIVIA:  As in the original flick, the opening narration is provided by John Larroquette.  Also, the kids in the film are a bit ahead of their time…they’re listening to Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” in 1973, a year before the song was released!

Video ****

More money doesn’t always equal better film, but New Line’s Platinum Series always equals a superior DVD experience.  This anamorphic transfer is first rate; I’d dare say even better than the theatrical experience!  In a movie where lighting or lack of lighting is crucial to the overall effect, this DVD delivers unique clarity and depth of detail from start to finish.  Dark scenes or light scenes render with no apparent difficulties, no loss of resolution, no distortions and no undue grain or compression.  Colors are vivid throughout, and those dark corridors with sporadic light patterns couldn’t possibly look any better.  Highest marks.

Audio ****

Sound is vital in horror, and the inclusions of extended Dolby Digital and DTS tracks make this a reference quality disc.  Everything you’d want in a soundtrack is here; plenty of bottom end, a seemingly limitless amount of dynamic range, clear dialogue, stark music, and lots and lots of over the shoulder surround effects that might make you spin in your seat more than once.  Everything is lively, well balanced and well mixed for a frightful experience…that saw will frequently sound too close for comfort.

Features ****

This 2 disc special edition is loaded with goodies.  Disc One features three commentary tracks labeled “production”, “technical” and “story”.  They are all edited together group commentaries featuring the participation of Marcus Nispel, Michael Bay, Jessica Biel and the cast, screenwriter Scott Kosar, DP Daniel Pearl, New Line exec Robert Shaye and more.  There are also some DVD ROM extras, including script to screen and storyboard viewer.

Disc Two has an alternate opening and ending, a “Severed Parts” documentary on what scenes were deleted from the film and why (you can also select and view deleted scenes from the menu), a feature length documentary that details the origins and production of the project, a solid documentary on Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer who partly inspired this movie (and Psycho), screen tests for Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour and Erica Leerhsen (what a screamer!), two trailers including Michael Bay’s famous all-black teaser, 7 TV spots, music video for “Suffocate” by Motograter, and art and stills galleries.

The package also includes a removable metal faceplate and an evidence file featuring “crime scene” photos.  An excellent array of features!

Summary:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is less a movie going experience and more of an ordeal, and falls short of the original despite better production values and more money.  A terrific finale and a solid damsel-in-distress performance from Jessica Biel are the true saving graces, and they are almost enough to rescue and elevate the material from its depths of depravity.  This Platinum Series DVD from New Line is a reference quality disc all the way, though, so I give it a somewhat reluctant overall recommendation.