The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The tagline for the 1983 Spanish horror film Pieces ("You don't have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre!") accidentally revealed more about the quality of its inspiration than the film it advertised. If they were being honest, the ad writers could have added, "...but why go anywhere else?" It doesn't take much creativity to put a chainsaw into the hands of a crazed killer, but it does take a stroke of genius to turn a chainsaw into the engine for one of the most relentlessly frightening suspense films ever made. One of the few movies that's risen in both esteem and notoriety in the years since its release, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre buzzed into drive-ins and grindhouses in 1974, but left a deeper impression than most of the era's other exploitation films. With technical expertise, a sadistic sense of humor, and a musical sense of timing, Hooper pitted some hapless kids in a van against a middle-of-nowhere clan long in the habit of terrorizing unlucky passersby. Massacre was in touch with its era; a few years earlier, its heroes/victims would have been hippies. Instead, they're burnouts, too late for the idealism and just in time for the disillusion and backlash–in this case, a bloody backlash from an American family closer to E.C. Comics than Norman Rockwell. Retaining the '70s setting and putting its pothead heroes in a van with a "Shit Happens" bumper sticker, the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems to understand its source material, but has no idea how to improve on it. In his feature debut, commercial director Marcus Nispel, the frightmaster behind several famous Janet Jackson and C+C Music Factory videos, creates some genuine scares and memorable imagery. Yet in spite of the presence of original Massacre cinematographer Daniel Pearl, the film suffers from the addition of a scare-reducing gloss. The script keeps Hooper's nudge-nudge "based on a true story" framing device, but its carnage and backlit crucifixions look too fussed-over to make the trick work. Nispel ups the gore factor (not hard, since the original confined its blood and guts to a few scenes), expands the family to include some women, throws in a helpful child, gives Leatherface a backstory, and gives oft-wet heroine Jessica Biel many more chances to fight back. Delivered without a wink, except for a distracting cameo by a famous Texas Internet denizen's severed head, the new Massacre feels like an honest attempt to expand on the original, but for all the guts and screams, it's more Lone Star Steakhouse than roadside barbecue.

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