Good ol' Leatherface wields his mighty weapon in Marcus Nispel's remake (courtesy photo)

'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is rank with blood, brains, and vomit

Letting Michael Bay produce a remake of 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is like casting Jim Carrey as the lead in a new The Big Sleep - the original's sensibilities are so far from the newcomer's that the question "Is it as good?" becomes meaningless. Instead, you can only ask if the result is satisfying in its own way. The jury's still out on the Carrey/Bogart proposition, but Bay has done right by Leatherface.

Although details have changed, the basic plot elements remain. A handful of road-tripping youngsters (on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert) pick up a hitchhiker who is bad news. Shortly thereafter, they meet a family whose pride and joy enjoys attacking strangers with power tools and sewing patches of their skin together to wear over his own. No one sees Skynyrd.

Director Marcus Nispel is a newcomer to the big screen, but a successful director of TV commercials and music videos. He brings the kind of style to the project you would expect of a professional image engineer: When night falls on the freak family's home, the house is backlit with a source bright enough to form a rainy halo around everything. Nispel also has MTV's knack for appropriation. Borrowing a page from The Blair Witch Project's mythology, he frames the story with black-and-white "found" footage in which local policemen investigate the scene of the crimes. In the end, this part of the film is too derivative of Blair Witch, but it's certainly an effective mood-setter.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Dir. Marcus Nispel; writ. Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel (original), Scott Kosar; feat. Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Eric Balfour, R. Lee Ermey, Terrence Evans (R)
Surprisingly, these gritty-slick images come courtesy of Daniel Pearl, the cinematographer whose camera captured the stark, raw vision of Tobe Hooper's original. Here he trades dry shoestring-budget nihilism for a rich, atmospheric setting that's sticky with blood, brains, and vomit; even during the film's most frantic chase scenes, he takes care to capture every spark flying from the chainsaw and every shaft of light through the trees. For all his attention to detail, though, he shows remarkable restraint when the director finds no fewer than three ways to get his leading lady - who is wearing a white tank top - soaking wet.

That actress, Jessica Biel, is so perfect for this kind of work that the female leads of other recent slasher flicks should hang their generic little heads in shame. Biel doesn't have a lot of heavy lifting to do, drama-wise, but she holds the screen confidently even when the camera isn't poised at the level of her charismatic midriff. Considering that her co-star is wearing a jumpsuit made of human skin, that's saying something.

Biel's other competition comes from R. Lee Ermey, the hateful coot famous for spewing creative obscenities in Full Metal Jacket, who gets the film's funniest line: "I got just as much respect for a dead body as anyone around here." No movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be expected to have much respect for the dead. But this one has an awful lot of jump-in-your-seat fun at their expense. •

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