by Steve Habrat
In 1966, Roger Corman’s American Internation Pictures (AIP) released The Wild Angels, an outlaw biker gang movie that gave birth to a brand new exploitation subgenre. With The Wild Angels a hit and biker culture breaking through into the media, AIP quickly started churning out more of these rough-and-tough biker films that featured up-and-coming stars like Peter Fonda, John Cassavete, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Larry Bishop. While Bishop never quite achieved the A-list status as some of the other actors that made appearances in these films, he remained a cult icon that obviously caught the eye of exploitation mega-fan Quentin Tarantino. In 2008, Tarantino encouraged Bishop to write, star, and direct a throwback to the outlaw biker films of the 60s and 70s, even offering to executive producer the picture if Bishop would agree to make it. The result of this collaboration is Hell Ride, a jumbled and awkward nod to the exploitation genre that gave Bishop his start. The only thing that keeps Hell Ride from being tossed into the junkyard is the presence of fellow genre stars Michael Madsen, David Carradine, and Dennis Hopper, who try their damndest to make sense of the script and add some extra slicked-back masculinity to all the blood, sex, and violence. It also slightly helps that the film boasts a fairly authentic late 60s/early 70s visual style and a gritty Ennio Morricone-esque score.
Hell Ride introduces us to Pistolero (played by Larry Bishop), the grizzled president of the motorcycle gang called the Victors. We learn that in 1976, Pistolero’s beautiful girlfriend, Cherokee Kisum (played by Julia Jones), was brutally murdered by the Deuce (played by David Carradine) and Billy Wings (played by Vinnie Jones), two high-ranking members of a rival motorcycle gang called the Six-Six-Six’ers. Many years pass and the Six-Six-Six’ers gang falls apart, but Pistolero still craves revenge. After a veteran member of the Victors is murdered in the same manner as Cherokee Kisum, Pistolero begins to suspect that the Six-Six-Six’ers are reforming and attempting to make a comeback. Seeing his chance to exact his revenge on the Six-Six-Six’ers, Pistolero rounds up the Gent (played by Michael Madsen) and Commanche (played by Eric Balfour), two fellow members of the Victors and close friends of the heartbroken president, to help him wipe the rival gang out once and for all. With several members of the Victors either switching sides or turning up dead, Pistolero races to track down the Decue and Bill Wings before they can reach him. In the process, Pistolero learns that Cherokee Kisum had some secrets of her own, and that one of his new gang members may have a connection to the slain woman.
If you’ve seen the trailer or glanced at the poster for Hell Ride, you’ve noticed that Tarantino’s name shows up in big bold text on both, making it seem like he played a major part in the film’s production. About five minutes into the actual film, you’ll realize that is far from the truth. Where Tarantino is capable of delivering a casual cool that seems effortless, Bishop’s tough-guy style just seems forced and uninspired—amazing considering that this guy’s career began in these types of macho outings. Visually, Bishop understands how to make the film feel like a forgotten exploitation film from the 70s. It switches from gritty black and white shots of leather-clad bad-asses rocketing down dusty highways to vibrant LSD trips out in the rocky deserts. Strewn throughout the retro visual style is a plethora of sex, drugs, roaring steel, and violence, all set to a Morricone-esque score that gives the film a slight spaghetti western feel. The orgies, beheadings, ambushes, and motorcycle porn all seem appropriate, especially since Bishop is trying to pay tribute to a hardened exploitation subgenre. But where he really looses his grip on the project is with the characters, convoluted plot, and the cringe-worthy dialogue. It’s especially painful because these guys are veterans of the B-movie circuit.
In addition to writing and directing Hell Ride, Bishop also leads a legendary cast deep into the sizzling desert. A good majority of Bishop’s performance finds him mumbling his dialogue, staring down his opponents over his slouching sunglasses, or squeezing girl’s butts in a lame attempt to show he’s a real lady-killer. Madsen brings his Elvis-like cool to the role of the Gent, but he struggles with flimsy dialogue and a lack of anything substantial to do aside from standing around. Balfour does a surprisingly decent job at trying to hang with these grizzled beefcakes, as his character is the only one with anything resembling depth. The legendary David Carradine’s is reduced to being strapped to a chair and carefully growling bland dialogue at Bishop. Dennis Hopper seems to be having a grand old time back on his hog, but weirdly, Bishop seems like he is constantly restraining him when he should be letting him go full crazy. Rounding out the cast is Vinnie Jones as the wildly profane Billy Wings, a ruthless villain that is largely absent until the final stretch. Overall, for all the talent involved with Hell Ride, the entire project comes off as cheap and amateurish, which is perplexing because it should have been a rock-solid, testosterone-fueled thrill ride. To make it worse, the plot is like a tangled ball of yarn that Bishop can’t even sort out. This rusty clunker would have been better suited as a brief three-minute faux trailer in Grindhouse. It would have been a hell of a lot more fun.
Hell Ride is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Tobe Hooper’s grubby 1974 horror outing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Hands down. It is downright terrifying and manages to make us queasy even though it has very little gore to speak of. In 2003, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes decided that they were going to remake the film, a decision that would open the remake floodgates and shower the film market with a slew of senseless horror remakes that absolutely no horror fan was begging for. With music video director Marcus Nispel behind the camera, Bay unleashed his sleek and gory update that comes at you like a speeding demon. Truth be told, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is not that bad of a film. It’s actually sort of fun and it has plenty of personality and style. It has a must see opening sequence shot in shaky black and white, a crime reel that is chillingly authentic as John Larroquette somberly explains the back-story. It opens the movie with a bang. What comes next is a fairly mundane but excessively flashy exercise in teen slashers elevated by the presence of R. Lee Ermey and, surprisingly, Jessica Biel. It’s the excess and Nispel’s reluctance to leave anything to the imagination that ultimately keeps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 from reaching the levels of terror that the original does. Oh, and cannibalism would have helped too.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins on August 18th, 1973, with five teenagers, Erin (Played by Jessica Biel), her boyfriend Kemper (Played by Eric Balfour), Andy (Played by Mike Vogel), Morgan (Played by Jonathan Tucker), and Pepper (Played by Erica Leerhsen) passing through Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. While making their way along the desolate highway, they happen upon a distraught hitchhiker (Played by Lauren German), who quickly climbs into their van, rambles about a “bad man,” and then shoots herself in the head. Terrified, the group stops off at the nearest gas station to call the sheriff. The sheriff convinces the group to meet him at a local abandoned mill, where he will come and pick up the body. The group waits for hours but the sheriff is a no show so Erin and Kemper decide to travel to a nearby farmhouse to try to contact the sheriff again. The home seems to belong to a cranky amputee named Monty (Played by Terrence Evans) but as Erin and Kemper linger at the home, they begin to suspect that Monty may not be the only person lurking around the decrepit home. Their suspicions are confirmed when they are chased down by Leatherface (Played by Andrew Bryniarski), a gigantic psychopath who enjoys dispatching his victims with a chain saw and then removing their faces so he can wear them as masks.
Since Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes insisted that this film exist, I can at least give it credit for the fact that it isn’t a shot for shot remake of the brilliant Hooper original. It is bold enough to play around with the premise and up the number of nutcases from four to seven, making the whole film seem a bit more dangerous. While upping the number of psychos is a positive, Nispel and Bay do everything in their power to strip Leatherface of the horror he once possessed. And, lets face it, it takes a lot to make a psycho with a chain saw only slightly creepy but apparently Nispel and Bay were up to the challenge. Looking like your crazy uncle in an expensive Halloween costume, Leatherface looks like he is wearing a rubber zombie mask that tried to smile but couldn’t. Only once do we see him wear another face and there doesn’t seem to be any of the eerie cross-dressing that the character liked in the original. It would have been nice to see him in that famous suit with a woman’s face covering his own but I guess you can’t always get what you want. Nispel and Bay also give him a new origin story, one that just comes off as silly. Things really got shaky when old Leatherface decides to peel off his mask and show us what it underneath that rotting flesh. I’ll tell you this much, it isn’t very spooky and actually sort of laughable.
While Nispel and Bay certain screwed up the monster, they fair better with just about everyone else. I still think that Biel does a great job as Erin and she rightfully earns our sympathy, especially as things really get bad. She’s no Marilyn Burns but she is alright in my book. Balfour is also pretty strong as Kemper, a guy just trying to do the right thing for his girlfriend. Another standout amongst the group of teens is Tucker’s shaggy pothead Morgan, who always has just a little too much to say when he shouldn’t. Out of all the teens, I actually liked him the best. Leerhsen and Vogel are okay but they never really grab us like Biel, Balfour, and Tucker. Then we have the merry Hewitt family, led by R. Lee Ermey’s deranged Sheriff Hoyt, a mean son of a bitch who drools chewing tobacco and giggles at the suffering teens. He is here in full force blasting hilariously sick and twisted one-liners right into the faces of his victims. Marietta Marich is also pretty terrifying as the matriarch of the Hewitt family, Luda Mae Hewitt. She rules the family with a rusted fist, demanding that Leatherface lumbers into the family room and get one of the sobbing victims out of her sight. It is such a cold and cruel scene, one that ends with one character suggesting that their victim should stay for dinner, one of the better nods to the original film.
While cannibalism is only hinted at here and there, it is largely absent from this entry in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. If you didn’t know it played a big role in the original, you’d have no idea it was even present in this one. Nispel does take great care in constructing the Hewitt home, a massive, decaying structure gloriously backlit when the sun sinks from the sky. Some of my favorite images in the film are the ones where Nispel’s camera peeks out of the trees and stares cautiously at the house, almost like it is going to spring to life and attack. The set design on the inside of the home is even more painstaking and ornate as the camera pans over rotting corpses, demonic dolls nailed to the wall, and leaky pipes that could very well be oozing blood. While some of the chases are sort of fun and that scene with one character getting his leg cut clean off by Leatherface’s roaring chain saw are nifty, you can help but find yourself longing for that grainy cinematography and that hazy, late summer atmosphere that drips with death and decay. I longed for a scene that would disturb me like the original’s twitching death, where a character that was just clubbed over the head with a mallet thrashed and twitched as his brains oozed from his head wound. I wished for the dinner party scene, the one where Marilyn Burns shrieked in terror as the Sawyer clan tormented her over a plate of human BBQ. And the film didn’t end with that terrifying image of Leatherface doing his “dance of death” in blazing Texas sun. There is nothing razor sharp like that here. Looks like Bay and Nispel removed the chain from this one.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.