Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski
Written by: Scott Kosar, based on the 1974 screenplay by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
Directed by: Marcus Nispel
MPAA Rating: R for strong horror violence/gore, language and drug content
Running Time: 98
Date: 10/15/2003

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

1 Star (out of 4)

One Dull 'Saw'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Tobe Hooper's original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has never beenwhat one would call a pristine masterpiece. Its entire history is rootedin scandal, controversy and hysteria, not to mention that it spawnedthree mediocre sequels. So a remake doesn't seem so far-fetched as itwould for, say, Casablanca or On the Waterfront.

But one thing the original had was the outlaw factor. It was made completely outside the system and invented all-new rules for itself. Despite its grungy look, Hooper's original had a very deliberate pace and tone to it; it was made by an artist with something interesting to say during a specific time in history.

This new version by music video director Marcus Nispel was made completely inside the system and dutifully follows every rule long ago established by the horror genre. It has far more to do with commerce than with art.

In fact, all of those outraged holier-than-thou reviews ("Revolting!" "A waste of time!") that wrongly came out about the original in 1974 could be correctly applied to this new version.

Nispel's version begins in 1973, presenting the facts of the case -- loosely based on real-life killer Ed Gein, who murdered women and wore their skins.

The usual horror-movie collection of five brain-dead teenagers passes through on a road trip to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Among the teens is Eric Balfour, one of the latest in a long line of Ben Affleck look-alikes, sexy Jessica Biel, nerdy Jonathan Tucker, hunky blond Mike Vogel and kooky drifter Erica Leerhsen.

They may as well be the exact same five characters from Cabin Fever. The friends have absolutely no chemistry or camaraderie together and you wonder why they would ever hang out with each other.

Driving along, they nearly run over a pedestrian, a shell-shocked blonde girl, all pale and bloody. She informs them that they will all die -- just before she shoots herself through the back of the head. The teens can't decide what to do with the body and so they call the creepy local sheriff (R. Lee Ermey, also in another recent remake, the far superior Willard).

Meanwhile, the famous Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) fires up his chainsaw and goes on a rampage, supposedly to find human skin to cover his own deteriorating flesh. In this version, he's not really demented. He's doing it for medical reasons.

The real star of the picture, though, has to be Biel's bellybutton. Director Nispel spends a huge amount of time tracking its progress with the camera, as well as recording the magnificent way Biel's tight, faded blue jeans frame her lower half.

The jeans have more to do with Britney Spears than with anything that was made in 1973. Nispel spends about five minutes on 70s period details (an 8-track tape playing yet another run through of "Sweet Home Alabama") before giving up and going with modern-day slang dialogue, clothing, hairstyles and attitudes. (One character, anticipating a fight, barks, "Bring it!")

Indeed, Nispel rarely does anything right here. His "scary" scenes consist of things jumping out from behind the camera accompanied by bursts of music; most horror movie fans can spot these scenes well in advance. And his "action" scenes follow the standard Michael Bay formula, which is: shake the camera a lot and edit really fast so that the audience can't make out any details. (Not surprisingly, Bay turns up as a producer of the new version.)

It's probably true that horror movies as good as John Carpenter's Halloween, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream -- as well as lesser knockoffs like the Friday the 13th and Prom Night series -- owe their existence to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But as the 80s and 90s wore on, those films and their sequels and knockoffs rehashed the same ideas over and over again until they became extraordinarily tired. The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply picks them up yet again for one more sickly, sorry try. It's one dull "Saw."

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