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This new 'Chainsaw' doesn't cut it

In the generic new remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," five kids -- two girls, three boys -- hop into a '70s-era van and head to Dallas for a Lynyrd Skynyrd show. On the way, they stop to pick up a traumatized stranger, who promptly shoots herself in the head. With time still to make the show, the kids try to find a telephone so they can alert the authorities, only to wind up running (although jogging is what it looks like) for their lives from a houseful of maniac hillbillies. As the eviscerations ensue, the truth becomes undeniable: This is easily the most gruesome, most pointless, episode of "Scooby Doo" ever.

The violence in the 1974 original came from a place it hadn't previously: out of nowhere. Directed and co-written by Tobe Hooper and based on a true story, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was a novelty picture that spawned the slasher industry. Hooper's movie had the lo-fi, no-budget immediacy of a nightmare documentary. Leatherface's mercilessness held an ineffable real-world ghastliness, and the random terribleness of it all evoked the Manson family massacre. Its very amateurism contributed to its memorable thrall: Even the photographer seemed imperiled.

With its psycho "Leatherface" Hawkins (Andrew Bryniarski), the new version departs from the original but remains indistinguishable from "Urban Legends: Final Cut" or "Jeeper Creepers 2," browsing the same retail outlet that every other slasher flick has for 15 years. A sky tinted the color doom? Check. A filthy, dilapidated manor full of unwashed freaks and pet pigs? Check. Severed baby-doll heads strategically placed by the industrial sewing machine? Check. Editing that cuts faster than the killers? Check. The sinking feeling that what you're watching is one long tribute to both a Nine Inch Nails video collection and David Fincher's "Seven"? Check.

The cinematography of "Texas Chainsaw" 2003 paints a grimmer, digitally enhanced picture. The director is the music-video artist Marcus Nispel (whose extensive resume includes multiple clips for Crystal Waters and Wet Wet Wet). For his first feature, Nispel does a serviceable but bland job of holding your interest, but the result is an overproduced headache. To the remake's credit, it doesn't stint on the gore, but style sometimes literally obscures terror: Try to follow that deadly chase through a field of undulating bed linens, the one that slows down only to catch the weapon whack the limb.

The new version offers a few scenes of irritation, mostly in the person of R. Lee Ermey (best known as the sadistic drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket"), who plays the sadistic sheriff. He hails from the killer Hawkins clan, and from the mouth on him, "Klan" wouldn't be much of a stretch. While writer Scott Kosar has only a vague grasp of what made the original terrifying, John Larroquette's narration sets a legitimately chilling tone.

The film does remain true to its source material's wish to turn into a fevered hunt picture. Morgan, Pepper, Andy, and Kemper (Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vogel, and Eric Balfour) are snatched and slaughtered relatively quickly, meaning the last 25 minutes are Erin's for the screaming. Played by "7th Heaven" daughter Jessica Biel, Erin hot-wires cars and flees Leatherface in a wet tank top and low-cut jeans.

She's what Carol J. Clover, in her enjoyable 1992 horror appraisal "Men, Women, and Chainsaws," calls the "final girl." You root for Erin, only to wonder why. She stands for nothing greater than the escape of a young TV actress from her insane foe. Should she succeed, there'd be nothing unique about her achievement -- just the triumph of a good Skynyrd fan over a greater backwoods evil.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre


Wesley Morris can be reached at

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