Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre had a seriously problematic history in Britain, it’s no secret, and it’s this BBFC-induced reputation that’s helped to tarnish fair opinion of it in many ways: commonly acknowledged as a ‘banned’ film it immediately attracted a certain kind of film fan (and I was that kind for a while), interested in gore and that which is forbidden. There wasn’t too much gore in the film; on the contrary there was hardly any, but one walked away with the impression it was much bloodier than was truthfully the case. Eventually it received a legitimate release in Britain and suddenly attracted another kind of viewer: the average Joe who’s heard about the controversy and wonders what all the fuss is about. Placing a metaphoric ten foot barrier in front of themselves while watching they invariably walked away without having flinched and thinking there was a big fuss for nothing. Unfortunately people’s self-erected barriers these days are so impenetrable it’s almost impossible to shock, plus the controversy itself overshadows the quality of the 1974 film and suddenly a notorious classic becomes a forgotten relic. Fuss aside, the original film is one of my favourites and something that I connect with on a level that’s difficult to describe to those blinded by surrounding politics and expectations, but I’m not particularly concerned because I can always go back and enjoy that amazing piece of cinema. So why remake such a revered (in some quarters) and overwhelmingly known film? Perhaps it was a drive to redress the balance and shock those who are otherwise unshockable. Perhaps the idea was to make a seventies low budget horror accessible to those who can’t sit through something made before they were born. Or maybe it was just a cynical way of making a few million out of a pre-established franchise. Either way the project was something I avoided like the plague for several years until a friend told me it was actually pretty good and I saw it in Birmingham's Music Zone (now closed) for a few quid on DVD.
For a while it follows a very similar path to Hooper’s film: a group of kids are travelling in a small van (to Mexico) for a road holiday when they pick up a hitchhiker that causes them some concern with visible behavioural difficulties. An isolated house is discovered by a couple of members of the group and it’s found to be populated by a retarded family whose homicidal tendencies are inflicted upon the kids. The narrative quickly begins to deviate slightly from the original’s plot specifics with the hitchhiker they pick up, a girl who blows her own head off in front of them rather than playing Army with a knife (the new film being heavier handed no doubt, reflective of the sledgehammer approach of modern genre films). Beyond that, Marcus Nispel's remake zigzags around the original storyline changing a few details to keep us on our feet whilst effectively remaining a retelling at its core. Initially I thought the kids this time around would be irritable, as they often always are in modern slashers, but once their bubble of optimism is burst by the hitchhiker’s suicide things tense up and they become quite realistic in their responses to their very threatening situations. Or at least as realistic as you can imagine people being when confronted with problems such as this - it’s difficult to predict how people will act of course. The family of creeps is realised effectively, topped by a fantastically sinister turn by Lee Ermey as the sheriff - he’s actually quite restrained compared to appearances in the likes of Full Metal Jacket but he’s so convincingly inhuman in his treatment of the kids you can barely prevent yourself from being glued to the screen. His presence is one of the primary factors contributing to the film’s success. The remainder of the cast are usually functional or above so there are no real complaints; in fact I was surprised by the intensity of Jessica Biel’s effort as the equivalent of Marilyn Burns from the original film - whilst not screaming to the point of excess she conveys a believable torrent of unleashed terror, another key to success in a film such as this it goes without saying. Naturally the make up and special effects are utterly gruesome whilst violence and outright sadism top the original in spades. The flesh-clad Leatherface has been developed visually without betrayal of the source ideas (reportedly derived from the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein) and is all the more enhanced for it, similarly the production design is of a high standard and helps draw you into the nightmare. Overall the visual design has amazing impact - style of cinematography is artistically beautiful despite the nastiness that pervades the screen. A level of tension is reasonably well maintained for much of the running time and the result appears to be far from the gratuitous exercise is pointless ostentatiousness it could have been.  My only complaints really are reserved for the final segment, which push it into contrived territories that are somewhat unnecessary.

Entertainment in Video released this on DVD on behalf of New Line over here in the UK, granting us with a smart extra-packed two disc set too. The anamorphically enhanced, correctly framed image was very good for standard definition, ably backed by strong surround DTS and Dolby Digital audio tracks.  I've since picked up the Blu-ray, which improves on the DVD in several key areas.  The visual transfer is immaculate, embellishing the gorgeous colour schemes of the film which mostly consist of green and brown palettes, and containing mountains of detail.  I would suggest the colour is more accurately rendered on the Blu-ray, whilst definition is moderately superior.  Pleasingly, grain levels are intact on the Blu, allowing you to experience a cinematic feel with this disc.  The Blu also runs at the correct speed of 25 frames per second (as opposed to the PAL-sped-up 24 of the DVD), and receives a bump in sound quality via DTS HD Master Audio.  The ratio is 1.78:1 (DVD is 1.85:1), though via direct comparison it looked to me like the frame had been opened up slightly at the top/bottom, rather than being cropped slightly at the sides.  It doesn't especially make a noticeable difference (though EIV could do with swotting up on their ratios - both the DVD and Blu state 2.35:1 on the rear of the box).  A great set for a remake that’s not destined for the dustbin, or at least it shouldn’t be.

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