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