Tuesday, October 8, 2013

25 Days Until Halloween - TCM Renewed

1. The act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about sacred things; profane talk.
2. Irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable.

I'm putting it right up front: I prefer the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the original.

Yep, it's true.  I do.

And I'm going to take it one step further: I like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning even more than the remake.

That sound you hear is what little credibility I have being stoned to death in the arenas of horror movie purists.  But then, I really don't care.  Because I'm not one of those people that laments the future of the horror genre because of the proliferation of remakes.  

Do I wish they would produce more original material?  Of course I do.  Believe me, I would rather this era of cinema not be known as that of the remake.

But for every Hostel, Saw, or Paranormal Activity you're going to not only get the obligatory sequels, but countless more ripoffs claiming to be original.  Grave Encounters, Paranormal Entity, Captivity... 

Need I go on?

Plus, I feel that there are films that desperately need to be remade.  Have you ever seen 1973's The Legend of Hell House?  It is my dream project to remake it.  Richard Matheson's novel Hell House, that the film is based on, is amazing.  It is one of the greatest Haunted House novels of all time.  But the movie adaptation?  Just awful (all the more sad because Matheson himself adapted it for the screen.  If there was ever an argument that authors should not necessarily be the ones to adapt their own work, this movie is it).

Now, it's important (to me, at least) that I acknowledge the impact of Tobe Hooper's 1974 original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It's a simple idea, produced on a shoestring budget, by filmmakers just barely out of their twenties.  And despite its splatter film reputation, fans of the film know that, in truth, there's barely a drop of blood to be seen.  Not only does Hooper's film share the same inspiration as Hitchcock's Psycho, drawn from the true story of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein -- but it draws inspiration from Psycho itself as a relatively bloodless film.

One of the best pieces of material I've read on this subject comes from the late Cinefantastique Magazine's October 1986 issue.

In fact (GEEK ALERT!!! GEEK ALERT!!!), I still have this issue on my bookshelf.  Now long out of print, Cinefantastique was one of the best sic-fi/horror publications, and short of the very well done Rue Morgue Magazine (to which I have a subscription -- GEEK ALERT!!! GEEK ALERT!!!), there has never been anything that comes close.

The October 1986 issue is a SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE that has two incredibly well researched and written articles on Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  If you're a die-hard fan of either film, track a copy of this issue down.  It is well worth it.

So, just to reiterate, I have great admiration for Tobe Hooper's film.

But again, just to refresh the memories of those who went into some kind of apoplectic shock-induced memory loss from my earlier statement, let me repeat: I prefer the 2003 remake.


Well, I'll tell you.

A lot of the criticisms lobbed at the 2003 remake was the cast of protagonists -- with each of them labeled as an obvious Hollywood grouping of CW-worthy pretty people.  Jessica Biel received the most scorn, perhaps due in no small part to an admittedly misogynistic slant the producers took by having her run around screaming while wearing a very tight, thin t-shirt, sans bra.

But if the movie purists among you think that Marilyn Burns' original portrayal of Sally was a performance worthy of Shakespeare or Beckett should probably wipe away the glaucoma of nostalgia --

Now, admittedly, the 1974 finale has a darker end for Sally.  Yes, just as Biel's character of Erin in the remake, Sally does get away -- but it's clear that she has been driven completely insane by the experience, without the cathartic comeuppances of Erin hacking off Leatherface's arm, and running Sheriff Hoyt down in the road.

But my point is that neither one is necessarily sketched of richer content than the other.  But considering that I have probably seen the original film more than the remake, I can say this -- I feel the cast of protagonists are more memorable, and far more sympathetic.  It may seem like a little thing, but knowing that Kemper was going to propose to Erin makes his death a bit more significant than any death in the original.

But yes, it may be a little thing.  It seems to be an easy thing to disparage the cast of protagonists in the 2003 remake and the 2009 prequel -- to label them as bland, vacant, vapid, annoying...

Okay, we can go back and forth about that all day.

But let me make what I feel is the stronger case, the real reason I find the remake and prequel to be superior: The Family.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films would not exist without Leatherface, the skin mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding villain.

But the two franchises (and that's the only way I can consider calling them at this point.  There's Hooper's film, and the Michael Bay-produced films.  I'm omitting any of the other sequels and remakes here that came before and after.  I just have no interest in discussing them), could not have more different portrayals.

Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface is really a hulking simpleton.  Hansen described him as "completely under the control of his family.  He'll do whatever they tell him to do.  He's a little bit afraid of them."

Even director Tobe Hooper described the character as "a big baby" who kills only in self-defense because he feels threatened.

I always saw him as a gibbering fool.  I mean, he's big, but not remotely menacing -- as he runs away and hides whenever someone raises their voice.

In the remake, he's big, and fast.  There's something that's really scary to me about that.  A guy that big that moves that fast -- it's an undeniable force.  There's been a bit of that in all the latest remakes, and not to incur the wrath of those that dislike the films involved (hell, I'm even one of them), but in addition to the Chainsaw remake, both the Halloween and Friday the 13th remakes went with big and fast versions of Michael and Jason -- a change that did not translate as well with Halloween, but I thought was a huge improvement in Friday.

When I look at the newer Leatherface in the context of the prequel and remake, I see a very, very angry figure.  One notable change in terms of the overall mythology was that Thomas Hewitt has some kind of skin disease that has left him deformed.  It is a deformity that we can only guess, from the brief glimpse of him as an infant, has been an affliction he has suffered his entire life.

So that means...he was a kid, an adolescent, a teenager...with a physical issue.  And we all know that kids, particularly those of the teenager species, are kind and considerate beings who would never torment or belittle someone with a physical deformity.

Oh, if it were only true.

I think he was a kid who was bullied and laughed at.  And unlike the mentally handicapped version in Hooper's film, Uncle Charlie (who would later appropriate the identity of Sheriff Hoyt) defends Thomas by explaining "He's not retarded.  He's misunderstood."

And when he reached puberty, he had he same acne explosions that all the other bloomers had -- but no topical cream or chocolate-free diet was going to make his skin look healthy.

But another thing happened when the hormones kicked in -- he got big.

Maybe then there was less of the sand kicked in the face torment, but the name calling behind his back would never fucking stop.

So all this shit boils inside of him for years.  But he can't very well talk about his problems.  It seems like his area of Texas was pretty mental health care free -- no doctor down the road to say "Lay down on the couch, Thomas, and tell me about your relationship with your mother."

So maybe Uncle Charlie gets him a job at the slaughterhouse.  Puts on his best shirt and tie for the job.  And it turns out the big, quiet kid has quite a knack for it.  They hand him a sledgehammer, and as he stands before a steer,  maybe he pretends it's the jock who threw him into the high school pool without a swimsuit.  Or the kids who scrawled FREAK across his locker.  And with one swing...

Now now there's a place to put his rage, a medium that acts as a bit of a dump valve on the mental boiler.

Not that the talk behind his back ever stops.  But now it's different.  It's adults, not teenagers.  And there's no cruelty in it, because it's been replaced by a deeper and more primal emotion -- FEAR.

So there's no camaraderie to be found here either -- no backslapping or hanging out.  He is just as ostracized and alone as he was in high school.

But that's okay, because the need environment gives him a new feeling to enjoy.  Because not only does he enjoy the work, the chance to vent his anger -- but he actually enjoys being the one that people fear.  And a bit of that seeps into his life at home as well.  His family is his blood, but unlike Hooper's version, where he is afraid of everyone -- there's a no less loving, but gentler, more hesitant touch.  Because that thing, that new thing in his eyes?  Well, rabid animals have that kind of look.  As well as...

Well,  as Andrew Bryniarski, who played Leatherface, put it, "In my estimation, Leatherface is like a beaten dog -- he was ostracized and ridiculed, and treated harshly by his peers.  Te psychological damage they inflicted was immense."

But then the slaughterhouse closes...

...and as the town essentially dries up, the Hewitt family is all that remains.  And with the Korean War experiences Uncle Charlie had as a prisoner of war, they figure out a new way to stay in the only place they've known as home, and thrive.

But at this point, Thomas is still Thomas.  Yes, he wears a mask, that technically is made of leather -- but it's undoubtedly culled from old footballs and baseball gloves, with minor improvements being made as he learns about the leather tanning process from the slaughterhouse.

There's a scene in the script for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning that so perfectly portrays his transformation --

You'll have to excuse the less than perfect video there -- it's the only one I could find.

The way this scene was written was (and I'm paraphrasing as best I can, picking up from the moment after he's cut the biker in two):

And he rose up, chainsaw in hand, baptized in blood...no longer Thomas Hewitt...but LEATHERFACE.

I fucking LOVE that.

And his next order of business is to go downstairs, kill Eric, and take his pretty boy face for his own.

And he becomes the monster that he is, a terrifying perfect storm of nature and nurture combined.

Okay, so I realize that all of that was a bit long in the tooth and alarmingly and grossly academic in its attempt to analyze the material.  I mean, film school student diatribe, anyone?  Anyone?

I admit that I may be reading into that a lot, but I also feel that the backstory is there -- brilliantly executed in scripts by Scott Kozar and Sheldon Turner, and in the films directed by Marcus Nispel and Jonathan Liebesman.

It's just that the origins are more subtle than say, Rob Zombie's overly heavy-handed approach to his version of Michael Myers' backstory.  I'm not going to hate on his Halloween films right now.  I don't particularly like them -- but I think he had some good ideas.  But goddamn, there's not a subtle bone in his body -- and while I think he's a skilled director, he really needs a rewrite now and again.

One last scene -- one that made me love the remake more than the original.

In the time frame of the remake, the family is a well-oiled machine -- a spiderweb of connections and tactics that lures in prey that will never escape.

One could argue that the hitchhiker wandering the road has escaped, but I disagree.  She's merely the honey in the web, violated and traumatized, used to snag more fresh meat.

And literally into the parlor come the flies.

"Come on, boy -- bring it!  Bring it -- BRING IT!

The first time I saw the movie, when that door slid open on rust-squealing rails, and I saw the huge figure almost taking up the entire doorway, I did something I almost never do at the movies.  I spoke out loud, saying --

"They're fucked..."

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