November 2003

The Buzz is Back:
Texas's Favorite Power Tool Returns, and so does 'Old School' Horror.

The remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hauled in a mighty twenty-nine million dollars its opening weekend. That princely sum was roughly three times the film's production budget, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood, a land where every big opening weekend sparks a new fad.
In this case, there are two interesting trends at work, and both represent very good things for intrepid horror movie fans. In one sense, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues this autumn's total domination of the box office by the horror genre, following in the very successful (financial) footsteps of Freddy vs. Jason, Jeepers Creepers 2, Cabin Fever and Underworld. Not since the late 1990s and the era of Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream 2 (1997) and Urban Legend (1998) has horror been such a financial and cultural force.

With Halloween falling on the final day of October, studios traditionally drop their genre pictures at this time of year to cash in on the holiday, but what this autumn indicates is that horror movies can thrive at the box office from summer's end right up to, and perhaps beyond, the beginning of November. A western (Open Range), a comedy (School of Rock) and a "serious" drama (Beyond Borders) are just a few of the "big" films that have succumbed to horror's domination this year. Stars like Kevin Costner and Angelina Jolie got the tar kicked out of them by folks named Freddy, Jason, the Creeper and Leatherface.

More potently, the success of Marcus Nispel's very intense Leatherface 2003 re-do suggests to producers and studios that fans and general audiences alike are seeking in their horror entertainment some old school-style terror. In other words, viewers like their tricks and treats sans irony and self-reflexive humor. The new Chainsaw, a ruggedly efficient scare machine, fosters a powerful sense of dread and a palpable terror in a straightforward manner audiences haven't seen in some time. Though Tobe Hooper's original vision, one of insanity and spiky terror, has been supplanted by a more traditional, less revolutionary style of story-telling, there's no denying that this Chainsaw has its own power.

Though this author really mourned the absence of the trademark "tea party" scene wherein the Leatherface clan "invites" its latest victim to dinner, and also characters such as the Cook, Hitchhiker and Grandpa, I also marveled at how powerful a tool the chainsaw had become. In the 2003 remake it is a destructive, murderous, dread-inducing implement of destruction. It is much more powerful an image than one might expect, and it darts into film frames at perilously close range to our endangered protagonists, fostering shrieks in the audience. A veteran of such films, I still jumped out of my theater seat at least three times during a viewing of this new film. It's been so many years since that happened to me during a mainstream studio release, I felt as though I'd lost my virginity all over again...

Even if it can't hold a candle to Tobe Hooper's brilliant and daring 1970s vision, the new Chainsaw passes the ultimate test of a horror movie. It is scary. Very much so. Special kudos to Jessica Biel, the most convincing new Scream Queen to come down the pike in a long while. She acts her heart out in this film, investing every bit of her psyche into the terrifying situation unfolding around her. From 7th Heaven to Chainsaw hell, she makes the transition brilliantly.

But the point is that Hollywood has seemingly learned a lesson with Chainsaw. Horror concepts, if vetted seriously and respectably, can still be very scary. More pertinently, audiences want to feel that level of terror again. The old bogeymen like Freddy and Jason may still entertain us, make us laugh, even gross us out. But they don't scare us the same way they used to. They can't, because we're so familiar with them and their bag of tricks. This new Chainsaw has revealed to us a Leatherface who is just as frightening as he was in 1974, when the original took the nation by storm. That's quite a feat, and it bodes well for the future.

First, there's already talk in the industry of a Halloween remake, one that re-starts the story of Michael Myers, Laurie Strode and Dr. Sam Loomis. Carpenter's Halloween, like Hooper's classic, is a perfect picture in its own right and doesn't need to be touched. On the other hand, a new Halloween for a new generation, going back to the beginning and evading some of the contradictions of the later series entries, could be a very disturbing movie. Likewise for the Freddy prequel that horror icon Robert Englund has discussed, a film that would go back in time and share with audiences the story of Mr. Krueger before he died and became a dream demon. Imagine just how disturbing and creepy that could be, to see a human version of Freddy huddling in his boiler room and terrorizing the youths of Elm Street. Yikes!

Other horror re-makes are flying out of Hollywood faster than Leatherface can hang his victims on those bloody meat-hooks. Westworld is on the way. Ditto The Stepford Wives. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead returns in March 2004, with Ving Rhames in a leading role. Michael Bay, the producer of the new Chainsaw, now toils on a remake of 1979's The Amityville Horror. What's the lesson?

One: Anything for a buck...

And two: the 1970s got their horror movies right. All the efforts now being re-made were scary, serious, innovative, and thoughtful when they debuted in the disco decade. They have also proven increasingly popular as the decades roll by and we can judge them on their own merits, rather than in the context of what reviewers in the 1970s said about them. These films represent excellent source material, and we'll no longer have to settle for dead teenagers and the winking and mugging that stands back and laughs at the form. Some of the aforementioned remakes will probably be really bad, or even betrayals of the original source material. Some will fail completely. But it is rewarding to believe that with the new Chainsaw as the model, at least some these movies will be genuinely scary.

The buzz is back....