The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

(Marcus Nispel, USA, 2003)


This is an odd film. For a good two-thirds of its running time, I was captivated by its style and tone, and intrigued by the possible directions in which it might go.

Alas, it goes nowhere but down the drain.

This is a remake of Tobe Hooper's celebrated low budget horror film of 1974, which mixed a gruesome, razor-sharp sense of terror and dread with a pungent social commentary on family values. Like many impressive movies of its time and ilk, it testifies to the contradictions tearing America apart during the era of the Vietnam War, and the capacity of popular art to advance a politically radical perspective.

Almost inevitably, this new version dispenses with the meanings of the original.

Writer Scott Kosar and debuting director Marcus Nispel, working under the guidance of producer Michael Bay, add nothing to Hooper's classic, and do not even approach its force and resonance.

There are moments, early on, when this version of the Texas massacre – a fiction which has become a modern myth, as it recedes further and further from its origin in the real-life case of Ed Gein – manages to become an elemental, Beauty and the Beast-type tale, with even a wisp of Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre (1998).

A bunch of good-looking teenagers, led by Erin (Jessica Biel), fall foul of the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) and his perverse, extended family.

It is a nightmare made of the purest Southern Gothic, deserving of a grunge award for its relentlessly icky and abject set design.

In the end, it reduces itself to the video game template that rules contemporary horror movies – just a string of cipher-like characters, one by one, racing to get out of the house or the factory or the forest as that deadly weapon roars an inch from their heads (or torsos or crotches).

Like most contemporary horror movies, this one is in thrall to the trend set half a decade previously by The Blair Witch Project (1999). The only thing that matters to Nispel is to create disquiet through elaborate formal tricks, like an oversaturated colour palette, pervasive spatial disorientation and rapid editing that revels in abstract illegibility. Not forgetting, of course, that modish mockumentary device of faked-up, grainy-blurry newsreel.

© Adrian Martin November 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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