Friday, January 4, 2013

"Texas Chainsaw" delivers bloody goods with fresh wrinkle of nuttiness

Texas Chainsaw (2013)
92 min., rated R.

Any diehard horror junkie that likes keeping count knows there have been five follow-ups to Tobe Hooper's influential, truly disturbing 1974 groundbreaker "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," the granddaddy of the horror genre. Looking back, the franchise has certainly had longevity, for better or worse, like a chainsaw that just keeps buzzing: Hooper's subversive, blackly comic 1986 sequel "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2"; two misbegotten rehashes (1990's "Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III," with up-and-comer Viggo Mortensen, and 1994's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation," which forced not-yet-stars Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey to move onto bigger and better projects); and 2003's slicked-up but effectively intense Michael Bay-produced remake and its serviceable 2006 prequel. In what was expected to be a by-the-numbers trip to a desert-dry well, even with the "Massacre" sawn off, "Texas Chainsaw" successfully ignores all of the sequels, retreads, remakes, reboots, et al. and ends up delivering a bloody good time that carves out an individual spot for itself.

Director John Luessenhop (2010's "Takers") and screenwriters Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms position this seventh "Chainsaw" as a direct sequel. It begins immediately where the first one left off, a.k.a. the afternoon of August 18, 1973, when Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) jumped out of the Sawyers' farmhouse window and barely escaped Leatherface's chainsaw into the pickup of a passerby truck. The film opens with a credit sequence that respectfully highlights footage from the original, with 3D enhancements making it look like a nightmarish pop-up book, and then seamlessly segues into what happened next at the Sawyer farmhouse. Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) shows up to quietly take in the hulking, mentally stunted chainsaw-wielder for killing Sally's brother and friends, but a band of gun-toting rednecks rally in front of the house and burn it down after a shootout, à la Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects." Seemingly, only the baby cousin survives.

The baby cousin is brought up by foster parents, both white-trash co-conspirators who brought down the Sawyers nearly 40 years ago, and grows up to be Heather (Alexandra Daddario), a young thing who knows nothing about her legacy but coincidentally slices meat at a grocery store. Then a lawyer (Richard Riehle) contacts her with the news that Verna, the grandmother she never knew she had, has just recently died and left Heather her old mansion. In order to claim it, she drives down to the small Texas town of Newt with her boyfriend Ryan (Tremaine 'Trey Songz' Neverson), girlfriend Nikki (Tania Raymonde), and Nikki's new hipster beau Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sánchez). Along the way, they also pick up a hunky hitchhiker named Darryl (Shaun Sipos), and celebrate Heather's inherited estate with drinking, pot, pool, and sex. Little do they all know that Heather's blood cousin, Jed (Dan Yeager), lives in the basement catacomb behind a big metal door, but we all know him as Leatherface, and he likes to play with his favorite power tool, dress in women's clothing, and sew human faces onto his own. Cue bodies on meat hooks and Leatherface chasing them through the woods with his chainsaw a'buzzin'. 

While the production team goes so far to recreate the old Sawyer farmhouse with that bench swing and extraneous family members pop up (including Bill Moseley, who played 'Chop-Top' in "Chainsaw 2" and takes over the late Jim Siedow's Drayton Sawyer), the screenwriters flub continuity, especially if one stops to consider the timeline of the connective tissue. Heather is the Sawyer baby in 1973, but flashforward to 2012 (indicated by the grandmother's headstone and one character's use of video chat via their cell phone), she should be 39 years old, which she clearly is not. That is unless she's been sipping from the Fountain of Youth and is fit enough to wear a retro midriff top. Writers aren't mathematicians, but the viewer must take a big leap of faith in order to go along with this illogical foible. Also, one almost needs to forget Marilyn Burns played Sally, the original's surviving "Final Girl," because the 62-year-old actress appears here in a twist of irony.

After the 1973 sequence, the setup follows the horror-movie pattern of getting a vanload of kids into a big house and then taking them out. Some of them are asking for it and others are just dum-dums. The most idiotic character happens to be a cop, who follows a trail of blood into the mansion, but even after venturing into Leatherface's "meat locker," he then decides to say, "I'm gettin' a bad feeling here." Of the stock fodder, Daddario (who already pushed herself to the brink in 2010's equally crimson-strewn "Bereavement") gives Leatherface more than just a pretty face to chase. As Heather, she's vulnerable, tough, and complex. Also, Raymonde displays a promising spark as the spunky, promiscuous Nikki. Last but not least, Yeager (though hidden behind a fleshy mask) might be one of the most terrifying Leatherfaces since the original's Gunnar Hansen (who also pops up briefly). 

Of course, there is some thrilling running around (a carnival being its most inspired setting) and a hide-and-seek moment in a coffin, which makes squirmy use of the 3D gimmick. Jump scares are also sneakily timed, especially one that rivals the surprise of "Chainsaw 2's" in a radio station, and gore-hounds will eat up the kills, but it's not until the third act that "Texas Chainsaw" actually evades the familiar slasher-pic trappings. Once "Jed" has narrowed down Heather's group of friends and gives her a buzzing chainsaw to run from, the filmmakers make an effort to realign our sympathies and turn the iconic Leatherface into a misunderstood, somewhat human monster. Not only that, but there's a family comes first! message. Truth be told, the curveball plot development somewhat cribs from "Halloween" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street." And it would sound even sillier and more unconvincing to describe how such a surprising and surprisingly risky turn is executed, but within this nutty movie world that has relied on a family of cannibalistic sickos sticking together, it's so crazy that it kind of works. 

In spite of the careless chronology and indefensible logic, the slivers of creativity that went into "Texas Chainsaw" seize the bigger picture, which is how one should judge the kind of Friday-night movie teens will sneak into and gasp into their popcorn over. Sure, nothing can copy the raw viscera of the 1974 original, so there's really no point in comparing. But, while Hollywood is still squeezing blood out of the franchise, this one at least goes off the beaten track and keeps it more in the family. And for an inaugural January release, it's perfectly acceptable.

Grade: B - 

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