The new "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was certainly a frightening prospect to fans of the original horror feature: the new film would be produced by film director Michael Bay, who certainly has a legion of "haters"; and Mike Fleiss, the reality TV guru behind such horrors as "Are You Hot?" and "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?". The director is Marcus Nispel, a former music video director making his feature film debut.
The film opens with John Laroquette narrating crime scene footage (and ends w/footage), then jumps to 1973, where five 20-somethings are returning from Mexico and apparently, heading towards a concert in Dallas. Erin (Jessica Biel), however, doesn't know that the trip wasn't simply fun & sun - her boyfriend, Kemper (Eric Balfour), worked with the others to take a couple of hidden pounds of pot across the border, as well. Riding along with the couple are another couple, Andy (Mike Vogel) and Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), as well as a tag-along, Morgan (Jonathan Tucker).
They cross the path of a hitchhiker who appears traumatized, walking along in a daze. They decide to help her, but she simply does not say anything aside from "They're all dead." When the van starts heading down the road, she freaks out and kills herself, leaving the teens upset and panicked. The local sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) is not remotely helpful, and a run-down mansion that seems like a place to hide instead hides Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), a killer who uses the faces of his victims to hide his own deformities.
I don't think I've ever seen a horror film that has worked so well almost entirely due to its look. Despite being made on a relatively small $10m budget, this "Texas" remake has an incredible visual style (the original film's cinematographer, Daniel Pearl, returns here). Done with a color palette of blues, yellows and rotten browns, the picture has an almost overwhelming sense of dread from the first moments forward. A few over-the-top shots are rather irritating, but the majority of the film's images have a truly unnerving quality, with remarkable use of shadows and light. Combined with the exceptional production design by Gregory Blair, the film looks considerably better than its low budget would suggest. The film's haunting tone is also furthered by the fact that it uses its score fairly sparsely, instead relying on ambient sounds and silence to add tension.
The film's performances do more than most recent horror fare in trying to get us to care about the characters before they are attacked. Biel's performance portrays compassion, fear and terror more convincingly than any horror film hero I've seen in recent memory. She does have to wear a tight t-shirt through the whole thing, which is nice to look at, but it takes the focus away from what is really a solid effort. Erica Leerhsen (the one survivor career-wise from "Blair Witch 2") is satisfactory as Penny, while Mike Vogel, Jonathan Tucker and Eric Balfour are good. The real standout, aside from Biel, is R. Lee Ermey, who creates another memorable character that's total evil. Those who are familiar with "Aint It Cool News" creator Harry Knowles will also recognize his brief cameo.
Still, looking at the core of the film, it does ground itself in the cliches of the genre and doesn't have much, if any, subtext behind it. The film could have also done without quite so much gore - less is more may have been even more effective. However, where other films of the genre give viewers a rest here-and-there, this one remains relentless, visually very effective and almost exhausting.
VIDEO: "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is presented by New Line Home Video in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. While a few little concerns keep the presentation from being quite all it could be, this is still a remarkable effort that often presents the film spectacularly well. Sharpness and detail are often exceptional, with a consistently high level of detail, even in low-light and night scenes.
The only issue that I had with the presentation was the presence of some occasional edge enhancement, which was noticable, but not too terribly distracting. Compression artifacts were not spotted, nor were any print flaws. Slight intentional grain that appeared at times looked smooth and "film-like". The film's altered color palette appeared accurately rendered, with no issues.
SOUND: "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is presented by New Line in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX and DTS-6.1 ES (Discrete 6.1). This is a very aggressive soundtrack, with a very pleasing amount of surround use for discrete and very creepy sound effects. There's not a great deal of score in this film (in comparison to most films), but the score is well-utilized when it comes in, with nice reinforcement from the rear speakers and a strong spread across the front. Strong low bass is also present pretty often, although its use is effective and not overpowering.
Audio quality is strong, as this is a dynamic soundtrack with excellent sound quality. Dialogue remains exceptionally clear throughout, while sound effects are crisp and clean-sounding, with no distortion. Overall, this is a terrific soundtrack that works and doesn't really go for the usual soundtrack scares that the genre is famed for - instead, it goes for the same creepy, unsettling atmosphere that the visuals are attempting.
EXTRAS: There is also a basic 1-DVD set for "Texas Chainsaw", but the special edition of the film is a very full-featured 2-DVD effort, complete with nice fold-out packaging and a collectable metal faceplate. The faceplate is rather odd; while nice enough looking, it doesn't hold onto the front of the case and simply slides off. I just stuck in within the slip cover, along with the fold-out disc case.
Commentaries: The first commentary is a "Production" commentary, with producer Michael Bay, director Marcus Nispel, producer Andrew Porm, executive producer Brad Fuller and Co-chair/Co-CEO of New Line Cinema Robert Shaye. It's nice to finally hear a commentary from Bay once again, as the director ("Armageddon") is one of the most brtually honest and entertaining out there when it comes to discussing his films. The producers discuss their viewpoint on the material and the creation of the project. Nispel discusses casting, the look of the film, how Harry Knowles ruined a day of shooting, attempts at product placement, the production process, his analysis of the horror genre and working with a $10m budget. This was a terrific track, with a lot of information, great stories and insight.
The next commentary features director Marcus Nispel, producer Michael Bay, writer Scott Kosar, producers Andrew Porm and Brad Fuller, actresses Jessica Biel and Erica Leerhsen and actors Eric Balfour, Mike Vogel, Johnathan Tucker and Andrew Bryniarski. The actors discuss working with each other, getting to know each other better through meetings daily and talk more about the roles that their characters have in the story. This is the "story" commentary, and the filmmakers here spend their time discussing the development of the story, alterations that were made (including a very different first idea for the ending), meetings that happened and how the filmmakers approached certain aspects of the story.
The final commentary features producer Michael Bay, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, production designer Greg Blair, art director Scott Gallagher, composer Steve Jablonsky, director Marcus Nispel and supervising sound editor Trevor Jolly. This commentary is mainly in regards to the look and feel of the movie, with especially interesting comments from cinematographer Pearl, who discusses in-depth his experiences with the processing of the images for the film (bleach bypass) and his opinions of the options and the upsides/downsides of the path the film went with.
Finally, the first DVD also includes DVD-ROM features, such as a script-to-screen viewer and weblinks.
"Making a Massacre" is the main supplement on the second disc of the set. This is a 75-minute documentary that chronicles the making of the film. Featuring interviews with Bay, Nispel, cinematographer Pearl, the cast and many others, this is an involving look at how the filmmakers approached remaking the popular horror film and how they worked with a relatively low budget. We learn more about casting, about location scouting, creating the look of the film, props/make-up and even follow the production towards and through the release of the picture.
"Severed Limbs" is a 16-minute documentary that works in several scenes, which are a mixture of deleted scenes and alternate cuts. These are mostly character moments and an angle about pregnancy is included. There were a few bits scattered throughout this that were rightly cut, but there's also a little more character development found here that I think could have found a place in the film without harming pace.
"Screen Tests" includes screen tests for Jessica Biel, Erica Leerhsen and Eric Balfour.
Going to the DVD's "promotional" area, viewers will find a Michael Bay teaser trailer that went unused (2.0 audio), the film's terrific theatrical trailer (5.1, with an excellent sound mix), 7 TV spots, music video and trailers for New Line's direct-to-video "Highwaymen", recent DVD release "Willard", the surprisingly grim recent theatrical release "The Butterfly Effect" and finally, the upcoming direct-to-video sequel to "The Talented Mr. Ripley", "Ripley's Game", which features John Malkovich as an older Ripley.
Rounding out the DVD are still galleries and a 24-minute documentary on killer Ed Gein.
Final Thoughts: Despite not being a fan of the genre, I very much liked the performances in this remake and thought the creation of the look and atmosphere of the film was often sensational. It's not without flaws, but in dropping a "high-concept" core and simply going relentless, straightforward and strongly atmospheric, the film does reveal some cliched aspects, but it also becomes a consistently intense and unsettling picture. New Line's 2-DVD special edition is an exceptional effort, with fantastic audio/video quality and a wealth of informative supplemental features. Recommended for fans of the film and/or genre.