Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #766
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 17, 2003
Sub-Genre: Backwoods Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $107,100,000
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: Marcus Nispel
Producers: Michael Bay, Mike Fleiss, Brad Fuller, Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Screenplay: Scott Kosar
Based on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper
Special Effects: Brandon K. McLaughlin, Greg Nicotero
Visual Effects: Nathan McGuinness, Jason Schugardt
Cinematography: Daniel Pearl
Score: Steve Jablonsky
Editing: Glen Scantlebury
Studios: Next Entertainment, Platinum Dunes, Radar Pictures
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Stars: Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vogel, Eric Balfour, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski, David Dorfman, Lauren German, Terrence Evans, Marietta Marich, Heather Kafka, Kathy Lamkin
Narrated by John Larroquette
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone”
 Mortal Coil “Song To The Siren”
 Abigail Mead & Nigel Goulding “Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor)”
 Steve Jablonsky “Main Title”
It’s hard not to feel a little bad for Michael Bay. The American filmmaker tends to be rather rough-handed by the media, and of the dozen or so films he has directed, virtually none have been kindly received by critics. Does he lose a wink of sleep at night? I highly doubt it considering they have collectively grossed in excess of $5 billion worldwide. Besides, if insomnia strikes, he can always take his $50 million Gulfstream G550 jet out for a spin so the last laugh is invariably his. That said, a little appreciation for all that hard work and endeavor certainly wouldn’t go amiss. Granted, his movies rely largely on elaborate special effects and frequent explosions, but there’s a demographic out there simply crying out for more of the same and Bay sees no reason to feel guilty for giving them what they crave.
In addition to the big-budget blockbusters he churns out for fun, he also happens to be co-owner of production house Platinum Dunes, which has been responsible for a number of modern horror reboots. The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street have all been provided a fresh lick of paint under his supervision, and while none have been held in particularly lofty esteem, they’ve each gone on to turn a profit. In 2003, he tackled Tobe Hooper’s 1974 exploitation classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and long-suffering fans of this ailing franchise were instantly up in arms on receipt of the news that he would be on production duties. Marcus Nispel was drafted in to direct and over $100 million in box office receipts suggested a job well done. That didn’t stop the naysayers from sharpening their knives however and it was generally deemed unnecessary.
I’ll hold my hands up to harboring some pretty severe doubts myself as the thing that made the original so unforgettable was its raw depiction of blind terror and it seemed highly unlikely that this would make the transition intact. Indeed there’s an undeniable sheen to Nispel’s film that doesn’t sit comfortably with me. Effectively little more than a modern-day slasher, it boils down to a group of beautiful teens being placed in extreme peril, and all the usual bells and whistles recognizable from a Bay production are present and correct. However while that may be the case, it’s a decent enough effort when taken on its own terms. Let’s be frank here, it was always going to prove a tough ask living up to such an untouchable force of nature as Hooper’s original. Thus perspective is our friend here as it still manages to capture the despair of winding up off the beaten track in an ever-spiraling nightmare and that’s job done in my book.
The year is 1973 and five fun-seeking friends – Erin (Jessica Biel); her boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour); and their buddies Morgan (Jonathan Tucker), Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), and Andy (Mike Vogel) – are en route to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Kemper’s camper van after making a pit stop to Mexico to pick up some hash. Things take an unexpected turn for the worse when they pass through Texas and happen across a distressed young lady (Lauren German) wandering aimlessly along the roadside babbling incoherently. They decide to do the Christian thing and offer her a ride, but before they can ascertain what has her so soundly spooked, the stranger produces a .357 Magnum and proceeds to blow her brains out on the back seat. As far as omens go, this one’s bad to the very bone.
The group now have one of two choices to make. Either they discard the body and leave it for the buzzards to snack on or report this unfortunate incident to the local police and continue on their merry way having done a good turn. Plumping for the latter, they head on over to a nearby mill to wait for the cavalry and find a young boy loitering who informs them that the sheriff can be found at home. Erin and Kemper go walkabout and soon stumble across an old plantation house from which they can make any further calls. It doesn’t take a child genius to know shit’s about to get even more real, and after eking out the tension sufficiently enough, it’s time for row upon row of metallic teeth to start grinding.
Back at the van, events are taking a turn no less unsavory, as arriving Sheriff, Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey), appears to be a few nuts short of a cluster. Guilty until proven innocent is the motto here and his approach to police work leaves a lot more to be desired than given thanks for. Their bemusement equates to our investment as dividends are paid out with ample meanness of spirit from this point forth and the true extent of their plight becomes agonizingly clear. You see, while Hoyt is a disagreeable host, backward Texas families have a tendency to stick together in a fix and their parenting skills are far from orthodox.
Enter best kept secret, Thomas Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski), the barely human equivalent of Mount Etna and better known around these parts as Leatherface. To be fair, it’s not so much leather as rotting human flesh, and his sub-level nursery would struggle to pass an inspection. Littered with hacked off body parts and an aroma of death none too vague; this is evidently where the magic happens and Thomas has no great desire to play illusionist. With motor humming and blades buzzing, he cuts just as formidable figure as we could hope from such an uncouth oppressor. Better yet, it ain’t 1974 no more so we get to see this foul beast at work.
Another huge plus is Ermey who brings his very best Gunnery Sergeant Hartman to the party. Granted, there are no lines quite as memorable as “your days of finger-banging ol’ Mary-Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over!” but he does exude menace from every one of his filthy little pores and he makes things mighty uncomfortable for the maggots in question. Casting doesn’t get much more inspired and this supplies a dual threat, affording Leatherface sufficient downtime to stitch himself a new face mask.
As for those beautiful teens, well they’re just as disposable as you’d expect and Biel feels a little too recognizable a final girl to not stand out like a sore thumb. That said, she does deserve an award for walking provocatively in painted on denim. Meanwhile, Balfour is an actor I have tremendous respect for and Tucker gives a highly creditable account of himself as the panic-stricken Morgan, trembling lower lip and all.
The dread is also heightened by Steve Jablonsky’s respectful take on the original’s theme although Bay’s influence becomes a tad too clear at times, particularly once we venture deep into the thicket. Daniel Pearl’s photography may be purty in these moments with rays of blinding light beaming through every available opening, but it’s hardly evocative and feels a little misjudged if I’m honest.
Another thing sorely lacking is any real feeling of surprise, particularly as we move towards the obligatory final act pursuit. However, while the narrative is depressingly linear, there are some true standout moments, including the moment our fearsome juggernaut stands up amidst a blizzard of down feathers after dicing one unfortunate to reveal the fresh head-gear he’s been working on back at the workshop. His initial entrance is also commendably jarring, albeit without that rickety sliding door. The issue here is that the grim mood is ultimately unsustainable and we’re left with fleeting snatches of brilliance amongst the usual weary tropes of contemporary horror. Fuck it, that’s enough for me. I don’t want for much, you see.
Whether or not you dig The Texas Chainsaw Massacre depends largely on your willingness to put Hooper’s original out of your thoughts and enjoy it for precisely what it is without prejudice. Bay may well have both hands in the casserole dish but Nispel has memorized the basics well enough to keep things in the same zip code; though never quite courageous enough to ring the front doorbell. However, I shall let you in on a little secret here.
You see, I recently revisited this back-to-back with Jonathan Liebesman’s 2006 prequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and would recommend viewing them in reverse order as they actually tie together rather nicely. While Liebesman’s effort is by far the more commendable and black-hearted of the two, there’s more than enough meat on these here bones to make Route 66 some way less appealing a proposition. No offence buzzards, you earn your props simply by being buzzards. But I’ve never much been one for sloppy seconds.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: I’d have paid good money just to hear our former drill instructor pipe up with “you best unfuck yourself or I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck” but can’t feel short-changed with regards to the splatter. The atrocities may be a touch too brief to truly satisfy, but the moment when the trajectory of a shrapnel throat lozenge is followed all the way from the horrified faces of our onlookers, through the dripping face trench and out the rear windscreen is priceless.
For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: Cop a load of Biel’s peachy cheeks in mid gyration and try telling me you’re not even faintly mesmerized. I’m guessing that Bay suggested this particular shameless shot. You see, he ain’t all that bad.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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