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.
by Steve Habrat
It has always been extremely difficult for me to get into Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th series. I never found the hockey mask killer to be all that frightening and I found his films to be redundant exercises in sex, violence, and stupidity. The only film in the Friday the 13th series that I sort of liked was the original 1980 film, the one where Jason’s mother was the psycho chopping up hornball camp counselors. With Hollywood remaking every horror film under the gravestone, it came as no big surprise that Friday the 13th would be getting the unholy treatment. While I figured the film would be lousy, I sort of thought that maybe Hollywood would shake the series up a bit. When they handed the film over to Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel (the guy who gave us the semi-entertaining Texas Chain Saw reboot), it was obvious that this was going to be a major train wreck. Well folks, my worst fears were confirmed. The 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is absolutely awful in every way, shape, and form. Only once or twice is the film actually clever and show a brief glimpse of what could be if Bay wasn’t behind the film. I really don’t expect much out of these throwaway post-Halloween slashers but my God, at least put in some effort. I expect a little more than glossy guts, bare breasts, and steamy sex.
Friday the 13th 2009 picks on June 13th, 1980, with a terrified camp counselor beheading the crazed mother of Jason Voorhees, who went on a killing spree after her handicapped son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake. The film then jumps to present day with a handful of backpacking teenagers searching the woods just outside of Camp Crystal Lake for some marijuana that was planted weeks earlier. After they set up camp for the night, they are soon stalked and killed by a hooded maniac with a machete. One of the girls in the group, Whitney (Played by Amanda Righetti), is not slaughtered but captured by the hooded killer and taken prisoner. Six weeks pass and authorities are still unable to come up with an explanation for the strange disappearances of the teens. Meanwhile, another group of teenagers, Trent (Played by Travis Van Winkle), his girlfriend Jenna (Played by Danielle Panabaker), Chelsea (Played by Willa Ford), Bree (Played by Julianna Guill), Chewie (Played by Aaron Yoo), Lawrence (Played by Arlen Escarpeta), and Nolan (Played by Ryan Hansen), arrive in town for a weekend at Trent’s summer cabin just outside of Camp Crystal Lake. The group bumps into Clay (Played by Jared Padalecki), who is frantically searching for his sister Whitney. As they explore Camp Crystal Lake, the group stumbles across the same hooded figure, who now wears a hockey mask. As they dig into the events that happened at Camp Crystal Lake, they make the horrific discover that this strange man may be the legendary Jason Voorhees (Played by Derek Mears).
If you can believe it, director Nispel and Bay are not content with giving us just one group of teenagers to hate. They feel the need to give us two groups of annoying clichés that are begging to be killed by the machete-wielding psycho Jason. They do all the typical things that teens in these movies love to do. They wander off by themselves in a drunken stupor or marijuana haze, they hook up with each other in graphic sex scenes that reportedly made Mr. Bay very upset, and they talk to each other about the dumbest shit imaginable. I am well aware that these stupid teenagers are part of the appeal of these types of films but it would have been so refreshing to see them using common sense for once rather than aimlessly wandering around a dimly lit tool shed packed with more weapons than Jason could dream of. The film also has the same faux-gritty look that Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had, sleek and screaming a big price tag. The big budget look would be okay if the film had some sort of ominous atmosphere but it sort of comes off like a nu-metal music video with strategically place fog machines stuck in moss. I guess the one positive you can find here is that at least the filmmakers don’t resort to a shot-for-shot rehash and instead decide to make something that stands apart from what came before it. Yet even this is flawed because Jason only appeared briefly in the original Friday the 13th. This is more of a combination of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, with actors and actresses that look like they would be more comfortable modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch.
While none of the acting is worth mentioning, the film does take an interesting approach to Jason. More territorial maniac than supernatural specter, Jason dashes after these morons with such ferocity that Nispel and Bay were almost able to convince me that Jason is a neat character. He lumbers out of the dark suddenly and he sets traps for the kids to walk blindly into, which was a nice touch for Mr. Voorhees. Nispel and Bay also cram in a new explanation on how Jason found that legendary hockey mask, a sequence that is both painfully stupid and cheesy fun at the same time. It was one of the only scenes that I actually sort of enjoyed. The other was a fleeting glimpse of Jason showing some sort of emotion as Whitney, his sobbing prisoner, pleads with him and says his name. He stops for a moment and studies her, almost backs off for just a brief second, only to stomp away and hunt more teens. I was actually intrigued by the moment because it made me think that maybe all Jason wants is someone to be kind to him rather than wave him off and ignore him like he was all those years ago. Just as quickly as we saw the potential to give a bit of depth to the character, it was gone.
The main draw to Friday the 13th is going to be the elaborate kill sequences but this poor excuse of a film can’t even get that aspect right. Every death scene is a massive let down because there is very little creativity behind the camera. Only one kill made me sit up and take notice but then the scene switches and the intrigue fades. Nispel makes sure he throws in that famous “ch-ch-ch-ch… ka-ka-ka-ka” whispered in the score but it is only here or there and it never sends chills like it wants to. The acting is awful and predictable, with terrible dialogue handed to only marginally talented young thespians. It has been reported that Bay walked out of the premier of the film due to the unflinching sex scenes that Nispel includes but I wonder if he just wasn’t embarrassed by how awful the movie is. That really says something when Michael Bay walks out of the movie. Overall, it doesn’t build upon the dying slasher genre like it could have and it does very little for the gasping Friday the 13th series. My advice is stick to the original trilogy because at least they were sort of fun and atmospheric. And they didn’t have involvement from Michael Bay.
Friday the 13th is available on Blu-ray and DVD.