By Rob Scherf
Despite its cult status as a transcendent horror movie, it is this reviewer’s opinion that 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is little more than a childish romp through the slasher genre. A shoestring budget–the general-consensus reason for the massacre’s lack of style, form or content–is no excuse to skimp on a decent story and appropriate atmosphere for your film’s genre. Indeed, these are the two cheapest elements of a picture if its creative team has any imagination. A plotless and suspense-deficient “movie” (shot in true adolescent homebrew epic style, with truncated exposition and an oddly missing conclusion), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deserves little more than a footnote in history as the inspiration for the glut of microbudget horror genius that followed in its beleaguered footsteps, including Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and George Romero’s Living Dead trilogies.
It was with piqued interest, then, that last year I read some rumours regarding a remake helmed by none other than visionary auteur Michael Bay and neophyte music video director Marcus Nispel.
I have to admit, this producer/director combination was an eccentric choice at best, but even Bay, best known for such high production value classics as Armageddon and Bad Boys II, was sure to produce a more watchable film than the source material, even if the resulting mess of microsecondal cuts (his patented trademark) was only likable in the forced and manipulative way the producer’s previous offerings have been.
The new film picks up with a twisted nod to Scooby Doo as a pack of stoners rush through the back roads of Texas in an old van, probably running late for a Phish concert. The party’s over when the youngsters pick up a badly shaken woman wandering on the side of the road, who, after dispensing some cryptic foreshadowing, pulls a gun out of nowhere and holds a timely self-introduction to a bullet. The kids then begin a not-so-gentle descent into the macabre that ends in a lot of screaming and a hell of a lot of chainsaw-fueled chase scenes.
Although there are some new additions, like a spirited subplot involving a crazed sheriff played by Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey, the plot here largely follows that of the original with Nispel determined to present the material in a much livelier manner. He has lovingly crafted a rich, colourful world of body parts in jars, bloodstained basements and extremely unwholesome antagonists in contrast to the original’s embarrassing visual nakedness.
For example, where the original’s action centerpiece was a panicked (and extremely long) midnight chase through the woods, the new Massacre beautifully sets the same scene in broad daylight and through an extensive web of backlit, clotheslined bed linens.
Nispel layers every set with buckets of fake blood, brain matter, bone, hair and fingernails, and gleefully juxtaposes the obscene amount of gore with dark humour that almost always hits its mark. Cheap scares are delivered by the dozen, but they fit so well into the dense atmosphere that they work, for once.
Even the setpieces, not much more than playful reworkings of old favourites (there are chases through an old house, a macabre laboratory, a slaughterhouse and a forest), hang nicely in the director’s obsessively textured framework. It’s a testament to Nispel’s sharp sense of aesthetic lyricism that he let neither Bay’s influence nor his own exuberance as a new director disrupt The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s tight suspense and beautiful photography. It’s also what easily sets the film apart from any other horror flick in recent memory.