Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

In many of my reviews, I've noted that one of the biggest trends in Hollywood is the remake. Why struggle to think up something original when you can simply redo some other well-known movie? This trend is especially rampant in the horror genre, with dozens of American genre classics and a number of Asian movies being remade to varying levels of success. A lot of these remakes are generally frowned upon by horror fans after they are initially announced by studios, but one that got a lot of ire was the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic is beloved by the horror faithful, so when New Line Cinema and hot-shot producer Michael Bay's production company Platinum Dunes announced they'd be teaming to "re-imagine" it, it wasn't the most popular of news items.

But when the movie was hit theaters, it was a big fat hit that drew just as much acceptance as it did derision. Three years later, New Line and Platinum Dunes reunited to continue the story told by the remake. But in lieu of moving the story forward with a traditional sequel, the decision was made to go a different route and take the story a step backward with a prequel. Titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the movie presents us with what its promotional campaign billed "the birth of fear" in all its blood-soaked glory. Let's see how it holds up.

The year is 1939. Inside a stuffy slaughterhouse in rural Travis County, Texas, a pregnant young woman (Leslie Calkins) goes into labor, giving birth to a son before she ultimately dies. The disfigured baby is later discovered by the passing Luda Mae Hewitt (Marietta Marich) in a dumpster outside the slaughterhouse, and she takes it home to raise as her own. Flash forward thirty years to the summer of 1969. The baby taken in by Luda Mae has grown into an extremely antisocial adult named Thomas (Andrew Brynarski), who hides his facial deformities beneath a crude leather mask as he works in the very slaughterhouse he was born in. But as Bob Dylan sang, "the times, they are a-changin'."

Faced with a number of sanctions from health inspectors, the slaughterhouse has been forced to lay off all its employees and close up shop for good. Closing the slaughterhouse has killed the entire town, and nearly all of the town's citizens have taken off for good. But Thomas remains at the slaughterhouse, refusing to vacate the premises. And he isn't too keen on told to leave, either. When his boss (Tim De Zarn) insults him and orders him to leave, Thomas doesn't hesitate in beating him to death with a sledgehammer. Satisfied with what he's done, he picks up a nearby chainsaw and starts walking the long road to home.

This little incident doesn't go unnoticed by the police, however. The one cop that has yet to leave town, Sheriff Hoyt (Lew Temple), contacts Thomas's brother Charlie (R. Lee Ermey) and asks him to help track Thomas down. The pair eventually find him, but when Hoyt goes to arrest Thomas, Charlie decides he's not having any of that and blows Hoyt's face off with a shotgun. And since the abandoned town doesn't have a police force now, Charlie decides that he's going to be the town's law and order. So what does he do? He drives Hoyt's police car home, cleans up the uniform, and assumes the identity of the deceased Sheriff Hoyt. That evening, the Hewitt family gathers around the dinner table. Hoyt announces to Luda Mae and his uncle Monty (Terrence Evans) that while the neighborhood may have become a ghost town, the Hewitts aren't going to abandon their home. And thanks to the former sheriff, they're not going to go hungry. I'm sure you know what that means. Nothing brings a family together like cannibalism.

And just their luck, a potential meal is passing through town. The Vietnam War is in full swing, and Eric Hill (Matthew Bomer) has been drafted into service. His brother Dean (Taylor Handley), who's already served one tour of duty in the war, plans on re-enlisting so Eric isn't alone, and their girlfriends Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) and Bailey (Diora Baird) are helping them drive across Texas so they can sign up. The only catch is that Eric has no desire to enlist, so he and Bailey are planning on bolting to Mexico the first chance they get. But unfortunately, their chances are slim to none. As they drive down a deserted stretch of road, the quartet are accosted by a biker (Emily Kaye), who pulls up beside them and draws a sawed-off shotgun with the intentions of robbing them.

But in all the chaos, the four travelers hit a cow, causing their jeep to flip. Chrissie is thrown from the vehicle into a roadside ditch, and watches in horror as the new Sheriff Hoyt arrives and guns down the biker for no good reason. He corrals Dean, Eric, and Bailey into his cruiser and takes them off to the Hewitt house, where we know no good things will happen. With a little begrudging assistance from the biker's boyfriend (Lee Tergesen), Chrissie sets out to free her friends from the clutches of the Hewitt family and the chainsaw-wielding psychopath that earned the nickname "Leatherface."

If one thing can be said about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, it's that the movie never forgets what it is. It's a movie about a family of redneck cannibals and a big guy with a chainsaw and a leather mask. Never does it try to be anything more or anything less. The movie understands its own nature, and has no problem showing that nature to its viewers. It is violent, bloody, and thoroughly misanthropic, terms that it wears proudly as badges of honor. And while it's not great, it most certainly knows what it wants to achieve and goes for it with gusto.

Director Jonathan Liebesman makes his second attempt at a feature-length movie, and I thought he did a lot to redeem himself after that mediocre waste of time called Darkness Falls that he directed in 2003. If prequels have one fatal flaw, it's that we know how things are going to turn out. That's the nature of most prequels; you can usually guess with a fair amount of accuracy who will be the survivors and who will be the victims. Liebesman seems to recognize this, and he makes a very good attempt to at least keep our attention by keeping the pace tight and the intensity high.

And working with cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, he gives the movie a gritty, visceral feeling that was missing from the remake. He tints the movie with sepia colors, giving it a dry, dusty, and dirty look that, when combined with Liebesman's use of shadows, works to greatly enhance the movie's tense atmosphere. Aiding the atmosphere is the music score composed by Steve Jablonsky, the usual composer for Platinum Dunes movies. Jablonsky's music is quite effective, never distracting from the movie by being overbearing, instead supporting the on-screen terror. It is tense and scary all on its own, which really boosts the movie as a whole.

Let's not forget the screenplay written by Sheldon Turner, working from a story from noted "splatterpunk" author David J. Schow. Turner's script is quite well done, not letting the audience go once it gets into its groove. His dialogue is believable, and while the protagonists aren't exactly the movie's main focus when compared to the Hewitts, they're still likable, sympathetic characters. But I have to note the best part of the script, which is how Turner uses the concept of a prequel to take the opportunity to further develop the Hewitts. He fully reveals their cannibalistic nature, and makes them an actual family.

And that's what makes Turner's script so effective. It's not completely because of how crazy they are, but how normal they perceive their behavior to be. Forcing physical and psychological torture upon innocent bystanders before chopping them up and eating them for dinner is nothing out of the ordinary for them. Villains like the Hewitts are incredibly scary, because they feel that they are totally, 100% justified in what they do. Their murders are not instigated by vengeance or their own personal amusement, but simply because killing and eating their victims are the way they survive.

Lastly, there's the cast. Everyone's performances are relatively even, but nobody really stands out except for Andrew Brynarski and R. Lee Ermey. As with the remake, Brynarski and Ermey make the entire movie their own. Since Leatherface is a physical role with no dialogue, Brynarski's acting has to be of a physical nature. And he's more than up to the task. His performance really helps the theory that beyond his violent streak and talent with butchery, Leatherface is like a whipped puppy dog. He doesn't really stand up for himself, since he's so used to being bullied, bossed around, and generally talked down to by his brother and his peers. He's basically a poor beaten animal in a human's body, and Brynarski's performance exhibits that.

The other truly notable member of the cast, Ermey, is absolutely astounding. I make it no secret that I'm a fan of Ermey, and his performance here reinforces that. Ermey plays the character as sadistic, brutal, and with a sardonic wit that really injects the movie with a ton of black humor. He's really the standout cast member of both the remake and the prequel, and I think believe that Platinum Dunes could have hired anyone better to play Sheriff Hoyt.

Just like the remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning has gotten a decisively mixed reception. Personally, I liked it. I'll admit to liking the remake a wee bit more, but the prequel is not without its merits. I found it to have a vibe much closer to Tobe Hooper's original movie than the remake, and the prequel's depiction of the Hewitts really puts them as some of the decade's better horror villains. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning won't go down as an all-time classic, but I did like it a lot. Since it had its flaws, but it certainly did a lot of things I liked, the final verdict for the movie is three and a half stars. It's worth at least a rental.

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Saw III (2006)

One of the most famous horror movie clichés is that the sinners always die first. Drink a beer, you're going to die. Smoke marijuana, you're going to die. Have sex, you're going to die. Be an all-around pain in the neck, you're gonna die. The "sinners die first" cliché has not usually been addressed outright in the past, but this changed when Lions Gate Films released the low-budget flick Saw two days before Halloween in 2004. The brainchild of Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Saw introduced the world to Jigsaw, an evil genius who places victims in intricate deathtraps to teach them about the value of human life.

The movie was a huge success, and twelve months later, a sequel hit theaters and achieved even more box office success than its predecessor. Someone at Lions Gate must have had the idea to keep the franchise going a Halloween tradition, as the third chapter of the Saw franchise saw its release on October 26, 2006. And I'm willing to bet that it is perhaps the most ambitious entry in the series.

Master manipulator John "Jigsaw" Kramer (Tobin Bell) is on his deathbed. Closer than ever to succumbing to the brain tumor that changed his life, he has time enough for one last game. Playing the game is Jeff Reinhart (Angus Macfayden), a man tormented by the memories of his eight-year-old son's tragic death and burning with an immeasurable hatred for the drunk driver that caused it and for those who let him get away with a mere slap on the wrist. It is this animosity that has caught Jigsaw's eye, and he has chosen Jeff as his newest guinea pig. Awaiting him in a veritable house of horrors are three tests that will challenge not his will to live, but his will to forgive.

To ensure her gravely ill mentor can see Jeff's adventure to its completion, Jigsaw's budding protégé Amanda (Shawnee Smith) kidnaps troubled yet talented surgeon Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh) and orders her to help him. To ensure her cooperation, Amanda straps a collar rigged with shotgun shells around Lynn's neck. The collar is remotely connected to Jigsaw's heart rate monitor; if he flatlines or if Lynn moves outside of a certain range, the collar will activate and blow her face off. With no options, she is forced to do everything she can to make sure Jigsaw stays alive until his final game can be completed.

It should be stated that Saw III is without a doubt the best chapter in the Saw saga thus far. It is remarkably strong, thanks in large part to placing as much concentration on the development of its characters as it does the creative and deliciously nasty deathtraps that have become the franchise's hallmark. It helps that the movie also boasts tight direction, an extremely well-written script, and an amazing cast. Put it all together, and at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it makes for one of the best genre entries in some time.

Let's hit the script first. Penned by Leigh Whannell, the screenplay is awesome. It has all of the twists and turns that fans of the series have come to expect, but it balances that with something resembling — gasp! — a soul. While the first two movies are dripping with misanthropy, Saw III actually has something to talk about. It is a tale of forgiveness and compassion, and although it is told with tremendous amounts of graphic violence, the message is there and the movie is better for it. Whannell's screenplay also focuses heavily on its four main characters, each intriguing in their own way.

The most developed and layered characters are Jigsaw and Amanda, who have evolved beyond their relatively minor appearances in the first film to become the franchise's most important characters. What makes Jigsaw — and by proxy the entire Saw franchise — special is that instead of being the traditionally sadistic villain with an insatiable bloodlust and a jet black heart, Jigsaw honestly does not wish death upon his victims. By his own admission in Saw III, he abhors murderers. He wants his victims to survive and become better people due to the hardships he puts them through. That gives Jigsaw a certain bizarre nobility that makes him stand out from his genre brethren. Take, for instance, the scene in which Lynn performs brain surgery on a half-conscious Jigsaw. For Jigsaw to agree to go through this surely painful procedure puts him on the same level as those he chooses to test. It makes him unlike nearly every other horror villain; it makes him human.

Amanda's story, from Jigsaw's victim to Jigsaw's apprentice, pushes forward as well. One could call her a victim of Stockholm Syndrome taken to an unconscionable degree. Jigsaw's trap for her saved her from her heroin addiction, and instead of intently following in his footsteps, she took a wrong turn somewhere. Amanda is a character full of anger and pain and contempt for others, and sees becoming the new Jigsaw not as a way to keep Jigsaw's philosophy going, but to inflict the pain inside her soul upon others. She's taken to cutting herself as a release from her problems, and a potential return to her addiction hangs above her head like a dark cloud. Amanda could have taken any path after surviving Jigsaw's game, but the one she has chosen is both frightening and heartbreaking.

Neither Jigsaw or Amanda reveal all the cards in their hands until the grand finale, and my, what a finale it is. One of the franchise's trademarks is the twist ending in each chapter, and Saw III's twist is the biggest yet. Whannell's screenplay wraps up nearly every loose end from the entire trilogy thus far in the movie's last five minutes, and brings the entire Saw universe full circle. We're given the broadest scope of Jigsaw's world yet, making the franchise is deeper because of it.

Up next is the direction by Darren Lynn Bousman. Working with cinematographer David Armstrong, Bousman's direction is excellently done. He utilizes some amazing scene transitions and maintains the franchise's traditional rapid-fire editing, while changing things up a little, as he incorporates a darker, gloomier atmosphere in the scenes with Jeff while using the franchise's usual bright lighting for Jigsaw's lair. Much of the movie also looks to have a very light, almost subliminal green tint, which I found to help quite a bit with establishing the proper atmosphere for the movie.

This ambiance is greatly assisted by the remarkable score composed by Charlie Clouser. I absolutely loved Clouser's music for the first two Saw movies, and he didn't let me down with Saw III. The score is very heavy, very industrial, and very befitting of the movie's tone. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the recurring reprisals of the "Zepp Overture," a piece of music from the first Saw that has essentially become the de facto theme song for the series. Clouser uses a few different versions of the song throughout the movie, each one used in a way that enhances the scenes they're featured in.

Last but not least, there's the cast. I found Bahar Soomekh to be off and on in her role, but Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, and Angus Macfayden are all amazing. Macfadyen's performance as Jeff, a father whose mourning of the past is ruining his present, is utterly sympathetic. The role is an emotional and heart-wrenching one, and Macfayden knocks it out of the park. And once again, both Bell and Smith, the glue that have held the entire series together, are nothing short of wonderful. I honestly cannot imagine anyone else in their roles. The character of Amanda is simultaneously strong and weak, forceful and vulnerable, and Smith's powerful performance reflects that. Smith balances Amanda's rage and fragility excellently, something that I feel strengthens the character.

Meanwhile, Bell still manages to be excellent while doing the bulk of his performance lying on his back. I stated above that Jigsaw is a very human villain, and I believe that what Bell brings a lot of that to the surface. He plays Jigsaw as someone who, despite being borderline helpless, is still very much trying to assert his control over his life's work even as chinks in his armor begin to appear.

This, along giving Jigsaw a reserved, almost accepting outlook on being faced with his own mortality, really made a difference on how I look at the character even in the prior two movies. If one looks at Jigsaw's evolution over the course of the series, from evil genius to puppet master to a man in the twilight of his life, you see how even though he may be going about it a way most people wouldn't dream of, Jigsaw is a man who wants to make a difference in the world. But while Jigsaw has evolved, the constant has been Bell's respectable performances. As I said, Bell and Smith are the glue that holds the Saw movies together, and I believe that to be the truth.

Critics have dismissed Saw III as just another mindless gorefest organized to simply gross people out. But did those people watch the same movie I did? While I will readily admit that Saw III is not for the squeamish, there's more to it than gallons of fake gore. It's a story that forgiveness is divine, and that nursing the grudges you have against your fellow man will ultimately come back to burn you.

I'm sure that as long as the series makes money, Lions Gate won't hesitate to annually make a Saw movie until they reach Saw 37: Jigsaw in Space. But if it were to stop with Saw III, I think the story would be wrapped up nicely. Saw III would be a more-than-satisfying ending to a trilogy that's become a horror classic for the twenty-first century. And I think it earns four stars and a strong recommendation to check out the entire Saw series. Go check 'em out.

Final Rating: ****