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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.

WRONG TURN

(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.