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'Massacre': gory, with little story

A blood-soaked remake of over-the-top 1974 horror flick makes the original look good by comparison.

October 17, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

For those who have feverishly believed that what the world needs now is a remake of the 1974 horror movie "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," may I suggest ... therapy. Barring some extensive time on the couch, however, anxious gore-hounds may want to redirect their expectations back to Tobe Hooper's original feature. That skin-crawling shocker about a chain-saw aficionado nicknamed "Leatherface" may not be one for the ages, but compared to the remake it's some kind of freaky classic.

As in Hitchcock's "Psycho," the crazy in Hooper's film was loosely based on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin nut job who, after years of grave robbing and human slaughter, was forcibly retired in 1957. Gein's murders were stomach-churning by any measure, but what ensured his ghoulish celebrity were his forays into folk art, haberdashery and home decoration. The Martha Stewart of serial killers, he turned skulls into bowls, lips into necklaces, and fashioned suits out of human skin; indeed, it was his latter interest that inspired the cross-dressing, sewing-machine-savvy Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs."

The baroque nature of Gein's atrocities turned him into a cult figure, guaranteeing him a permanent berth in true-crime annals and our collective unconscious. Shot in a sticky summer in 1973, Hooper's low-budget independent feature effectively played up the grotesque aspect of Gein's barbarism, pushing the horror to gagging extremes. Alternately boring and exceedingly unnerving -- with an occasional spasm of grotesque humor -- the first "Massacre" didn't rely on buckets of blood and the usual slasher-movie tricks. Rather, it played on terrors that were closer to home, namely the notion that the friendly old coot living next door might actually be butchering people rather than deer.

Hooper's co-writer Kim Henkel once claimed that "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" was about "the moral schizophrenia" of the Watergate era. That's a sweet-smelling crock, even if the cast and crew conned themselves into thinking that was the case. In truth, the story Henkel and Hooper cooked up was pure exploitation. The only difference between their brand of horror and the more primitive kind cranked out by Herschell Gordon Lewis (the grindhouse auteur of movies like "The Blood Feast") was that Henkel and Hooper's exploitation was far more artful and knowing. Lewis never made it to Cannes; Henkel and Hooper did. A commercial smash, "Massacre" ushered in a golden age of horror and, more dubiously, helped legitimize gore for mainstream consumption. For better and sometimes worse, it also proved that serial killers are good for business.

Slightly retooled by credited screenwriter Scott Kosar and directed by newcomer Marcus Nispel, the remake of "Massacre" follows the original story in broad outline if not detail. (For some reason, the word "chain saw" is now spelled as one word rather than two.) As in the first film, the talented cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl is behind the camera, giving the images plenty of polish. Five young people turn off a Texas highway one afternoon and end up in a house of horror. As in the original, the story essentially plays out as an extended game of cat and mouse in which the cat is a tubby fellow (Andrew Bryniarski) wielding a smoke-belching chain saw. And, once again, a dysfunctional family lurks in the background, wielding forks, knives and invective.

There's nothing wrong with remakes, but as this movie amply proves, there's often nothing right about them, either. At once more broadly comic and more overtly sadistic (toward the characters as well as us), the new "Massacre" works hard to scare the pants off the audience and mostly succeeds through slamming edits, loud noises and lots of realistic-looking blood. For all its Grand Guignol, the original movie relied as much on eerie quiet and its extraordinary production design -- a-clutter with bones, skulls and feathers -- for its shocks. The remake moves faster and sounds louder, but comes off as callous rather than creepy. What's gone missing in the years between the two films is the proverbial calm before the carnage -- the silence just before the chain saw starts whirring.


`Texas Chainsaw Massacre'

MPAA rating: R, for strong horror violence/gore, language and drug content

Times guidelines: Pot smoking, eviscerated bodies, amputated body parts

Jessica Biel...Erin

Jonathan Tucker...Morgan

Erica Leershen...Pepper

Mike Vogel...Andy

Eric Balfour...Kemper

Andrew Bryniarski...Thomas Hewitt/Leatherface

New Line Cinema presents in association with Michael Bay and Radar Pictures a Platinum Dunes/Next Entertainment production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Marcus Nispel. Writer Scott Kosar. Based on the screenplay by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper. Producers Michael Bay, Mike Fleiss. Director of photography Daniel C. Pearl. Editor Glen Scantlebury. Music Steve Jablonsky. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

In general release.

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