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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Surprisingly good remake.
The horror/sci-fi movie critic Richard Scheib coined the term "Backwoods Brutality" to describe the slew of low-budget movies that emerged in the 1970s which had as their main theme the violent and abrupt destruction of middle-class serenity. The concept has occasionally found expression outside of the horror genre (Straw Dogs, Deliverance), but since Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972), it has been a mainstay of the horror genre. Even thirty years later, the basic idea continues to be remade and re-interpreted.
In my view, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is the most successful exponent of the genre. As it often is in the American variations of this genre, the TCM takes the so-called blue state/red state dichotomy to a grotesque extreme: the backroads of the Deep South is another country and its inhabitants exhibit uncontained contempt for every unsuspecting wayfarer. Its use of tension, which is meticulously established in the movie's first 45 minutes, and release -- the last 45 minutes -- is almost elegant in its simplicity. Throughout, violence is used in sparing and sudden bursts until the adrenaline-fueled final act, during which it is mercilessly sustained.
With some minor qualifications, this description also fits Marcus Nispel's 2003 remake. Here the enlarged budget and technical expertise have worked both for and against the film. On the one hand, a variety of new elements have been added to the story. Some, like the mysterious little boy or the ending, are so-so, while others, like Leatherface's skin mask or the "extended family," are effective. On the other hand, the professionalism and attention to detail demonstrated by Nispel and Daniel Pearl (whose cinematography here is magnificent) on down to those responsible for filming locations and set detail, is consistently impressive.
So the basic "tension-release" framework has been lifted from the original but instead of improving on it the filmmakers have saddled it with characters, situations, drama, and violence. (We learn from the DVD extras, happily, that some "tender moments" were left on the cutting room floor.) I give it a 7 because ultimately I think it works as a horror movie on its own terms -- in fact, I don't think a better American horror movie has been made since 2000 -- and Nispel/Kosar deserve credit attempting to revise the concept in minor ways for fans of the franchise. On the balance, however, the original's low-budget guerilla-like realism as well as some of its visceral power has been compromised.
Of note, finally, is the performance of Jessica Biel. Having earned her acting chops on the Christian TV show/cheesefest, Seventh Heaven, Biel has as of late found a niche playing physically tough, but likable and intelligent characters. She's quite excellent here; as it was for the original TCM's Marilyn Burns, Biel's performance is exhilarating and intense -- a kind of endurance test. But one easily believes she has the acuity and toughness to survive the ordeal.
Average genre entry.
S.I.C.K./Grim Weekend is a flawed horror movie that references many of the genre's heavy weights, particularly Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead, Halloween, Scream, and Friday the 13th. That is not to say, however, that fans of the aforementioned will enjoy "Grim Weekend".
The film's most obvious problem is the acting. The performances of both male leads (Ken Hebert and Hank Fields, whose resemblance to Bruce Campbell, one suspects, is not accidental) can only be described as inadequate. Hebert, in particular, has a peculiar tendency to deliver nearly every line of his dialogue with just precisely the incorrect or inappropriate cadence and inflexion, sounding (at best) unnatural, and occasionally, at worst, simply botched. This is especially confounding since Hebert evidently wrote the script and thus misinterpreted the tenor of his own dialogue! The women in the cast fare somewhat better. Amanda Watson and Melissa Bale are charming despite the cheesy acting.
The writing has some drawbacks. The "twist" ending is not bad, but the movie may not play by its own rules: a second viewing will throw doubt on the plausibility of the movie's plot to unfold as it apparently does. For the most part, the movie is not concerned with adding much new to the standard format: An obnoxious young man invites his friends to his uncle's secluded farmhouse, and ... well, we know where this is going, right? You've seen this movie before at some point since 1980 -- and it was probably better then.
But I think the reviews I've read of this movie elsewhere are overly harsh. Some perspective is in order. These are unpolished filmmakers attempting to hone their craft with limited resources. Despite its shortcomings, I'd still give this movie 4 or 5 stars for its youthful enthusiasm; some laughs, it's true, are unintentional, but the movie does not take itself too seriously, and does not withhold some amusement for viewers open to the silly, the sophomoric, and the tongue-in-cheek. I genuinely did not find this movie boring. In this sense, it's rooted firmly in the slasher tradition, even if overall it is a poor example of it. (And I'd rather watch this than (say) Nicholas Cage's "Sonny", a very bad movie that despite its access to a Hollywood budget is burdened by not only incompetence, but also self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and vanity.)
Having said all that, I can't really recommend this movie. Even aficionados of low-budget horror (even more specifically, low-budget 80s-style slasher horror) will recognize its conventions and likely have little patience with its dearth of creativity, if not its quite obvious technical flaws. Nevertheless, I found it to be an amusing way to spend 90 minutes, and I don't regret having seen it.