Wednesday 21 December 2011

The mud and the blood and the beer

When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in October 2003, the crusade against all that is good and right producer Michael Bay would unleash in Hollywood could be just glimpsed over the horizon: after Pearl Harbor had killed Bay's ambitions to be a serious director, the extraordinarily crass Bad Boys II, released one week before TCM, made millions upon millions and showed us the Bay to be.

On the other hand Marcus Nispel, the former music video director Bay hand-picked for the project, was a total unknown in 2003. Ever since, he's been one of the most ubiquitous - if oddly obscure - directors of genre pictures. Nispel's remake of Friday the 13th makes him the only person beside Wes Craven to have kicked off two horror franchises, while his dread Pathfinder and Conan the Barbarian remind us why sword-and-sorcery films should stay buried.

The first and most important thing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gets right is that it's not exactly a remake of Tobe Hooper's notorious 1974 original. Sure, it's still a story of a group of bland twentysomethings passing through Texas who are murdered and cannibalised by a clan of hillbillies, and the beats of the story are similar. But the film reprises exactly one character - Leatherface - from the original, and it toys with fans' expectations just enough to keep the audience on their toes.

After a black-and-white prologue setting out the case after the fact à la Tobe Hooper, we open on August 18, 1973; and that date ushers in some of the most over-eager period cues you'll ever see on film. Five young people are driving through the backwoods of Texas in a van, on their way from Mexico to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Dallas. There's Kemper (Eric Balfour), who owns the van, his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Biel), who's getting impatient for Kemper to propose, college boy Morgan (Jonathan Tucker), blond muscleman Andy (Mike Vogel) and Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), who are all over each other despite having met a mere nineteen hours before. Erin is annoyed when Morgan accidentally reveals they're transporting two pounds of pot bought in Mexico, and tosses a spliff Kemper gives her as a peace offering out the window.

This bold rejection of drugs in a film set in the 1970s marks Erin out as our Final Girl beyond all doubt. That, and the film that she's played by Jessica Biel, easily the most recognisable of the cast even in 2003. Recall that in the wake of Scream, they began casting TV starlets in horror films instead of random nobodies willing to take their clothes off, and thus the most famous person tends to be the Final Girl, provided they survive the opening credits. (Incidentally, if I may be allowed my dram of lechery: I've never been one of the innumerable Jessica Biel fanboys out there, but she can wear a midriff-baring tank top and a cowboy hat any time she likes.)

Anyway, our meat travel through Texas in a number of shots borrowed from the original - van moving from left to right seen in long shot, suggesting immobility and impossibility of escape - and almost hit a young girl (Lauren German) wandering on the road. They take the shellshocked and terrified teenager into the van, but after rambling that 'I won't go back there' and 'They're all dead', she pulls a revolver and blows her brains out. The reaction shot to this is seen through the hole in her head, which is deeply tasteless, anatomically implausible and stunningly terrible as a directorial choice; thankfully, we never see the like again.

Obviously, the cast freak out: no-one expects a suicide in the back of their van. They ask the owner of a petrol station (Marietta Marich) to call the police for them and are told that they're to meet the sheriff at the old Crawford mill. This seems fishy, and when they get to the mill Morgan is in favour of simply dumping the dead body and driving on; would that they had, for when Kemper enters the house of a man in a wheelchair living nearby (Terrence Evans) he is murdered by Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski). The rest have to deal with the arrival of Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey), who generally acts like a total psycho even before Leatherface turns up for more murderin'.

In many ways The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an otherwise unremarkable countryside-revenge horror film, if thirty years late for the genre's heyday. The cast are just as nondescript as they were in the original, with the juiciest parts falling to the villains: R. Lee Ermey follows Jim Siedow in hamming it up as much as he possibly can, creating one of the most memorable and enjoyable madmen in 2000s horror. Andrew Bryniarski isn't a patch on the original's Gunnar Hansen, but he does all right with the part of Leatherface.

The film isn't important for its own sake, anyway: it marked a major watershed in horror cinema. After the prolonged death throes of the old slasher film, the horror genre was reinvented by the phenomenal success of Scream (1996). If Wes Craven's deconstructionist picture proved that horror could still make money, its greater significance lay in its longer-term impact on pop culture. After Scream, horror films had to be smart, ironic and knowing; they boasted a clean, uncomplicated aesthetic and celebrities aplenty, and generally toned down the profanity, nudity, and graphic evisceration of earlier films.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hands, was really quite nasty. Although most deaths in the film occur off-screen or in poorly lit areas so that most is left to the imagination, the same is not at all true of the cruelties inflicted on the human body before, around, and after death. Andrew's prolonged agony - involving mutilation, fingore, and impaling on a meat hook - is so appallingly vicious that I'd much rather I hadn't seen it and could forget now; the moment in which Leatherface attacks Erin while wearing her boyfriend's face is similarly harrowing. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is thus the clearest precursor to the torture porn genre that took off with Saw the following year and afflicted the silver screen for half a decade.

What's more, TCM looks nothing at all like the crisp fare that came before it. It's grimy and filthy, owing the largest debt not to Scream but to David Fincher's Se7en; its Texas is a profoundly unsafe, dirty place, and Greg Blair's production design underscores just how run down, impoverished and neglected the setting is. The film's biggest visual asset is one man, though; for they did something that almost never happens and brought back Daniel C. Pearl, the original film's cinematographer. The new TCM is dark and, as Tim Brayton noticed, has a sort of deeply unsettling yellowish tinge to it, so that the sky is not quite gloriously blue: it's more gorgeously unpleasant, if you follow my meaning, than any film set in August has any right to be. This aesthetic - stylised, gritty - has totally dominated the horror genre since.

If we were looking for one person to embody the 1996-2003 horror film, it would be Kevin Williamson; for 2003-2009, it'd be Rob Zombie. (It's possible, though too early to tell, that a new epoch began in 2009-10 with Paranormal Activity and Let Me In.) It may be a rote horror film - never a slasher: although they've been interwoven with the slasher genre, the TCM films have always been countryside-revenge films, but that's an arcane debate we can have elsewhere - but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made $80 million in the States alone on a $9.2 million budget, and that's more than enough to kick off trends.

That it's largely responsible for the rise of torture porn I can't blame Bay and Nispel for; that it unleashed Bay 2.0 and Nispel, on the other hand - well, we've had eight years of Bay's Platinum Dunes churning out sub-par remakes of classic horror films to date, and after the middling performance of the expensive A Nightmare on Elm Street the engine seems to be sputtering at the very least. It's sad, perhaps, that the mediocre TCM is their best film; but it's a tolerable effort, and I won't complain about that.

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