THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MIRACLE

I grew up in a rural central Illinois community where the production of alcoholic beverages in backyard shacks wasn’t considered ridiculous, so that may have something to do with it. “Going fishing” in this community meant sitting next to a swampy hole in the ground with a sixer of PBR, and a fishing pole that didn’t get out of the truck bed. A nearby town, if it can even be considered big enough to merit that classification, was called Greenbush, and for good reason. “Hey, want to come over to my trailer after school and play Coleco?”

Growing up in this area might have had something to do with it. Or perhaps it’s that I first saw “Deliverance” when I was just ten years old. Wherever it came from, I’ve acknowledged it: the fear of hillbillies (Moonshynaphobia?). And it’s not a bad thing.

I’m a film nut, and I love horror flicks. Like most people, I like to go to the movies and have the living daylights scared out of me. But what passes for “scary” in cinema seems really tame nowadays. The Blair Witch Project? Maybe the improvisational acting. 28 Days Later? The 28 Days with Sandra Bullock was more frightening.

Both of those films had a critic proclaiming them “SCARY AS HELL!” in their trailers. How can a horror film without a decent villain ever be scary as Hell? A pile of sticks!? A bad head cold!?

Give me the reliable Hillbilly. At the end of the day, he’ll always want to put an arrow through your throat, eat your flesh or wear it as a mask, and make you sqeeeeeaaaal.

The hillbilly has been a time-honored tradition in many movies that film nerds like myself will reflect on as genuinely scary. There’s the aforementioned “Deliverance” of course, the granddaddy of all redneck thrillers. With its still-shocking rape scene, John Boorman’s gut-wrenching rendering of James Dickey’s novel about the violent nature of man simultaneously launched and permanently limited Ned Beatty’s career. And some thirty years later, it still shows up as a sitcom punchline at least once a week.

Another hillbilly thriller with Something Bigger to Say, Walter Hill’s “Southern Comfort” was a tense nightmare about a group of National Guardsmen on a weekend training excursion in the bayous of Louisiana who run afoul of the local Cajuns. Some infighting and confusion among the Guardsmen, along with a technologically inferior but ass-kicking enemy and a vaguely pretentious ending spell out “Vietnam Allegory” in letters perhaps annoyingly large, but it’s still a great, solid suspenser. This was back when Hill was still on his game (think The Warriors and “48 Hours”, as opposed to “Last Man Standing” and Undisputed).

I suppose these aren’t really horror films, though. And so Exhibit C and D: “The Last House on the Left”, Wes Craven’s raw and disturbing first film, in which some young coeds are brutalized by a handful of toothless woodsmen, and the even more raw and disturbing cult classic, “I Spit On Your Grave”, in which the filmmakers had the good taste to give one of the hillbilly villains Down’s Syndrome. And there’s one of my favorite pieces of cinematic Eighties trash, the little-seen (and deliciously tasteless) “The New Kids”, from Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th), in which a young James Spader plays the lead hillbilly, menacing a post-Rad but pre-”Full House” Lori Loughlin (what happened to her?).

And of course, there’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I’ll get to in a moment.

But the Nineties, and the early years of this millennium, were a drought. The hillbillies went on vacation (where does a hillbilly vacation?). So imagine my delight as 2003 was dawning and I read about three, count ‘em, three major hillbilly releases coming to the multiplex. And these weren’t even run-of-the-mill redneck screamfests – each had its own pre-release buzz surrounding it. Wrong Turn was being produced by horror movie makeup legend Stan Winston, Cabin Fever would arrive with a shining endorsement by lord of the ring Peter Jackson, and the creators of the Texas Chainsaw remake claimed that their primary concern was pleasing the die-hard fans of the first film.

But alas, things did not start well. “Wrong Turn”’s title could describe every single decision that must have been made in the film’s production. The hillbillies in “Wrong Turn’ were not only too cartoonish to be scary for a moment, they weren’t even hillbillies – they were mutant hillbillies. Hillbillies are scary enough without exposure to radiation (imagine the lost member of the X-Men, “ChewinTobaccy DoomStrike”). The filmmakers didn’t have confidence in their villains, and it killed them. There’s one reasonably frightening scene in which the whiny, unsympathetic heroes hide under a bed while the villains chop up their friends in front of them, but unfortunately it’s countered by eighty deadly dull minutes of Eliza Dushku running through the woods. If you’re a fan of unintentional hilarity, though, you might want to check out the fight scene staged high in the trees, which is the exact opposite in both grace and excitement from the one in Crouching Tiger, or the making-of documentary on the DVD, in which a deluded Stan Winston waxes poetic about this load of crap as if it were history’s most important cinematic achievement.

Oh well, I thought. “Wrong Turn” got horrible reviews, and the early critical response for “Cabin Fever” was overwhelmingly positive. I mean, if a horror movie buff can’t trust Peter Jackson, the man behind both Heavenly Creatures and “Dead Alive”, who can he trust? I can’t remember Jackson’s exact endorsement, but it was something to the effect of “Holy shit, this movie will change the way you think about the world, and will so blind you with its jewel-encrusted brilliance that you will forever name all your children either Cabin or Fever!”

It sucked. “Cabin Fever” is a densely plotted masterpiece about a carload of teenagers stranded in the woods with…a skin disorder. Okay, I’ll be fair – it’s an, ahem, “flesh-eating virus.” But let’s face it, it’s Ebola In the Woods, and it isn’t scary. There are some hillbillies present to menace the teens, as if the nuclear suntans weren’t causing them enough grief, but they are presented in such a flat-out comical way that there’s no hope they’ll ever be frightening. For example, there’s a hillbilly child whose signature move is biting people on the arm, and who is at one point inexplicably afforded his own lengthy, slow-motion martial arts demonstration. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for bizarre asides and surreal quirks in modern horror movies, but “Cabin Fever” is too amateurish to understand how to be quirky. It’s loaded with homages (or rip-offs, depending on how Tarantino you want to get in labeling them) to older horror films, the kinds of moments that internet movie geeks wet dream over, but what good is an homage if it serves no purpose, if it adds nothing to the movie? Is there anything more irritating than a filmmaker patting himself on the back, especially when it’s his first film? So relentlessly smug is the attitude of the movie, it doesn’t even work as camp.

Get the rest of the story in part two of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MIRACLE>>>




Posted on March 29, 2004 in Features by

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