FIVE FILMS FROM...2003
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
(Directed by Marcus Nispel)
'Don't give me any crap, young lady. Goddamn it, I got just as much respect for a dead body as anybody around here.'
Horror remakes have always been divisive, but this was the year that the offal was going to hit the fan, according to many genre enthusiasts. Nobody can deny that the remakes of The Fly and The Thing were great films (despite the latter's initially poor box office performance). But they were remakes of cheesy-if-well-liked 1950s hokum fear flicks. Remaking Tobe Hooper's milestone grim-fest was another matter altogether. It's akin to announcing a reboot of Jaws being filmed for Disney Plus. The community's hackles were raised even further by the prospect of it being made by Michael Bay's newly created company Platinum Dunes, even if it was designed to support lower-budget films. If social media platforms had been as noisy and manipulative as they are now, it probably would have been "cancelled". But in 2003, MySpace had yet to get a million active users. So it wasn't. Happy days.
There was some placation due to the fact that Hooper and original writer Kim Henkel served as co-producers. Not only that, but Daniel Pearl returned as cinematographer and John Larroquette came back to reprise his iconic voice narration for the opening sequence. Apparently, the original concept was to have Marilyn Burns play an older version of Sally Hardesty from the original film before flashbacks took over and a new actor took the reins. But it didn't happen like that in the end.
Instead, we open with similar carnal news footage, with that unforgettable whiny noise from the camera flashes and Larroquette sombrely talking about the fates of several "young people". Then we meet five groovy individuals on a road trip in the beat-up van during August 1973. Having just scored a shitload of pot in Mexico, they're on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert via the open roads of Texas. They include Erin (an excellent Final Girl in the tank-topped shape of Jessica Biel) and her boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour). In a different set of circumstances to the original narrative, they (almost literally) run into a female hitchhiker and witness her blow her head off in a genuinely startingly moment after ranting about a "bad man". Doing the decent thing and trying to contact the police in the forsaken plains where they find themselves, they are directed to meet with Sheriff Hoyt (an absolutely deranged R. Lee Ermey). They ultimately attract the attention of Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) and his cannibalistic clan.
You have to remember that this was released before the term "torture porn" was coined and horror fans became used to big-screen gore and exploitation of that level from the big studios. Director Nispel was best known for adverts and extravagant music videos, so some cinemagoers were blindsided by this remake's grimness and unrelenting brutality. Sure it had higher production values and a more professional sheen than Hooper's opus. However, it still dared to show human evil and depravity with an unyielding honesty, along with a blameless victim getting a chainsaw to the crotch in unforgiving detail! Despite the critics recoiling with drama-queen theatrics from all the unnecessariness (Roger Ebert gave it Zero stars, and it was banned in some countries), many horror fans were pleasantly surprised at the faithfulness of the aesthetics and the tone of the narrative, which was pure genre. It came at a time when major studios were concentrating on teen horror and "Scream" knockoffs, so that's why it made an impression.
Like Zach Snyder's upcoming Dawn of the Dead and Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead, it may not have the impetus or staying power of the huge cult classic that it remakes, but it stands as a solid reinterpretation, or reboot, or whatever you want to call it, in its own right. It also honours the "spirit" of its mentor film. If it was just a shot-for-shot recreation of the original (*cough*Psycho1998*cough*), then it would not be in this article. Yes, there are a few of those, and they're well done. But it also has some bravura sequences which stand alone, like the amazing opening death where the camera dollies backwards through a gunshot hole in the head! And it's practical FX! There are also some beautifully lit sequences in the woods, a brilliantly visualised little horror house on the prairie, grotesque new characters, Leatherface wearing the visage of one of the victims to torment the survivors, and much more. Sure the narrative is a little rambling and full of unnecessary twists and details, but it still strikes all the right notes (in the right order), and it is as good a movie as we could expect at the time. Far better than the recent Netflix "reboot/sequel" and other entries in the franchise anyway. Hunt out this version before seeing others. You won't feel "saw" about it.
Fun Fact: Dolph Lundgren was one of the first actors considered to play Leatherface, but he turned the role down because he felt overworked at the time! Allegedly, Kirsten Dunst, Katie Holmes and Jessica Alba were also considered for the lead female role before Biel snagged it.
(Directed by Rob schmidt))
'We are never going into the woods again!'
As we've mentioned before, some horror films like Jaws and Psycho rise above their legacy and their sequel and are still perceived as standalone genre classics. Others, well they aren't so lucky. The original Lake Placid would probably be more highly regarded if it wasn't for all the tepid SyFy sequels and the crossover with Anaconda. Likewise, this first highly enjoyable and straightforward backwoods slasher has been drowned out by the memories of the endless snigger-filled sequels and the recent reboot. Like the TCM remake, it rode into the cinema on the back of a minor backlash against endless high-school horrors and PG-rated scares. This was designed to be properly nasty and bloody and had a problem getting an "R" rating at the time as a result. It's the main reason why the follow-ups went straight to video and got more ridiculous and torture-porny. It was directed by Schmidt who didn't go onto any other major genre offerings apart from The Alphabet Killer. However, FX legend was attracted to the possibilities of the "Mountain Men" killers and became a producer. It's notable for having Eliza Dushku in the lead Final Girl role after just coming off the phenomenally successful run of the Buffy-The Vampire Slayer TV series as the popular anti-hero Faith Lehane. Otherwise, it's the typical slasher set-up mixing Deliverance forestry fears with flesh-eating nut-jobs.
It starts with the typical foreshadowing murders of two red-shirts (in the "Star Trek" sense) to set the ominous. Rock-climbing in West Virginia, a young couple is taken out by an offscreen presence in the greenery of the Mountain State. Cue clean-cut Chris Flynn (Desmond Harrington), who takes a literal "wrong turn" at a fork in an Appalachian road system and runs (literally, again) into the vehicle owned by Jessie Burlingame (Dushku) and her buddies. It appears that some booby traps placed on the road caused Jessie's problems. As they look for help (no mobile signal, natch), some of the group fall foul of nasty razor-wire garrotting, whilst the others find a vehicular graveyard and body parts littering a wooden cabin. Not good…and it only gets worse.
Like most slashers, backwoods or not, there are the usual issues with paper-thin characterisation and dumb decision-making. Still, apart from that (and the odd dodgy-looking green-screen scene), this is a superior studio horror that is easy to recommend for several reasons. To begin with, aside from some deliberately immature antics from the inbred mountain-men and the odd zinger from Jeremy Sisto's character, this is played mostly for tension and scares. There are a couple of cool kills (more on which in a minute), but the film doesn't leer at the agony of victims or treat the murderous villains as misbehaving scamps like in the later movies. The three cannibalistic bastards ("Three Finger", "Saw-Tooth", and "One-Eye") are realistically malformed lumps of gristle that are genuinely scary and intimidating, especially in the are-they-asleep? sequence. It's not played for laughs, and the later stalking scenes are ramped up due to their presence and lack of compassion, as we as mining that innate fear that city-dwellers seem to have of country folk. We're blaming Deliverance and Straw Dogs for that and the plethora of urban legends in this area. Remember that this is the first time we've seen these Winston-School-of-FX characters, so there's no contempt for familiarity here. Three Finger's giggling is off-putting rather than eye-rolling for this film.
The other strength this original film has is higher production values and some great visual shots. There's one of the best cinematic slasher kills of modern exploitation as Three Finger swings a hefty axe at a character stuck in a tree. It horizontally bisects their head at the mouth, with the camera quickly pans out and upwards from their eyes (with the pupils enlarging). The top half of the head remains balanced on the embedded axe-head, whilst the rest of the body rag-dolls through the branches and towards the ground from an overhead angle. Awesome! There's also a great jump-scare with an arrow-through-the-eye, POV zooms through keyholes, and cleverly arranged narratives such as the pursuit through the forest canopy. Whilst being no Ash or Laurie, Dushku and Harrington are easy enough to root for, and the overall tone makes for an enjoyable-if-unremarkable experience that was best experienced on a big screen. Despite Joe Lynch's decent-enough follow-up (Wrong Turn 2- Dead End with Henry-Frickin’-Rollins!), the other franchise entries just get worse. However, see this on its own, and you might be pleasantly surprised at what you get.
Fun fact: When Emmanuelle Chriqui's character falls through the trees from the watchtower, the actor actually dislocated her shoulder for real. Apparently, if you listen to the theatrical sound mix, you can hear the bone "pop" out if you turn up the volume. Ouch.
FINAL DESTINATION 2
(Directed by David R. Ellis)
'I have this really bad feeling. It's not over yet.'
As the first (not so) Final Destination was a surprise commercial hit, the sequel was a no-brainer. Luckily there was plenty of wiggle room for embellishing the core concept. Namely, the pissed-off shenanigans of an annoyed "Death" (or "Fate", or whatever…), which was being temporarily stymied by the precognitive abilities of the human mind but wasn't taking it lying down. This time around though, New Line Cinema had to shuffle around the production team, mostly because they were all busy with other projects. The screenplay was written by J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress from Jeffrey Reddick's initial concept, both of whom would then work on "The Butterfly Effect". The only actors returning from the original were Ali Larter and Tony Todd, which is fair enough given the mortality rate of characters in the franchise. Anyway, the plot follows a similar structure to the first film, with a savage premonition saving some lives and Death taking them back after rolling his/her/its metaphorical eyes and staging elaborate accidents.
This time around, the plot establishes that it's been a year since the strange events of the first movie. New lead character Kimberley Corman (A.J. Cook from Criminal Minds) is driving to Daytona Beach for Spring Break with her buddies all packed into her SUV. She joins the traffic flow on bust Route 23, only to become a fatality in a gnarly pile-up caused by a logging truck dropping its load and blitzing all vehicles in transit. Or not. Because it's the now-customary fake-out of an FD film, with the whole sequence being a cautionary vision in Kimberly's brain. She saves herself and an assorted bunch of misfits that should have died in the smash-up, including nearby cop Thomas Burke (Michael Landes). As Burke and Kimberly attempt to cheat fate, they make contact with Clear Rivers (Larter) and Mr Bludworth (Todd) in order to understand the rules of the game they are now embroiled in.
As most good sequels should be, FD2 is bigger and badder than the first film. As well as significantly upping the ante on the many kills, it also adds to the mythology, teases some of the tropes and occasionally blindsides the deaths with fake-outs and jump-scares. This is helped by the assured direction of Ellis, who was primarily known as a stunt person and assistant director. His framing of the spectacular crash at the beginning is absolutely top-notch, with practical car flips and vehicular explosions, embellished by the merest hint of CGI to make logs bounce and heads splatter. Incidentally, Ellis sadly passed away in January 2013 after being found in the bathroom of his hotel room in Johannesburg, South Africa. No cause of death was released, but police say no foul play was suspected. So make of that what you will if you are of a particularly ghoulish mindset, but he was obviously a director and stunt coordinator with many talents.
As far as this entry goes though, it is certainly one of the high points in the franchise. The fateful deaths are teased beyond belief, with accidents and malfunctions seemingly pointing towards one way of dying before pulling the rug out with another one. One character is apparently suffocated before being crushed flat by a glass plate. Another escapes a fire, slipping on spaghetti (!) and getting facially impaled by a ladder. A special callout to the surprise airbag death and the dismemberment by fencing. All cool stuff for horror fans that somehow becomes acceptable as gory exploitation fodder for younger genre audiences that lapped it up as a group experience. The older film critics just didn't get it, and (as with most of the films in the franchise) it was critically eviscerated by most. The joke's on them though, as, despite the relatively thin characterisation and heavy-on-the-exploitation scenes, this remains a hugely enjoyable experience. In fact, it's been immortalised by memes, with many posting pictures of logging trucks on the motorway with "Anyone seen Final Destination?!". Smug horror fans can reply with, "No!! That was Final Destination 2, you asshole!!". Good times.
Fun Fact: Originally, Devon Sawa was going to return to the sequel, reprising the character of Alex Browning. However, there was a dispute concerning his existing contract with New Line Cinema which wasn't settled in time for filming. So the screenplay wrote him out of existence by inserting a plot point where it is revealed that he was killed by a falling brick to the head before the events of Final Destination 2.
(Directed by Mark Jean-Baptiste Andrea & Fabrice Canepa)
'Somebody's fucking with us!' Dead End is a film that flew under the radar back in 2003. It didn’t get a cinema release so had to rely on DVD sales (where it did rather well it has to be said). Amongst critics, well those who saw it anyway, the film did ok but it failed to make any real impact. Even amongst some genre fans, it still feels as if it doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves – because Dead End is a blast from start to finish. It’s also a Christmas film as it is set on Christmas eve, so it’s another one to add to your festive horror programming. Yes, I am aware that it’s nearly a whole year away at this point but hey, decent Christmas horror films are hard to come by!
The plot goes something like this if you are unfamiliar with it. It’s Christmas Eve night and the Harrington family are driving through the backroads of…well, somewhere in the US. The dad, Frank (Ray Wise) has decided to take a short-cut on the family's yearly Christmas trek to see the in-laws. After nearly falling asleep at the wheel and narrowly avoiding an accident, Frank’s wife, Laura (Lin Shaye) grills him over his decision to take an alternative route - one which is clearly not saving them any time. Frank’s response? He was bored. It’s an admission that doesn’t play well with the other passengers in the back – their adult children Richard and Marion and Marion’s boyfriend, Brad. Whilst the family argue amongst themselves, Frank slams on the brakes. He tells them that he saw a woman in white at the side of the road. Within seconds the woman appears at Frank’s window. As the woman seems to be in some distress and is holding a baby, they help her into their car. They soon realise that this may have been a mistake. Things only get weirder and more sinister as the night goes on and the Harrington’s begin to realise that finding their way out of these backroads might not be as easy as they hoped…
This is such a bananas movie. A weird black comedy and horror road trip with a real Twilight Zone feel to it. Canepa and Andrea, working to a tight budget (less than $1m), cleverly maximise the output by limiting the story in terms of location and characters. Barring a handful of scenes, we’re pretty much with this family on the road the whole time, yet it never gets tired or feel too restricted. That’s partly because the script is very slick and the mystery elements are always evolving, so you never properly get a handle on what is going on. Arguably even by the end, you might still not be 100% clear. The tone is elusive too, constantly switching from serious emotional scenes to absurdist horror and to jet black comedy. Some may feel like it’s all a bit too scattergun, but we disagree. It’s a delightfully weird but effective cocktail.
The cast are great too. Ray Wise is snappy and bitter and just generally seems to be hating life whilst Lin Shaye is an absolute joy as his wife too. She just can’t resist prodding her on-edge hubby and she’s responsible for some of the best comic moments too. Her casual delivery of certain lines when they are in dire straits is wonderful and then there’s the scene where she scratches the back of her head repeatedly (oh you’ll know what I’m referring to if you’ve seen it!). Alexandra Holden (Elizabeth from Friends!) also plays the most normal one of the gang, giving us some semblance of balance throughout the mayhem. The comedy acts as a welcome addition because even though Dead End is not a film that’s going to terrify you, there’s something that lingers in the hours and even days afterwards. There is actually very little gore on show though - the film does a solid job of leaving most of that to your imagination and it’s all the better for it.
It's a shame that Canepa and Andrea never went on to make any more genre films because this was a stellar debut.
Fun fact: Although it didn’t really get a theatrical release, the film went on to make over $70m in DVD sales!
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS
(Directed by Jee-woon Kim)
'Do know what's really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can't go away, you see. And... and it follows you around like a ghost.'
Remakes and brutal violence were starting to become the in-thing when it came to horror in the early noughties. The inclusion of Wrong Turn and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in this list are both reflective of that but perhaps the most influential sub-genre was J-Horror. And it’s one whose effects are still felt today. At the time it was the antithesis of what American (and European) horror cinema was producing. Instead of focusing on gore and bloodshed, J-Horror tended to be a unconventional blend of the psychological, supernatural and often with elements of folk horror too. Dark Water (2002), Ju-On:The Grudge (2002), Ring (1998) and Pulse (2001) are wonderful examples, and all received glossy American remakes too (with differing results). However, it would be wrong to overlook another east Asian influence on the genre – K-Horror.
Although South Korea has produced a glut of excellent films over the last decade (The Wailing, Train to Busan, Parasite), the films being produced just after the turn of the century were a little more in tune with their Japanese counterparts. Acacia (2003), Whispering Corridors (1998) are both solid ghost-based efforts but without a doubt the best horror film to come out of Korea in this era (and perhaps yet to be bettered) is Jee-Woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters.
A Tale of Two Sisters is inspired by a popular Korean folktale called Janghwa Hongryeon Jeon, which is a story that has been adapted several times for the screen. In this modern iteration, we follow Su-mi, a teenage girl who after spending some time at a mental institution (following the death of her mother), returns home to her family’s secluded countryside home. Her younger sister, Su-yeon, is glad that she is finally home – the sisters have a very close bond. Su-mi’s father however, is largely silent and withdrawn but it’s Su-mi’s mother-in-law Eun-Joo who is the biggest thorn in her side once she’s home. Their strained relationship soon fractures even more and when Su-mi becomes convinced that their family residence is now haunted, things lurch from the uncomfortable to the disturbing.
For the first 30 minutes or so, A Tale of Two Sisters plays out like a compelling drama, with no real indication that it will evolve into something altogether more sinister. But that quiet dread soon creeps up on you and by the midpoint the tension almost feels suffocating. Ju:On and Dark Water both tap into the idea of a place being corrupted by a horrific event in its past, and A Tale of Two Sisters matches them on that front. With its dark oppressively shady hallways, seemingly endless number of rooms and sickly yet pristine old-world décor, it’s a puzzle box that drip feeds us clues to what’s really going on in front of us. Finely nuanced performances by all of the main players and lavish direction by Jee-woon Kim are the icing on top of the cake. The cherry being a handful of properly unnerving scenes that will live long in the memory afterwards (the sink scene is particularly chilling). There’s no denying that the last act becomes a little disorientating at times. You may need to hit the pause button a couple of times to check in with yourself (or hopefully someone else watching it with you) regarding what is happening, but enough answers are given by the end to not leave you feeling too out of sorts.
It may not have the jump-out-of-your seat moments of its J-Horror peers and the American remake might be underwhelming but if you’re looking for slow-moving, reflective, atmospheric familial horror, this takes some beating.
Fun fact: Director Jee-woon Kim received a number of offers to direct films for American studios, but almost all of the scripts sent to him were for horror films. He did not want to be typecast as just a horror director, so he turned them all down.