Friday, August 23, 2013

Worth Mentioning - Platinum Leatherface

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody opens the cold case files of a classic retooled.


The past week marked the fortieth anniversary of the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American cinematic history, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Jay Burleson and I have both discussed Tobe Hooper's original 1974 classic on the blog before; Jay wrote an Appreciation article on it (with VHS screen caps), I revealed that it has been one of my all-time favorite films ever since I was in preschool. I intend to write a TCM Appreciation myself someday (I have already written on one its first sequel), but to mark the anniversary of its events - it's set on August 18th, 1973 - I figured it was time to take a look at its remake, which is also set on August 18th, 1973. Adding to the appropriateness of the timing is the fact that this year is also the tenth anniversary of the remake's release.

I never cared about remakes before 2002 or so. I watched different versions of plenty of movies without a second thought - I watched Vincent Price in The Fly, I watched Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, I checked out The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter's The Thing, I loved watching both the original The Blob and the 1988 The Blob. When Stephen King tried out The Shining as a TV miniseries, I was tuned in. I loved Night of the Living Dead and Appreciated the 1990 version. These remakes and different takes on concepts were just more entertainment for me to enjoy. Not even Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-for-shot Psycho remake bothered me. It was interesting experiment. But my outlook on remakes shifted drastically when word came out that some people were going to remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially when one of those people was Michael Bay, who was going to produce the remake. No one could hope to come close to replicating the greatness of the '74 TCM, and especially not the director of Armageddon. This was sacrilege. I was very upset. For years from that point, I was very anti-remake. As remake after remake of horror movies I loved hit the screen, I repeatedly voiced my complaints about them and ranted against what I viewed as people churning out soulless products to piggyback off the creativity and success of others... That went on until the sheer number of remakes finally beat me into submission and I realized - it just doesn't matter. Remakes are nothing to get upset about. Good or bad, they take nothing away from the originals they're based on. The good ones just join the originals in pop culture memories, the originals usually still reign supreme, and the bad ones are forgotten and moved past.

But as the Texas Chainsaw remake neared release, I was very guarded and judgmental of every little detail that came out. They were really going to have do something amazing to gain my approval. There were good developments - the casting of R. Lee Ermey as a member of the murdering family, the original's cinematographer Daniel Pearl returning in the same position after thirty years of a very successful career. There was the wait-and-see hiring of Marilyn Manson to provide the film's score - I've always loved the original film's score, consisting of weird rumbles and strange noises created partially by using farm tools as instruments. I was concerned that Manson would go too rock with the score, but it was promising when Manson said in an interview that he'd basically be getting paid to create silence... That ultimately didn't matter, as Manson dropped out of the project and was replaced by Steve Jablonsky. The first picture of Andrew Bryniarski as the horror icon Leatherface appeared in an issue of Entertainment Weekly, in which he was photographed alongside other popular characters like Daryl Hannah back in her Blade Runner get-up and Stephen Root as Office Space's Milton. I picked his look apart and mocked the flip in his hair that reminded me of the band Flock of Seagulls.

I did like the look of the trailer, which I saw several times in the theatre during my multiple viewings of Freddy vs. Jason in the summer of 2003. The TCM trailer was attached to FvsJ, since both were distributed by New Line Cinema. When October of 2003 rolled around, the moment of truth arrived. I went to see the Texas Chainsaw remake on its opening night.

Things get off to an endearing start. Each of the previous Texas Chainsaw movies had begun with a narrator reading text that appears on the screen, scrolling text in the first three films and a stationary card in the fourth. There is no text at the beginning of the remake, but there is a narration that plays over black and white images of crime scenes and evidence collected in relation to the infamous titular Massacre, and this narration is done by John Larroquette, the same actor who did the opening narration on the '74 film and went on to play one of my favorite childhood television characters, womanizing attorney Dan Fielding on the sitcom Night Court. Larroquette's narration starts off nearly word-for-word the same as the original's narration, then spins into an extrapolation on this version's take on the events of August 18, 1973. The remake is presented as a dramatization of information kept within buried cold case files on the crimes of a chainsaw-wielding killer called Leatherface and his family.

The filmmakers, starting with screenwriter Scott Kosar, made the wise decision not to try to reuse too many of the specifics from the original film. They took the broad strokes and base ideas, then filled them in with their own material.

Like the original, the remake centers on five young people motoring through Texas in a van, but the characters are different, the van is different - a souped-up Dodge instead of a Ford Econoline - and the motivation behind their drive very different. This group, consisting of longtime couple Erin and Kemper, their pals Morgan and Andy, and new acquaintance Pepper, are headed to Dallas to attend a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, and are such big fans of Skynyrd that they're somehow listening and singing along to "Sweet Home Alabama" nearly a year before that song came out.

One of the most popular scenes in the original film comes when the road trippers pick up a very strange hitchhiker. The group in this one clearly isn't against stopping for hitchhikers, that's how Pepper herself came to join them just nineteen hours earlier. They soon stop to give another, very strange hitcher a ride, and it plays out much differently than the original's scene. There, the hitchhiker was a member of the murderous family, here the hitchhiker is a young girl who has just escaped the family's clutches. At first she's nearly catatonic, but when she realizes the van is headed in the exact direction she doesn't want to go in, she begins to freak out. They're not going to find any help for her in the next town they reach. She tells the riders of "a bad man", she warns them "you're all going to die", then she pulls out a gun she had hidden within her vagina and blows her brains out the back of her head and through the van's rear window.

Everything might have been alright for the concertgoers if the girl hadn't chosen to commit suicide in their van, if she was still in her right mind enough to properly explain herself. Instead, with her corpse in the back seat, they're forced to stop at the first place they come across, a rundown old store with an old woman named Luda May standing behind the counter. She calls the town sheriff, who has her tell them to take their van over to an abandoned mill. The trap is sprung.

At the mill, they meet an odd little boy named Jedidiah, who tells them the sheriff isn't coming. Rather, the sheriff is just at his home nearby, getting drunk. This information causes the group to start splitting up - some stay with the van at the mill, some walk off to find the sheriff's house - and that's when they start getting picked off.

The sheriff isn't home, but a legless old man named Monty is, and when the characters explore too deeply into the house, they find another inhabitant, the one of the film's family of bloodthirsty psychos who is essentially the same as his counterpart in the original film, the one character who absolutely had to be in there. Andrew Bryniarski as Leatherface. Leatherface makes his first appearance at roughly the same time in the remake as he does in the original film (32 minutes in vs. 35 minutes in) and is introduced the same way - by bashing a male character in the head with a hammer, taking the body into another room, and slamming a sliding metal door closed behind them.

All of the characters will encounter Leatherface at some point, but while some of them are in his clutches, others are terrorized by R. Lee Ermey as the sadistic Sheriff Hoyt, who is really the standout element of the film. Hoyt is one sick bastard who gets up to some disturbing activities, says some disgusting things, and really dishes out the torment. He steals the movie right out from under Leatherface and everyone else, and is a twisted delight to watch.

Other family members we meet along the way - in addition to Leatherface, Hoyt, Luda May, Jedidiah, and Old Monty - are an eyebrowless young woman named Henrietta, who wants a child no matter what it takes to get one, and her morbidly obese pal The Tea Lady, who live separately from the others in a trailer home.

I had many issues with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre do-over upon my first viewing of it in 2003, and they started as soon as the group of young people were introduced. I immediately had problems with them. Andy and Pepper are all over each other, having an intense makeout session while the others look on, and they're smoking weed and have just picked up two pounds of marijuana during a vacation in Mexico - so they're dope smoking youths with overactive hormones, typical slasher fodder, unlike the characters in TCM '74... The problems kept piling up from there as I continued to weigh the film against the Chainsaws that had come before.

Aside from Leatherface and Hoyt, there were too many family members that made very little impression and had little impact, even family members in some of the lesser sequels had been more interesting than this group.

I hated that they had thrown out the perfectly fitting last name of Sawyer for the family that had been established in part 2 and renamed them the Hewitts, giving Leatherface the full name Thomas Brown Hewitt. Naming them Hewitt seemed like a goofy choice to me, you can't hear that name without thinking of Jennifer Love Hewitt, and she's even from Texas. Is she related?

When David J. Schow wrote 1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, he included a scene in which we would've seen Leatherface unmasked. New Line, who at the time thought they were kicking off a series of regularly produced sequels with that film, nixed the idea, saying that was something they'd save for "part 5". Schow didn't ask what their plans for part 4 were in the interim. New Line didn't end up making the fourth film anyway, but it's an interesting coincidence that the remake, the fifth film, found Leatherface back under their roof, and he is unmasked here. This is a choice I still disagree with, and it's an example of the frustrating determination the producers at Bay's Platinum Dunes company displayed on their Chainsaw movies to answer every possible question. Thirty years and four movies had gone by before without Leatherface ever being unmasked, and here he takes his mask off before the audience can even really wonder why he'd be wearing a mask in the first place. We see his mug, with his nose eaten away by a skin disease, within 19 minutes of his first appearance onscreen.

I really didn't like the overly stylized, heightened reality look that Pearl and director Marcus Nispel, making his feature debut after years of working on commercials and music videos, had gone with. It looked like Nispel was still stuck in the world of heavy metal music videos. Everything's overly dark and filthy, the production design/set decoration is overdone, the water leak the Hewitts have in their cellar is so extreme it's absurd, the editing is rapid, there were camera moves that were ridiculously showy, particularly the crane back through the gaping wound in the hitchhiker's head after she shoots herself.

I even disagreed with the fact that Steve Jablonsky had ended up going traditionally orchestral with his score. An orchestra had no business working on TCM!

Give me a break, I was a teenager. But I disliked the movie so much that, even though I'm a completionist and have to buy every installment of a horror franchise if I buy one of the movies, I vowed that I would not pay money to own the DVD and put it on a shelf beside the other four Chainsaws. The folks at Pit Of Horror helped me out of that dilemma: I won a copy of the special edition DVD from them in a contest.

Over the years, my opinion on TCM '03 has softened greatly. It's still full of what I perceive to be missteps and choices I disagree with, but now I can accept it on its own merits as a dark, decent slasher flick. I've realized that it didn't have to be the masterpiece that the original was, it could succeed at being its own thing, and it does manage to be entertaining all on its own. I enjoy it much more now overall, and the things I thought were great even in '03 I still think are great to this day. Ermey is fantastic as Hoyt, Leatherface capably handles his victims and is featured in one especially brilliant shot - after sawing up one victim and sending feathers from their coat flying, he looks back at Erin, feathers in the air all around him, and she sees that he is now wearing her boyfriend's face as a mask.

I've also always thought that setting the end of the climactic chase sequence inside a slaughterhouse was genius. Erin enters the slaughterhouse by running up the same chute the animals will be led up when it's time for slaughter, she tries to hide amidst the hanging beef while Leatherface stalks her. She might as well just be cattle herself to him... It was an awesome idea, I can't believe none of the other Chainsaws did it before.

I may not like or respect TCM '03 nearly as much as I do the original film, but I've warmed up to it, and ten years on I find it to be worth mentioning and worth remembering.

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