I've heard a lot of good buzz about the remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM). With the prequel out and my wife fiddling with the Netflix queue, the remake was pushed to the top of our list. And so on a rainy Sunday afternoon, instead of going to a movie, we stayed home and watched Leatherface cut people up.
TCM touts itself as being "based on a true story." That true story is the sick tale of Ed Gein, a serial killer who skinned women and wore their flesh like clothes. Gein was the inspiration for Psycho as well as Silence of the Lambs. You'll notice neither of those films claim to be based on true stories, and yet TCM does…even though Gein never used a chainsaw. Go figure.
The original TCM (1974) practically invented the slasher genre, with Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) to follow soon after. Of course, neither Michael Meyers nor Jason Voorhees started out using chainsaws. That peculiar honor goes to Leatherface, the mute, hulking freak that wears peoples' faces. And just like that, slasher films would forever be connected with the chainsaw.
The remake of TCM follows the standard plot, but tries to provide some logic around the usual band of teenage idiots waiting to be chopped up into bloody gibbets. Final Girl Erin (Jessica Biel, firmly leaving the 7th Heaven stigma behind her) and her boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour) are back from a road trip to Mexico. Tagging along are Kemper's two friends, nerdy Morgan (Jonathan Tucker) and studly Andy (Mike Vogul). A hot hitchhiker they pick up on the way named Pepper (Erica Leerhsen) rounds out the cast.
The film still takes place in the 70s and it shows: the real reason the kids went down to Mexico was to score some marijuana. The Scooby gang nearly hits a traumatized girl wandering down the road. When they try to drive her to a hospital, she pulls a gun and shoots herself in the head. Thus begins the quandary. As Morgan so eloquently puts it:
"Oh, police officers, please, as you inspect a crime scene, which is now our van, please, ignore the colorful piñata, filled with marijuana, in case you happen to come across it, because it played no part, you know, whatsoever in the demise of this unfortunate, young, woman."
Eventually, the teenagers bump into the Hewitt family and things go downhill from there. It's noteworthy that the horror starts with an authority figure, Sheriff Hoyt, played by the inimitable R. Lee Ermey. Forget Leatherface…what I find scary is a sheriff/drill sergeant utterly abusing his power and screaming in my face. Ermey's at his sadistic best here, such that he received a greatly expanded role in the prequel to the remake (confused yet?).
Tobe Hooper, the director of the original, made the atmosphere a major character in the original film and remake director Marcus Nispel does not disappoint. Everything is dirty, broken down, bleak, desolate, and most of all hot. Everyone is covered in sweat and dirt. Some places drip with water or worse, while others are so dry that every movement kicks up a dust cloud.
The cast does a believable job of being scared and stupid. Men who aren't fans of Biel will become fans by the end of the film. Trust me on this one.
The movie even has a bit of foreshadowing in a minor plot element that is never quite fully explored. Jedidiah (David Dorfman from The Ring) is a young, buck-toothed kid that the teens first encounter. He plays out Leatherface's peculiar form of torture with dolls, strapping them to pieces of wood and displaying them everywhere. Indeed, it's Jedidiah who helps our Final Girl escape, left to live outside like an animal "until he learns the rules." Apparently, the rules involve luring teens into Leatherface's den. Why does Jedidiah do this? My guess is it's because he's jealous of the new baby.
That new baby is apparently kidnapped from a previous set of victims. We can only surmise this, as the film gives us hints as to what might have happened before. The child's presence changes the tone from a typical slasher flick to a rescue mission of sorts. Erin doesn't just want to save herself and her friends, but THE CHILDREN!
TCM abruptly cuts to a scene in a meatpacking plant that also happens to be the final standoff between Final Girl and Leatherface. It's a very choppy cut; one moment Erin's running across a highway and the next she's suddenly pursued by Leatherface. The conflict between them is especially unbelievable (the damage Erin inflicts on Leatherface is patently ridiculous), but the ending is satisfying and clearly establishes the true bad guy as the Sheriff.
Overall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a serviceable slasher flick. Unfortunately, in a world where the slasher is a Hollywood icon, TCM has nothing new to add and thus ends up recycling and dumbing down the tropes it first established.