It happens without fail on every long car trip: you venture outside the limits of a major city, it’s dark and quiet, and maybe you even see a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Of course, you knew to fill up at the last town, you avoid all possible tire-puncturing hazards, and you definitely cruise right past that hitchhiker. These are lessons instilled in you not by driver’s ed, but instead by folks like director Tobe Hooper. As the sixth film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D, slices its way into theaters, we are reminded not only of what we learned from Hooper’s seminal horror movie, but also, unfortunately, how the genre has been woefully beholden to these same lessons.
Even before the last gasp of Leatherface’s iconic weapon had faded in the original film, other studios and movie companies began scrambling to piece together their own version of this landmark slasher. Affectations became so prevalent that something bizarre began to happen: the very standards of horror started to shift. Hooper gave us a nightmarish tale about a band of teens on a doomed road trip, the definitive tale in this vein, in fact. But that did not stop imitators from trying to caravan behind it. So many iterations of this same plot setup appeared in Texas Chainsaw’s wake that it became its own genre cliché.
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Probably the most notable rehash of Tobe Hooper’s classic is Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Here again, the focus is on a group of unfortunate souls on a road trip across the country. While the group is altered from a cadre of teens to an average nuclear family unit, another facet of Texas Chainsaw that turns up in The Hills Have Eyes is the idea of a bickering family of hillbilly antagonists; Craven’s desert mutants is quite reminiscent of Hooper’s Sawyer clan. Hills wasn’t the only wannabe that emerged prior to the end of TCM’s own decade. Tourist Trap, starring Tanya Roberts and Chuck Connors, also revolved around a group of teens on a road trip who stop at a mysterious house off the beaten track. The mask the killer wears in Tourist Trap smacks of Leatherface’s hideous namesake.
The ‘80s were a veritable font of low budget horror, and the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still quite present. Then, 1980’s Motel Hell centered on a psychotic backwoods farmer who enjoyed making traveling teens part of his macabre crop, noting that “it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.” The road-trip-gone-awry device appears also in 1985’s The Mutilator, which also revels in repurposing various tools and hooks for murderous designs. The best of the decade has to be 1986’s The Hitcher starring Rutger Hauer. A young man on cross-country drive picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a psychotic killer who then stalks him over miles of highway. The terrain, the viciousness of its antagonist, and the cautionary tale warning against picking up rambling pedestrians all add to the similarity of the horrifyingly harrowing road trip.
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Ironically, one ‘80s film that feels very divergent from the formula laid down by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is…The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Hooper returned to direct this tale of a former Texas Ranger, played by Dennis Hopper, tracking the remnants of the Sawyer family that murdered his nephew Franklin and tortured his niece Sally Hardesty. Hooper crafted TCM 2 as a black comedy that could not feel more tonally converse to the first one. In fact, the only flash of familiar material in the sequel is an opening slaying of a pair of drunken Texas frat boys as they are, big surprise, on a road trip. The straying from the elements that defined TCM may account for the icy reception that the sequel received. It may also be the reason the franchise installments of the ‘90s, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Texas Chainsaw: The Next Generation, both went running back to the road-trip-gone-wrong conceit.
The new millennium didn’t offer much innovation in the realm of horror movie construction. Jeepers Creepers, Cabin Fever, and Joy Ride again focused on traveling protagonists whose journeys take rather unfortunate turns. In fact, 2003’s Wrong Turn, about a group of road-tripping teens whose vehicles are sabotaged by a horde of inbred hill people, seemed bent on re-establishing the trend; somehow seemingly unaware that it had never gone away. However, it was rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie’s House of a 1,000 Corpses that seemed most reverential toward Hopper’s classic. Not only does the plot involve an ill-fated road trip, but the group of central characters is furthermore traversing Texas… in the ‘70s. As if that weren’t enough, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Bill Moseley has a prominent part in the film.
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Over the years, there have also been many cinematic derivations of Texas Chainsaw, or at least movies largely indebted to it, that focus on recreating other elements beyond the road trip. For one thing, every other power tool in the shed became ripe for its own movie: Nail Gun Massacre, Microwave Massacre, to name a few. There were even movies that simply tried to capitalize on the title. Claudio Fragasso’s 1990 film Night Killer was released in Italy as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 despite having nothing to do with the franchise; not surprising given his 1989 film Troll 2 had nothing to do with 1986’s Troll. There is also a potential argument to be made for the connection between Texas Chainsaw’s fictive true-story factor and the later utilization of this gimmick for the burgeoning found footage subgenre. Is The Blair Witch Project merely the extrapolation of John Larroquette’s opening TCM narration?
Of course, the road trip does serve a function beyond capitalizing on the success of one watershed film. It’s a product of the need to sever your victim set from the safety and protection of being surrounded by the masses. Still, it seems batch after batch of horror films since Texas Chainsaw have leaned so heavily on this conceit as to transform it into a lackluster foregone conclusion. The two Texas Chainsaw remakes, and the new sequel, naturally reinstated this setup, but you can hardly chuck a tire iron without hitting a new horror film, be it theatrical or direct-to-video, that reheats this cold story device. It may be time for us to leave doomed road trip fright flicks by the side of the highway like a discarded flat tire.
[Photo Credits: Justin Lubin/Lionsgate; Bryanston Distributing; Vanguard]
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The DVD and Blu-ray releases of the major studios are so prevalent as to be available for sale everywhere from Best Buy to 7-11. But every so often, you need to gamble on something a little obscure.
Here to help, as always, I present to you some blind buys that won’t have you running back to the return counter of your local media vendor:
Battle Beyond the Stars
Company: Shout! Factory
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Roger Corman’s campy interstellar remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai is among his very best films, both in terms of entertainment value and legitimate quality. The wild characters, the fantastic set pieces, and the charmingly inhibited special effects all shine beautifully in Shout! Factory’s latest transfer. Little known fact: James Cameron’s first visual effects job was serving as art director for Battle Beyond the Stars.
Special Features Include: Commentaries with John Sayles, Roger Corman, and production designer Gale Anne Hurd, a new interview with actor Richard Thomas, trailers, radio, and TV spots.
Company: Anchor Bay
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
A group of friends go boating for the weekend when their craft is capsized while crossing a coral reef. Adrift in the middle of nowhere, they thought drowning would be their biggest concern…they were wrong.
If you are laboring under the delusion that Jaws has the market cornered on shark films, give this recent Aussie thriller a spin. Admittedly a low-budget outing, the amiability of the characters and the suspense created with minimal explicit scares is very impressive.
Special Features Include: Making of featurette “Shooting with Sharks.”
Company: Severin Films/Intervision
Format: DVD and VHS!
This particular recommendation carries the biggest caveat: only die-hard fans of utterly awful cinema need apply.
Severin Films once again demonstrates their commitment to completely forgotten films with this 1989 Canadian gorefest. If you thought it weren’t possible to make a movie for less than the cost of a six-pack of Labatt Blue…think again! What really makes the experience of Things worthwhile is the fits of laughter into which the inexplicable dialogue and nonsensical, but ultra-violent, effects will send you. Props to Severin for also releasing the film in a limited edition VHS format for hopeless nostalgics…like me.
Special Features Include: Far more TV interviews with Things star Barry Gillis than he ever deserved, original trailers, and reactions to the film from Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, and Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisner.
Company: Blue Underground
The concept behind Blue Underground’s latest horror release is fascinating. A woman who is incredibly agoraphobic moves into a house that turns out to be haunted. So while she is being tormented by malevolent spirits inside the house, she is frozen by her fear and can’t bring herself to leave the house. Though largely a b-movie, there are some genuinely creepy sequences that make The Nesting a true gem.
Special Features Include: Deleted and extended scenes, trailers, TV spots, and a poster & still gallery.
Company: Shout! Factory
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Just as well as suspected, the Cold War ended with the almost complete annihilation of the human race. A group of soldiers, who were posted in an underground installation when the nuclear doo-doo hit the fan, set out to cross the barren wasteland that was once the United States in what will go down in history as cinema’s coolest RV. Damnation Alley is a great little adventure film that, but for a few perfectly placed swears, could have easily been produced by Disney. The cast is outstanding and includes George Peppard (TV’s The A-Team), Jan-Michael Vincent (The original Mechanic), and a very young Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen). Giant scorpions, mutated rednecks, and flesh-eating cockroaches! What more do you need?
Special Features Include: Commentary with producer Paul Maslansky, three new featurettes, theatrical trailer, and TV spots.
Company: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Takashi Miike is a name with which you should immediately familiarize yourself. In many ways, the man is Japan’s Danny Boyle; there’s not a single genre in which he can’t operate. In his latest, and arguably best, film a group of samurai are tasked with killing an evil lord before he is made ruler of all the land. 13 Assassins is exquisitely shot, beautifully performed, and the last thirty minutes amounts to one of the greatest action scenes I have ever witnessed.
Special Features Include: Interview with Takashi Miike, deleted scenes, and theatrical trailer.
Beauty and the Beast
Not to belittle Disney’s animated version, but Jean Cocteau’s 1946 take on Beauty and the Beast is definitely my favorite. There is something so otherworldly about it and the fantasy effects achieved despite the limitations of the time are spectacular. As per usual, Criterion’s transfer is breath-taking and the film has never looked better. It has been said that this is the film that inspired many of the fantasy films of the 80s including Ridley Scott’s Legend One glance at the shot wherein Belle runs slowly down a hall with seemingly miles of lace billowing around her and you’ll understand.
Special Features Include: Commentaries by film historian Arthur Knight and writer/historian Sir Christopher Frayling, Philip Glass’ opera La Belle et la Bête as an alternative soundtrack, interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan, rare behind-the-scenes photos, original trailer narrated by director Jean Cocteau.
Hobo with a Shotgun
Company: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Format: DVD and Blu-ray
For a while it seemed movies that harkened back to the seedy grindhouse films of yesteryear were a genre unto themselves, but Jason Eisner’s Hobo with a Shotgun is not content simply aping the conventions of b-movie past. Instead, he creates something wholly unique even while still utilizing the genre’s schlock roots. Hobo with a Shotgun is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek send-up of Troma Studios, They Live, Robocop 2, and a dozen other entities that many of us had to sneak around to watch as kids. Staring Rutger Hauer as the titular armed indigent, Hobo with a Shotgun is as arty as it is magnificently violent. For a film that began life as a fake trailer, Hobo has spawned into something remarkable. If you’re looking for both a wickedly good time as well as blood-spattered auteurship, look no further.
Special Features Include: Commentaries with Jason Eisner, Rutger Hauer, Rob Cotterill, and David Brunt, an alternate ending, nine video blogs, deleted scenes, and the original fake trailer that started it all.
What do the following movies have in common: Crash, Little Miss Sunshine, The Hurt Locker, The Kids Are All Right and Winter's Bone? Not only were all of them hit indie movies that were nominated for (and in some cases won) the Oscar for Best Picture, but they were all summer releases. The major studios spend their summers focusing on blockbusters and tentpole movies like Transformers and wait until year’s end to release more serious, artistic fare. Meanwhile, indie distributors take advantage of the dearth of mature, intelligent or just offbeat programming for more adventurous moviegoers, and this summer yields one of the strongest selections of such films to come along in a while. There’s a wide assortment of films from all over that bring the kind of diversity that this season’s major studio slate doesn’t provide, and they’re all hitting theaters over the next four months.
BIG STARS, LITTLE MOVIES
Just because it’s an indie doesn’t mean there are no names to entice audiences, and this summer’s indie selection offers some top names in smaller, more personal films…
Everything Must Go (May 13)
Behind every comedian is a serious actor just waiting to come out, and Will Ferrell is no different, here playing a man who loses everything in his life – his job, his marriage and his home – in one day, so he sells off his belongings on his front lawn for days on end. Based on a short story by Raymond Carver, it’s still got moments of humor, but it’s mainly a fine showcase of Ferrell’s dramatic gifts.
Hesher (May 13)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the mysterious stranger who literally walks into the lives of Rainn Wilson and Natalie Portman in this very offbeat and original comedy/drama from director Spenser Susser.
Midnight in Paris (May 20)
This year’s opening-night film at the Cannes Film Festival, Woody Allen brings us a comedic fantasy starring Owen Wilson as an American tourist who uncovers a mysterious portal that transports him to Paris in the 1920s. As usual, Allen lines up a star-studded cast (including Rachel McAdams, Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen and Marion Cotillard) and great locations in a film that promises good, old-fashioned movie fantasy.
Beginners (June 3)
Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) star in this comedy/drama from writer/director Mike Mills (not the R.E.M. guitarist) about the romantic foibles of a man (McGregor) who falls in love just as his aging father (Plummer) comes out of the closet.
Our Idiot Brother (August 26)
Paul Rudd stars as the title character, a lifelong slacker whose return after a stint in jail wreaks havoc on his sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer and Zooey Deschanel).
Last year’s Toronto fest and this year’s Sundance fest held a record for amount of multimillion-dollar acquisitions, and most of them (such as the aforementioned Our Idiot Brother) are starting to make their way to theaters this summer, starting with Submarine (June 10), the acclaimed coming-of-age comedy from British comedian Richard Ayoade, best known in the U.S. for his role on IFC’s The I.T. Crowd… Another pair of famed British comics, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, join acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom on The Trip (June 10), which has already caused a viral video sensation online with Coogan and Brydon’s competing Michael Caine impersonations… The complications of young love in NYC hit Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By (June 17), which was originally titled Homework when it premiered at Sundance… Another Earth (July 23), co-written by and starring Brit Marling (who became this year’s breakout star at Sundance) takes a sci-fi premise – the discovery of a second Earth – but takes a more philosophical and dramatic approach to the subject… Another Sundance 2011 star is Dominic Cooper, who earned praise in the dual role of the sadistic Uday Hussein and the man picked to be his unwilling double in The Devil's Double (July 29)… Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga stars as a woman seeking spiritual enlightenment in Higher Ground (August 12), which also marks the Up in the Air star’s directorial debut… Finally, there’s Bellflower (August 5), one of the most talked-about films at both Sundance and SXSW, a true original about love, muscle cars, flame throwers and the end of the world. Tough to pinpoint, but this is one you’ll definitely be hearing about and is well worth seeing.
Some of the strongest titles of any movie year are usually the documentaries, and summer 2011 brings us some truly great ones, starting with Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (June 24), which shows the inner workings at one of the world’s most powerful newspapers; it’s an absolute must for anyone interested in journalism and the changing information age… On the stranger side of the news comes Oscar winner Errol Morris’ Tabloid (July 15), the bizarre true story of a former beauty queen who abducts a Mormon missionary as a sex slave… And Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire) returns with Project Nim (July 8), the account of a 1970s experiment that raised a chimpanzee as a human child.
If you want a better example of the wide variety of indie films coming out this summer, look no further than such oddities as Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (May 6), starring Rutger Hauer in the title role (“Delivering justice… one shell at a time!”); The Troll Hunter (June 10), a Norwegian monster epic in which a documentary film crew uncovers a secret government agency whose job is to keep Norway’s trolls in line; and acclaimed Spanish director Alex De La Iglesia’s The Last Circus (August 12), the story of two circus clowns violently battling over the same woman in post-Franco Spain.