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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003)

   

    First-time director Marcus Nispelís aggressive remake of Tobe Hooperís classic horror flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might be dumbed down when compared to its predecessor, but it gains an immeasurable amount of visceral impact as a result. Though itís been several years since Iíve seen the film often referred to as ďthe scariest movie of all time,Ē the feeling I remember most strongly from it is not a sense of overpowering fright, but instead the way that its director turned a real-life tale of unspeakable horror (like Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector, its ghastliest details were rooted in the actual case of Ed Gein) into a sometimes strained metaphor about one familyís ideals of consumerism gone horribly wrong. Also noteworthy about Hooperís film was its willingness to confront audiences with a brand of undiluted violence that had been up to that point only presented to the mainstream in the news coverage of the Vietnam War. Though itís still set in 1973, and though it takes great pains to convince us itís based on a true story, the remake essentially disposes with any such subtext or context. It simply exists, like a haunted house ride at an amusement park, to inspire dread in the audience and to shock us with cheap thrills. While that might disappoint those who go to slasher films looking for grander edification, for me, the approach worked amazingly well.

   

    Thankfully, along with the sense of post-Vietnam trauma (which would not really make sense in a modern film), the movie jettisons a lot of the gallows humor that dominated the original. Most notably, the over the top dinner-table scene has been excised and the movie achieves a stronger narrative drive as a result. The director imbues even his establishing shots with a sense of dread that permeates throughout. It wasnít long after the start of the film before I felt Nispel had thrust me into a primal state where I really wasnít ready to interpret subtext or worry about metaphors. I was just scared. The visceral excitement of any given moment drove me on. It held me in its grasp, as any great suspense film should. Even as I questioned whether or not I should stay, I knew I had to see what would happen next.

   

    Chainsaw is a remarkably sadistic exercise, and it asks us to get a thrill out of watching fictional teens in peril, but at the same time one canít say that it ever asks us to root for the killers over the victims. The villains, and the murders themselves, are too horrible to ever feel ďcoolĒ. Visually, it presents an odd mix of the polished and the grisly, resulting in a feel that is too stylized to be mistaken for realistic. As the hideous events in the movie accumulate, the movie becomes increasingly nightmarish and difficult to watch. Believability is jettisoned, not so much due to implausibility, but because it becomes harder and harder to comprehend the scope and relentlessness of the torture on display. As accomplished as the film is (thereís an hour or so in the middle thatís a virtuoso example of sustained mood), it does perhaps stumble a little in its final reel, which finds its protagonist, finally, taking on the role of the empowered female. Itís an odd and almost ironic twist to a movie that has subjected her character to so much depravity, sexual and otherwise, but, to be quite frank, my nerves were happy that the movie was willing to buck toward convention at the end.

 

73 

10-21-03 

Jeremy Heilman