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    The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

    2003, R, 98 minutes

    By Bill Payne...

    Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is a true horror classic. How dare they remake it! That said, the new remake is (surprise!) a pulse-pounding roller coaster of a movie that stands on its own as a solid thriller. This is not a slavishly-faithful remake like Gus Van Sant's silly recreation of Psycho (1998). Instead, director Marcus Nispel and screenwriter Scott Kosar take the basic plot structure of the original Chainsaw and change most of the details, thus creating suspense for both diehard fans of Hooper's version and those who have never seen it.

    In both movies, the setting is rural Texas on a sweltering summer day in 1973. The authoritative narration of John Larroquette informs us that the lives of a small group of young people have ended violently. We then meet the van full of five teenagers. Erin (Jessica Biel) and Kemper (Eric Balfour) are in love, Andy (Mike Vogel) and Pepper (Erica Leerhsen) are in lust, and Morgan (Jonathan Tucker) is happy to be alone with his marijuana. They soon make the fateful mistake of picking up a hitchhiker, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead them to the home of the horrifying Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) and his deranged family.

    The specific plot similarities between the two movies end there, and so should the description of the story. Most of the success the remake achieves is based on the factor of surprise. You never know when Leatherface is going to jump out of seemingly nowhere with his trusty chainsaw. The kids start to get picked off one by one, in ways perhaps even more gruesome than in the original, which left much of the mayhem to the viewer's imagination.

    Director Nispel (a music video veteran making his directorial debut) shoots in tight close-up for much of the movie, creating a true sense of claustrophobia and dread. He wisely chose to use the same cinematographer (Daniel Pearl) as Hooper did for the original. The gorgeous blue Texas sky provides a startling contrast for the horror that begins just before sundown. The way the kids' beat-up old van kicks up dust on dirt roads and the sweat pouring off the actors' faces are details that Pearl's camera does not miss.

    Every good horror movie needs a strong heroine, and Biel provides one as Erin. She's portrayed as a smart, resourceful girl who never falls into dumb horror-movie behavior as she's chased, menaced, and terrorized by the relentless-but-dumb Leatherface. Biel achieves an appropriate level of hysteria that's as clear as Erin's determination to survive. The rest of the cast is also good, especially R. Lee Ermey as the local sheriff the kids turn to for help.

    But does the movie, intense as it already is, need to throw a couple of endangered children into the mix? This is an addition to the original that's pretty irritating. And turning some of Leatherface's family into women also takes off some of the edge. Old, obese, or mildly retarded, these ladies don't pose much of a physical threat.

    The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre achieved a low-budget, documentary feel that helped make it a horror classic. The new, more conventional remake does not, and it will not set a new standard in horror, but it's surprisingly effective enough for this diehard fan of Hooper's original to stay on the edge of his seat. The lame sequels and unofficial remake with Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey sucked, so this whole Leatherface-movie formula is far from fool-proof. Fortunately, the filmmakers got it right this time.

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    Information & Credits

    Directed by: Marcus Nispel
    Written by: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel
    Starring: Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour, Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vogel, Andrew Bryniarski

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