Prime cuts, warmed over

You’ve seen this Leatherface before.

Oct 29, 2003 at 12:00 am

Chances are you’ve seen a Marcus Nispel film before. Perhaps “seen” isn’t the right word — you’ve likely ignored a Marcus Nispel film at one time, since those previous works, about 30 seconds long, plugged the holes between punch lines on network TV sitcoms. Nispel has directed more than 1,000 commercials and music videos. You can understand his cinematic tastes. After all, anyone who has worked with the Spice Girls certainly knows horror firsthand.

So Nispel was a choice as good as any to direct a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original was cheap, inventive trash, a top pick for enterprising boyfriends of 1974 who wanted a rewarding drive-in movie experience. Shot on an apparent budget of $14.63, it freaked out audiences with a rural gothic vibe and Leatherface, a self-made Frankenstein who threw chainsaws around with glee.

Dozens of horror films have lifted bits and pieces from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the title itself has not fared so well. A new sequel or spinoff has popped up at least once every decade or so, often wildly missing not just what made the original interesting, but any semblance of horrorific fun. (Mayonnaise is to RC Cola as Renee Zellweger is to 1994’s The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre — neither belongs in either.)

To keep the remake legit, Nispel brings back the original cinematographer Daniel Pearl and narrator John Larroquette, and revives not just the story line but the entire atmosphere of its ancestor. There are a few nods to modernity, such as attractive actors and high-capacity fog machines, but Nispel has found some abandoned corners of Texas that rekindle that old chainsaw spirit.

While the original was mad and macabre, the remake tends to settle for more run-of-the-abandoned-mill scares. Even so, it works the teen horror film formulas with gusto, taking its sweet time to build up then hitting its marks like an old pro in the final reels.

Nispel lets the atmosphere work a creepy spell, and lifts only one or two shots from drain cleaner ads. There are stretches where he appears to have left his tripods back at the hotel, and the editing style that works for the attention-deficit-disorder world of TV ads keeps some scenes from having a bigger punch. The documentary touches work OK, but end up going one Blair Witch step too far.

Jessica Biel takes the Marilyn Burns role as prime screamer, and handles her shrieking, running and wet-tank-top scenes with aplomb. The other teens are forgettable, and the freak-show characters are more stock than scary. What really keeps the movie chopping along is R. Lee Ermey’s county sheriff, a twisted cousin to his drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket whose menace sweats into the air around him.

With all that attention paid elsewhere, Leatherface almost gets cut down to a supporting character. He’s only seen clearly in a few scenes, and spends most of his time in the shadows. His 200-meter-dash times may have improved, but his new family ties and childhood troubles appear to have sapped his drive to kill meddling teens. The original Leatherface was an incomprehensible force; the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre actually tries to muster a little sympathy for the man of Stihl.

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