The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) DVD Review

Written by Eric Strauss

DVD released by New Line Cinema

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 Poster

Directed by Marcus Nispel
Written by Scott Kosar, based on a screenplay by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
2003, Region 1 (NTSC), 98 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on March 30th, 2004

Starring:
Jessica Biel as Erin
Jonathan Tucker as Morgan
Erica Leerhsen as Pepper
Mike Vogel as Andy
Eric Balfour as Kemper
R. Lee Ermey as Sheriff Hoyt

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Review:

Remake.

One word elicits strong feelings in movie fans. Especially genre fans. Especially when the original is considered a classic.

Such is the case with two recent box-office hits, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003 and Dawn of the Dead in 2004.

But these films are merely the latest in a long line of horror remakes, including Gus Van Sant’s infamous shot-for-shot Psycho in 1998 and Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead in 1990. And many lesser-known genre films are merely remakes — “rip-offs” — of better films: Think of the 1980s slashers inspired by Halloween and Friday the 13th, movies like Madman or The House on Sorority Row. Many horror hits have myriad sequels of their own — from Jaws 2 to the another 21st century hit, Freddy vs. Jason — and most of them are simply the original films, re-imagined with a different twist. Some don’t even bother with the re-imagination.

Horror is certainly not the only genre to build success on the foundation of earlier films. The recent heist films The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven were very successful remakes. In fact, Ocean’s Eleven was so successful it inspired an upcoming sequel of its own.

These kinds of movies pose a dilemma for reviewers: Should remakes be compared with their namesakes, or judged on their own merits?

It is a difficult choice. On one hand, taking the name of an earlier, successful film makes a certain amount of comparison inevitable. On the other hand, most remakes range from somewhat different to completely different (Van Sant’s Psycho an obvious exception). So often, they are distinguished not for their similarities, but their differences.

Take the Savini-helmed remake of Night of the Living Dead. Besides being in color and benefiting from the polish of a bigger budget, the simplest way to describe the film is by explaining how it differs from its inspiration, George A. Romero’s seminal zombie film. The character of Barbara, who spends most of the original nearly catatonic, is in the remake an active, aggressive protagonist. And that makes the film different — at times, very different — from the original. But does that make it a bastardization, rendered inferior to the original by its very difference? Or is it simply a different look at the same situation, with pros and cons unlike those of the 1960s classic? Or is it — even more simply — unnecessary, given the availability of the original on DVD?

These are questions endlessly discussed by fans of the original, the remake and the genre. And they are questions that immediately spring to mind when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead are considered.

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Dawn of the Dead is easier to consider intrinsically, regardless of outside factors. About all it shares with Romero’s sequel to Night is a mall surrounded by zombies. While the name alone invites comparisons, there is really nothing to equate, as anyone who has seen the film knows. Whether it is a better or worse film than the original, whether it is a film worth seeing or a waste of a $9 ticket, is for a viewer to decide. And the two questions may, indeed, have very little to do with one another.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is harder to differentiate. It is a remake in the purer sense, a film with the same basic characters and the same basic plot as Tobe Hooper’s infamous tale of five teens who find themselves face-to-face with a skin-wearing, chainsaw-carrying madman, the now-legendary Leatherface. With so much in common, the question becomes, how does it measure up?

The answer is surprisingly well. Surprising because, first, many genre fans look with disdain upon perceived-to-be slick remakes of gritty classics, and second, because this remake defies that perception.

The 2003 TCM is slick. Crafted by big-budget music-video maker Marcus Nispel and produced by blockbuster action director Michael Bay (Armageddon, The Rock), it has every bit of the visual flair those names suggest. The stars, from lead Jessica Biel (best known for TV’s “Seventh Heaven”) on down, are charismatic. Though not a big-budget film by today’s standards, there are plenty of greenbacks to be seen in the effects.

And yet, this new TCM captures the spirit of the original, and exceeds it in more ways than just budget.

At its best, it is a gritty, dirty, bloody film filled with suspense and its share of scares.

At its worst, it is a gritty, dirty, bloody film filled with suspense and its share of scares that isn’t Hooper’s original.

Correct that.

At its best, it is a gritty, dirty, bloody film filled with suspense and its share of scares that is more entertaining and enjoyable than Hooper’s original.

There. It’s been said.

There is no good reason horror movie fans won’t enjoy the 2003 TCM — whether they are fans of the original or not.

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The key to TCM is the characters, and for once, the inevitable comparisons favor the remake. Biel, all-American pretty, provides a strong center for the film. And the young actors playing her four road-tripping friends also create believable characters: Eric Balfour (TV’s “Six Feet Under”) as the leader, Biel’s boyfriend; Erica Leerhsen (Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2) as a free-spirited hitchhiker; Mike Vogel in the best friend role; and Jonathan Tucker (The Virgin Suicides) as the skeptic fifth wheel, playing a variation of the original’s annoying wheelchair-bound brother.

What this relatively young and inexperienced cast does best is build sympathy for their characters. Unlike the whining, screeching leads of the original, this quintet acts and reacts in a way real people could realistically be expected to respond to god-awful circumstances. As a result, they grasp the brass ring of the horror-movie victim: They make fans care whether they live or die. That difference lifts TCM above the freak-show scares of the original and makes it a film with appeal beyond the geek factor.

One big help is that the remake is full of nice touches that lend emotional weight to the proceedings. One poignant detail early in the film captures the emotional tragedy for two characters that is too often lost in horror movies that revel in their gore. A second plus is the one major plot difference: the opening sequence involving a second, mysterious hitchhiker, which throws the friends into this situation beyond their control. This gripping sequence is well played, and it sets a great tone for the film in terms of surprise and gore. Many other small scenes and moments help build the emotional horror, and one even gives the film’s version of Leatherface a touch of tragic sympathy.

But if there is one way in which this TCM fails to live up to Hooper’s, it is in that character of Leatherface, the skin-masked, chainsaw-wielding killer. While Andrew Bryniarski (Any Given Sunday) makes an hulking, intimidating image, he cannot possibly live up to the standard of Gunnar Hansen’s manic madman. To the filmmakers’ credit, they seem to realize that, and use the character more as a provider of scares and less as a focal point — leaving that to Biel, the heroine, and R. Lee Ermey (who starred in another recent remake from New Line, Willard), as the oddball town sheriff. This, and the character-driven story, make TCM the rare horror film that focuses not on the monster, but on the victims.

Ermey, the most recognizable face in the film, and a fan favorite since his classic performance as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, is both a blessing and curse. While he uses every bit of his quirks, facial expressions and vocal intensity as Sheriff Hoyt, he has almost become a parody of himself and at times borders on the ridiculous — especially in contrast to the often-subtle performances from the younger stars. That can lend to the surreal atmosphere of the kids’ predicament, but at times, it can push viewers’ suspension of disbelief to the limit.

Though the flaws with two major characters may turn off genre fans, they are more than outweighed by the improvements in the hero-slash-victim roles. And that, combined with Nispel’s strong horror direction and Scott Kosar’s well-thought-out screenplay, make this a movie with universal appeal — one that, if given a fair chance, more than holds its own in terms of scares and gore.

An excellent film on its own merits. If it fails to capture the magic of its famous predecessor, that says more about remakes in general than TCM in particular.

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Video and Audio:

New Line is known for the high quality of the A/V on its “Platinum Series” releases, and TCM is no exception. The anamorphic widescreen image is always crisp, with solid blacks and strong colors when warranted, and there may be only one or two moments when the picture isn’t right on the money. The film intentionally has a grim, dark look, with well-used grain and washed-out colors, and the DVD transfer captures every nuance without ever struggling under the assignment. The choice to emulate a raw, low-budget look is the only thing preventing this from being a reference-quality picture.

New Line lives up to its reputation with this transfer, which offers the spectacular clarity of DVD while maintaining the film’s dark, realistic look.

The Dolby Digital EX 5.1 mix is likewise outstanding. The sound is as crisp as the picture, and while the shrieks of the victims and the roar of the chainsaw are often overpowering, that is exactly what this film requires. Surrounds are used nicely for the score and effects, and when Leatherface starts up his chainsaw, the enveloping noise gives the on-screen action an immediacy, even from a viewer’s couch. The bass, at its best, will shake the room, but there are few scenes that call for such an overwhelming effect.

A DTS track and 2.0 stereo track are also present. English and Spanish subtitles are available.

An outstanding mix that would make a great showcase disc, except for the lack of sound-oriented setpieces in the film.

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Special Features:

New Line has also established a reputation for outstanding special editions under its “Platinum Series” label, and TCM bolsters that standard with its package of features.

On the first disc, there are three “audio essay” commentaries: “production,” “technical” and “story.”

The production track features Nispel, Bay, executive producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller and New Line top-dog Robert Shaye.

The technical track features Nispel, cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who did the same job on the original), production designer Greg Blair, art director Scott Gallagher, supervising sound editor Trevor Jolly and composer Steve Jablonsky.

The story track features Nispel, Bay, Form, Fuller, Kosar and six actors: Biel, Leerhsen, Balfour, Tucker, Vogel and Bryniarski.

On all three tracks, the participants are not recorded together, and the discussions are often only loosely timed to the on-screen. The commentaries are well-made, technically, with clear voices, few pauses and the added bonus of speaker names given before each comment — a real benefit with so many speakers on each track. They also manage to avoid too much repetition, despite some cross-over of participants. However, as with many such spliced-together tracks, they lack much of the interaction and warmth that mark many multi-participant tracks and some solo efforts. This is probably most disappointing on the story essay, where it might have been nice to hear the five main actors together.

Despite the low participation of the cast, the story commentary is arguably the most interesting of the bunch, focusing on Kosar and how he crafted the script. The production essay is probably the most traditional commentary as far as content, and the technical one the driest. But none of them really do much to distinguish themselves or hold listener interest.

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The extras on the second disc of the set are much more entertaining, however.

They are broken down into three parts in the main menu: The production; publicity and promotion; and the documentary “Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainfield.”

“Chainsaw Redux: Making a Massacre,” found in the production section, is the primary behind-the-scenes documentary.

It clocks in at more than 76 minutes long, three-quarters of the length of the feature. And the documentary is as thorough as the length suggests. Although certainly somewhat self-congratulatory, it is not afraid to take a good look at how the filmmakers tried to capture the spirit of the original and put their own spin on it. It also offers some great footage of the cast and the gruesome effects, plus a touch of humor. Although some of the quotes reappear in the commentaries, most of the major participants are involved, in interviews conducted either during filmmaking, afterward or both. All in all, a very thorough and interesting look at the film.

The production extras also include a 16-minute feature called “Severed Parts” that focuses on several deleted scenes with descriptions from director Nispel. Some follow an excised subplot involving Biel’s character, while the others include additional gore and a different set of bookends for the film.

There are also short screen tests for Biel, Balfour and Leerhsen (who spends most of her time on camera testing her scream-queen potential). Two concept art galleries round out the section.

The publicity and promotion portion includes Bay’s teaser trailer, used to pitch the movie but not shown in theaters; the original theatrical trailer; and seven TV spots.

The teaser and trailer are outstanding — as could be expected from former video directors Bay and Nispel — and really capture the film’s tone. The trailer played a crucial role leading up to the film’s theatrical run, as it really shows what the film is all about and likely piqued the interest of even ardent fans of the original.

The publicity section also includes a film-themed music video for Motograter’s “Suffocate” (the metal band an odd choice to highlight, considering the film is set in the 1970s and opens with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”) and trailers for New Line’s Highwaymen, Willard, The Butterfly Effect and Ripley’s Game.

“Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainfield” is a 24-minute-long look at the multiple murderer and grave robber whose story is the basis for horror movies including Psycho, both versions of TCM and The Silence of the Lambs. Though with only the barest direct tie-in to the movie (the use of some film footage), it is an interesting look at the psychosis of this man, and the movies that psychosis inspired.

(It is also misnamed in the menu, which calls it “Ed Gein: The Ghoul of Plainville.”)

TCM also shines when it comes to packaging. The slipcase’s inside box features a nifty chainsaw-blade image when it unfolds, and the set includes a very nice, if somewhat useless metal version of the box cover (what to do with it is something of a mystery; the set doesn’t come in a keepcase, where it could slide into the front plastic). An added plus is a set of “crime scene” photos based on the film’s reality-footage bookends, complete with evidence tape, similar to the extra in Anchor Bay’s limited edition Manhunter set.

There’s a lot to be found on this Platinum Series disc, highlighted by the documentaries, but the commentaries are nothing special.

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Conclusion:

From the first appearance of the crisp yet visceral trailer, this film tried to show it could capture and pay homage to the original — and then improve upon that low-budget classic. And Nispel, Bay and Kosar achieve their aim in splendid fashion. Strong direction gives this film a great look, strong acting gives it great characterization and the nice, subtle touches that permeate the film give it an edge the original often lacks.

Though some parts cannot possibly live up to the visually arresting nature of the film that came before it, the new TCM does everything it must to be disconcerting, suspenseful, intense and even moving.

Was this TCM necessary to make? Probably not. But it was, so the question becomes, “Is it any good?”

The answer is simple: Yes.

This is an outstanding horror movie, one of the best of recent years.

Put aside your preconceived notions and appreciate this version of TCM for what it is: a terrific film on a loaded 2-DVD set.

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Grades:

Movie: Fourstars Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 Blu Ray
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Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 Cover
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Video: Fourandahalfstars
Audio: Fivestars
Features: Fourstars
Overall: Fourandahalfstars

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