31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 2 – Family Values – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003/prod. Michael Bay/USA) & Texas Chainsaw (2013/dir. John Luessenhop/USA)

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Last night, we went over the 40th Anniversary of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. One of the more curious things about the series is how its legacy was largely made up of films vaguely related to the original and barely mentioning its events – from direct sequels, to quai-sequels, to reboots, to remakes, to prequels… All of which provide an excellent window to the process of continuing a story that has made its mark. If only half of those films proved to actually be as competent as the original…

Unlike this year where I’m finally trying to get into that groove, I didn’t do many reviews of 2013 films last year. So allow me to pile on that to make up for all the lost ground I have to cover for myself.

Among the six movies to come out of the inevitable “Horror Movie Success = Milking More Products” machine that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre happened to have dealt with, there are only about three movies that prove to have been straightforward about their relationship to the original while the others fought for prequel, remake and sequel rights in a movie series that had at the time lost its sense of direction. Those three fundamentals of continuity are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (the only sequel to have been directed by the original’s Tobe Hooper), the Michael Bay-produced remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the 39 years into the future sequel to the original Texas Chainsaw 3D. And the ideals of Texas Chainsaw 3D and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 pretty much clash with each other in terms of what happens immediately after the original, I’m gonna have to pick one of these direct sequels to deal with.

Man, it’s like picking between two really sour bottles of milk. But I’m going with the more sour just to get it over with: Texas Chainsaw 3D.

What I should really get out of the way is that, as will be plainly obvious I go through both the 2003 remake and the 2013 sequel, I did not bother seeing Texas Chainsaw in theaters and so did not get to see it in 3D with its 3D effects. I saw it on Netflix. With 2D effects. As a result, I can’t possibly comment, but can hypothesize, on how the 3D effects works in the film as the gimmick that it was most certainly selling itself on, because lemme tell ya something, the ads definitely didn’t make clear if this was a reboot, sequel or sequel to one of the remakes. I had to actually watch the movie to find out. And to its credit, it makes its intentions clear in the first few minutes, where it gives a horribly misedited summary of what happened in the 1974 original film, destroying brilliantly scary moments by rendering them unwatchable through godawful postproduction filters or just losing the smashing cutting style of the original and rendering everything that happened to the original movie to simply “Oh yeah, they killed some people and that’s it”.

This will only serve as foreshadowing for the later neutering the movie will go on to make for the entire series. Which begins in fact right after these unwatchable credits. The main story of the film opens as Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) drives alone right up to the Sawyer residence where the events of the movie took place. Hooper confidently strolls right outside of his car and calls out for Drayton Sawyer (Originally played by the late Jim Siedow in the first two movies, taken over by the vastly underused Bill Moseley – who played Chop Top in the second TCM movie; this particular scene is filled with TCM alum cameos) to send in his son Jedidiah aka Leatherface (played in this opening scene by Sam McKinzie and in the rest of the film by Dan Yeager; the original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen takes a thankless one-line role in this scene as Boss Sawyer) to be processed and brought to justice.

Know what is the fuck immediately wrong about this scene in consideration of how it wants to place itself in the same world as the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre? How fucking reasonable every fucking body is with this situation. Everybody. Drayton doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation or sign of lying in claiming that Leatherface was frightened (either ignoring or disregarding the fact that THEY TRIED TO EAT SALLY and probably just finished eating her friends in the original movie) and Sheriff Hooper buys it, but insists Leatherface is to be arrested. Leatherface doesn’t exit the house to fucking destroy Hooper like the unredeemable savage he’s meant to be, but instead just retreats into the back scared of the consequences of his actions like they fucking exist. The family has a pretty civilized and rational conversation about just giving up Leatherface like that and making sure he is taken care of. HWAT?! WHAT?! WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK IS THIS A HORROR MOVIE OR HWAT?!

But ok, this is just in the case that Texas Chainsaw 3D is as married in concept to the original as it swears it is. Without even going too far into the story, we’ve already proved that doesn’t work out great for it. Let’s instead look at the more technical aspects of the film or the content of the scene standing on its own. One of the major facets I mentioned about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is how much it insists on making itself feel brutal by making its moments feel real and involving. Director John Luessenhop is having absolutely none of that shit, I tell you what. This is a movie and so it’s gotta feel artificial and made like a complete forgery of the film without really hiding how flawed it is in itself. So we get a replica of the Sawyer house that this takes place in that feels less like the house it seems to try to recreate and more like an exhibition based on the house at Universal Studios or one of those theme parks that do those Halloween Houses based on Movies things. And the lack of cinematic style or character does not help the movie out at all either, let me tell you. For all the filters they forced on the clips in the opening credits, Luessenhop and company cleaned damn well up on Daniel Pearl’s iconic imagery by using generic angles and shots and not even giving it one speck of the daytime grime that TCM’74 had (though the night scenes have some discomforting amount of film grain, admittedly). In any case, where TCM ’74 felt horrifically real, TC3D feels instead sterile and fake.

Moving on through the story, suddenly a bunch of good ol’ boys roll in packing and just about begin shooting their way into the house, led by apparent douchebag Burt Hartman (Paul Rae), apparently murdering all the folk inside from the corpse-ish Grandpa (reprised by John Dugan) to the unspecified women – it was a larger family than the original film would have you think. They burn the house straight down to the ground and the clearly mortified but resigned Sheriff doesn’t arrest the boys and Hartman for some unspecified reason, which will later on be revealed to be because Hartman is the Mayor of the nearby town of Newt, Texas. I don’t think that gives you immunity to straight up massacring more people than Leatherface had done in the original movie (Hartman outnumbers the body count 7 to 4), but whatever we’ll roll with it for the movie’s sake. In any case, something even better struck me that would at least make the opening tolerable that it got me to briefly contact Bill Moseley twitter about:

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 5.15.09 PM

So I guess it has the fact that it resembles The Devil’s Rejects, one of Rob Zombie’s better works, going for it. Which I guess would be nice.

After that rampage, the men look through the charred remains of the house for survivors and it seems one particular couple finds one of these unnamed Sawyer women to have survived with her baby. The baby is promptly snatched by Gavin Miller (David Born) for his wife Arlene as he stomps said mother to death. 39 years later and the baby would grow up to become the not even close to 39 years old Heather (Alexandra Daddario, a woman whose shoddy acting will probably forever be overlooked from here on forth by the fact that she had something to do with True Detective… and even more unfortunately that the something in question will probably be more that she was nude on the show rather than any acting like McConaughey and Harrelson were doing).

The rest of the movie just goes along as slowly as usual. It should be an extreme testament to the film’s lack of ability to convey style or disgust that, in a series of film’s dedicated to a theme of cannibalism and how met is disgusting, the first shot after this intro is a deli cutting up slices of beef from a bandsaw and I don’t feel a twinge of emotion. It is completely ineffective storytelling to have the biggest plot point of the series staring right there in front of me and doing nothing with it. In general, the whole cannibalism appears to have been toned down to a disturbing degree, where images such as a woman being in a freezer or meat hooks now don’t suggest anything except that violence has happened rather than cannibalism.

Heather discovers she has in fact inherited a whole estate from her grandmother she never knew and decides to head to Newt with her boyfriend Ryan (Trey Songz – just another musician who can’t really act), their friends and apparently couple Kenny and Nikki (Keram Malicki-Sanchez and Tania Raymonde respectively), and a hitchhiker they pick up named Darryl (Shaun Sipos heavily emulating Brad Pitt’s rock-solid sexy hitchhiker guy from Thelma & Louise). Along the way, the usual generic teen movie shenanigans occur, such as Ryan and Nikki cheating on their respective SOs and the 40-year-old teens planning to make a barbecue partying out and not getting in well with the locals and so many other things I just can’t possibly care about. I at least admire that they touch upon a facet of the original by updating the teens’ style to represent this era of scene kids and hipsters, but when they try to input actual personality and character arcs that are completely arbitrary to the story, it gets annoying quick. Between the paper thin characters of TCM ’74 and TC3D, I will again take TCM ’74. But eventually the group finds that Leatherface happens to live in this house that Heather inherited and so the generic teen movie shenanigans turn into psycho killer slasher shenanigans, equally as bemusing.

“Wait Salim,” you will be undoubtedly thinking, “I thought you said you couldn’t care less about the teenage drama shenanigans that took up the WHOLE FUCKING 30 minutes of the movie. Now that the movie’s getting to the good stuff, you’re still unamused?”
You’re goddamn motherfucking right, I’m unamused. Because man, I thought it couldn’t get worse than outright disregarding the anti-gaze of the original film. Nope, Chuck Testa, dude. It’s very clear they shot this for 3D and it’s very clear it was badly shot for a 3D picture. When the 2D version has this outright artificial gap between the acts of violence and blood that looks greenscreened on the actors being killed, when the difference in lighting is separated so badly that you can tell that shit just from watching it in 2D, my hand to Odin, I couldn’t possibly want to watch it again, let alone in 3D. It’s not just how badly the gimmick looks for the movie without it, but how clear it is that the filmmakers were unprepared whatsoever for a circumstance of the film they decided on while shooting, rather than just being a post-production transfer. Ugh.

And that’s ignoring how the long and arduous second half of the film begins first having to deal with being carried by Daddario’s really static acting job while Heather discovers just what the relation is between her, the house and Leatherface and, in between, we get stock creep Mayor planning to be a stock creep and clearly being pushed forward as the more threatening presence in the movie (Yeager doesn’t get much to do) and stock suspicious Sheriff realizing there’s something bigger going on than just another Leatherface rampage.

And then there’s the ending. The single most damning thing about Texas Chainsaw 3D that I so so soooo very much wish to spoil because it would ruin the filmmaker’s day as it is exactly what they probably relied on, but I won’t. All I will say is this, I saw it coming from the very beginning when they decided to paint the Sawyers as a family under strife rather than the rejects of the 2,000 Maniacs they are. We live in this day and age where suddenly it’s a necessity for every fucking villain of every fucking thing to lose their menace because we need to give them sympathy or some emotional anchor for the audience, when hey, they’re the antagonist. We’re supposed to feel threatened by them. If we don’t, they’re out of a job. Sometimes we get that anchor with protagonists and still feel their menace and that’s fine (American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange stand out for this). But sometimes, for the antagonist it works (Rob Zombie’s Halloween almost got away with it, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Blade Runner totally got away with it, and I can’t think of anything else) or the movie accidentally ends up shifting the antagonist into the protagonist without knowing what they’re doing and it doesn’t piss me off half as much as it should (Maleficent is a tolerable example of this and I don’t hate the Star Wars prequels as much as the rest of humanity does).

But this sudden feeling for the villain doesn’t just tick me off, it outright fucking disturbs me. Genocidal villains like Magneto and Loki get a fandom that calls them out as misunderstood after trying to facilitate the mass murder of a great deal of humanity. Dracula Untold is bound to drain so much money out of the audience’s pockets and it also plays with this. It’s something that is curious about the mind of film audiences and I’m hoping to either get an explanation out of why people need the bad guy to feel good, losing his pretty awesome effect, or for this fad to die out.

If you didn’t understand how this tangent was relevant to Texas Chainsaw 3-D, it’s fine. It means you didn’t watch it. I won’t suggest you do, but should you, feel free to come back and read that above comment.

Anyway, I think I’m about through talking about that really dead-end continuation of a great legacy, why not watch it start over? Let’s clean up and try the fuck again, eh?

I will not say I expected the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be decent and entertaining. It wasn’t asked for, it was produced by Michael Bay (I don’t need to introduce Michael Bay to you, you know him and I know you know him and I know you hate him and I even know why though I don’t entirely agree – but I hate him too), and by the time we got it, we got already a shitload of remakes (? – again how Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation fit into this continuity will fuck your brain up). So, when I was bored one night and decided to check out the movie to see what the fuss was about, I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and say that it’s close to Hooper’s original or even a great movie. It’s a very functional movie, I’d like to say. It doesn’t stand out or go past being forgettable, but it is carries its own weight and maybe has a little more to tickle fans of the original enough to avoid getting Bay and director Marcus Nispel lynched the way I’m surprised John Luessenhop wasn’t.

For one, it recreates some of the essentials of the original the way that Texas Chainsaw 3D didn’t. Even though it doesn’t come off any less artificial this time around, the difference is that TCM ’03 has a little bit more personality in itself as a film. And it seems closer to a modernized version of the film. Like now the narration is not by an unknown John Larroquette, but recognizable and gracious TV star John Larroquette giving the movie’s material a bit more credit. A lot of the amateur filmmaking is lost, but we do get a touch of that old piss-stained photograph by its sickly yellow shade covering all over the film. I mean, it’s obvious this cinematographer has been honing his craft and knew what the film was supposed to be going for without dampening the aesthetic, I wonder who this guy is…

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 11.25.13 PM

WAIT A FUCKING SECOND!
HOLY SHIT!!!
NO FUCKING WAY!!!!

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 11.26.43 PM

HARRY FUCKING KNOWLES WAS IN THIS MOVIE?! I FUCKING HATE IT NOW!!!!

Oh wait…

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 11.27.41 PM

Oh my Odin, of course. Daniel Pearl himself, the same Daniel Pearl who shot the cinematography for the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre was the cinematographer this time around as well. Wow. Good choice.

It really is a true showcase of versatility that he is unwilling to do the same thing twice. He instead focuses on trying to emulate that same grungy and dirty feel and translate to something most of the younger audience can respond with. And it works for the most part, but it also means its presentation is lost. We don’t really have the same editor or the same director around to give such aware cinematography the proper approach, but Pearl seems to know this and try to accommodate the new film with longer takes when it seems necessary to establish the deep shit this group of youngsters is in and shorter takes that touch on the impact for the more ADD more action-minded chase scenes. It’s not better than his work on the original or even close to it, but it’s not making me angry to watch it on the screen. Instead what makes me angry is how Pearl is capable of better than his career is leading him on, but at least he can eat on Michael Bay’s dime.

Of course, unfortunately, the rest of the movie’s trappings end up being how it is too much of the same. I don’t just mean the same as in “it takes everything from the first movie” but it’s the same slasher tropes we call out when we watch one of those genre movies, but a bit more tolerable. For instance, I don’t need to go over the plot for you guys. It’s simply almost an exact replica of the original: Five generic teens – one of them now having a recognizable face in the form of Jessica Biel, one of them just being recognized by me as Eric Balfour, an actor I felt was unfortunately disposed of in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of them is Mike Vogel, another is Erica Leerhsen and I swear one of them is Hyde from That ’70s Show but won’t bother checking because who cares? (I lied. It’s Jonathan Tucker.) – surrounded by all sorts of creepy but relatively harmless folk, end up on the premises of the Hewitt house (instead of being named Sawyer now) and find themselves under the grips of not only Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) but also his psychotic uncle “Sheriff” Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey, whose screen cruelty probably would be iconic in this role if it wasn’t already iconic in Full Metal Jacket).

Ok, it’s not exactly the same, but nearly most of the deviations that aren’t Hoyt’s presence seem to not really add much to the story. The Hitchhiker this time around at the opening is a girl, played by Lauren German, who is actually an escaped victim of the Hewitts, having left behind her baby sister to survive, and then commits suicide in either grief, hysteria, guilt or all three. This causes the teens to stop their trip and call in the Sheriff, who begins to actively torment the teenagers psychologically, sexually and emotionally and all other ways that make me think immediately that this guy is probably not the real Sheriff (the filmmakers don’t answer that question in this film and I think it would kind of make the creepiness fall to answer it). That is as far as the changes actually propel the story to something new. The rest is just about paint-by-the-numbers slasher film with a hell of a climactic chase sequence.

So, when it’s more of the same with maybe a bit of censorship (if the only moments of TC3D‘s cannibalism are implied to a point that you really really really have to be looking for them, they are outright nonexistant in this remake), but what makes me a bit happier is how it doesn’t fail. The writing is not great, but it works well enough to pass. The actors, other than Ermey being such a scenery-eater, do not have a whole lot of defining moments, but for roles that are just supposed to be loving life before losing it, they’re not aggressively bad. And again, the climactic Final Girl vs. the Murderer(s) sequence happens to carry a little more emotional weight this time around by providing a MacGuffin in the form of having said Final Girl need to rescue someone in the middle of her escape and how that affects the two survivors’ attempt to survive the night.

For what it’s worth, in an era where slasher films seem to be dying out as poorly made movies who just beg for some shocks out of the audience, confronting them and shaking them until the audience is not screaming, but instead vomiting all over the fucking floor, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 avoids that outright, but also misses the mark in being a great horror film.

It just says “Hey, here we are for you if you’re looking for some entertainment on a Thursday night” and it’s kind of better that nothing. So, here’s to what legacies great movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre bring: You can’t do much to very well match their stature when they’re mythologized by the test of time that they stood alone, but you can do well to either by a shoddy knock-off that doesn’t care like Texas Chainsaw 3D or an outright competent film that goes as far as it has to to be considered “good” like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003.

Bad meat or good meat, flavor is everything.

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