31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 7 – Boils and Ghouls – Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996/crea. William Gaines/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 select horror films in all of the spectrum, 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, I took forever to make my 7th Night article (largely due to not knowing what I wanted to review). So I figured I ought to make it worthwhile and do a video, which I then went on to not sleep all night to make this video. And I figured it was about time I brought up an old show from my childhood. One that wasn’t Star Trek. Or the X-Files. So here you are.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 5 – Shadowplays

AUTHOR’S NOTE, December 2018: I’m going to be re-reviewing Nosferatu at some point in the future. I have been unfairly harsh to the film based on my previous exposure to it being the many lesser public domain copies running around. It has risen significantly in my esteem and I expect there is much of this review I no longer agree with.

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. Tonight, we’re going to really take our examinations of sources back in time to the very beginnings of film. In fact, we would have to daresay claim that this is not going to examine the very origins of horror cinema, but in an origin of cinema in general. And it’s all thanks to those crazy Germans…

Cinema is a medium of expression, just like any other. There is very little that separates it from another medium, but one of the major distinctions is how it is a visual medium, making it kin alongside the likes of Fine Art and Theatre, but certainly separating it from, say, music or literature. In fact, as everybody knows – even children who were raised by wolves, even fucking wolves know – cinema was a strictly visual medium until The Jazz Singer shouted out “mammy!” and changed that all around.

But there is that era still of the “strictly visual” and through adversity and limitations, we ended up with some of the most stunning visuals made yet in the history of film. We got the visual aspect pulled to the edge so that a story could be told in the one thousand words of pictures, rather than the one word of… a word…

Ok, let’s get my midnight lack of eloquence back in the bushes for a moment while I finally state my thesis: One of the reasons movies are half as effective as they get to be is because of the German Expressionism movement. Prior to the introduction to sound and color, Germany knew damn well how create an engulfing experience and that was by upping the shadows and heightening the drama, through very artistic stylizations of sets in fine art manner that implies artificiality without becoming fake and having the actors overact with their faces and gestures and movements so much that modern audiences would probably go “Ok, ok, we fucking get it, I’m starting to miss Kristen Stewart’s stone face.” Sure it is melodramatic, but you can’t look at a scene in The Last Laugh and tell me you missed what you were meant to be feeling. Make it as highly symbolic and stylized as to be hardened upon the mind’s of the viewer and burned in their eyes well after the movie finishes. Try to design absurdity in a communicative manner, that was the goal of German Expressionism. Don’t make it real, just make it feel.

And it works. Not only does it work, but it is the basis of emotive filmmaking and began to seep into the manner of expression for most films well after we were accommodated to sound and color – most notably with film noir (but that is a story for another day… or more specifically the next Motorbreath video) – and every filmmaker who tries to communicate an idea or theme or just a really emotional story, from Carl Dreyer to Charles Chaplin to Michel Gondry to David Fincher have some thanks to give to the German film industry in the early 20s for providing the answer to how we can make audiences become moved by pictures deliberately.

This in particular worked out best with the two genres of film that were most defined by the reactions of an audience – Comedy on how the audience could be cajoled to laugh and Horror on how the audience could be frightened to their wits. But this series is not the 31 Nights of April Fools (because that wouldn’t work out, since April Fool’s is like… on the first?), so let’s jump into two of the most definitive silent horror films of the era, the movies people most associate into the idea of how to scare people without making a sound. And we’ll get two because I don’t think I have too much to say in the end for either film that has not already been said by film historians and critics best-spoken and more intelligent than I.

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated from German to “A Symphony of Terror”, but I really just love how it sounds in German that I rarely refer to the translated title) is a movie forever immortalized by Spongebob that kind of deserves to get a chance to stand on its own for this generation. I mean, it did inspire more than the hash-slinging slasher. How about Tobe Hooper’s look for Kurt Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot? Or the Master – my favorite villain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer got? What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said simply by looking as the ghastly ugly makeup work transforming Max Shreck into a heinous creature of the night? That fucking rat face that would provoke disgust if it weren’t on the same body as those wide fixated eyes suggesting a one-track mind straight for the throat. That tall rigid stance with fingers that extend like the branches of the trees that terrorize Snow White, the tip of the nails so pointed as to suggest your heart is pierced just from looking at them? Don’t you just want to duck your head under the covers like poor Thomas having to sleep right next to that thing? The atmosphere around this figure, this inhuman monstrosity that stuns me to see on the screen, is rich with dread and darkness. For how absolute is the screen evil that is Count Orlock (Shreck) that it seems to parallel the stature of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s masterful make-up work? How powerful is Orlock’s essence on the film?

Quite frankly, so powerful that every time I watch the movie I get bored for the 72 minutes he’s not on-screen. Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier it is an essential I’d recommend to anyone, anywhere. And I’d certainly call it a great movie. I mean, for one, it has some pretty solid compositions for even simple moments as Thomas (Gustav von Wagenheim) leaving Ellen (Greta Schroder) and it’s not a more that really lulls one to sleep, but I’d more waiting for the good stuff with Shreck creeping inch by inch in front of my eyes than anything else the movie has to offer.

For one, F.W. Murnau… let’s get down to brass tacks, Murnau is a fucking genius. He was a master storyteller who brought tears in your eyes within one minute of a masterpiece like Sunrise or Tabu. But, I feel like this is the most amateur and uninspired work I have seen yet in his career. And again, it looks great. Not a single shot seems unnecessary nor does he absolutely lack flair or personality with moments, though it’s very obvious in the end that the night scenes were shot in the day and given a blue tint. But it’s his least expressionist film. The shots are straightforward and more feel like a D.W. Griffith work than a Murnau (and not knocking Griffith’s pictures, again, that man could shot competently). The movie is a brisk 81 minutes, it is not long nor boring by definition. But the movie’s lack of heightened shadow and atmosphere, except in moments where Shreck is either on-screen or providing several dark and threatening scenes like the famous crawl up the stairs or the tragic ending, both makes me kind of watching my clock waiting for Orlock to come back than get into the story too much. It’s just that Shreck outshines everything.

Well, that and the plot is not… very inspired or original. I barely mentioned it, so I’ll sum it up. Thomas Hutter gets a chance to go to Transylvania to sell land to the mysterious Count Orlock. When he gets there, Orlock takes a fancy to Hutter’s wife, Ellen, and leaves Hutter trapped within his walls. It is obvious at this point that Orlock is a vampyre and it is a race against time for Hutter to make it back to save his wife!

Sounds familiar? Yeah, I thought so. It’s because it’s Dracula. It is the first screen adaptation of Dracula and it pretty much is a beat-by-beat account of Bram Stoker’s novel. And, given that it is one of my favorite books and an annual read, I am a stickler for how it is presented, so this uninspired fashion of adapting the movie, causes me to consider Nosferatu the second most sterilized adaptation of the book I have ever seen. And if that shocks you, wait till later this month when you find out what I think IS the most sterilized.

It apparently didn’t amuse Stoker’s estate either, who took immediately to a lawsuit on Murnau and left his studio, Prana, bankrupt. As a result, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed shortly after release and for a long while, it seemed they all were. It is by some miracle that we still have a chance to look at the glory of Nosferatu. Even if I am spoiled by Shreck, there are some wonderful moments coming out of von Wagenheim and Schroder that herald expressionist acting, bringing out the most terror on your face when Orlock approaches you or the joy when you receive a letter from your love, calculating your movements on screen so as to entrap the audience in what you are doing.

It’s certainly again amateur green-behind-the-ears Murnau before he actually got to be Murnau and shelled out his true brilliantly expressionist works like FaustThe Last Laugh and Sunrise, but it’s truly a moment of involved storytelling, if not inspired, and worthy of its place among the firsts in cinema… the first to make a character so scary as to make us pray he doesn’t pop out of the screen.

Now, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… That’s inspired. It’s a mind-bender of a film. It is to the silent era what The Usual Suspects must have felt to the audience of 1995 (my feelings about The Usual Suspects being overrated and a distractedly entertaining film with one of the stupidest endings of all time notwithstanding). But it’s certainly coming from a place that means something to the filmmakers…

At least meaning something to the writers of the film. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz knew that they wanted to make a horror film, so they decided that they would touch upon the things about their lives that make them shiver the most. For Mayer, it was all the psychological problems he felt he still suffered as a result of his excruciating service in World War I and the military psychiatrist that terrorized them. For Janowitz, it was his suspicion about a recent incident where he associates a man he saw exiting bushes near a fair and a bit of news the next morning that a woman was found dead in that same spot. For both, it was definitely the affrontive atmosphere of fairs, somewhat imposing in their happiness to extremes. Certainly something that would call for an expressionistic approach.

And an expressionistic approach of course meant something to the producer Erich Pommel, who didn’t have much light to use and was all for a movie made out of shadows. And to designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann & Walter Rohrig, who finally got a chance to use their artistic intuitions to create an angular world that would have fit better in a nightmare than any haunted house or “school in your underwear” moment ever dreamt up. And to director Robert Wiene to prove anybody can do “Fritz Lang” and work well with designers who have an eye for lines. In fact, this is a movie that it is very hard to establish authorship for. Everybody on the visual side of things seemed to have a hefty hand in making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari what it is.

And what it is happens to be the story of a couple Francis and Jane (Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover, respectively) who visit the local fair to witness a somnambulist named Cesare (The uncanny Conrad Veidt) controlled by the hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Cesare insists that a friend of the couple’s will be dead by dawn and sure enough, Cesare proves to be right. But said death causes Francis’ suspicions and he begins to investigate what truly is the story behind Cesare and Caligari, finding himself sucked into a world of kidnapping, murder and madness.

And madness is just what the doctor prescribed. All this world is is haunting and artistic, the shadows mattering just as much as the strokes of paint of the crooked buildings, and there is nothing like this movie, not at all. It may not at all be an accurate representation of the social or medical results of psychopathy, but man oh man, does it feel like it and in the end, that is what most matters with Expressionism. Making your audience feel like they’re in the madhouse itself, with walls and rooms that just aren’t really there, even in the world of the film.

And the performances all sell themselves. At the forefront is a restrained and measured Veidt showcasing an outstanding expertise in pantomime and facial lock so as to make his very pale made-up face a beacon of terrors to come. Nevermind right behind him being von Twardowski becoming the stereotype of a mad doctor and making right due by it for how the movie calls for that deranged mad look all over, a pretentious bastard who wants to world to recognize and hearken just how brilliant this catastrophe he built is. Feher is an able leading man and Dagover is kind of loopy in her presence, but hell, that’s just exactly what the story needs out of their characters and the two of them are not nearly as uninvolved as von Wagenheim and Schroeder kind of were in Nosferatu.

Don’t ask me about the ending, though. I won’t say a damn word about it except that I love it and it really hammers the theme and main mood of the film right home while establishing it in a more grounded form for the audience to leave thinking about the social effects this movie might have had. That’s it. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Johnny Tightlips is what I am.

These movies aren’t the only horror films in the German Expressionism (I like to think of Paul Wegener’s Der Golem and Murnau’s later Faust – the latter of which I prefer to both of these films by far), but they are the cornerstones of the movement and how it affected cinema in the many decades afterward. Becoming the emotion, more than just telling you what the emotion is. Less realism, more feeling. The world can be just as much painted with shadow as it is with light and sometimes it’s just as black and white as you think. You just need to see for yourself…

Gaze into the abyss. And find the darkness gazing back at you.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 4 – Nothing is Real, Everything is Permitted

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. This weekend, Annabelle has come out in theaters and made a ruckus over what was actually to me one of the more forgettable factors about a movie I actually found myself really enjoying when I liked it. But I have a mystery to solve tonight and it’s not why the fuck do people actually think a horror spin-off movie so fast-tracked that it was developed in the same weekend the original film came out and released little over a year after – suggesting that it’s a rushed cash-grab with little time given for quality – might be good. But instead, it’s how a movie that belongs to a genre that has by now been a laughingstock even amongst horror fans has become one of the best horror movies of the decade.

Let’s get this the fuck out of the way, first off. I wasn’t scared by The Conjuring. I was creeped out, intrigued, and maybe was watching my back on the long walk from the theater to my apartment, but I was never at a point where I said “Holy shit, I feel threatened or violated by this for a movie.” Of course, the theater I was in had a lot of people screaming, so I don’t want to outright say The Conjuring is not a scary movie, but all truth tossed in, it plays it pretty safe for a haunted house movie and especially recreates every beat and cliche you have seen in every damn modern haunted house ghost story, you have seen since the 00s. And we all know those movies are pretty much in the wrong place, horribly boring the snot out of you for the most part with completely terrible premises, ‘based on a true story’, the whole nine yards on that shit.

Where The Conjuring stands out is that it is still a fantastic film. Like, it’s seriously a really interesting piece of work.

How it gets away with this carbon copy of the haunted house template and yet completely evades the sinking of that ship as a genre, in the end, I will be unable to answer confidently. What I can do is guess and that’s what I’m going to be doing this whole review, looking at the movie piece-by-piece, trying to figure out how this combination of tropes turned out so right.

The movie is pretty much a showboat piece for Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), a husband-and-wife team (Lorraine insists that she is a medium) who made a name for themselves in real-life as paranormal investigators, best known for their involvement in “The Amityville Horror”. So yeah, based on that, you know exactly how full of shit they probably are in real life. But dismissing that fact for the movie, which is kind of a rule for watching anything – that suspension of disbelief – the Warrens get called in on a case by Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, respectively) with their family of five children and dog. The Perrons have just moved into a last bastion of hope of a house, only to discover very quickly that, between sleepwalkings and imaginary friends, stuff is going wrong in the house. The Warrens start digging deeper and deeper and the two families together begin escalating the paranormal happenings to a more threatening level.

Now, that level of disbelief is essential to anyone. I like to think of myself as open to paranormal concepts, but when the chips are down, I don’t believe in half of the shit I see in horror films – I don’t believe in ghosts, monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies, telekinesis or sharks. Ok, that last one was a joke, I totally believe in telekinesis. You see that Uri Gellar fella?

Anyway, the point is that when it comes to concepts like this, it is unfair but the movie has to sell it a lot more to me in order to get me onboard with you. If you can’t do that, I’m going to be biased towards a topic I don’t find plausible enough to entertain. It’s just who I am. But The Conjuring treats its subject with a great amount of respect and delivers it as a completely straight-laced picture. Especially considering how incredibly dedicated the Hayes brothers, the writers of the film, are to trying to convince us that it’s true. Well, at the risk of hurting their feelings, it convinces me in the world of the picture very well, even if not in the real world. But I guess I’m too much of a skeptic outside of the silver screen.

Anyway, we also got the picture of the film. A very surprising warm gray that I was unaware of was even capable of recreating in film (sometimes the technical aspects of a movie really astound me) blanketing an extremely lived-in home closed-in on by some of the most ominous looking woods you could never want to have surrounding your homey home. It has so many results for doing this: We get both a sense of domestication and ominous sinister motivations within the environment itself and we get this very familiar 1970s horror movie aesthetic that we really find neglected nowadays by every filmmaker who isn’t Ti West. It is quite the effect coming from director James Wan, who actually spent a career prior making mostly horror movies that disappointed me from Saw to Insidious Chapter Two.

Here, Wan shows he’s got it right, precisely going over each detail of the story to lend itself to the air of the film, rather than the air of the film lending itself to the story, which makes me think he wasn’t half as dedicated to the concept itself as the Hayes brothers were. What results is that, well, further revelations in the story of the Warrens and the Perrons don’t have really as much weight as information as they just do as scares – the reveal of the origins of the ghost just gives way to one more creepy shot we get to see involving a tree and what secrets it really hides; Ed’s confession about his and Lorraine’s last case just leads to giving more of a sense of urgency and danger to the situation as a whole than just being that “here’s a serious emotional moment where we reveal the true fragility of our characters” scene and so on. And that results in its ups-and-downs. On one hand, it blatantly neglects the importance of the story, which I can honestly live with but I can imagine others won’t. On the other hand, it makes the setting of this film more of a living breathing entity than it could have been if it just followed what the Hayes wrote line-by-line.

Yes, I’ll definitely take the latter over the former. Because this is a horror movie, first and foremost. And a haunted house film like Paranormal Activity and The Shining has a responsibility to bring out more of the inexplicable than just giving an answer to everything that’s happening. The reason movies like Paranormal Activity and The Shining rise above recent haunted house movies is their violent refusal to give a straight answer for everything, which would completely remove the unnerving feeling of “what is going on and why does it make me feel this way?”.

But The Conjuring, being based on a true story that ideally has a happy ending, can’t get away with that and thankfully doesn’t try. And while Wan gets to dodge that “we’ve rationalized and explained the ghost, Mulder! Now let’s exposition him the fuck away!” standard by, again, having the story seep into the overall mood than let it upstage the mood, the ending doesn’t get that chance. And the movie hurts for it for a little bit, before just deciding to switch gears from frights to being a battle against good and evil. After selling the weight of its situation well enough without even letting us remember the full details, we as an audience feel enough for the Perrons to be invested in this battle. The movie may have faltered, but it hasn’t lost us.

This is also thanks to a surprisingly talented roster of actors from children Joey King and Mackenzie Foy being innocent victims, to the do-gooder Wilson, to the concerned Livingston, to the troubled Taylor, to the haunted Farmiga, everybody carries their own weight and then some to become a real part of the experience of the film, despite not very nuanced characters and the only real dynamic role is Taylor’s, for reasons I can’t go into with spoiling the film. But even the expendable associates of the Warrens are just fit snugly into this picture frame of a 70s haunted house story.

Now, that is the best of my ability to try to figure out, with you dear readers, how the hell The Conjuring got away with being a good movie. It might not answer all the questions, but it’s certainly a miracle.

But there is one more thing I wanted to find room to fit into this review and I can’t, so now I’m just make it the end.

This movie sounds amazing. In one of my previous articles, I went over how a great deal of the effect of horror films is smartly used jump scares (which this film does apparently have – even though I was unaffected, a lot of the audience was and I was at least amused with a particularly iconic jump scare you will definitely know about if and when you see the movie) and sound. The sound editing here in this film is goddamned perfect, though, with the house sounding so hollow as to be one big dead lung, breathing in ice, punctuated by falling lights or mishaps that will have you not really buying the visual explanation of the source of that sound. It actually sounds a lot like my house when I’m alone and the lights are out and the sun is going down, so the entire house is in this blue dead glow that suggests there’s something frightening with me here. Maybe that’s just my own association with the noise and sound emanating from the world of The Conjuring but it is effective and it works for me.

And again, this review is just me trying to figure out how, just how oh how, against all odds The Conjuring works. It’s just going to bug me as much as it does that some people still believe The Amityville Horror.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 3 – De-Loused in the Miskatonic – Re-Animator (1985/dir. Stuart Gordon/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 talked over both a remake and a prequel and how they tried oh so very hard to marry itself the concept of its original source, to overall lackluster results. What about when we get to a movie that doesn’t just lack that determination to be mistaken for its originator, but bounces off the walls in complete disregard for anything that isn’t as frivolous as the world it lives in, leading to both laughs and screams? In addition, I had been playing around for the first two days with starting with this movie and after a friend of mine mentioned every time he thinks of Lovecraft, he thinks of me, I thought “what the hell?”

If I didn’t know better – and I honestly didn’t until I saw the Masters of Horror episode “Dreams in the Witch-House” – I’d swear Stuart Gordon has never read an H.P. Lovecraft work. Now, not only do I know better, but I seem to have a hypothesis on why Gordon approaches his many adaptations of Lovecraft all throughout his career. When I got into Lovecraft, I was already in high school and reading his stories and novels on an approach very much inspired by my love for the novel Dracula… the idea of a scientific failure to rationalize the irrational events of horror really really intrigued me, especially at a time when I was being forced to read books on Anatomy, Physiology, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and other sciences by my strict dad (like most Arab fathers, he spent a great amount of raising me in the goal of making me a doctor).

It wasn’t until college when I learned that there are other kinds of fans of Lovecraft, in fact, a greater deal more than the type I was. There are fans of Lovecraft who are not as amused by the pseudoscience as the gory, grisly details in the descriptions of all the monstrous imaginative terrors Lovecraft conceived of on the page. And these are the same camp into the EC Comics and monster films like Godzilla and the show Tales from the Crypt and the zombie films. And I don’t doubt Gordon falls into both types of Lovecraft fans, but it’s very clear who he was catering to when he made Re-Animator.

If you don’t know Lovecraft, I don’t care how many horror movies you have claimed to see or how many Edgar Allen Poe poems or Stephen King novels you read, you do not know horror. He’s certainly not the most definitive name in the whole spectrum, but he is probably one of the most influential, the one most horror driven artists owe themselves to. He’s been graced with many an adaptation and much more a reference to his works in. He’s inspired nearly every worthwhile name associated with horror since him from Blue Oyster Cult to Garham Harman, and then some stinkers too. But a lot of those adaptations have proven to not entirely be faithful and there’s kind of a point to that.

Lovecraft, for all his imagination and for all I love him and use to eat him up in high school, was not a good writer. Even giving him the doubt of his stories trying to re-enact the tedium and verbose manner of science journals and other diagetic documents (which honestly did not even hurt Stoker’s Dracula one bit), the man’s prose is not half as engaging when it’s trying to continue the narrative as it is when it is illustrating some horrid visuals and expressing some fatalistic philosophy. And he doesn’t have a sense of coherent structure or pacing when a good storyteller. If any of his books were made word by word into the big screen, it would feel like Atlas Shrugged in movie form. It would be kind of boring.

But that doesn’t change just how shocking and expansive his horror ideas were and how easily they could attract the pulp crowd that was growing at the time he wrote, even when it became a chore for them to finish his works.

And so we get to Stuart Gordon, who loved Lovecraft so much that most of his movies are based on Lovecraft’s works. Gordon, however, knows Lovecraft’s modern audience a lot better I certainly did the first time I saw his cult hit Re-Animator – that is to say, he knew they were more into the grisly than the rationale behind the grisly – and took as much of the original story as he felt necessary and began to sew in as much as he could a better and more genuine sense of storytelling while really bringing out the comic book and pulp elements that the concept just fucking begged for. That, to me, is one of the smartest approaches to making an adaptation of any work whatsoever and so the problem isn’t the execution in itself so much as where Gordon felt satisfied.

So, let’s jump into the concept of this idea: Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has returned to New England and enrolled Miskatonic University after having recently worked his medical studies in Switzerland. He’s clearly causing a ruckus in his presence as he clearly interests Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), the student whom he is renting a room from, yet disturbs Dan’s fiancée Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). In the meantime, Megan’s father and Miskatonic Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) is not having any of West’s shit since, in addition to his peculiar behavior, West has been accusing one of the professors Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) as first a plagiarist and then afterwards incompetent in general as a professor. It is not elaborated on whether he was kicked out or if he left of his own volition, but what is clear is that his time in Switzerland left him with a very effective reagent and that, after a humorous incident with Dan’s cat that convinces him of West’s genius, the reagent is in fact able to reanimate the dead. Of course, the consequences of West’s deranged drive begin to bring consequences that threaten the personal life of Dan and outright threaten Miskatonic’s both literal and social standing…

It’s an out-and-out zombie movie with a bit of mad scientist to it, which is pretty much fine. That’s how Lovecraft’s serialized short story “Herbert West – Reanimator” went about and it was able to carry a sort a little more sober a weight and he still hated it (I’m not very sure Lovecraft had much of a sense of humor – one of a few qualities alongside his pretentious defense of racism making him an artist I do not find myself wanting to be in the company of). Gordon doesn’t need that sobriety. It’s a ridiculous concept, why not make it ridiculous in tone? Why not have a great deal of tentacles shooting out to strangle people or giant naked cadavers with very comic book colors of blue and pink on their skin resembling a bloated Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein (in fact, the music video for the Misfits’ “Scream” resembles heavily the climax of Re-Animator). Why not have it with wacky leaping undead cats and heads that express bloody hatred even though they have no windpipe or lungs any more? Hey, it’s not like the movie doesn’t earn this ridiculousness. It provides a world that harkens at both science-fiction and horror influences with its sustained use of shadow and cold interiors, not to mention that the reagent itself is a very gorgeously glowing alluring green that stands out in every single moment it is pulled out. But are the actors willing to play around with it as well?

Well, the actors are honestly hit and miss and some of it comes from a lack of effort or understanding how to go with these characters and some of the failings come from how you can write these lines, but really you can’t say them. Robert Sampson makes a much more exciting dead person than a living being, where he comes off as just inconsistently stuffy or doting depending on the scene. David Gale is not entirely ineffective as a villain as he pulls out the diabolical to 11 with trying to discredit or ruin West, but his more intimate moments of hatred are stone-dead looks without much else behind them. Again, Gale makes more exciting performances dead than living. And Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton are both pretty much the weakest link in the whole movie’s line-up, particularly in the scenes that diverge from the storyline to just have Dan and Megan express their uncertainty and display their romantic relationship. Abbott gives a deadline performance that just doesn’t convince me that he knows how ridiculous the movie is and yet doesn’t seem to realize this performance wouldn’t pass in a soap opera either, while Megan has not much else to her personality except getting the creeps from West and while Crampton is eager as all hell to play the screaming waif as the movie proves, it’s very undeserving of any actress.

Instead, let’s get to Jeffrey Combs as West. It’s very impossible for me not to associate an actor who appeared in any Star Trek related work with Star Trek. When people will try to argue that Combs really played a plethora of characters in the Star Trek franchise, dude, you don’t know how far my Star Trek obsession goes. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Trekkie as I just in general avoid labels, but it doesn’t matter how big or how small the role is – you’re in Star Trek, you’re Star Trek guy to me (in the last 31NoH article, I refrained from noting I immediately recognized Paul Rae as a bartender in an episode of Enterprise. A fucking bartender nameless and shit!).

Combs breaks past my association with Star Trek to make Dr. Herbert West, his own. He lives in the peculiarities and never once gives a sign of enjoyment like most camp performances would indulge in, but instead just makes West such a genuine essence that is the center of all of this madness and chaos that unfolds that in a performance that should by all rights be as hammy as the film it takes place in, he is not caught acting once. Not once. All the brilliance, all the narcissism, the struggle for Dan’s attention from Megan, the amorality, the relentlessness, it’s all stolen, not captured, by a very restlessly energetic but subdued performance out of Combs. He’s the mania of Dr. Pretorius with the casualness of… I don’t know how to put it, but the fact that such a crazed performance can restrain so much but give its personality away through mere speech in dialogue scenes astounds me. Combs is not Weyoun or Brunt or Shran. He’s Dr. Herbert West to me.

Anyway, the rest of the movie carries on as is for the first… maybe hour and ten minutes. The movie’s plot boils on as West and Dan continue to run through their unethical experiments until every once in a while an “Oh shit!” moment happens and West ends up using a solution that makes the situation even worse, affecting Megan, Dan, Dean Halsey and even Dr. Hill, who continues meddling into trying to find a way to ruin West’s career. Every once in a while, we’d get another unnecessarily banal moment between Megan and Dan, but to our comfort, they don’t last half as long as they could have if the movie didn’t realize we care less about their relationship as we do about West’s misadventures.

All the while these gory, speechless moments of hysteria and madness encompassed in shots of flailing bodies, both living and dead, trying to come to terms with the things they are going through that should not be really sell this movie’s source as a horror-comedy. If we choose to laugh, we can. If we don’t, it’s fine the movie is still doing its job by making us uncomfortable. It’s however unfortunate that it doesn’t play with this horror-comedy dynamic as smartly as, say, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, another movie that holds this same “slapstick from Hell” feel in spades, because it’s still based on a Lovecraft and since Lovecraft’s sense of humor was lacking, it was clear that Gordon really had to work for that tone to be fit into moments of West’s grandeur that would probably be melodramatic under another director. The comedy works along just well, though, and is very pleasing for the most part.

And then there’s the really infamous part about this movie. Which will be added with a spoiler and NSFW image, so I’m just gonna put this sentence as a warning.

Now, before I move to this scene, let me recount the moment I tried to show this movie to a group of my peers. My hand to Odin, not a one of them was paying attention to the movie up until this point except me. Nobody really cared, rather doing dishes, on their phones, or doing homework. Nobody was really engaged by the movie as they all had better stuff to do.

Lo and behold, this moment came up and all of them were paying their fucking attention immediately with disgust and bemusement and it’s pretty obvious why.

A horror movie likes to play on shock factor and many of them will try it safe, while a lot will try to push the edges. In an era where we have The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film, movies are going to tear the envelope to shreds to open it and go “Ta-Da!” for it.

I honestly don’t know my stance on this moment, though. It’s obvious that they all worked a whole lot on it and its touches on the near pornographic fascinations that adults would, in the old days, condemn on the EC comics for their alleged perversity. This scene obviously goes to extremes to go there, though obviously. Megan is being sexually assaulted by Dr. Hill’s severed head in the middle of a zombie movie while the plucky heroes of West and Dan are going over there to rescue her. It’s a perverted mix between softcore indulgence and damsel in distress fantasy. And considering the rest of Barbara Crampton’s work, I don’t doubt she was very very into the scene anyway and wasn’t opposed. But, while I wouldn’t call myself a feminist (only because again, fucking labels for me, I completely agree with all mainstream feminist ideals I am familiar), this raises Sam Peckinpah levels of objection out of me. Was it really necessary? I don’t fucking know or care. It doesn’t disgust me, it doesn’t make me feel horror, but my main shock is simply out of saying “Wow, you went there, Gordon.”

It brings what was a pretty swell movie a few notches down for me and if that seems unfair, well, deal with it. I can’t possibly proudly say a movie that is so desperate for a scene like this has earned a glowing “IT IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER”.

But anyway, at any rate, we get past this quick scene to what might be one of the most rushed finales I’ve ever seen a movie go through after being patient enough to build itself up, a battle between Dr. Hill’s undead army (among them Megan’s father also reanimated) and West, Dan and Megan. And it’s a pretty crazy moment, where physics and logic go flying right the fuck out of the window as West’s secret weapon happens to be “OVERDOSE!!!”, but it isn’t the most level pay-off for everything else the film was promising. Just more extended scenes of moments of struggling with a large muscular zombie that we kind of got enough of in the middle of the film. It’s enough to keep me moving with the story, but really not as much fun or as interesting this time around and it’s clear Gordon’s imagination has run out.

Shortly after this action setpiece of contained tensions, we get a very brief scene of one character desperately attempting to resuscitate another as a casualty of the hijinks that ensued in Miskatonic and in said character’s desperation, we get one more gag that is a literal screamer. It’s a pretty effective ending that played very predictably but ended the movie on that very comic book “what have we done” note.

I don’t entirely get why Lovecraft hated “Herbert West – Reanimator”. It was indeed among the best structured of his works, the one where he felt most like a writer, but I’m sure he wouldn’t exactly go gaga for Stuart Gordon’s film. And he can go fuck himself probably for that. I myself wouldn’t go gaga, but I’m still somewhat satisfied by what we got: a decent hunk of story, a decent hunk of great performances, and a decent hunk of setpieces that come straight out of a Romero set.

But it’s still the wholly great deal it could have been. Sometimes moments falter, sometimes scenes shouldn’t exist, sometimes emotions aren’t convincing and sometimes we get to seeing that Gordon didn’t think the whole movie through (one of the biggest signs of this is the score “by” Richard Band… except it sounds exactly like every score Bernard Herrmann ever wrote for Alfred Hitchcock and it doesn’t fit the movie’s style at all). It’s not a great movie in spite of its intentions and efforts and it barely makes it by to the good movie category by the additional weight the good parts have to carry.

But again, we are lucky among those good parts happens to be Herbert West and when I have to smile and explain to mortified peers why I own this movie, it’s because of the revelation of a performance that comes out of Jeffrey Combs. And of course, we are also lucky that for Gordon’s understanding lack of dedication to Lovecraft this time around, we get a very very very fun movie for its first hour. It doesn’t get nearly enough credit for itself, but “hey, better it live unrecognized than stolen by a talking head that should get a job at a sideshow… ” I say in my mind…

“… and that forces itself on a young maid.” I tell myself as I keep skipping that 1 and a half minute moment.

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:

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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…

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

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

Oh wait…

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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.