Like so many fondly remembered DIY frightmares of the ‘Nam era, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) harbored a rich nougat center of sociopolitical outrage that still astonishes. As critic Robin Wood historically pointed out in his exegesis on the horror film as “surplus aggression” made narrative, Hooper’s film is actually a lashing critique of capitalism, its cannibalistic family of Lone Star meat-industry cast-offs representing dog-eat-dog commerce. It was also released during the last full year of official involvement in Southeast Asia, by which time the spectacle of American teenagers blithely dismembered by conspiratorial, Middle American dads was burned onto everyone’s eyeballs. Sequeled to hell and back since, the movie has lost little of its acidity.
Naturally, we’re now facing the business end of an overproduced, video-director remake, slick and grue-marinated and loud as a sonic boom. Its release dotting the debris trail of another unpopular, Texan-initiated war, Marcus Nispel’s first film is adept and nasty enough to suggest a metaphoric agenda—after all, Texas is the dark heart of Bush Country, a self-expanding territory where business eats the young, death rows teem with the helpless, and Christ-righteous gun law rules from Waco to Tikrit.
The paradigm stays the same: Five teens in a van get lost in the Texas outlands (the suggestion remains that all of Texas is outland, really), and meet a slaughterhouse-trained family of bloodthirsty peckerwoods. Derived, like Psycho, from the life and crimes of Wisconsinite Ed Gein, Kim Henkel’s original story had a savagely beautiful simplicity. Made in an oddly tamer age and in a more cautious industry, Nispel’s film is subplot-heavy, beginning with a bloodied wastrel who swallows a bullet in our protagonists’ hippie-mobile, and ending with the triumphant rescue of a stolen baby. Along the way, Leatherface is said to be suffering from a “skin disease”—oh, that’s why he wears corpse skin, not because he and his family are inbred, psychopathic headhunters—and the entire notion of cannibalism is discarded along with the movie’s narrative and thematic raison d’être.
Inevitably, Nispel displays a sophomoric, cool-image sensibility (the Bad House seems to have spotlights behind it at all times, and the basement is inexplicably flooded), as well as a wacky view of body trauma—one teen remains conscious and escape-minded after having a leg buzzed off and being stuck on a meat hook. Jessica Biel, as the primary heroine, is convincing so long as her soaked- and-resoaked-T-shirted Vargas figure doesn’t lead you to forget what movie you’re watching. (She’s being treated like, er, meat, you could say.) So, no dinner with Grandpa, no skeletal home decor, no final dance in the rising sun. Just rockin’, run-and-cut bloodshed, in time for Halloween.
The Pioneer Theater has been pumping the October vibe for three weeks now, but you can still get a dose of seasonal shivers, with screenings of Argento’s pagan mood-orgy Suspiria (1977), Harry Kümel’s supercool vampire romance Daughters of Darkness (1971), Nicholas Roeg’s dream-thriller Don’t Look Now (1973), and Clive Barker’s allegory-with-barbed-wire Hellraiser (1987). Of course, a marathon of subversive otherness rolls on the night itself, starting with Donnie Darko (2001) and Stuart Gordon’s brand-new King of the Ants, and climaxing with a best-costume contest.