There’s a gimmick at work in New Line Cinema’s impressive remake of the cult horror classic ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ a gimmick so subtle and unexpected that most viewers won’t even pick it up. That doesn’t matter, because most viewers won’t care about it. But the gimmick is lurking in the shadows (along with many other horrible things), and it peeks its head out during the movie just enough to clue you in if you see it. The gimmick is this: The movie acts as if it genuinely has something profound to say.
It doesn’t, of course, and it can’t, considering what the movie is about: five headstrong youths encounter a young suicidal woman on a road in Travis County, Texas. Upon killing herself, the teens attempt to contact the local sheriff, who instead of helping them, lead them straight to the home of the chainsaw-wielding maniac known as Leatherface. An extended chase scene ensues and one-by-one, the teens start to meet a grisly fate at his hands. The cast includes ‘7th Heaven”s Jessica Biel as Erin, ‘The Sopranos” Erica Leerhsen as Pepper and ‘Six Feet Under”s Eric Balfour as Kemper.
That’s all there is to it, and that’s not a bad thing. This is a truly classic horror film, and as a bonafide horror film, it succeeds surprisingly well.
First-time feature director Marcus Nispel created a bleak film concerned with nothing but wanton death and torture, and makes no apologies about it. He handles the psychological suspense of the film just as effectively as the gruesome details. While there’s certainly a lot of slicing and dicing, there’s plenty of eerie silence and dark corners as well. The film, while gory, is not about gore, rather it is much more fully-realized and frightening than most horror films.
The remake hits a nerve and pulls tightly. Nispel’s take on this tale is that there’s just as much that should be hidden and left to the viewer’s imagination as there is that should be shot in explicit detail. There are plenty of loving close-ups of the mementos taken by Leatherface in his lair (body parts, teeth, etc.), as well as detailed and extended shots of what Leatherface likes to do with the people he kills.
The film is also helped by the surprisingly clever screenplay of Scott Kosar. The script takes plenty of twists and turns just when it’s least expected, and seems to know just when to cut into another scene when it would be most effective to build suspense. A less effective movie wouldn’t know how to fill up an hour-long chase sequence, but this film keeps the pace taut and the tension high.
It’s not all clever storytelling, unfortunately. At times the film is reduced to the trite shock effect of a silhouetted character suddenly walking across the shot, which is really only surprising because of the sudden, jarring note in the music. Without this audio technique, the moment wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. However, there are enough real tricks up the writer’s sleeve to remind you of what this movie is supposed to be.
But getting back to the gimmick; for all its fascination with the macabre and horrific, towards the end of the film the theme switches from old-fashioned horror towards philosophical, trying to say something profound about the cyclical nature of life and death and expand those ideas to draw meaning reagarding our own mortality. It’s a brief moment, but it tries to bring the story full-circle so to speak, and it makes it seem like the film has been hiding that message under the table the whole time. If the movie ended right there, viewers would be left wondering if there was a more profound theme they had missed. It’s a very clever twist, but it doesn’t gel with the rebellious mood of the rest of the film. It feels like the movie is trying to redeem itself as being important, when really, that’s the worst thing this movie could try to do.
Thankfully, that moment soon ends, and the movie gets back to the chase at hand. If you can forgive a few minor contrivances, this film knows what it’s doing and how to do it best, and more importantly, why it’s doing it: to scare.