The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [DVD]
Director : Marcus Nispel
Screenplay : Scott Kosar (based on a by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Jessica Biel (Erin), Jonathan Tucker (Morgan), Erica Leerhsen (Pepper), Mike Vogel (Andy), Eric Balfour (Kemper), Andrew Bryniarski (Leatherface), R. Lee Ermey (Sheriff Hoyt), David Dorfman (Jedidiah), Lauren German (Teenage Girl), Terrence Evans (Old Monty), Marietta Marich (Luda May), Heather Kafka (Henrietta)
On a short list of the most important horror films of the last 50 years, Tobe Hooper’s low-budget 1973 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre invariably finds itself at the top, along with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). These films are cited not just because they are examples of masterful and frightening filmmaking, but because they tapped into deep cultural fears and evoked the dark side of their era’s zeitgeist. More than anything, these three films were responsible for relocating the source of horror—they moved it out of distant, exotic places and planted it deep in the American heartland. What we should fear, they told us, is not what’s out there, but rather, what’s in here, particularly within the nuclear family, that most cherished of American institutions.
For all the wrong reasons, all three of these films have been remade to lesser effect. Special-effects make-up wizard Tom Savini directed a gorier 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, while indie auteur Gus Van Sant made the insipid postmodern shot-for-shot copy of Psycho in 1998. So, that only left The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has now been updated in sleek, visually intoxicating, but rather meaningless fashion by director Marcus Nispel, a veteran of music videos, and coproducer Michael Bay (Bad Boys II), the current reigning king of vapid entertainment.
The story remains largely the same, adhering closely to the original’s twisted fairy tale about a group of youths out on a daytrip along the backroads of East Texas who stumble upon the residence of a family of inbred cannibals. This deceptively simple framework was used to great effect by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper in their original screenplay, as they dressed up the primitivism of the classic fairy tale structure in horrific modern guise by infusing it with nerve-rattling subtext about the dissolution of the American family and the crumbling social structures of the Vietnam era. The film also, of course, fits neatly into the same mold as Deliverance (1972) and other city-vs.-country horror films, in which the rural, which was once associated with naturalism, farming, and productivity, becomes a haven for the horrible.
Nispel’s remake maintains that sense of rural horror, and actually foregrounds it to the point that everything else becomes meaningless. Although still set in 1973, his remake has none of the social ramifications of Hooper’s original; his vanful of twentysomething hippies doesn’t represent a generation in flux, but rather a temporally displaced cross-section of the MTV generation. Screenwriter Scott Kosar fills in some of the plot gaps in the original film (it turns out the kids are on their way to a Lynrd Skynrd concert), but his characters are shallow and fairly uninteresting. He also equips his heroine, Erin (Jessica Biel), with all the slasher-film final girl attributes, right down to her refusal to partake in smoking dope, but it only makes the film seem that much more derivative.
The cannibal family, whose names has been inexplicably changed from the sick-joke Sawyers to the Hewitts, retains much of its grisly effectiveness, even if most of the characters have been changed around. The hulking Leatherface, played here by Andrew Bryniarski, is still a frightening concoction of brute force and childlike obsessiveness. R. Lee Ermey overplays his role as a creepy-sadistic sheriff to the hilt, and the inclusion of an inbred mountain child and a kidnapped baby insinuate that the family, rather than decaying as in the original, is spreading.
The violence in the update is, not surprisingly, more explicit than in the original, which is one of those films in which everyone thinks they see more than they do. Nispel goes right for the jugular, so to speak, especially in a scene in which the kids pick up a hitchhiker who is clearly an escaped survivor of the cannibal family. She mumbles some ominous things and then blows the back of her head off with a pistol, splattering blood and brains all over the van. This mess becomes the film’s obsession, with Nispel returning to it again and again for gross-out gags about cleaning up brain tissue and sitting in pools of coagulated blood. In the film’s most ridiculous moment, the camera pulls back through the suicide victim’s head and comes out the gaping wound in the back (it’s a remarkable shot, to be sure, but it draws too much attention to itself, thus diminishing the horror of having just witnessed a grisly suicide).
Despite such lapses, Nispel is clearly a gifted visualist, and working with cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who also shot the original, he gives The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a moody, grimy, desaturated visual elegance that brings to mind David Fincher’s Seven (1995). Pearl makes excellent use of light and dark, casting grayish beams of sunlight across the frame and making them work as shadows would to obscure our sight and heighten the tension. This approach works especially well within the crumbling Southern plantation house in which the cannibal family resides, with its bizarre collections of bones, feathers, and all sorts of aesthetically rendered muck and ooze. Much of the film takes place in the middle of the day, and it is here that it works the best; the light is intrusive and intense, suggesting heat and claustrophobia. Once darkness falls and a thundering rainstorm takes over the soundtrack, the film slides into too-comfortable territory, and it becomes one, long, relentless chase, the outcome of which matters little.
|The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Platinum Series Two-Disc DVD Set|
|The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is also available in a single-disc edition that has only the movie, trailers and TV spots, and a music video (SRP $27.95).|
|Audio|| English Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround |
English DTS ES 6.1 Surround
English Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Supplements|| Three audio commentary: Production, Story, and Technical|
“Severed Part” deleted scenes featurette
Chainsaw Redux: Remaking a Massacre making-of documentary
Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainfield documentary
Theatrical trailer and teaser trailer
Motorgrater “Suffocate” music video
Storyboard viewer (DVD-ROM)
|Distributor||News Line Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||March 30, 2004|
|New Line has come through with another first-rate transfer in their excellent “Platinum Series” of discs. Say what you will about how this remake holds up against the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre thematically or formally, but you can’t deny that it looks great—one of the most visually intriguing horror movies since David Fincher’s Seven. Daniel Pearl’s high-contrast cinematography is perfectly maintained in the anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc. Blacks are inky dark with great shadow detail, and the desaturated color palette has just the right greenish and sepia tones. The image is sharp and absolutely blemish-free. They don’t get any better than this.|
|The Dolby Digital ES 5.1 and DTS EX 6.1 surround soundtracks are likewise top notch. The surround speakers are put to great use in creating a foreboding ambient atmosphere, placing weird sounds all around you, while the subwoofer rumbles ominously. The chainsaw has an appropriately rip-roaringly thunderous sound quality, and every high-pitched scream (of which there are many) sounds just right.|
|While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is available in a nearly bare-bones single-disc edition, for fans of the film or those who are curious about it, it’s worth the extra $10 for the Platinum Series edition and all the attendant supplements. |
On the first disc, we get the movie itself along with three solid audio commentaries (or, as they’re rather pretentiously referred to on the disc packaging, “audio essays”) that are organized according to subject. The first commentary, “Production,” features director Marcus Nispel, executive producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, producer Michael Bay, and New Line CEO Robert Shaye; the second commentary, “Technical,” features Nispel, DP Daniel Pearl, art director Scott Gallagher, production designer Greg Blair, supervising sound editor Trevor Jolly, and composer Steve Jablonsky; and finally, the third commentary, “Story,” features Form, Fuller, Nispel, and Bay, along with screenwriter Scott Kosar and stars Jessica Biel, Erica Leerhsen, Erc Balfour, Jonathan Tucker, Mike Vogel and Andrew Bryniarski. I found that the Technical and Production commentaries were the most informative, while the Story commentary was more laid-back and fun. All of them, though, are worth a spin.
The second disc has a trio of documentaries. The first, “Severed Parts,” focuses on the various cuts that were made to the film (including a pair of bookend scenes set in the present day). Director Marcus Nispel explains why each cut was made, some of which he apparently regrets. Gorehounds will be somewhat disappointed to know that there wasn’t a lot of blood and guts left on the cutting room floor, although included here are slightly gorier versions of the suicide and Morgan’s death. (Each scene can also be watched independently of the documentary). Next up is the nearly feature-length Chainsaw Redux: Remaking a Massacre (75 minutes), which is an informative and entertaining look at the film’s history and production, with plenty of comparisons to the original. Gorehounds will definitely be delighted at the amount of time the doc spends on the film’s make-up special effects (interesting thing I learned was that the camera pullback through the girl’s head wasn’t done digitally, as I had assumed, but was rather done for real using a tiny camera on a crane—go figure). Lastly, there is Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainfield (25 minutes), an intriguing look at the real-life psychopath who inspired both this film and Psycho. The doc includes some interesting interviews with historians and psychologists (and Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano!), as well as a few brief glimpses of grisly crime-scene photographs. Also included on this disc are screen tests for Jessica Biel, Erica Leerhsen, and Eric Balfour; two art galleries, one featuring 10 production art sketches and the other featuring 14 conceptual sketches and three-dimensional models of Leatherface’s mask; a teaser trailer and theatrical trailer (both of which are gems); seven TV spots; and a music video.
Copyright ©2003, 2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright © New Line Home Entertainment