When word leaked out that the Michael Bay-produced remake of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was going to eschew the kind of uber gore that’s marked such recent horror flicks as Freddy Vs. Jason, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from some corners. Well, those who were upset about being shortchanged in the bathful-of-blood-and-a-bucket-of-giblets department can rejoice, since whatever the new Chainsaw lacks in organs-a-poppin’, it more than makes up for by including some of vilest sadism it’s been my lot to wade through in some considerable time. I’ve seen nothing this unpleasantly nasty since … oh, since the last Michael Bay flick, Bad Boys II.
I grant you that Hooper’s low-budget 1974 film was itself hardly free of such moments. But while it did have the same sort of folks-on-a-meathook business in it; there are a couple of significant differences, starting with how the new film lovingly milks this meathook stuff for all it’s worth (and then some). However, the biggest difference lies in intent.
Hooper’s film was an attempt to create a rural myth (and pretend it was real — a la Blair Witch, but 25 years earlier), incorporating the exact kind of grotesqueries found in such tales, and it worked on the basis of being shocking by offering something not seen before. It was new. It was fresh. It used creativity when there was no money to be had.
The remake is not new. And it is not fresh. And it uses money when there is no creativity to be had (a Michael Bay trademark if ever there was one!). But beyond all that is the fact that Hooper’s film was also a cheekily subversive socio-political satire — a scathing, sometimes hilarious attack on the concept of a patriarch-worshipping family unit. In hindsight, the original Chainsaw eerily foretells the America of the 1980s, playing into xenophobia and the madness bred of a reactionary mindset bent on turning back the clock to the “good old days” that really weren’t all that good, if they ever existed in the first place.
Hooper made this theme even more obvious in his 1986 sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, an openly political film that savaged Reaganism with a furious glee only ever bested by Wes Craven’s blistering anti-Reagan, anti-Bush (the first one) The People Under the Stairs. In other words, Hooper’s film was — as most good films are — actually about something.
The Bay production — helmed with some competence, but no inspiration, by music video director Marcus Nispel — is about people on meathooks and women being humiliated in various grotesque ways, and contains images that are strictly repellent for their own sake. It may be called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and it may duplicate the major setup of the 1974 film, but in its heart of hearts, it has more to do with the execrable post-Hooper Chainsaw entries.
There’s no subtext here. The whole patriarchal aspect of the original has been replaced with a stupid story about some unfortunate lad (Leatherface, portrayed by Andrew Bryniarski, a bit player who is here apparently rewarded for having been in the Bay-directed Pearl Harbor) with a skin disease and an overprotective mother who seems to think that wholesale chainsaw slaughter is a reasonable response to her son having been taunted over his improbably advanced psoriasis as a child.
The whole idea of a way of life (cattle slaughter) that has been mechanized out of existence (the air-gun replacing the sledgehammer) — resulting in the death of an “American dream,” and producing an insane, homicidal/cannibalistic bout of extreme Luddite behavior — is gone. The amazingly creepy, chillingly funny performance by Jim Siedow as the homily/cliche-spouting elder brother of Leatherface has been given over to R. Lee Ermey, whose character dispenses with the cliches and merely indulges in the Ermey speciality of swearing a lot. Sure, Ermey cusses better than anybody in Hollywood, but the whole point of the original character is gone — a fair assessment of the entire Bay film.
What we’re left with are incredibly stupid victims (even by slasher-movie standards), ugly sadism, inexplicably bizarre characters, and a creepy cellar with the worst plumbing in the history of pipes. The production design is effective and the performances are as good as can be expected from the impossibly bad screenplay (Jessica Biehl continues to try to put her squeaky-clean TV image behind her, but she had better luck in The Rules of Attraction).
But really, unless you have a peculiar bent to see people on meathooks or being chainsawed to bits, there’s not much to recommend this superfluous remake. Go rent the original, or pick up the $9.99 DVD of Chainsaw 2 and see how it ought to be done.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke