Oh, the Horror!

The first three Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes were hell to make and hell to watch. Why should the new one be any different?
THAT OLD SAW: From left, Leatherface as he appeared in the first four movies. How he'll look in the fifth was a closely held secret on the set.
Courtesy of Movie still archives

WHEN MICHAEL BAY, THE ARCHITECT of such blockbusters as Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, announced that he would be producing a remake of the 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre this summer in and around Austin, he had to expect some skepticism from the locals. Austin is now as much movie town as music town (if you don't believe it, round up all the people who have seen Spy Kids and see how many of them own Bob Schneider records). Every computer in the city has at least one screenplay-in-progress tucked in the recesses of its hard drive, and every video-rental clerk thinks he could be teaching film history if he lived anywhere else in Texas. For these folks, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the birthplace not just of modern horror but of the very film community that protects them from grown-up jobs and having to shave every day.

But if Baz Luhrmann can give the Pulp Fiction treatment to Romeo and Juliet and SCTV can make Strange Brew out of Hamlet, what's so sacred about the original Chainsaw? For Bay's new production company, Platinum Dunes, which specializes in low-budget films ("low" representing a price tag of $20 million or less, which is low compared to Pearl Harbor 's $152 million), the answer is plenty. "This was the movie that changed the genre," says Bay's co-producer, Andrew Form. "In the eighties and nineties, campiness was added in. We wanted to go back to the old type of horror. No jokes, just straight terror." The new film is a "reconceptualization," Form says; rather than recreating the original film, it will depict the events that the original was based on (never mind that they never actually happened). Form says the new Chainsaw will be "somewhat stylized, darker, crisper." Bay has said it will be "hipper," playing down the gore in favor of the more thrilling elements of the story. A crew member told me on the sly, "You see the hack coming, you see the limb that's about to be hacked, and then you see the hacked limb on the ground. It's a Blair Witch kind of suspenseful."

With a budget Form says is somewhere between the $3 million rumored in Austin and the $16 million reported in Variety and a cast of hard-bellied young heartthrobs that includes former 7th Heaven star Jessica Biel and Six Feet Under 's Eric Balfour, the film should make its money back within a few days of its planned release on Halloween, 2003. Name recognition alone should guarantee it—Form brags that "everyone in the world has heard of" the Chainsaw franchise—but not taking any chances, he and Bay are keeping a tight lid on the production. Crew members, for instance, were made to wear badges, and invited guests were unceremoniously booted from the set whenever Leatherface, the villainous protagonist, was about to step from the shadows. "It's like Spider-Man," Chainsaw publicist John Pisani told me as he escorted me to my truck the second time he canceled a scheduled set visit. "The producers of Spider-Man didn't want anyone to see Spider-Man until the movie opened. We're building that kind of buzz."

Or maybe there was something besides Leatherface that they didn't want anyone to see. The new Chainsaw had built a buzz all right, and it was that the production was not running smoothly. There was talk of dissension on the set. The actor playing Leatherface had to be replaced the first week of filming, and the special-effects department had threatened to quit. Given the egos, the deadlines, and the money involved, feature-film work is always high stress. But even by those standards, this film was said to be tough, and tense, and troubled. Those sneering Austin video clerk-types took to calling it the "Michael Bay of Pigs."

TO PARAPHRASE THE POET, THE makers of the new Chainsaw should have known the job was dangerous when they took it. Everybody knows sequels stink. It's one of those rare beliefs held by all people, no matter where they worship, whom they vote for, or how much money they make. Some sequels wilt in comparison to a beloved original. Some suffer because there wasn't enough meat on the bones the first time to make another go of it. Some are just jinxed. Any wiggle room created by the universally cited exception to the rule, The Godfather Part II, was wasted when Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed lamely struggled to their feet when the referee should have counted them both out at the end of Rocky II.

Bay's effort will be the fifth installment of the Chainsaw franchise, and if a marathon viewing of the previous four is any indication, the momentum is with the rule.

Director and screenwriter Tobe Hooper's original version was, of course, a masterpiece—a wrong-turn thriller that rewrote the horror-movie template. Co-screenwriter Kim Henkel said the reference point was Hansel and Gretel, recast by him and Hooper in hard-country Texas. The plot specifics are now familiar but always a treat to nutshell: Five hippie kids looking for a skinny-dipping hole wander one-by-one into a farmhouse filled with bones, blood, and a family of very bad men. Leatherface, the overgrown, chain-saw-wielding half-wit who wears masks crafted from his victim's faces, is the "hero" of the piece. One of the hippies gets out. The rest get eaten.

Despite its reputation as a bloodbath, most of Chainsaw's terror was implied. It came from what you imagined Leatherface and his kin were capable of rather than what you saw them do. It came from watching the way they carried on in production designer Bob Burns's claustrophobic, bone-filled farmhouse. It came from cinematographer Daniel Pearl's brilliant hand-held camera work and grainy 16mm film, which made you feel like you were seeing an actual nightmare unfold through hands covering your face. The most famous scene, when Leatherface hangs a girl on a meat hook, flies by so fast that you don't realize that there's no puncture and no blood.

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