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Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

As previously noted, I found the 2003 remake of the Tobe Hooper classic to be a solid horror film on its own merits.  It was a successful film, but due to how it left Leatherface, a sequel was less than likely.  Instead, the filmmakers chose to exploit an even worse trend in films – a prequel.  Generally, it wouldn’t make much difference due to the formulaic slasher style, but intending it to be a sort of origin story for Leatherface was an idea that should’ve been left alone.  I must warn you that this review will have some spoilers in it.  There are certain issues I will raise that cannot be explored without them.  While I will try not to be detailed in my spoilers, they do directly impact the fact of who dies and who survives.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning takes place in 1969 – four years before the events of the previous film.  Dean (Taylor Handley) has been drafted into the United States Army in the midst of the Viet Nam War.  His brother, Eric (Matthew Bomer), has already had a tour in ‘Nam, and is going back to re-enlist.  Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) very much loves Eric, and doesn’t want him to go.  Unfortunately, he’s too gung-ho for the war and being a patriot to choose love over volunteering for the war.  What Eric doesn’t know is that Dean intends to dodge the draft by hopping the Mexico border with his girlfriend Bailey (Diora Baird).  The group of four must travel cross-state in Texas for the brothers to join the army.  Meanwhile, changes are occurring in the Hewitt household.  With the closing of the slaughterhouse, the family is all that’s left of this town.  Charles Hewitt (R. Lee Ermy) assumes the role of town sheriff, the family casually embraces cannibalism, and Thomas Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski) begins his vicious killing streak.  Inevitably, these two stories converge, and total carnage and death ensues. I can’t say you’ll “witness the birth of fear,” but you will be a witness to a lot of visceral violence.

My first main gripe with this film is that the focus is on the wrong character, despite the great actor portraying him.  Leatherface is the icon of the franchise, and six films have been produced and released with him as that icon.  Whether you call him Bubba Sawyer or Thomas Hewitt doesn’t make a huge difference.  Either way, he’s still a cannibalistic homicidal maniac who wears human flesh as a mask, and kills people with a chain-saw in Texas.  So, my point is, when it comes time to tell of his origins, to explain to us why he is who he is, and why he does what he does, how come the focus of the film is diverted away from him?  Why is he treated as the secondary villain throughout the film when he is the icon of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise?  He’s on all the posters, all the promotional materials, and has always been treated as the main attraction in the films.  In this film, R. Lee Ermey is given the reigns as Charles Hewitt / Sheriff Hoyt.  He has the brunt of the spotlight, and has more of his character explored than Leatherface.  As the matriarch of the Hewitt family, it is only natural he’s in a leadership role, but Leatherface is barely in this film.  Only when someone is to be brutally murdered, is he brought into frame.  We really learn next to nothing more about Leatherface than was explained in the 2003 remake.  In fact, far more of Leatherface’s origins were stated in that film than this supposed origins story.  This alone makes the idea of a prequel a wasted opportunity.  If you’re not going to explore the back story and origins of the franchise’s one and only constant star, then why bother doing a prequel?  The film sets itself up like it is making Leatherface the focus of the story, but once Ermey comes on screen, he’s given the spotlight.  Now, there’s a difference between stealing the spotlight, and being given it.  One occurs out of pure happenstance by an actor’s outstanding performance.  The other is fully planned by the filmmakers.  The filmmakers chose to put focus on Hoyt instead of Leatherface, and that honestly annoys me.  What further annoys me is that the brunt of the back story in this film is glossed over in the main title sequence!  A montage of Thomas Hewitt at different ages and some newspaper headlines is the meat of the “beginnings.”

My second gripe is that the ending is a victim of the film’s own trappings.  This is a prequel, and we’ve already seen the first film which is set four years after this one.  So, we already know who is not going to die in this film.  When the biker Holden (Lee Tergesen) has Hoyt at gunpoint, you want to get excited that the tables have turned, and this family may now get their deadly due.  Of course, that’s short lived since we already know that Hoyt isn’t going to die because he’s alive (and in one piece) four years later, as seen in the 2003 remake.  Thus, there’s no tension, hope, or suspense that the scene is obviously intent on provoking from an audience.  And the oh-so-clever way out of this is when Holden does pull the trigger, the gun doesn’t fire, and thus, leaving him defenseless to the subsequent attack upon him.  This happens despite two facts:  one being that he checked the gun chamber earlier on, and more importantly, he just successfully fired the gun at another of the Hewitt clan no more than a minute ago.  The gun works one minute, and then, doesn’t the next.  This is the first of two displays of stunted logic by the filmmakers.  The second comes from the ending – which is worse because you quickly realize that every potential victim will die.  Leatherface magically appears in the backseat of this getaway car stolen by our heroine, despite the fact that he was still trailing behind her when she got in the car.  Then, he also is able to maneuver that big ass chainsaw around in the back seat.  So, Leatherface must’ve contacted the starship Enterprise, had Scotty beam him into the backseat, and used a retractable chainsaw to kill the girl.  Of course, he still has to walk back home.  The film ends without a resolution, and thus, feels empty.  Even the brief narrated statements by John Larroquette are no real help.  This is honestly the flattest ending to a horror film I can recall seeing.

While this film is as intense, brutal, and grueling as everyone has been saying, it feels much less developed than the 2003 remake.  I found the young protagonist leads to be less endearing and sympathetic than those in Marcus Nispel’s film.  This foursome, more or less, felt like your standard slasher film cannon fodder with only some decent level of character development behind them.  I didn’t particularly feel for them because they lacked any degree of true emotional depth.  The brutality of their deaths, despite the great impact of their ferocity, did not draw any further empathy from me.  The less-than-engaging actors aren’t completely to blame for this because the screenplay doesn’t give them any real personalities to make their characters worth much of a damn – especially the girls.  They all seem too cliché and hollow.  There’s no emotional roller-coaster ride that these characters are subjected to, or even any straight out mindfuck material to screw with their sanity.  You don’t see any of them descend into hysterics or some pit of despair.  Nobody seems genuinely traumatized by the insanity and carnage they bare witness to.  Jordanna Brewster doesn’t come remotely close to what Jessica Biel was so rich with back in 2003.  Biel was exceptionally likeable, but also had a tomboy toughness to her, a touch of grittiness, and a real traumatic out-pouring of emotion.  I want to see tears and uncontrollable sobbing when a girl sees one of her best friends or boyfriend get savagely murdered right in front of her.  Brewster just doesn’t display the acting chops to pull off that level of overly intense emotional distress.  Even the tougher heroines of the franchise have shown a wider range of emotions than Brewster shows any hint of here.  Only Holden, the rebel biker, did I actually feel for, but that’s only because I have a real big fondness for Lee Tergesen.  He’s always done very exceptional acting, and it’s always an extra special treat when I see Tergesen on screen.

The final gripe is the audacity of these filmmakers to try to recreate the infamous “dinner scene” from Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre film.  The version of this scene in this film is about as disturbing as your picnic in the park getting rained on.  A quickly slashed throat is as far as it goes to disturb you.  This family just doesn’t display enough erratic or demented physical behavior to tap into the raw, psychotic mania Hooper originally captured.  Director Jonathan Liebesman’s version is totally forgettable and dismissible.  Leatherface isn’t even present until the very end.  It’s as pussified as can be imagined without becoming totally laughable.  This just goes to show that you cannot recreate a classic, especially when you’re barely trying, and at least Marcus Nispel had the foresight not to attempt to recreate this scene in his film.

Now, after this massive tangent of gripes and negativity, you inevitably ask if there’s anything good here.  Well, there is some that goes a long way.  The acting from the returning cast remains solid as a rock, and the cinematography is quite good except when the end chase sequence turns into The Blair Witch Project with the shaky-cam bullshit.  When will filmmakers learn that this style of shooting is nothing but annoying, disorienting, and detracting to the effectiveness of a scene?  Beyond that, nothing in the camera work really stood out for me – good or bad, and honestly, didn’t appear noticeably any grittier to me than the 2003 remake.  It’s not as glossy in its lighting, but I personally wouldn’t state much more difference than that.  The look of the film is nearly identical to Marcus Nispel’s installment down to the faded, dry color scheme.  I’m really indifferent towards the musical score.  It doesn’t enhance the film much, but certainly doesn’t damage it.  It’s just one of those scores that’s just there.  On the editing side, the film cuts away, and ultimately holds back, when the most graphic imagery appears.  Whether this was an MPAA rating requirement, or the director’s prerogative is uncertain.  For whatever reason, I’m tempted to believe the latter especially after seeing what made the R-rated cut of The Hills Have Eyes earlier that same year, but one of the producers said that seventeen scenes had to be cut down to obtain an R rating.  An unrated cut was released on DVD, but the single theatrical viewing was enough for me.

The violence here is indeed more unrelenting and brutal than in the 2003 remake.  Every act of violence is so smash mouth that it will have you recoiling and cringing.  Flesh is slashed and shredded, bones are crushed, skulls battered, and blood is spattered.  It’s intense and tough to take.  The first kill, which is by sledgehammer, is so visceral and dead-on realistic that you may suffer whiplash from the impacts.  The first chainsaw kill is dramatic, and the sound of it is gut-wrenching.  Although, the focus is almost completely on the violence instead of the aftermath.  Seeing the end result of all this carnage usually goes a long way to building up the fear and emotional distress of our protagonists.  This film does indeed lack tension and suspense.  It’s just about making the most violent and barbarous film possible.  You can get the very same thing in most Quentin Tarantino films.  When I watch a horror film, I want tension and suspense racked up as far as possible, or at least have it delve into pure madness.  Director Jonathan Liebesman really makes no attempt at this.  He just wants violence upon violence.  He’s about the shock and impact which are merely momentary whereas the emotional roller-coaster that the build up and aftermath offer are long-lasting.  Still, the savagery of the film does make an impact that you won’t soon forget, but doesn’t do anything to keep you on the edge of your seat.  This film is purely about sadism, not terror.  It’s a blunt object lacking character or subtlety instead of the finely-crafted piece of terror, tension, and suspense that I was hoping for.  Furthermore, despite all this barbarism, this film lacks the whirlwind of insanity that has always been the high marks in these films.

Also, what The Beginning lacks that the 2003 remake had is bravado and an animalistic rage for Leatherface.  In Marcus Nispel’s film, Leatherface was like a tank barreling down on his prey, and smashing through whatever got in his way.  Here, he barely has any screen presence at all since Ermey’s given all the damn screentime.  There was no pay-off for all this hiding Leatherface in shadows and such.  By the end, he has less screentime here than Jason Voorhees in Jason Goes To Hell, something fans have always been quite vocal over in that film.  In 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface was a dominant physical presence, and that is sorely lacking here.  And where’s the bravado?  I was actually surprised and impressed by the 2003 remake because it was a real, straight up horror film that was very well-rounded.  I won’t say at all that it measures up on the same levels to Hooper’s classic, but I would hardly say it was a disgrace.  That film dared to be what exceptionally few horror films were actually trying to do at the time – be a real horror film.  It wanted to scare you, to make you feel the horror, and disturb you to some degree.  This prequel doesn’t even try to be that much beyond upping the bar for the intensity of the violence, but still doesn’t kick my ass.  Nispel’s film also had a certain consistent adrenaline rush to it, but this prequel lacks even that.  No momentum is ever built up.

I will indeed give this film high marks for its guts to not hold back on the violence and savagery, but I honestly feel it falls short in every other aspect.  There’s so much that seems carbon-copied from the previous film that it becomes difficult to focus on anything remotely original here.  Even the end chase sequence swings through the slaughterhouse, albeit only briefly.  In fact, the entire end chase is very brief, sacrificing (again) any attempt at building tension or a sense of imminent peril.  The screenplay wastes every opportunity to make Leatherface the focus of the movie, and to mainly explore his evolution from a deformed outcast child to a cannibalistic, psychotic, and vicious butcher, which I thought was the entire point of this prequel.  The director foregoes any attempt at creating tension, suspense, or even a passing sense of insanity in exchange for pure blunt brutality.  It’s just kill, kill, kill to no end.  Just an excuse for a body count.  The characters that we should have immense sympathy for really just fell flat for me.  I didn’t care if they lived or died.  There wasn’t nearly enough emotional depth or personality to them to forge any connection for me.  The girls are just there to scream and offer some eye candy.  I will also take issue with anyone who freely throws around the statement that this film is terrifying.  Unless a movie makes you scream out in terror, has you pissing your pants, or leaves you completely paralyzed with fear in your theatre seat, don’t dare say that this or any other film is terrifying.

Anyway, I have to ultimately say that this film is much less developed than the 2003 remake, but is indeed more intense where the violence is concerned.  I don’t see it as a good enough trade-off.  Reference Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake to see how a film of this kind is done right.  That, my fellow horror fans, was the true best horror film of 2006.  It had all the fear, madness, empathy for characters, suspense, gore, and brutality that one looks for in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film.  No sequel, prequel, rip-off, or remake has yet to do justice to Tobe Hooper’s original, unrelenting, and raw film from 1974.  This film is rather lifeless and lacks any genuine human element to connect with – something essential to any great horror film.  Ultimately, I cannot recommend The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning all that much.  If you just want pure brutality with little else to scare or entertain, this is likely for you, but it’s surely not one for me.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  The title is infamous in the history of American cinema.  It remains as one of the most disturbing films ever made.  It’s just raw unrelenting terror, a psychotic journey straight into the bowels of hell.  How anyone could ever believe they could remake such a thing is beyond my comprehension.  Of course, you throw in the name Michael Bay, and everything becomes so easily understood.  The man makes mindless big budget summer blockbusters, and hardly any of them are worth a second viewing (if even a first).  Relegating him to a producer’s role doesn’t seem like a huge step in any positive direction, but surprises can come along.  I admit that I was a detractor to the entire idea of this film.  Nothing Hollywood-produced can ever equal or even hope to surpass something as purely insane and terrifyingly real as Tobe Hooper’s original film.  The trick is not to expect such a thing because it’ll never happen.  If you compare this 2003 remake to the original film from 29 years earlier, you will inevitably despise it, and so, I am going to review this film on its own merits – which I find to be surprisingly good.

The setup is pretty simple, and quite formulaic.  A group of teens are traveling through 1973 Travis County, Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.  There’s the tough but vulnerable tomboy Erin (Jessica Biel), her affectionate boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour), the dim bulb muscle head Andy (Mike Vogel), the sort of hippie hitch-hiker from El Paso Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), and the skittish odd man out Morgan (Jonathan Tucker).  They’re singing along with “Sweet Home Alabama” (which actually wasn’t released until 1974), and enjoying a bit of weed.  Everything’s all a happy road trip until they come across a very traumatized girl, around their age, trailing along the barren highway.  A tragic turn of events with this girl forces the group to contact the local police – Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey).  This terrible twist of fate soon leads them to a large rundown house to obtain help, but what’s waiting for them there is anything but helpful.  What they encounter is a crazed backwoods family, and the murderous, relentless, chain saw wielding Leatherface.  The events of this day would become known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (depending on your disposition).

What really stands out in this film is the great casting.  Where to start?  Well, what is most important in any slasher film is the heroine.  Jessica Biel is so amazing.  Her character tumbles through a horrifying bottomless pit of terror, and she sells all of it.  She starts out very affectionate, but also tough and take charge.  Biel and Eric Balfour really have wonderful chemistry, the love between Erin & Kemper seems very genuine and heartfelt.  Early on, there’s so much sympathy built for her and the rest of the young cast.  Later on, when the chain saw revs and the terror begins, the grief and fear she emotes is so frightening real.  The tension and suspense will get to you, but it wouldn’t exist if Biel didn’t have the acting chops to make Erin such a sympathetic and real heroine.  Of course, Eric Balfour complements Biel perfectly.  He’s not a macho guy at all, he’s very genuine, and you believe, without question, that he’s fully in love with her.  He wants to spend the rest of his life with Erin.  Balfour also demonstrates a sense of leadership as well, standing firm in what he feels is best.  Mike Vogel plays the stereotypical muscle head, but plays it with a dumb sympathy.  He says the complete wrong things at the wrong times, but he really means nothing ill about it.  He’s not the brightest guy, but he’s the kind of friend you can depend on when you need him.  Jonathan Tucker is admittedly the weakling of the group, and certainly less sensitive.  Though, eventually, you can’t help but feel for the poor guy.  Ultimately, he’s just scared, freaked out over the situation at hand, and just wants to put it behind him as quickly as possible.  Finally, Erica Leerhsen plays a far less stable girl than Erin is.  Pepper was only hitching a ride down the highway, and is now in a situation she never wanted any part of.  She easily starts to break down after being terrorized by Sheriff Hoyt, and barely holds together.

On the side of the psycho family, the Hewitt clan, you pretty much have to start with Andrew Bryniarski, the newest Leatherface.  This is, by far, the most straight forward and aggressive portrayal of the character, ever.  In the original franchise continuity, Leatherface was portrayed in a few different ways, but mostly in a mentally underdeveloped fashion.  Here, he’s a ferocious animal.  He’s a rampaging bull, but appears to be more focused than ever before.  The fact that he is now named Thomas Hewitt instead of Bubba Sawyer would appear to be to distinctly differentiate the two continuities.  Still, there’s a moment or two where Leatherface seems a bit like a ridiculed little boy.  It gives a hint of character and depth to him.  The overall look of Leatherface is very hulking, but not in a Kane Hodder fashion.  Leatherface is just BIG!  Andrew Bryniarski is a 6’5″ body builder with a decent list of acting roles to his credit.  So, there’s no lack of physical screen presence on his part.  The design of Leatherface is all-new, but not foreign – the butcher’s smock remains.  As with every new film, the mask of flesh is re-designed with more detailed ideas in it.  Apart from The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I have no intentions of ever seeing, I’ve never had any issues with any of the masks I’ve seen as they all offer something unique and different.  I mean, Leatherface can’t wear the same mask of flesh for all that long.  Sooner or later, it’s going to rot away.

The screenplay by Scott Kosar (The Machinist) introduces some new elements and characters into the world of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  One such new element is Sheriff Hoyt portrayed by R. Lee Ermey, who is very creepy and sadistic.  Granted, he seems to be called upon to do the same act in most every film since Full Metal Jacket, but he does it so well.  His Sheriff Hoyt is terribly intimidating, frightening, and demented.  You just don’t know what he’s gonna do next.  He pushes these scared teens to the edge, but doesn’t let them off this ride.  It’s all about psychological torture for many of his scenes.  The rest of this fucked up family is quite good, but have significantly less screentime.  Terrence Evans plays the cranky and creepy Old Monty exceptionally well, and all the ladies really dive off the deep end, too.

Next, there’s the direction of Marcus Nispel.  He had no film credits preceding this film, just music videos.  That can get people pissing in the wrong direction.  David Fincher began as a music video director, and look at the amazing films he’s directed.  I honestly feel that Nispel has a great talent for tension and suspense.  The way he crafts every scene in this film definitely twisted my muscles up in knots, and had some chills running over me.  You may indeed get the jitters here and there.  Although, while he did film some very gory and disturbing footage, he felt the need to hold back.  Alternate cuts of scenes are present on the Platinum Series DVD, and they really made me twitch in my seat.  They would be a gore hound’s dream, but we are left with a slightly tamer final cut.  Still, there’s a lot of gore and terrifying violence to satisfy your brutal horror needs.  There’s some gutsy stuff that nobody had the gumption to do back in 2003.  Horror films had been roaming down the safe road for a long time, and this film chose to get ballsy.  It went further with the violence and brutality.  Still, it held back some for fear of overloading the audience with too much intensity and visceral gore, but as time has told, genre audiences of today can handle a lot of intensity brutality.  However, it takes a talented filmmaker to craft suspense and tension, which Nispel achieves here.

Daniel Pearl, the cinematographer of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original, returned to lense this remake.  The difference is striking, but the difference of $9.1 million in budget and 30 years of artistic evolution tends to do that.  It has a gritty beauty to it.  In the light, there’s a dry, desolate, but wide open landscape to the film.  The big Texas sky goes on for eternity creating a grim isolated feeling.  In the dark, there’s this striking, but beautiful lighting.  Probably too slick and polished for something baring this title, but it’s high contrast and very effective.  There’s a density to the darkness that enhances the isolation.  Overall, I really enjoyed the look of the film.  It’s very rich and detailed.  It sounds wrong to call it gorgeous, but that’s just how I feel about it.

The musical score by Steve Jablonsky intensifies all the tension and suspense.  It truly aids the film without overwhelming it.  I found it noticeable, but not at all in a bad way.  It really drives home the terror, as does the entire sound design.  When that chain saw revs, it’s louder and fiercer than ever before.  Also, despite the fact that the soundtrack album is filled with modern day heavy metal bands, all you hear of any of them is in the latter half of the end credits.  Rather unnecessary and out-of-place for a film set in 1973, but the studio’s just gotta have their commercial soundtrack.

Overall, I honestly find this film to be very good.  It’s not perfect as the filmmakers’ felt the need to hold back a bit on the intense violence and gore in the editing stage.  If an unrated cut were ever released, I think this drawback would be remedied.  Ultimately, standing on its own merits, Marcus Nispel’s first film is impressive and the kind of film most directors would kill for as the start of their feature film directing careers.  Sadly, Nispel’s remake of Friday The 13th ended up being a terrible failure.  Again, if you go in this film with the intent of comparing it to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original film, I don’t see how you’re gonna like it.  Your mind is probably already made up that this remake is inferior, and I agree that nothing’s ever going to measure up to that film on the same levels.  The 1974 and 2003 movies are two entirely different beasts.  No modern day $9.2 million Hollywood studio film is going to be like an $80,000 independent film from the 1970s years ago.  More importantly, you can’t recreate what Hooper accomplished, and nor should you.  I think it was wise for the filmmakers to not try to emulate anything specific from that movie, especially certain scenes.  With the way this remake was approached and shot, such a thing could only fail.  In any case, this version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is definitely worth your time.  Whether you will view it as a worthy remake is purely subjective.  It’s a good, solid horror film that does what a horror film is supposed to do – scare the crap out you.  On a final note, I found it to be invaluable and a beautiful homage to the original film to bring back the greatly talented and beloved actor John Larroquette to narrate the opening and end of the film.  His voice is as much a part of the history of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as Leatherface and Tobe Hooper.


The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film.  I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!”  Drop the misconceptions, people!  Let’s start fresh.  This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream.  The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension.  And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness.  This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years.  A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it.  What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.

This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California.  The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns.  His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth.  Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine.  There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert.  Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast.  After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway.  Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong.  After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded.  Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert.  These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962.  They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings.  The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors.  The lucky ones die first.

This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror.  Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.  There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match.  As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja.  There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat.  Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror.  A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here.  By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example.  Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be.  Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline.  What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple.  Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film.  He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience.  Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking.  Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it.  Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level.  Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.

Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact.  The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least.  From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there.  These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward.   The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic.  Their work here is worthy of major awards.  I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs.  You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits.  Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work.  In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed.  Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film.  Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen.  He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.

Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job.  This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery.  And man, is it great!  Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious.  The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations.  The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones.  They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better.  Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.

The “human” cast, as it were, are great.  Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them.  They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop.  They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD!  Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves.  We crave it, and we get it in spades.  Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea.  This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen.  The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski.  He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD!  He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized.  Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2.  He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.

Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well.  Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully.  Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last.  They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own.  Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief.  A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor.  On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING!  I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!

And goddamn, how great was this score?  Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart!  Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film!  I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant.  Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.

Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic.  Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness.  Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize.  The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything.  The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example.  There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity.  Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide.  It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this.  It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere.  Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.

Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful.  Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands?  Been way too damn long.  Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.