***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Andrew Bryniarski
screenplay by Scott Kosar
directed by Marcus Nispel
by Walter Chaw With its low-angle compositions, gradual evolution of animalistic antagonists (from opossum to kid to crippled man to monster), discovery of a feral child, claustrophobic sets drenched in water, and neo-feminist slant, what Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre resembles most is not Tobe Hooper's 1974 masterpiece, but James Cameron's 1986 masterpiece, Aliens. In structure and execution, in fact, even in visual style, Nispel's picture recasts Aliens with its cannibalistic hillbilly clan the insectile "other" and tight tank-top sporting Jessica Biel as stand-in for Sigourney Weaver's tight tank-top sporting über-mater. The problem with the comparison is that where Hooper's original presented its nihilism in detached tableau (the first attack is a classic in savage hopelessness), Nispel's remake sports the intimate camerawork favoured by Cameron-inspired action films, replacing the existential desolation of Hooper's vision with more standard flight and fight sequences. As genre exercises go, despite a decent amount of sadistic gore, the picture is better spoken of as a thrilling, beautifully shot action film that only flirts around with social significance.
After scoring a piñata-full of marijuana across the border, a group of five Abercrombie & Fitch meatbags picks up a dazed hitchhiker in bumblefuck Texas who, after going on a little about how "they're all dead" and the "bad man," blows her brains out with a graphically-concealed pistol. The requisite rundown gas station (and requisite rundown-gas station lady) is encountered, the requisite weird sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) acts appropriately inappropriate, and the kids proceed to do everything possible to barricade themselves in rickety wooden shelter when a straight flight through the woods would probably provide the best option for escape. Like the original film, the villain is the bestial "Leatherface" (Andrew Bryniarski), who appears driven mainly by the need for food and shelter (not unlike Geiger's aliens), and again like the original, the culprit appears to be the middle-class' denial of the hillbilly: not man vs. man so much as man vs. nature.
The set design of Leatherface's house isn't as good as Robert A. Burns's brilliant design for the original, but what compels of both is Daniel Pearl's cinematography, updating his own low-fi documentary feeling for the high-gloss major studio release and understanding that what began as something of a weekend lark has, in the intervening three decades, become iconic. Accordingly, Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sees its story in monumental terms: the house of horrors a grand gothic vision complete with columns and a cavernous basement outfitted with a piano. A character's plea to "kill me" echoes the Alien films again, while its landscape of blasted farmland and rusted out automobiles suggests the death of the American dream. What's interesting to ponder about the transference of the mindless alien image onto the American Gothic is the thought that what's being engaged in the film is something almost like a perverse nostalgia for a different age.
The suggestion that this family is eternal and almost noble for their single-minded dedication to one another stands in tension against the victims' interest in instant gratification (drugs, sex, Mexico), enough so that the discovery of an undelivered wedding ring elicits pathos not for the missed opportunity, but perhaps for the nascent feeling that the marriage bond may have saved the teens. Consider that a main subplot of the film involves stolen children, arrested adolescence, and even the raw wound of peer bullying, offered up this time as explanation of the grand fiend's rage and justification for the ugly peoples' murderous suspicion of the beautiful people. All this not to say that Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a wealth of extra-textual information, only that the picture is respectfully serious-minded of its legacy (save one hilarious moment when the hulking beast busily works a pedal sewing machine), and that it provides an avenue for discussion of the ways in which our collective fears have changed since 1974--as well as how they haven't. Gory and sadistic, but surprisingly hopeful this time around about the strength of the bonds of family and friendship, the conversation worth having about the film isn't whether the victims deserved it, but about the nature of victimization and the inexorable cycle of death and reinvention in which new versions of old classics of course are, themselves, involved.
A showcase for the DVD format and for the silver-retention process (in which the silver in the film's negative isn't bleached out, lending images a harsher contrast, for starters), New Line's Platinum Series edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers the remake in a breathtakingly rich 1.83:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation.* The idea that this film is best read as an entry into the James Cameron's Aliens legacy gains momentum in the sleekness and craft of the picture's look and now its home video incarnation. Freeze any single frame of the picture and not only is the detail almost digital source in its clarity, but it demonstrates that Nispel, for all his commercial and video background, has an unmistakably sharp cinematic eye. Note a frame at about the 12:48 mark of a cow standing in a pasture--mundane for certain, but with a pop art-meets-Grant Wood sensibility that is as canny a summary as any of what works, at least aesthetically, about the picture. Not to be outdone, the disc's 6.1 DTS-ES track roars like something alive, making every appearance of Leatherface an orgy of directional grunts, rumbles, and screeches and functioning as more than half of the source of all the film's tension. Listening to the picture again in its DD 5.1 EX track is more than fine, though somehow less the full immersion shock therapy.
No fewer than three commentary tracks adorn The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, packaged in a four-part vertical gatefold that slips, along with an embossed metal faceplate of the cover art, into a sturdy cardboard slipcover that also houses an "evidence" envelope containing eight grainy black-and-white postcards of "crime scene" photos. All three yakkers are accessible on the fly or through the "Special Features" selection of the main menu. The first "Audio Essay" is subtitled "Production" and features Nispel, producer Michael Bay, executive producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, and a credited Robert Shaye, the co-chairman/CEO of New Line Cinema, though Shaye's contribution is limited to five minutes or so total. Packed with information and delivered in a conversational, easy-to-follow style (with each contributor introduced by name before comment), this track tries to lay down the rationale for remaking a film that has remained extraordinarily current while giving Nispel the opportunity to address the casting challenges and the directions in which he wanted to take the film. It's not terribly deep--and I have something personal against Bay--but it's a great track nonetheless, even as it's the least of the three.
The second commentary, subtitled "Technical," features Nispel again, plus cinematographer Daniel Pearl, production designer Greg Blair, art director Scott Gallagher, supervising sound editor Trevor Jolly, and composer Steve Jablonsky. This is a fantastically informative track that covers details such as lighting, the bleach-bypass process, post-production, sound design, and set design. A must-listen for even non-fans of the picture, this 'essay' is basic film school, revealing most surprisingly that Bay had already scouted out all of the film's Austin locations prior to shooting. The evil producer's dedication to this project is such that I feel vaguely mistrustful of the adulation--he's signing the paychecks, after all, and is notorious for image construction. But, again, I just don't like the guy.
Commentary three--subtitled "Story" and grouping Nispel, Bay, Fuller, and Form, as well as screenwriter Scott Kosar, and actors Biel, Leerhsen, Balfour, Jonathan Tucker, Mike Vogel, and Bryniarski--runs a close second in quality to the "Technical" track, mainly for the enthusiasm of Kosar as he describes the euphoria of seeing his first screenplay produced for the big screen. Descriptions of how R. Lee Ermey changed his work (and for the better, although Kosar didn't think so at first) humanizes the process of disappointment and resignation that is the province for all non-Charlie Kaufman scriptors in Tinsel Town now and, with few exceptions, always. The actors tend to comment only on their own characterizations, which is pretty much par for the course; the disc does the smart thing in limiting their time to soundbites. The end of this track finds Nispel responding to a few of his critics, some of whom confronted him during the film's junket with questions of how he could live with himself, overseeing such a violent work. Nispel's answers (and his slam of Roger Ebert) aren't nearly so interesting as the fact of the questions themselves: Self-serving and sanctimonious, they're the type of inane queries that reveal a lot about why the critical profession has fallen on disreputable times. The first disc finishes off with a DVD-ROM function encompassing a script-to-screen interface, a similar trick with storyboards, and the more standard screensavers and weblinks.
Disc 2 weighs in with a slew of innovative extras divided into the following two categories:
The "Deleted Scenes" are viewable either as part of a 15-minute documentary called "Severed Parts" (wherein Nispel rationalizes the elisions) or as isolated fragments sans annotation. Of the two options, I'd enthusiastically recommend the documentary format, for it smartly inserts theatrical alternatives now and again of the changed/cut scenes for comparison. Nispel mentions that the original cut ran at least half-an-hour longer and that there was, frankly, a ceiling on the tolerance that any audience would have for a film like this past a certain length. There's also an embedded implication in here about his doubt that his game cast had exactly the chops to carry a pregnancy subplot. It's a shame that this particular line went by the wayside, to my way of thinking, as the trend in American film of violence towards pregnant women seems to have started anew a few months earlier than I had suspected. The scenes between Biel and Balfour as they discuss their future as a family do strike me as awkward, but there's an implicit sadness about the destruction of legacy that plays well with the family thread of this and a great many of our current vengeance-themed pictures. It's rare that deleted scenes cause one to re-examine the context of a picture, and so this is fascinating, essential viewing. Gore hounds rejoice, by the way, as several scenes that were elided lest the picture garner an X rating find themselves immortalized herein.
A trio of Screen Tests (Biel's, Balfour's, and Leerhsen's) demonstrates Biel's sort of surprising aptitude, Balfour's unsurprising lack of the same, and Leerhsen's ability to scream (the skill Nispel mentions in his commentaries that most won him to the starlet).
Automat Pictures' Chainsaw Redux: Making a Massacre (75 mins.) is a well- edited and conceived if ultimately B-reel making-of flick that apes the style of the picture. Cast and crew expound on, among other things, their theories about the success and influence of the picture they're remaking. Just seeing the incorporated clips from the 1974 version highlights the key difference between the two films: Where the one is one of the most brutal and nihilistic (and genius-level) movies ever made, the 2003 version is pretty much just a really good action flick with strong horror elements. Anecdotes about the mob base of the original's distributor Bryanston Pictures and how they've siphoned off the profits of the flick, making it impossible to judge exactly how profitable the picture was, is fascinating. In line with the openness of the supplementary material, the piece contains a few interviews with hardcore fans of the Tobe Hooper classic who pronounce that the redux sucks--again allowing Bay the opportunity to demonstrate what an idiot he is. The second half of Chainsaw Redux probes Nispel's background in music videos (including one of my favourites for a really bad Bush song) in addition to rehashing a lot of the ground covered in the commentaries. There is new stuff, however, such as a shot of an animal wrangler trying to piss off a possum that's sure to gain the attention of PETA and an extended "how we did it" of the troubling through-the-head shot that is instructive and, again, troubling. I'd argue that much of this is indispensable, even though you get to see Balfour's penis and another glance at Harry Knowles's cameo. I don't know which is worse. Wait, yes I do.
Onward, "Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainfield" (24 mins.) is a rather sensationalistic look at the soft-spoken Wisconsinite inspiration for films as diverse as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs that nonetheless imparts a wealth of biographical detail (enough to cause a few clenched-gorge moments) that includes mention of EC Comics and other lurid penny dreadfuls that informed the subculture of the idyllic '50s. Note that Gein and Michael Bay sport the same corn-fed blandness and close-set eyes. Images from the Holocaust, first coming to light in the Fifties, are used to exploitive effect in this docu, I have to say, but the aggregate effect is to create an overall feeling of perverse disquiet that feeds well into the ultimate purpose and subject matter. Prurient by definition, it's fascinating despite one's better instincts, punctuated by interviews with Gein scholars and forensic psychiatrists (and legendary screenwriter Joseph Stefano, on hand for a brief discussion of Psycho and adapting Robert Bloch's novel). Not helping matters are actual crime-scene photos from Gein's workshop that I would have been pretty happy never having seen--proceed with caution.
PUBLICITY AND PROMOTION
Archived here: the Michael Bay-directed "teaser" trailer (an excellent minute-thirty of black screen w/screaming, stalking, and the sound of a chainsaw revving up); the dead brilliant theatrical trailer set to This Mortal Coil's "Song of the Siren;" seven TV spots (one of which unfortunately quotes Jeff Craig); a music video for Motorgrater's grindcore tune "Suffocate" (or Suffocate's tune "Motorgrater"--the kids these days) that owes more than a small debt to Prodigy's video library; and a trailer reel stitching together spots for the New Line titles Highwaymen, Willard, The Butterfly Effect, and Ripley's Game. Originally published: April 28, 2004.