The updated version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has arrived, marking, it would seem, the completion of a horror Ouroboros. Critics often hail the original 1974 low-budget movie as an innovator, a "splatter movie" pre-dating and influencing those "slasher movies" of the '80s. In viewing the earlier film today, one can't help noticing how unlike current horror movies it actually is -- it generates creepiness through documentary-like grittiness, and instead of loading itself with moments of suspense, in which you wonder when the victim will be attacked, it simply plays out the attacks, causing the viewer to reel back at their shocking bizarreness. Any innovation may have been due to its abilities to heighten discomfort with macabre environments, generate large amounts of terror through suggestion over explicit gore, and create a cult following from its blackly comic audacity.
The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hand, is an amalgam of modern horror techniques and audience-approved conventions. Those conventions have come a long way since 1974 and have now become standard fare. Suspenseful teasing is utilized. The original's soundtrack of silence and occasional dissonant sounds has been replaced with the usual orchestra, cueing those moments of suspense. The movie fills the current quotas of gore and blood, mostly drawn from the bodies of horny, drug-using teenagers. One of these teens, though, emerges as a survivor, naturally, who stops to draw some strength between her screams. She ultimately faces off, woman-to-monster, with the piece's main villain, who is given horror-mascot prominence. And, of course, creepy locations abound.
Containing elements made familiar by movies such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Silence of the Lambs seems unbecoming of a movie brandishing the name The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Indeed, it's rather dismaying, for the original movie began life as a seminal creature, and here the update couldn't have existed without years and years of genre-shaping. In some way, it completes a strange cycle, where the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begot a new breed of horror genre and now the horror genre begets a new kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If the horror movie category was a snake, it has now grown large enough to eat its own tail.
And yet the tail doesn't taste so bad. While it's one thing to complain that the new movie isn't very original, it's quite another to complain that it's bad. Actually, as far as modern horror movies go, it's pretty decent -- its borrowed parts are well-oiled, and more than a few of the project's participants get to show off their stuff. For example, the new movie's cinematographer is the same as for the first flick: Daniel Pearl (speaking of Ouroboros, look Pearl up on IMDb at the time of this writing and you'll see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the top and bottom of his credits). His updated look still conveys realistically, and with appropriate dread, the rural Texas heat and the chill of a forest at night, only this time in the context of higher production values. R. Lee Ermey, who plays, appropriately, a drill sergeant-voiced sheriff, is also a highlight -- his unreasonable lawman comes across as even more scary than the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski). Between this movie and Willard, Ermey might've found a new home in quirky horror remakes.
The nicest surprise may be Jessica Biel, who plays the main character, Erin. As Erin displays a strong moral conscience, Biel probably benefits from portraying the only character required to act. Erin must not only face the horror that her goodwill-driven decisions have resulted in leading her friends to their deaths, she must still find the resolve to outwit Leatherface and his maniacal family. This, as I mentioned earlier, is a modern touch -- after all, the original heroine spent the movie screaming, running for her life, screaming, and running for her life. But for the purposes of the new movie, Biel's performance works, making her character surprisingly sympathetic in a genre where such characters rarely are.
The whole movie creates a seesaw battle of appreciating what it does right in place of what so many other horror movies do wrong and being frustrated because it isn't trying to be more unique, or, at the very least, more connected in twisted spirit to its predecessor. Most of its references are fun but ultimately superficial -- the flashing photography in the beginning, John Larroquette as the narrator, and, of course, the meathook. However, what's more important is, well, its meat and potatoes. The original's evil backwoods family would have been almost a comedy act if its members weren't so demented. However, in the new movie, their purpose, with a capital P, is to be scaaary. The old man in the wheelchair puts the exclamation point on that fact when he declares, "You're so dead you don't even know it." Yet, at the same time, this is pretty chilling. The new movie isn't bad -- not bad at all -- it's just not very Texas Chainsaw Massacre-ish.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "R" for strong horror violence/gore, language and drug content.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.