-By Ethan Alter

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As with any remake, the first question you must ask of the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is why. Why remake this particular movie? What about the original is lacking and could be improved upon? Or, failing that, is there room to do something new with the premise? In the case of Tobe Hooper's 1974 horror classic, the most obvious deficiencies are due to the movie's low budget. The visuals are ugly, the amateur ensemble is, well, amateurish, and the special effects (such as they are) are on the level of the haunted house at your local county fair. Yet these "flaws" also happen to be the reason the original Massacre works so well. Because it lacks any of the usual Hollywood flourishes, the movie achieves a level of realism that is actually quite frightening. (It's no surprise that many people have likened The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to a snuff film.) A modern version would certainly be more visually and technically sophisticated, but that crucial dose of reality is almost impossible to replicate.

So it's to director Marcus Nispel's credit that he doesn't try to ape the original movie's tone in his remake. Instead, he's gone ahead and made the exact film Massacre might have been had Hooper had a bigger budget and studio backing. From the opening frames, you are completely aware that you are watching a movie. Everything has that glossy commercial sheen (not a surprise, since Nispel's background is in advertising) and the actors--most of whom are TV veterans--are far too good-looking for their roles. By all rights, horror purists should be storming out of the theatre at this point. But wait, Nispel has actually done something pretty impressive here: He's made a slasher movie that's almost entirely free of irony. As much as I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek attitude of Scream and the recent Freddy vs. Jason, it's nice to finally see a contemporary studio horror film that doesn't constantly underscore its scares with humor. Although, to be honest, this new Massacre is more intense than scary. A few good "gotcha" moments aside, Nispel is more interested in dreaming up increasingly creative (and gory) deaths than in establishing mood.

While the basic premise of the remake--five road-tripping teenagers are carved up by a chainsaw-wielding maniac named Leatherface--hews closely to the original, screenwriter Scott Kosar has tweaked the plot significantly. Some of his changes, like the addition of an insane, foul-mouthed sheriff (terrifically played by R. Lee Ermey) are fun, but others seem somewhat pointless. (Do we really need that whole drug-smuggling subplot?) Still, Kosar's dialogue is serviceable and the actors prove themselves adequate at screaming and dying on cue. The real stars of the movie, however, are the sound team and cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl (who, appropriately enough, got his start in the business shooting the first Massacre). Pearl bathes the film in a harsh glow that accentuates the grit of the dilapidated settings; it also makes all the bloodletting seem that much grimier. By the time the credits roll, you feel like you need to take a shower to rinse off all the dried sweat and blood. Meanwhile, the sound designers accentuate every chainsaw roar and dull thud of a falling body. All of these elements come together in the final half-hour, an extended chase sequence that's so well-shot, edited and Foleyed, it should have viewers on the edge of their seats.

It's doubtful that the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre will attain the cult status of the original, but as remakes go, this is a solid piece of work. By avoiding the cheekiness of recent horror films, Nispel stays true to Hooper's Massacre without merely photocopying it. If nothing else, that should please fans of the genre.

--Ethan Alter

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