Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Who will survive and what will be left of them?

Marcus Nispel, like Russell Mulcahy or David Fincher, had a big handicap starting out as a feature film director. He was a music video and commercial director for many, many years before making his cinematic debut. But he had a powerful ally who'd conquered the same disability, someone who has turned out to be just as big a help as a hindrance, no matter how you look at it: Michael Bay. Many people (myself at the top of the list) consider Bay to be the man working the guillotine which narrative cinema has been forced into. But say what you will, he gets your fucking name out there. The real question is what do you do with the spotlight, once you've got it. In Nispel's case, not much, and in fact all we've learned from his forays outside Bay's auspices is that he has nothing to say, which is a shame because if I had to pick one movie that Bay and any of his music video directing, tit-ogling friends were ill-equipped to remake, it was Tobe Hooper's fantastic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, by any measure one of the ten most important horror films since the introduction of gore into mainstream cinema and, by my count at least, one of the best horror films ever made. It's to Nispel's credit that his remake not only didn't make me furious, I actually kinda liked it until I went to film school. In fact as remakes go, it's still one of the most entertaining even if it has nothing of the original's craftsmanship or integrity.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
by Marcus Nispel
Instead of five kids out to do something fairly responsible and even a little admirable, the five lucky victims in this outing are just some homely hillbillies on their way from a drug buy on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. The year is 1973, though Bay and Nispel don't care enough about that detail to get more than the clothes right. Kemper and Erin have been dating for quite some time. Morgan looks like Jerry from the original, though he's meant to be closer to Franklin in that he's a serial virgin and the hardest to like. The four kids became five when they picked up Piper, a randy girl who looks considerably older than I imagine she's supposed to be, who immediately took up with Andy, the sweatiest, hunkiest guy in the van. Thinking they'd had good enough luck they agree its best to help the girl who stumbles out of nowhere. The fact that their van almost collides with the girl doesn't seem to phase her. They bring her inside and try to get her to talk but all she can manage are a few macabre hints. Apparently "they" are all dead and she's the only survivor. When the kids try to drive her to get some help, they inadvertently pass a sign she recognizes, which sends her into a full-on freak out. When they won't turn around despite her screaming at them that they're going the wrong way and that they're all going to die, she pulls a gun out of her vagina and shoots herself in the fucking head. The hand of Michael Bay seems all the clearer now...

So after a longer time spent on the kids reaction to this event than you'd likely find in a film directed by Bay, they agree to go look for help. The only snag in going to look for a cop is the piñata full of pot in the back of the van they picked up in Mexico. Kemper makes an executive decision to ditch the weed, though mostly I'm thinking he does this to please Erin. An interesting side note here: The others make fun of Erin right away for not drinking or smoking weed while in Mexico. The decision was made to excise the fact that this is because Erin is pregnant (the producers of Deep Blue Sea did the same thing to Jacqueline McKenzie). This would have made her more interesting rather than the typical Final Girl who simply doesn't do drugs because that's just what Final Girls don't do (thank you El Santo). She's also repulsed by Andy and Piper's frantically making out after having known each other for only a day. I'd like to offer Michael Bay a punch in his fucking face for that bit of horseshit. The reason Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains a classic to this day is because it adheres to none of the gender dynamics or cliches of the films that followed in its footsteps. Right off the bat the politics of the remake are no better than a rip-off. Anyway, let's get back to how fucked these kids are. They stop at a barbecue stand to report the girl's suicide to the police but curiously the woman behind the counter insists on making the call for them. Even curiouser, the sheriff's going to meet them by an abandoned mill. The kids, being fucking idiots, go anyway and wait.

At first waiting at an abandoned building appears to be the fool's errand it truly is, especially when a boy with (obviously fake) buckteeth appears to tell them that the sheriff ain't coming. He's at his house across the yard getting drunk. Kemper and Erin decide to go investigate and instead just find a legless old man sitting in a wheelchair. After calling the sheriff's office again, the legless man distracts Erin long enough that the biggest man in the county walks up to Kemper and kills him with a goddamn sledge hammer. She retreats to the mill, thinking he just left without her while in the basement the hulking man makes a mask out of her dead boyfriend's face. Meanwhile the sheriff has come and collected the dead girl's body and been as inappropriate and unprofessional as a cop could get away with and still keep his badge. I like to think this is how Michael Bay behaves on set. But you know why this is problematic, don't you? If the sheriff has just collected the girl's body, then who was on the phone with Erin? Andy decides to go back with Erin to look for the M.I.A. Kemper at the old house again. They get in but once Legless has had enough with the interlopers and signals the giant in the basement wearing Kemper's face who emerges with a big (and noticeably modern, nice job props department) chainsaw. He catches up with Andy but Erin gets away. She tries to warn Morgan and Piper but the sheriff, or anyway the man who put the suicide girl's body in his trunk, shows up again, finds some pot in their car and really starts giving 'em shit. He takes Morgan in his squad car back to a house that looks uncannily like...no, is, the house where the dude with the chainsaw and the man with no legs lives, leaving Erin and Piper with no way of starting the van. Not that that matters: the dude with the chainsaw finds 'em a few minutes later.

Three Transformers movies later the last act of Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes a lot more sense. Roughly a third of the movie is devoted to Leatherface following Erin around various decrepit locations with his saw trying and failing to kill her. I initially pegged this as just following Hooper's lead, which saw Sally Hardesty running for her life for a lot of the final act. That theory doesn't really fit when you realize that the rest of Hooper's story has been altered. The killings are parsed out over the length of the whole film, the family is expanded, dinner with grandpa's been 86'd, and the ending is obvious a mile a fucking way. But by having Jessica Biel run around screaming for 40 minutes the film doesn't so much resemble the original as it does a Transformers movie. In the end of all of those films the plot stops dead so we can watch indecipherable robot fighting for up to an hour. The last act isn't homage, it's just bad screenwriting. The Deus Ex Machina is also easy to overlook in the moment, but it makes no sense that the family would have changed clothes and head to the restaurant in the pouring rain so that Erin can find them for revenge. I guess what I mean is that it's easier to like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre if you haven't seen the original and if you shut your brain off. But as I rarely if ever get into the right mindset to do that (film school does that to you), I'm outta luck. Or rather, the film is. So basically if you're easily scared, this movie will definitely do the trick, but under scrutiny it's only half as good as I remembered it.

The blame for Texas Chainsaw's shortcomings can only be chalked up to Bay to a degree. Sure it takes a particular kind of arrogant fuckface to think he can remake a modern masterpiece to earn a quick buck and to use Jessica Biel's tits to sell it, no less. And to be sure Michael Bay is a fuckface but it's tough to tell his influence apart from Nispel's direction. Nispel's trademarks are hard to know because his sensibility lines up so perfectly with Bay's. The movie is pretty in that kind of color-corrected way that Bay does with his movies, but subsequent efforts have shown this to be mostly a fluke: the color correction in Pathfinder is fucking crazy. I give Nispel credit for hiring Daniel Pearl to shoot the film as he was also Hooper's DP on the original. The production design is definitely new school despite the team's best efforts. There is such a difference between the bone room in Hooper's film and the music video/funhouse aesthetics of the new one. Empty the set of actors (well, maybe keep the legless guy) and you'd be forgiven for thinking Mushroomhead or The Esoteric were about to start playing unplugged electric guitars shaped like bats. Nispel doesn't quite have a handle on storytelling and every scene is undercut by overly dramatic music and I do think it's important to remember that none of the images here are original. And then there are minor problems like that none of these kids has a southern accent, none of them looks, acts or talks like someone would in 1973 and the clothes are more someone's impression of what someone wore back then, not anything you would have actually seen back then. And I can't tell if cutting out the most gruesome parts of the film was a wise decision or not. On the one hand these kids are likable despite their vacuousness (Jessica Biel's final girl is defined more by what she doesn't do than what she does) so I don't really relish seeing them have their shit wrecked by a chainsaw, to coin a phrase. On the other hand it does seem pretty fucking tame considering we don't see much more than we did in the original, thirty years earlier. Nispel amps up the cruelty a bit and makes you really feel the injuries, which is more than a lot of Bay's proteges can claim. The scares and tension still work reasonably well even though now the thing that stands out most in the last scenes is that scads of stadium light comes spilling in through the trees. Hooper and Pearl managed to use darkness and make it look like darkness. Nispel and Pearl worked no such magic. It looks every bit the music video its pedigree would imply and that's just not good enough when you take on one of the greatest horror films of all time.

In fact the only reliable thing in the movie is the crazy performance by R. Lee Ermey. It's really no different from any of his other performances but there's something so delicious about the way he says "What are you gonna do with your tickets, hot shot?" hands down the best few seconds of the movie. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn't make a star out of anyone in particular but it did prove to Bay that by remaking movies with questionable mainstream reputations but undeniable name recognition, he could get away with doing as little work as possible and making a quick buck. In a few short years Platinum Dunes produced remakes of The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher and even a prequel to Texas Chainsaw. Meanwhile Nispel tried his hand at forcing auteur status to his name. Now I have to admit I'm impressed that even with a producer as fucking retarded as Michael Bay over his shoulder, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still one of the more effective and least face-palming of the Platinum Dunes-style remakes to date. But a made-for-tv Frankenstein adaptation and a dvd burial for his boring-as-all-shit viking movie later and it was abundantly clear that he had nothing to say. He probably saw that the only way he was going to have a proper audience again was with Bay. So in 2009, with no critical success to his name and his eye for visuals thoroughly deadened, Nispel rejoined Bay for another fucking remake. The problem is that Bay's influence on Texas Chainsaw wasn't quite as damaging to its quality as it was to Nispel's style. Bay had graduated from the Jerry Bruckheimer school of douche bag filmmaking to become a name in his own right and had more money than christ, so my guess is any attempts to make their next collaboration even half as arty as Texas Chainsaw were shot down in favor of nude water skiing, misogyny and crassly slick set design, Bay's raison d'être. Even if the movie they were remaking was something as bad as Friday the 13th, you'd think they'd at least be able to meet its quality halfway but Bay and Nispel go so far out of their way to make their remake as bad as any of the also-rans that followed the original in the early 80s. Scratch that, their Friday the 13th is as bad or worse as the worst sequels to the original film.

Friday The 13th
by Marcus Nispel
In two prologues we're given the events of the original Friday the 13th. A girl cuts off the head of Pamela Voorhees after she assures this girl that she's going to die like the rest of her friends. This girl is the last surviving camp counselor from Camp Crystal Lake, the rest of her peers evidently let her son drown and so Mrs. Voorhees is taking revenge. What she doesn't realize is that Jason is not only still alive, but he's watching all this happen. She's probably equally surprised when the girl cuts off her head instead of dying like the rest of the counselors. Jason collects his mothers head and moves into (and builds?) a system of tunnels beneath the camp ground. At least twenty years later, a group of dumb fucker college kids wander onto the camp grounds looking for an apparently massive pot crop. They find it, or rather the one kid with no girlfriend finds it while the other four have split off to have sex. But as soon as he does a giant with a bag over his head comes out of nowhere and fucking kills him with a machete. Then he kills the first couple by catching the boy in a bear trap and burning the girl alive by tying her up in her sleeping bag and hanging it over their campfire. The second couple are a touch more fortunate in that only the guy is killed for sure. The girl looks a heartbeat away from dying (and despite her showing up in the second act she'd definitely be dead if the scene had gone on another half second) but she's saved by the credit sequence. Later still we learn that this girl had a brother named Clay who's in town for the second time looking for her. Their mother has died and Clay's certain that his sister wouldn't simply skip the funeral, she's too good a person. In other words she's the kind of girl who survives a shitty horror film like this. Clay meets a group of dumb fucker college kids on their way to the lead douche bag's house for what I'm going to say might be senior week, but frankly who gives a shit? These people will all be dead soon, anyway and that's broadcast from twenty thousand leagues away. The lone holdout is Jenna, lead douche bag's maybe-girlfriend, who sympathizes with Clay's plight even as her boyfriend actively and pointlessly antagonizes him. Clay finds a kind of a dumb farmer living near the rich asshole's cabin and tries to show him the missing poster he printed out but the kid is too busy trying to sell weed to the bereaved Clay to offer much assistance. What's that, you say? Yes that does mean that the big pot plant in the woods is his, and it also means that the murderer and Crystal Lake are nearby. The big man himself puts in an appearance a few minutes later, murders the weed growing bumpkin and steals a hockey mask he has lying around his barn for good measure.

A moment's digression: Look, I know no one's expectations for this film were super high (though the screenwriters sure were, haigh-o! I laugh to keep from crying) but this scene is one of those things that always fucking kills me. Ok, so Jason's been living in this guy's backyard for who knows how long and he's clearly been the machete wielding giant he is now for at least a few years. Yet this kid manages to grow and care for a giant fucking weed patch without getting killed until this point. So what may I ask finally makes this clearly deranged body-builder finally snap? Some kids wandering into his house? Maybe, but the dude doesn't live there, he lives underground. Damian Shannon, one of the scriptwriters, has said that he thinks of Jason as territorial. Granted, but how the fuck did this kid manages to grow the weed then? Fuck you guys and your bullshit. And what are the odds that a kid in a town that dollars to donuts doesn't even have a roller rink has a fucking goalie mask laying around his barn? It's not like he's got any place to practice his skating. Or come to think of it, that's not even his barn, is it? What the fuck does the old codger who owns the place need with a goalie mask. And where the shit does a loner get a bow-and-arrow or even know what one is? He was fuckin' six when his mom died! FUCK YOU!!! Digression over. The kids immediately start earning their deaths by waterskiing topless, smoking weed, drinking and stripping and then Jason starts killing them in the most disgusting ways possible. At the same time Clay and Jenna go looking for clues as to where Clay's sister Whitney might be and slowly become aware that they're all being hunted by the lug in the hockey mask and he's using a series of tunnels to do it. But what Clay doesn't realize is that Whitney is being held captive in these tunnels and the only reason she's still alive is that she looks like his mother when she was a young woman, so young that there's simply no fucking way that Jason would remember her looking like that, so fuck you, screenwriters!

When my dad and I walked out of that abortion of a Fog remake, he said something that I think about all the time. It really takes a shitty fucking movie to make The Fog look like the vastly superior film. I like The Fog, but it's tone is so light and dreamlike that it doesn't scare so much as just sort of pleases but next to the piece of shit remake it was slapped with, all of a sudden it seemed like a masterpiece. Similarly, I hate the first Friday the 13th so much that I haven't been able to force myself to watch it again to review it despite its undeniable cultural importance. I like 9 out of 10 slasher also-rans more than I like the original Friday the 13th yet next to this fucking remake it looks like The Thing. Say what you will about the original (and believe me when I say that I sympathize with any gripe you have with it) it was made on the cheap and is now thought of as a classic. This movie drips with money and doesn't manage a fraction of that movie's questionable integrity. This is a movie that the dickweed who ruined A Nightmare on Elm Street with his horrid remake turned down the chance to direct. This is a movie that Michael Bay, the movie's fucking producer, walked out of. This is a movie so fucking bad it's almost unreal. First of all the tone is impossible to nail down. What to make of the first stoner singing aloud to Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" moments before his death? Or of Aaron Yoo's character's underdog chances at sleeping with one of the girls being thwarted by Trent, his rich asshole friend? He goes to an old shed and complains about how Trent is rich and an asshole, which is true, and we side with him and feel bad for him, and then he's fucking dead twelve seconds later? Same goes his friend Lawrence who is a genuinely interesting and sympathetic presence for all the ten seconds we spend with him, yet he gets punished for being selfless. This whole movie is a parade of people being really militantly hacked to pieces by a throbbing surrogate phallus.
The pace and intensity is relentless and once they've worked through all the horrible dickbags, all they have left to kill are nice people and fuck a movie that exists to kill nice people. Seriously. We spend half of the second act with Danielle Panabaker's Jenna, for instance and she's killed almost completely unceremoniously. I fucking hate it when movie's do that. I get that you're trying to be dangerous, but you're hiring actors. Twenty years ago you were hiring bathing suits, today you have actors and actresses who are really trying to do good enough work that they don't have to stock third tier horror remakes with bodies. So when you kill them, all you're doing is ensuring that not only is your movie not very good, it's also not fun to watch. This does at least answer my question about the death of minor characters in Texas Chainsaw. Chances are if they had really shown the characters in that film getting fucking destroyed by a chainsaw, it would have been unwatchable. I'm glad they pussied out. Because here it's fucking heinous and the impression I get is that Nispel left on his own might be a more vicious director but this movie couldn't be less personal or interesting. It's just slick and even when remaking something as cold and calculating as Friday the 13th, you need more than that to ensure that it escapes the stigma of the 10 sequels the movie fostered and how truly soulless the franchise had become. All this ensures is that its the cleanest and nastiest cash-in yet. Bay paid for the extra gloss and if he didn't like the sex, just what the fuck was he looking for? The movie has his name written all over it, yet even he was dissatisfied, turned off by how fierce and explicit and pointless it all was. Maybe he saw too much of himself in the character of Trent. I've been on a bad remake bender lately and while it's not the worst (that'd be The Hitcher) it comes very close to being the most perfunctory. There ain't nothing to see here, it's all been done.


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