Bad Buzz

She'll do anything: Jessica Biel in 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'
New Line Cinema

So many things go clankingly wrong with the new version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre--a power tool that's both over-oiled and oddly toothless--that I'm almost embarrassed to admit how much I was looking forward to it. The timing seemed just right, as it must have in 1974 when the idea of American youths stumbling awkwardly into hazy misadventures far from home was perhaps too painful to process as mere entertainment. Now we have our own military quagmire, 10 new McGoverns to hear out, a new Nixon (from Texas, no less), and a return to tense '70s-style anxieties that even rates its own Sunday Times think piece. Blood is in the air again, as it was, ominously, in Tobe Hooper's title sequence from the original film--red lava tendrils of the sun exploding from behind a lunar eclipse. It's one of Hooper's better atmospheric touches, unforgettable unless you happen to be one of the amnesiacs behind the remake.

Actually, let's be fair and name names. Marcus Nispel, the director, is a veteran of Janet Jackson videos. You can tell by the way he lavishes attention on the bare navels of his young cast members, their characters pawing each other giddily in the back of a van--a strategy that must have gone over well with his producer, Michael Bay. Our bell-bottomed teens are on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (mystifyingly, the remake remains stuck in 1973). But the band might as well be Korn given these cutie-pies' anachronistic cool-speak and hipsterish posing. They smoke weed, they jump each other's sweaty bones, and already they're being stamped USDA-prime, a convention of horror that the original steadfastly refused, much to its credit. Even after a scared hitchhiker has blown her own head off (the first of several wrongheaded revisions to the story), the kids settle into a collective pout: Aw, we're going to be late for the show.

Strike two comes in short order with the introduction of...what's this? A woman shopkeeper? And a sheriff? Because the sheriff is played by R. Lee Ermey, the howling disciplinarian from Full Metal Jacket, you know he's going to turn out to be less than nice. (Apparently, the screenwriter couldn't resist giving him warmed-over chestnuts like "Get on your faces!") But the woman is an egregious breach of the concept's integrity; you can hear the fabric tearing. Part of what makes Hooper's vision so dark (and so beloved by feminist critics) is its twisted portrait of an all-male family in the "meat" business, making grotesque compensation for its lack of women. When Sally, the blond victim of the original, pleads, "I'll do anything you want," and the cannibals slowly begin to chuckle, an idea dawning upon them, we've reached perhaps the bleakest moment in American cinema.

But here we have women, lots of them, and even a forlorn child--inbred, but forlorn just the same. And it feels all wrong, as does the italicization of every gory detail with an abundance of multi-angle coverage. (Hooper's cutting is a Hitchcockian coup of almost bloodless suggestion; his title, by default, may be the most off-putting element.) Just as you're waiting for one of the clueless Shaggys to notice those live pigs roaming in the living room and, say, react to that--to register anything at all, in fact--he merely wanders over to the fridge, a bit peckish. Nope--nothing in here except for some oddly shaped sausages floating in jars. Already we had begun to root for Leatherface; now we want to provide him with mustard. The final offense is the sole survivor's transformation into a rainsoaked Rambette going head-to-head with the clan and even wresting a moral victory from it all. Huh? What's supposed to happen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an escape by the grace of fate, the chainsaw receding to a point behind the Final Girl, buzzing but unbowed. We in the audience should escape for her.

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