New Line’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre more or less follows the same template as the original, except the returns are far less provocative. Produced by Michael Bay and helmed by music video director Marcus Nispel, this millennium edition features a group of dry-humping, Scream-era teenagers living out the horrors of the Tobe Hooper classic. Make no mistake: this is prefab horror for the MTV generation. Because the story has been stripped of all socio-political subtexts, it’s anyone’s guess why it still has to take place in 1973. The film has the gooey look of a distinctly modern production (or a chintzy Crystal Waters music video), with the actors dressed as if they are heading down to the MTV Beach House. (Please note that there are very minor spoilers in this review.)
The small tweaks are noticeably distracting: the first person the film’s teens-cum-cattle meet at the rest stop is an old hag (not an old geezer) and it’s one of the clan’s members who gets the wheelchair. Gone are the dreamy astrological ruminations (replaced here with “hip” talk about sexually transmitted diseases) that fascinatingly informed the cycle of terror the original film’s characters suffered. (Was there anything scarier than the sight of an oblivious Sally Hardesty running in circles around the outer regions of the house she so desperately wants to escape?) In the end, the only subtext the filmmakers keep intact is this notion of Southern hospitality gone awry, implied both in the fading plantation-style house of the film and the requests of the wheelchair-bound grandfather figure.
For the new film, the implicit moves into the explicit. In making the hitchhiker the teens pick up a victim of the Leatherface clan (and not one of its own members), the filmmakers only call whorish attention to the already cyclical nature of the original. Though we lose the somewhat hokey dinner-table sequence of the first film, a preposterous and contemptuous subplot nonetheless amplifies the story’s inbred angle. The new film pretends to be concerned with the sad deterioration of humanity, but it only condescends to its characters. The uncomfortable humor of the original is replaced here with patronizing grotesqueries (though I’m willing to wager the filmmakers didn’t intend for members of the Leatherface family to resemble both Rachel Dratch’s Kerplixik and Chris Kattan’s Mr. Peepers characters from “SNL”).
Because the film so closely follows the mold of Hooper’s masterpiece, it noticeably takes off the one time it makes a drastic departure. (Too bad, though, that screenwriter Scott Kosar couldn’t avoid those hip, thoroughly modern references to The Blair Witch Project and, um, Harry Knowles.) The filmmakers obviously couldn’t miss the opportunity to overplay the original’s meat-is-meat angle. The giddy sexual banter exchanged between the film’s teens will have you believe that “men are pigs,” and the actual pigs that move freely around the Leatherface abode point to the imminent slaughter of the film’s main characters. Nispel gets some considerable mileage out of these overestimations, even though the film is more concerned with chopping people up than with actually saying anything profound about our capacity to do evil.
Despite its ominous textures (the film was photographed by Daniel C. Pearl, who also shot the original) and the one stand-out set piece inside the Blair slaughterhouse, Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as morally inconsequential as the early Wes Craven pictures it frequently engages (The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs). At the end of The Hills Have Eyes, a man kills a cannibal that’s about to murder his delectable child. Craven seemingly believes he’s saying something about our instinctual need to kill for pleasure, but this philosophy doesn’t hold water considering the context of the man’s situation. His instinct isn’t to kill for the joy of it, but to protect his own. It’s a cut-and-dry case of life-or-death self-defense.
At one point, a little inbred boy helps Erin (Jessica Biel) escape the seemingly bionic Leatherface. The filmmakers condescendingly imply that there’s still hope for this cursed lower class when one of their own learns to distinguish between good and evil. But what is this little freak really turned on by: his capacity to do good or that Biel looks like a contestant in a wet T-shirt contest? Just as Hooper wasn’t interested in cheap scares (not only is there very little blood in the 1974 version, most of the film takes place in the day and without ominous rainfall) and tricking his audience using red herrings, he didn’t feel the need to empower Sally, let alone objectify her. (Even a dead female body in the new film doesn’t escape the lascivious gaze of one male character.)
Not only is this useless “revision” ignorant of history, it panders to its modern audience with the kind of look-Ma visual brouhaha that the Tobe Hoopers of the world couldn’t be bothered with. (At one point, Nispel’s camera pulls back into and through a victim’s head wound. This shot has Bay’s fingerprints all over it, not only because it appeal’s to the cotton-candy mentality of the film’s audience, but because it also dehumanizes the victim.) The original, less-is-more production evoked the decline of a post-Vietnam Americana. After surviving Leatherface’s clan and the bitter ironies repeatedly summoned by Hooper’s creepy-crawly camera, a bloody and hysterical Sally escapes into a dusty tomorrow. More horrifying than the chaos she escapes is the uncertainty that it isn’t over with—which is hauntingly implicit in the girl’s hysterical wail (is she crying or laughing?).
After quickly conjuring images of Christ on the cross, Nispel allows Erin a specious moment of sacrifice that says nothing about her capacity to kill—it exists solely to “train” her to murder and foreshadow the dubious empowerment ritual that closes the film. The original was very much a product of its time, documenting a cycle of horror that paralleled the country’s involvement in Vietnam (except, of course, the film’s terror mechanism is engaged by the country’s disillusioned and disenfranchised). The you-go-girl gumption that closes Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is certainly appealing on a basic level, but there’s a dangerous implication in Erin’s defeat of the Leatherface clan. Not only does she persevere, but she also protects the American Family from the dangerous “other.” In a way, then, this new film is also very much a product of its sad time.