Texas Chainsaw Massacre

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The plot in a nutshell
Wow!  Two new movies in two weeks!  That's a record for me in the last three years.

This film is a remake of the 1974 film by Tobe Hooper.  Once again, five kids (they look college age here, although the original they seemed closer to high school age) find themselves trapped in the backwoods with a serial killer.  He has a penchant for wearing the skin of his victims, and likes long walks in the woods with a running chainsaw.

I re-watched the original the night before I went to see the new version, so that I could easily compare the two.  In some ways, this new version is far superior to the original, but in other ways, it falls way short.

Relatively Spoiler Free Thoughts
Five kids are on their way back from Mexico, having picked up a couple pounds of pot to make some easy cash
.  There's little to differentiate the five from one another, except that one girl is the 'good girl'.  She didn't know about the drugs.  She's not engaged in wild sex, at least not on film.  She's always concerned with the plight of others, always worried about doing the right thing.  Unlike the others, she never turns her back on one of them, or any stranger.  I'll come back to this point later - it's important.

They pick themselves up a hitchhiker, just like in the first film.  Unlike the first film however, this hitchhiker is a victim, not a wacko.  Well, she's still pretty wacko, and although she's managed to get away from the very terror these five are about to meet, she still decides that killing herself is a better option than fighting again.  Okay, here's my first big problem with the movie - a girl has the strength of will to fight her way free, only to take her own life?  She didn't give up and just let them have her, no matter how hard she had to fight, but now just rolls over and dies?  Other than giving the director an opportunity for a pretty neat camera trick, it's a pretty weak premise.

The kids are now in a bit of a pickle.  This is the time before cel phones, so they have to find someone to take the girl's body.  Unfortunately for them, they find a guy with a chainsaw instead.  You really have to be careful when picking the house to ask for help.

The film tries to capture 1974.  It fails pretty badly.  The original didn't have that problem, since it was made in 1974.  How everyone acted, dressed and cut their hair wasn't an issue for Tobe Hooper.  You assume they tried this time around - the annoying fifth wheel wears a pair of funky bell bottoms - but for the most part miss the mark.  That 70's Show does a much better job, and it's not just the look, but the dialog.

Early in the film, the AFW (annoying fifth wheel, originally annoying and in a wheel chair, now just annoying) tells the two amorous kids all about the dangers of 'STDs'.  Huh?  Yea, that was a big topic of conversation in the back of a van in 1974.  Was the term STD even coined back then?  I sure as hell don't remember it, although I have to admit that since that was the decade of my teens, I don't remember a whole lot.  At first, I simply thought this was poor writing, until I realized that perhaps it was all part of a plan to explain the motivation of the psycho-family.

You see, Leatherface (named Thomas Hewitt in this film) has a 'skin disease'.  We get to see this when he removes the mask at one point, and we see he no longer has a nose.  Of course, that's a sign of untreated syphilis's, as is insanity.  If his parents had the disease go untreated, it could explain his behavior, and theirs (although you're never really sure which ones of the crazed, inbred bunch are his mother and father).

Gone is the cannibalism, gone is the tie into the meat packing plant although it's still a backdrop.  Gone is the furniture made of human bones, but Leatherface does have a hell of a collection of parts and pieces in the basement.  The removal of the cannibalism, and the replacement with this entire family back story hurt the film, and I much prefer the original in this regard.  The switcheroo they pulled with the hitchhiker also didn't work for me, and the premise they built for having them meet up with Leatherface didn't work as well as the original.  But there are some positive points here.

The acting of the kid's is world's above the original.  Okay, now that's not too hard to do, but it's still important to note.  R. Lee Ermey does a particularly great job as the sheriff, and the kids all turn in decent jobs screaming and running. The other family members don't give you the creeps the way the originals did though.  Most of the dialog is an improvement, if you can ignore the occasionally stupid lines like the one about STD's.  And of course the overall production values right down to the quality of the film stock, are greatly improved.

There are several concepts lifted right from the original, and while this film is brutal, it's no more brutal than the original.  There's a little more gore, but not much, and the original was a master of the fast, unexpected, brutal death.  The neatest nod to the original though is in the use of the same narrator - John Larroquette.  He's the only actor from the original (although he's only a voice) that ever made it to the big league, and it's nice to see him return to do the work again.  His role is greatly expanded this time as well, and he gets to talk us through some grainy black and white footage shot of the Hewitt basement, ala Blair Witch.

For me though, there was one huge, obvious, smack you in the face difference between this film and the original, and I hinted at it in the first paragraph.  In the original film, each of the five kids was clearly a different personality.  But none of them were 'bad'.  The kid in the wheelchair played the part of the AFW, but none of them took part in any behavior that could label them as deserving to die.

Ever since Halloween, it's been a rule of all slasher flicks that the kids who die deserve it.  They are involved in naughty sex, doing drugs, mean behavior, or just disrespecting their parents.  And the winner of the battle, almost always a girl, is sweet, virginal and deserves to live.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out before this odd shift occured, and as one of the very first slasher flicks, broke ground by showing regular people dying - bad things happening to good people.

This time around, they followed the modern standard.  The other four kids aren't just promiscuous drug users - they take turns making a push to leave someone behind, showing true cowardice in the face of danger.  Except for our heroine of course, a sweet girl that wants nothing more than to marry her high school honey.  Hey, it's 1974, she's wearing a tank top (which they spend over half the film keeping wet, from rain to sprinklers to every conceivable method) but she still wears a bra!  And she never even burns it.

Rating - Rent It
While I may have complained about this a lot, in reality it's one of the best slasher flicks we've gotten in a long time.  They manage to build suspense, get your blood pumping, and use some truly creepy backdrops to generate some real scares.  It's not award material, but for the horror fan, it's well worth watching.

You don't have to rush out to see it though.  It's a film that will work fine at home, on DVD, on a dark rainy night all by yourself...just don't pick up any hitchhikers.  And if you're a large serial killer who likes to wear the skin of his victims, take this advice - don't run through the words with your chainsaw on.

Take note of a couple of the actors here - David Dorfman plays the youngest of the 'clan', and he was also the kid in the Ring, fans of Seventh Heaven will recognize Jessica Biel as our herione, and fans of Six Feet Under will recognize Eric Balfour as one of the teens.  Oh, and keep an eye peeled for the cameo by Harry Knowles from Ain't It Cool News.

Spoiler Laden Thoughts
There's nothing really surprising in this flick, but...











...I was wondering for a little while just what role the sheriff would play.  For awhile, I though that maybe, just maybe, he was just a sick old man that had nothing to do with Leatherface, but was his own issue.  While that thought evaporated fairly soon, it did get me thinking about other ways they could have taken this film.

I also was less than enthused with the motivations given for the killings.  In the original, it was quite clear that they'd been killing for a very long time, and the hidden cars was a great touch.  This time we get a bunch of cars again, but all of them are so old that it could easily be a dump, and there's no real attempt to hide them.  Leatherface has a ton of body parts downstairs, but it seems as though the family isn't really looking to kill people in general, but only for specific reasons. The death of the hitchhiker's family was clearly designed to get the baby, and the idea that they just let her go bugged me as well.  Why didn't they pursue her til they found her?  She was just wandering down the road in the middle of the day.  And if she took the gun from the sheriff, why didn't she use it on any of them?  And when it comes to our five kids, the sheriff even tells the AFW that picking up the hitchhiker had been their big mistake. The story was the weakest around these changes, and developing motivations for the killers hurt the impact.

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