Review: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”

The JFK assassination, large universities where lots of sex happens, the death penalty and Harry Knowles – as a foreigner that’s about all I know of Texas, one of those great big states of Southern USA. Yet its also the setting of what was one of the most famous horror classics ever made – the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Having seen the original once so long ago as a kid I couldn’t remember a thing about it (I think I actually fell asleep back then) so I rewatched it again recently.

Today the original ‘Texas’ is quite dated – from a nostalgic point of view its a fascinating piece of early 70’s Americana and I’m sure back in the day it was shocking as hell but by today’s standards its pretty tame. Where its strength still lies though is the simple premise, and the “fly on the wall” style shooting. The last half hour although a bit silly, is nevertheless unrelenting and so by the end when our blood-drenched heroinne is insanely screaming in the back of a truck, its still quite brutal and unnerving to watch.

A big-budget remake though of this is an odd idea, as remakes go we’ve seen our share of relatively pointless ones in recent years (“Planet of the Apes,” “Psycho”). The biggest reason the old one succeeded was because of its documentary low-budget style. That said the modern incarnation of ‘Texas’ proves to be a surprise. In many ways this is not so much a remake but a ‘re-imagining’ like this year’s reduxs of “Willard” & “The Italian Job” – same name and one or two elements are similar to the original, but otherwise a completely separate film in all from the first and yet still surprisingly enjoyable albeit forgettable pap.

Its no shock that the gritty guerilla documentary feel which gives the original its kick can’t be recreated here, but Director Marcus Nispel still manages to convey an effective dark claustrophobic atmosphere for many scenes. The original film’s DOP Daniel C. Pearl is back and is responsible for some quite impressive shot work which makes even your average old rotted house hallway drip with foreboding gothic menace. With a much bigger budget to play with, the boys are able to quite beautifully light and shoot certain scenes with rich texture, and yet don’t go overboard in many ways by trying to shoot out-of-place action (ala. the last act of both “Jeepers Creepers” movies).

That’s one of the more astonishing things here, especially considering this is a film from Michael Bay (producing this time) whose not a guy known for restraint. At various opportunities the film could’ve gone off in silly twists or more grandiose Hollywood style set pieces and it never really does – whilst at other moments where it could’ve restrained the horror as so many do nowadays, it takes the harder more gruesome road. The script is allowed to unfold at a brisk but natural pace and the characters behave quite beliveably for the most part and never delve into post-modern sarcastic dialogue that has become such a bane of these films in recent years.

The cast is quite solid too with Jessica Biel delivering great work as a smart and assertive young female lead. Sure she screams like the rest of them, but she’s not a blubbering mess and both tries to get out of there at every opportunity and fights back only when she has no other choice (and possess no kickboxing skills either thank god). Eric Balfour, Jonathan Tucker, etc. all deliver good support, R. Lee Ermey in particular is cool as a black-humoured and yet menacingly sadistic sheriff.

This ‘Texas’ still falls down in a few areas which prevent it from kick starting a new franchise at least on a creative level. A black & white police video tape footage ‘wraparound’ is a nice idea and homage to the original’s opening credits and yet it doesn’t really click and fumbles the ball. The idea of setting it in the 70’s is a good one and works for the most part, yet the kids still look like they stepped out of a vintage Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. Scares work well and its quite intense, yet the last act does drag on at times and the fast-cut editing makes some of the later scenes hard to follow.

Still, they’re minor complaints in many ways. As far as modern horror goes, this is a much bigger success at what it does than “Freddy vs. Jason”. There’s nothing new or original here (go figure), but the new ‘Texas’ is a film which manages to effectively re-tell the original story for a modern audience, yet doesn’t detract at all from the original and in fact prove a far more worthy creepfest than the various sequels the old ‘Texas’ spawned. A little stylised, but still a genuinely creepy tale worth watching.