Well, this 2003 remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" creeped me out. Of course I waited until late at night to watch it, which is what you were supposed to do with a horror movie, because lately even when a horror film has a good start, such as "Jeepers Creepers," they almost always end up being laughable. Now, I will not go so far as to say this is a great horror film, and I am not suggesting that it replace the raw power of Tobe Hooper's original in any one's mind, but it sure creeped me out more than anything I have seen in a while (except for last month when I watched "The Exorcist" again).
What does this remake have working in its favor? Well, first the film is selective in what it takes from the original. We have the same beginning with the grainy film and the same narration talking about "one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history" (again narrated by a now considerably more famous John Larroquette), and we have the same basic idea that a group of teenagers in 1973 make the mistake of running into Leatherface and his kin. But in terms of the specifics the screenplay by Scott Kosar does not treat the original like gospel: the hook is still there, but we lose the bizarre dinner scene where the original really lost me.
I was also surprised to see that cinematographer Daniel Pearl is back to show what he has learned since 1974, which is apparently a note. Maybe the music video sensibilities of director Marcus Nispel have something to do with this at well, but this horror film looks the way that horror films are supposed to look. You know that things are going well when you are getting the wiggins and the sun has not yet set in the film. There are plenty of bad things to see in this film, but the camera does not wallow on them the way so many splatter flicks do.
Maybe part of the effectiveness of this remake is that for those of us who watched the original we know the basics of what is going to happen so that there is a sense of anticipation that no matter what is happening on screen something really bad is about to happen. But if I were going to point to something else beyond the cinematography it would be the fact that this time Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) is not the really scary one. No, the honor goes to R. Lee Ermey who brings his drill sergeant from hell to the character of Sheriff Hoyt. Even before Leatherface shows up these teenagers are in way over their heads.
Ripe for the slaughter are good girl Erin (Jessica Biel), her boy friend Kemper (Eric Balfour), young stud Andy (Mike Vogel), the friendly hitchhiker Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), and for comic relief stoner Morgan (Jonathan Tucker). They are driving through Texas to get to a concert when they almost run over a disoriented and frightened girl walking along the road. They try to help, but she is beyond help and so, as she plainly tells them, are they.
Biel, still trying to put her good girl image from "7th Heaven" behind her, manages to play a scream queen without going off the deep end like she did in "Gear" (even in a freezing meat locker). Often these films come down to the good girl character trying to survive the maniac with their weapon of choice and in that regard Biel is one of the better to come along. Yeah, she is smart and sexy, but for once when she gets to the part where she has to fight back you actually believe she might pull it off.
This is a grim and relentless film that assaults its audience as much as it does its characters. After so many horror films that fail on that score perhaps the biggest shock is any film could get this far doing what it is supposed to be doing and if you come here expecting a cathartic ending abandon hope on that score right now. Also, when you decide to watch it late at night, remember not to turn all the light out.
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