Monday, November 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Female Prisoner 1316' (2004)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Apparently cheapo women-in-prison exploitation movies are still a viable subgenre, at least in Japan, and 2004's Female Prisoner 1316 (also known as Death Row Girls) hits most of the expected beats for this sort of thing. It stars your basic rebellious badass criminal, Aki Hoshino as Misaki, who comes into the hardened prison to shake things up. Here the prison is actually some sort of mysterious training camp for secret agents (or something like that; the movie isn't really interested in clarifying things), where some of the most dangerous female criminals from throughout Japan are sent without their knowledge or consent. The training mostly seems to consist of running through the woods, with a single scene of the inmates learning hand-to-hand combat. If they're being prepared to be Japan's elite fighting force against terrorism (as the warden claims to Misaki at one point), then Japan is probably screwed.

Given the number 1316 (all inmates are referred to by numbers rather than names), Misaki teams up with another inmate to escape from the training camp, which is allegedly on a remote island, although most of the scenes look like they were shot in somebody's backyard. Their escape plan is pretty poorly thought-out, but it's just a loose framework for the requisite scenes of catfights and nudity that the genre requires. None of it is particularly exciting or titillating, and the performances are fairly subdued for a movie like this, without the campy excesses that would make the movie a little more entertaining and help transcend its budgetary limitations.

Even the nudity is fairly rote, mainly in gratuitous scenes of group showers (although there are a couple of scenes in which one of the prisoners just takes off her top for no apparent reason). There's very little action, and the climactic escape attempt ends without any closure, as Misaki simply swims away from the island, with no idea of where she is or where she's going or how to survive. The plotting isn't ambiguous as much as it's lazy, with the filmmakers avoiding any explanations of what's happening presumably so they don't have to expand the scope of the movie beyond the limited available locations (aside from one brief flashback to Misaki's crimes, the whole movie takes place at the compound). 

We get a semi-offensive portrayal of a little-person guard, a couple of ridiculous sex scenes, and the discovery of a cache of skeletons under the prison, but the salaciousness is all pretty mild. There seems to be a thriving industry for softcore "pink films" in Japan (check out this absurdly comprehensive list on Letterboxd), with which I am entirely unfamiliar, so I can't say whether Female Prisoner 1316 upholds the standards of the genre. But in comparison to American exploitation movies, it's pretty tame, with all the limitations of its low production values but almost none of the charm.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Leatherface' (2017)

Once Texas Chainsaw performed surprisingly well in theaters in 2013 (especially considering its budget), it was inevitable that the producers would come up with another way to mine the franchise, and after scrapping initial plans for a sequel, they ended up going the same route as Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes did in 2006: a prequel exploring the origins of Leatherface. Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Leatherface (not to be confused, of course, with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) doesn't just rehash the typical Texas Chainsaw formula (group of young people stumbles into the clutches of Leatherface and his homicidal family) in a slightly earlier era, instead going in a different, more melancholy direction with its story.

The movie opens in 1955 with a familiar dinner scene featuring the Sawyer family torturing a captive, while young Jed Sawyer is reluctant to participate, even when handed the family talisman of a chainsaw. Later, Jed helps lure a young woman to her death at the hands of his kin, but when she turns out to be the daughter of a local cop (Stephen Dorff), Jed is taken from his family and sent to a home for troubled children. Ten years later, Sawyer family matriarch Verna (Lili Taylor) -- who was the mysterious grandmother leaving an inheritance to Alexandra Daddario's Heather in Texas Chainsaw -- shows up demanding to see her son, but the home's sadistic director tells her that all the kids have been given new names to help them start new lives, and he doesn't even know which one is Jed.

This is a cheap piece of misdirection meant to make the true identity of Leatherface a mystery for most of the movie, once Verna's visit causes a disruption that allows several of the teen inmates to escape. We follow a group that includes a hulking, mentally disabled teen named Bud (Sam Coleman), who's clearly designed to play into viewers' ideas of what Leatherface is like, but the real Jed is actually the intelligent, articulate and seemingly compassionate Jackson (Sam Strike), which is revealed in overblown fashion in the movie's final act. Never mind that his size and demeanor are nothing like any previous depiction of Leatherface (including in the 1974 original and in Texas Chainsaw, the two movies this one connects to explicitly), or that his transition into the more familiar character is abrupt and unconvincing. A good two-thirds of the movie is invested in setting up this weak, obvious twist.

Leading up to that is a sometimes soulful, sometimes gruesome story about troubled teens on the run, but Seth M. Sherwood's screenplay mostly seems to be biding time until it can get to the big Leatherface reveal. French directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, making their English-language debut, throw in some of the creatively nasty gore that their other films (including cult classic Inside) are known for, but those moments are surprisingly infrequent. The rest of the low-budget production (with Bulgaria standing in for Texas) is pretty rudimentary, with Taylor giving the best, most believable performance (although she's offscreen for most of the middle of the movie) and Dorff chewing scenery as the redneck cop out for revenge (he's also apparently the father of the redneck mayor in Texas Chainsaw, which really stretches the timeline's believability). Thanks to Maury and Bustillo, this is probably the most stylishly and confidently directed installment since Tobe Hooper's first two, but that's not really saying much.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Texas Chainsaw' (2013)

After the relative box-office failure of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in 2006, Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company relinquished the franchise rights, which eventually ended up with Lionsgate, who took a much smaller-scale approach to the production of the next movie. Also known as Texas Chainsaw 3D, the simply titled Texas Chainsaw positions itself as a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper's 1974 original, ignoring the earlier sequels (which themselves often ignored each other) and the reboot continuity of the previous two movies. By connecting itself so clearly to the classic original, Texas Chainsaw only draws more attention to its own shortcomings, which are plentiful.

The contrast is apparent from the very beginning, as this is a direct sequel in the truest sense, picking up just minutes from the end of the original movie. Instead of the customary opening narration and/or title cards, the opening credits play over three straight minutes of footage from the 1974 film, a sort of "previously on ..." recap that summarizes the horror perpetrated by the homicidal Sawyer family. Once director John Luessenhop cuts from Hooper's footage to his own, though, it's a pretty harsh transition, and the efforts to re-create the original look and feel are not very effective. After Sally's escape from the Sawyers, the local sheriff shows up at the house, demanding to arrest Leatherface (here given the name Jedidiah Sawyer, and played by Dan Yeager), and suddenly there are like twice as many family members (including one played briefly by Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface) in the house. Before the sheriff can do his job, a lynch mob of local rednecks show up and burn the place to the ground, killing all the Sawyers in the process.

Well, not all the Sawyers, of course. Obviously Leatherface somehow gets away, and a previously unseen Sawyer baby gets picked up in the confusion by a local couple, who adopt her as their own. Cut to some number of years later (the timeline is maddeningly unclear), and that baby is now Heather (Alexandra Daddario), who grew up not knowing her heritage but is drawn back in when her grandmother (whose exact connection to the slaughtered Sawyers from the beginning of the movie is also unclear) dies and leaves her a massive estate. Determined to explore her roots, she packs up a few of her easily disposable friends and heads to the Texas homestead, where Leatherface has just been chilling out in a basement for around 25 years, apparently.

The setup is at least a slightly different twist on the constantly rewritten mythology, but the first half of the movie is just standard low-budget horror fare, in the "person inherits a creepy old house" mode, as the oblivious young people stumble through the house, inadvertently setting Leatherface free. He slaughters all of Heather's friends surprisingly quickly, at which point the movie switches into its somewhat more interesting second half, with Heather learning about what really happened to her ancestors at the hands of the same redneck townspeople she's now appealing to for help. The movie changes into a twisted (and also kind of nonsensical) sort of revenge story, but it can never make Leatherface and the Sawyers into the sympathetic figures they need to be in order for the narrative pivot to work. Plus, Daddario is fine as the hot girl running from the killer (the movie goes to absurd lengths to make sure her midriff is bared at all times), but she can't quite sell Heather's gradual embrace of her psycho-killer roots.

The rest of the cast is passable at best, but the asshole mayor (who was the leader of the lynch mob that killed the Sawyers back in the indeterminate past) makes for a poor substitute villain once the sympathies ostensibly shift in Leatherface's favor. The idea of a smart, attractive, worldly young woman as the new leader of the murderous Sawyer clan (and caretaker of Leatherface) is sort of promising, but of course the changing fortunes of this franchise mean that it'll never be fully explored. And this cash-in movie is more interested in delivering the expected gruesome violence (which isn't as intense as in the remake duology, as visceral as in the original or as absurd as in the more comedic sequels) than in fully interrogating the series mythology.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning' (2006)

To their credit, the producers of the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were reluctant to make a sequel, even though the movie was a success at the box office. Rather than leaving well enough alone, though, they decided instead to make a prequel, which isn't exactly a more noble choice. And really, with a handful of small tweaks, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning could have easily been a sequel to the previous movie. It follows the same basic formula, as a group of young people on a road trip through rural Texas stumble across the Hewitt family and get slaughtered. For the first time, the movie doesn't open with text and/or narration with "facts" about the case (although John Larroquette returns to deliver some narration at the end). Instead, an opening sequence shows the birth of Thomas "Leatherface" Hewitt (played again by Andrew Bryniarski, the only actor ever to play Leatherface twice) in 1939 literally on the floor of a slaughterhouse, and his subsequent discovery by Luda Mae Hewitt in a dumpster outside the facility. But the bulk of the action is set in 1969, just a few years before the previous movie, with the same generic late '60s/early '70s period detail, and not much about it would have to be different for it to be set in 1974 instead.

The young people this time around and headed to a military base so that brothers Eric (Matt Bomer) and Dean (Taylor Handley) can be shipped off to Vietnam, Eric for his latest tour and Dean for the first time. The looming threat of Vietnam is a major background element in the original movie, which of course was made when that was also a major background element of real life, but here it's used just to generate some basic conflict between the brothers (Dean plans to flee to Mexico rather than allow himself to be drafted) and to play with co-star R. Lee Ermey's iconic drill sergeant role from Full Metal Jacket. Ermey is back along with Terrence Evans and Marietta Marich as members of the Hewitt family, making this the TCM movie with the highest quotient of returning actors.

They all return to play the Hewitts in a slightly earlier time, when they're just starting to explore their homicidal impulses. The impetus for this turn toward murder is the shutdown of the local slaughterhouse, where the mentally challenged Tommy has worked for his whole life. It doesn't take much for the Hewitts to move from killing animals to killing people, starting with the local sheriff. The makers of The Beginning seem to think that audiences were desperate to know how Ermey's Hoyt became sheriff (he's just impersonating the murdered lawman), how Evans' Uncle Monty lost his legs and how Leatherface started wearing people's faces, but they fail to answer the most important question: Who cares? The plot minutiae connecting this to the previous movie are superfluous, and its nature as a prequel means that we already know that all of the killers will make it out fine (minus some teeth and legs, at least).

So director Jonathan Liebesman just gets down to the gruesome task of hacking up the main characters, including Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird as the brothers' girlfriends. Brewster shows more determination in the "final girl" role than Jessica Biel demonstrated in the previous movie, but she's much less of a defined character, with no background other than being in love with Eric and slightly sad that he's leaving for Vietnam. There's also a biker gang that serves no discernible purpose other than raising the body count, with Lee Tergesen showing up as a badass, gun-toting biker only to be dispatched by the next scene. The violence is perfunctory, and the increased focus on the Hewitts (especially Ermey's scenery-chewing performance) makes the movie even less emotionally engaging. Even Leatherface, whose ostensible origin story is the movie's hook, gets minimal screentime, and the explanation for his name is that ... he literally wears a leather mask on his face (before developing the habit of wearing the faces of his victims). It's just one more haphazard element in a movie that never justifies its own existence.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (2003)

Nine years after Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation seemingly killed the franchise, Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company acquired the rights and put together a slick remake/reboot from music video director Marcus Nispel (who'd later go on to direct the Friday the 13th remake as well). Although it follows the broad strokes of the original story, and is set around the same era (in 1973), this new Texas Chainsaw Massacre also adds and changes a lot, with different characters, more plot elements and a serious increase in blood and guts. Those changes are mostly for the worse, although Nispel puts together a serviceable mainstream horror movie that's more accessible and watchable than the previous TCM sequels, albeit also much less distinctive or interesting.

The nods to the original movie also include getting the same cinematographer (Daniel C. Pearl) and recruiting John Larroquette to once again handle the opening narration. There's no onscreen text, but otherwise the movie opens similarly to all the rest in the series, with a new set of "facts" about the original crime. In this case, we're told that the massacre committed at the home of the Hewitt family (renamed from Sawyer and then Slaughter) has been a cold case for the last 30 years, which sort of puts the filmmakers in a bind when it comes to potential sequels (not that it ended up being an issue). Other than a shot of a filing cabinet, though, there are no present-day reflections, with grainy footage of a police crime-scene investigation (similar to the snapshots in the original movie) serving as the story's framing sequence.

As in the original, the new TCM features five young people (here possibly slightly older than the original characters) on a road trip through rural Texas in a beat-up van. Nispel and screenwriter Scott Kosar add in more plot details, with a bit more back story on the characters' relationships, an actual destination in mind (they're on the way to Dallas for a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert) and a quickly discarded subplot about smuggling pot from Mexico. But of course all of that becomes more or less irrelevant once they find themselves stranded in the backwaters of Texas after picking up a crazed hitchhiker. Here, though, the hitchhiker is a victim of the homicidal family rather than a member, and she commits suicide in the group's van, necessitating their stopover.

From there, they fall into the clutches of the Hewitts, including one who poses as (or actually is, maybe) the local sheriff, played by R. Lee Ermey at his most unhinged. The other Hewitts are less distinctive, although this movie does offer the best take on Leatherface (played here by Andrew Bryniarski) since the original, returning him to a figure of menace after his more cartoonish appearances in previous movies. Nispel relies more on copious gore than on building suspense, and he doesn't skimp on the chainsawing. Jessica Biel is sympathetic but not always convincing as the scared young woman who finds the resourcefulness to get away (or possibly is just lucky), and the rest of the young cast never rise above chainsaw-fodder. The showy gore and the dingy visuals (everything in the Hewitt home is either grimy or dripping or both) fit in with the movie's modern horror aesthetic, but they don't do much to connect it to the original. As I said in my initial review (which doesn't appear to be online anymore), this is tolerable as a mainstream horror movie of 2003, but it doesn't do justice to the legacy of the movie it's remaking.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation' (1994)

Shot in 1994, premiered at South by Southwest in 1995 and barely released in theaters in 1997, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation never had the chance to be more than a cult object, which is mostly what it's become. Although just as terrible as the third movie in the series, The Next Generation is more of an eccentric vision and thus more interesting to watch, even if it's largely incoherent. Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the original movie with Tobe Hooper, returns to serve as both writer and director (it remains the only movie he's directed), and if the second movie was Hooper's twisted perversion of the original approach, then The Next Generation is Henkel's. Once again, the movie more or less ignores previous continuity to serve as a direct sequel to the original, an idea this franchise returns to again and again.

The opening text crawl is also back, serving to rewrite continuity as it contradicts the third movie's assertion that one of the original perpetrators had been apprehended; here we are told that none of the original murderers were ever caught, and that two "minor incidents" have occurred since then, which is an odd (and inaccurate) way to describe the second and third movies. Anyway, once again it also doesn't really matter, since the homicidal family (renamed the Slaughters from the Sawyers) is made up of completely new characters whose relation to previous villains is unclear. They've got their own Leatherface (played by Robert Jacks), of course, but at this point Leatherface is almost like a code name and persona that anyone can adopt, rather than an actual character.

The most notable aspect of the movie (and part of the reason its release was contested for years) is the presence of pre-fame stars Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, who'd both appeared in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused the previous year and were part of the mostly Austin-based cast. While The Next Generation was busy finding distribution, the two stars hit it big (McConaughey with A Time to Kill, Zellweger with Jerry Maguire), and their reps reportedly worked to block the release of this low-budget horror embarrassment. The truth is that it's not really an embarrassment for either of them: Zellweger is solid as the would-be victim who finds her inner strength, and McConaughey is amusingly hammy as the leader of the Slaughter family, in a much more effective performance as a psychopath than his recent turn in The Dark Tower. He even gets to throw in a signature "all right, all right, all right."

Zellweger plays one of a group of teens who wander off from their prom and get lost in the woods where they encounter the Slaughter family, who apparently live like a 10-minute drive from a major suburb. The first movie made it seem like Leatherface and his kin were hidden away in some mystical backwater, but here Darla (Tonie Perenski), the Slaughters' accomplice, literally goes out and picks up fast food at one point in between murders. McConaughey plays Vilmer, this movie's version of the seemingly sane family member who turns out to be the craziest of them all. He has some sort of bionic attachment for his leg that he controls with old TV remotes (!), and the increasingly bizarre final act seems to imply that he might not be human at all.

That final act, in which a mysterious Englishman shows up in a limo and tells Zellweger's Jenny that the Slaughters are part of some grand Illuminati conspiracy meant to use fear to inspire transcendental experiences in their victims (similar to the motivation for the villain in the Saw series), is just insane enough to keep the movie kind of intriguing. While Henkel at first seems to be going for a generic, slightly self-aware teen slasher movie in the vein of other contemporary horror films, he takes things in weirder and weirder directions as the story goes on and the family gets more screen time. Leatherface himself is often relegated to the background, barely getting to use his signature chainsaw and never actually chainsaw-massacring anyone. He's made into a full-on Buffalo Bill-style crossdresser in the finale, adding yet another nonsensical layer to the story that Henkel doesn't bother exploring or explaining. The commercial release of the movie cut seven minutes from the original version, which might account for the choppy pacing but probably can't justify the onslaught of utter nonsense.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III' (1990)

With Tobe Hooper completely out of the picture and New Line Cinema (home of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises) picking up the rights, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III ended up a generic slasher movie, as the studio tried hard to turn Leatherface into the next Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees (hence the prominence of his name in the title). As different as they may have been from each other, the first two TCM movies were each bold, unique visions, but TCM3 is never anything more than a pale copy of other horror movies of the time, and not even good ones at that. (Although it does have a bitchin' theme song by metal band Lȧȧz Rockit.) Mired in controversy at the time over supposed extreme violence that got it slapped with an X rating, it now comes off as tame and rote, going through the motions of what some executives decided were key elements of a horror franchise.

For the third time, the movie opens with a text crawl and somber narration, although it's already rewriting continuity; while TCM2 indicated that none of the perpetrators of the original crime had ever been caught (and that the Sawyer family was considered a sort of urban legend), here the movie claims that one of the Sawyers was tried, convicted and executed in 1981, and that the case was assumed closed. It also says that original Final Girl Sally (whose uncle, played by Dennis Hopper, was out for revenge in TCM2) previously died in 1977 in a "private health care facility" (presumably an insane asylum), although there was no mention of her death in the previous movie. All of this is more or less irrelevant anyway, as the movie introduces an entirely new Sawyer family whose relation to previous characters is unclear, although they do have their own Leatherface (now played by R.A. Mihailoff). Is he the same Leatherface as in the previous two movies? No one involved in making this movie seems to care.

All they care about is lining up a few new hapless victims to be slaughtered by Leatherface and his homicidal family, including three new brothers (one of whom is played by Viggo Mortensen), a kid sister and a wheelchair-bound mother. The cannibalism and meat-processing angle from the first two movies is downplayed in favor of indiscriminate murder, as the Sawyers stalk a road-tripping couple (Kate Hodge and William Butler) and a military-trained survivalist (Ken Foree) through the Texas backwoods. There's a brief nod toward character development with the bickering couple at the beginning, but otherwise the movie is just a grim march toward death for the main characters, along with some hammy acting from the various Sawyers (although Mortensen comes off fairly well).

There's not nearly as much gore or graphic violence as one might expect from the ratings controversy, nor is there the kind of prolonged torture of the finales of the previous two movies. When Hodge's Michelle is held captive by the Sawyers and forced to sit at their twisted family dinner table, it's just an obligatory box to check off, like Freddy invading a previously good dream or Jason popping back up after being seemingly defeated. Those characters developed into iconic horror villains not because of some studio mandate, but because audiences responded to them and filmmakers added creative elements to their depictions. Leatherface is a horror icon, too, but this cynically calculated attempt to make him a household brand name is not the reason why.