The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

You know, a skin condition can do that.
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2003
Director: 
Marcus Nispel
Starring: 
Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vovel, Eric Balfour
The Setup: 
Remake of the classic horror film.
Discussion: 

So I pulled out the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre to watch for a second time, and was blown away by its filmmaking quality, macabre sense of humor, and prolonged sequences of sheer, abject terror. So naturally I wanted to see this one again, to see what was changed and speculate on why, and draw inferences about how this film was altered to adapt to changes in the culture that have occurred in the meantime. It turns out to not be all that bad on its own as a film, but when put next to the original, becomes lame, tame and pointless. Although this is strictly-speaking a review of the remake, it will include much comparison with the original film—and will completely spoil all surprises for the original, so be warned.

We open with a narration telling us that this is a true story [it’s not] that took place in 1973 [the year of the original film], and now it can be told. The original’s saying it was a true story when it wasn’t was a reference to the lies the government was telling during and after Vietnam, but here… I think it just refers to the original film. The original opened with the discovery that people in a certain area had been digging up bodies and arranging them into “twisted works of art,” and that the area was filled with people who used to work in slaughterhouses, killing cattle with hammers, but new inventions had put them out of business. So the idea was that this economic change had left all these macabre, otherwise unskilled workers with nothing else to do, and they started making sick little sculptures. This also provided context for the teen victims’ trip, as they went to a local graveyard to make sure their relatives’ graves had not been disturbed.

Here the teens are returning from Mexico and have tickets to a concert that night. They are supposed to look “70s,” but since 70s styles had come back in vogue by the early 2000’s, what they look like is one of those Levi’s ads about today’s youth who have stringy hair and are incessantly romping in fields or walking down dusty country roads I their vintage cowboy boots. We are hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” on the soundtrack. They pull out some marijuana and smoke it, except for Final Girl Erin [Jessica Biel] who, we learn, did not smoke in Mexico and ain’t going to smoke now. Thus begins Erin’s smug moral shaming of everyone who isn’t her, and especially anyone who is male, which I believe, in the screenwriter’s mind, is part and parcel of what makes her our final girl. She gets wind that the guys are smuggling back two pounds of grass, which she has a fit at her boyfriend, Kemper, about. Yeah, she’s a barrel of laughs, this Erin. Just a joy to be around. If you ever want to know every single thing you have ever done wrong in your life and every tiny thing that’s wrong with you, just ask Erin, she’ll be happy to tell you.

Also of interest is the character of Morgan. Not so much in himself, but in how he was changed from the original film. There he was Franklin, brother of Sally, who ended up being the final girl [although her fate was not so clear from the beginning, as it is here]. Frank was confined to a wheelchair, and was pretty much the world’s most irritating character. This was interesting, as it brought out in the viewer one’s uncharitable feelings toward handicapped characters [the care of whom is really about the last thing you want to worry about when in a horror film], forced one to be aware of one’s wish to see the irritating character killed—in light of the reality you probably WOULD see him killed, and he’s handicapped, and aren’t you a bad person for thinking that—and, finally, to deal with all the macabre and evil humor the film gets out of abusing the Franklin character for laughs. It was a very uncomfortable element in an uncomfortable movie. Here we are seeing Morgan seated at a right angle to the rest of the seats in the van—implying that he might be in a wheelchair—and as I watched I was starting to feel “This movie is pretty ballsy if it’s going to wait ten minutes to let us know this guy is in a wheelchair,” but no—turns out he’s not. He’s just an average 70s dude via Abercrombie. And thus there is absolutely nothing special or interesting about him. He IS still irritating, though.

Okay, now the first major sequence—the hitchhiker! Only here she’s a catatonic young woman walking in the middle of the road. Erin insists that they stop for her, and gets out of the van and runs up to her. The other girl, Pepper, also helps the young woman into the van, while all the guys do nothing, because as you know all women are moral and compassionate, while all men are essentially selfish and just want sex. They see that the woman is in trouble, and are going to take her to the hospital, but she sees that they’re heading in the general direction of the bad people, so she fishes a gun out of her coochie and blows her own brains out. This is then followed by a camera pull-back that goes through the hole in her skull, through the hole in the back window, and out the rear of the van. Then all our new cast get out and are all, like, oh my God, like, SO totally freaked! I mean, like—So. Totally. Okay?

So let’s compare. In the original, they pick up a male hitchhiker, who just starts acting more and more erratic, and has a knife, and cuts himself and one of the teens, until they’re finally forced to shove him out of the van, at which point he draws a symbol in blood on their van and chases after them. He later turns out to be part of the murderous family. The new version is creepy—where the original is terrifying—the difference being that once the girl kills herself, she’s dead. Not alive, dangerous, and trapped in the tiny van with them, like the original hitchhiker. Furthermore, the original hitchhiker getting away and marking them leave him out there waiting and implies that someone else might be looking for them. For these teens, the girl is dead, and while that’s freaky, as far as they know they are not in danger.

So they discuss just dumping her body, which Erin is like, SO against, which means they’ll have to call the Sheriff, which means they’ll have to dump the 2 pounds of pot they smuggled from Mexico, which Erin also sees as an opportunity to issue some haughty attitude. They drive to the local gas station / bar / butcher, which has an old moldy pig’s head on display. The woman behind the bar calls the Sheriff, who plans to be there in about two hours. But these kids have a concert to get to! So they issue some snide teen snot to the lady, who is not impressed. They are told to meet the sheriff at this nasty old barn, and dutifully go there. In the original they wander to a gas station, and have to wait around for gas to be delivered later that afternoon, which is why they go looking at the spooky old house—seeing if they can get some gas. The guy at the gas station tells them not to go poking around the old houses they’re headed to. Not so in the remake, where the entire town seems to be in on the plot.

They drive off to the barn—whereupon we have a virtual repeat of the pull-back through the window hole [sans the head this time], which is a huge mistake, as it was obviously intended as such a “power shot” they should have left it as the only one. Anyway, they arrive at this nasty rusted out structure, where they discuss whether they should just leave the body there and go to the concert. You can guess who thinks staying is the moral thing to do, and the old “that’s somebody’s daughter” is invoked. Um, isn’t EVERYONE the child of someone? Then they meet a feral boy, who tells them that the Sheriff’s house is just round the way. So Erin and Kemper decide to go there. Erin, by the way, is wearing a white wife-beater tied at the navel to expose her belly and accentuate her tits, and those low-slung jeans that were in vogue in 2003 [but NOT in 1973]. She is greeted by an old, wheelchair-bound man, who regards her suspiciously and lets her use the phone. Then she can’t find him, and he calls for help from upstairs. He is on the floor of the bathroom, and wants her help to get back in the wheelchair. In one shot, we see that he is just using this as an excuse to grope her ass, which is sleazy, but it’s getting to be about what we expect from this version. While this is happening, Kemper wanders in downstairs, finds a kitchen full of hanging dirty clothes and animal parts [the analog of the room full of bones from the original]. Leatherface appears out of nowhere and bludgeons him, drags him back and slams the big steel door held over from the original. We see him at work in his basement, where we briefly see the head of Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles on the table. For me, in-jokes at crucial moments kind of deflate the tension, and regardless of whatever criticism Knowles may have directed at producer Michael Bay, it is highly unlikely Knowles will regard this as a stinging retort. Ugh.

Anyway, Erin eventually back to her friends. While she was away, the Sheriff, played by R. Lee Ermey of Full Metal Jacket, and by far the best thing about this movie, shows up. He is just bizarre and hilarious and, as others are fond of saying, seems like the only one in on the joke. He makes the blond Abercrombie model Morgan help him Saran Wrap the head of the dead girl, then throws her in the back trunk of his police car. It can’t be said that this film doesn’t have a sense of humor, as it gets a lot of mileage out of the great effort the reverence the teens treat the corpse with, only to have the Sheriff, who they thought would appreciate their efforts and scold them for anything less, just tosses her in the trunk like so much spoiled meat. Anyway, the dude below is Morgan, and I just love the suspicious bimbo look he has there. I was amusing myself inventing lines for him like “Yo, don’t chainsaw me, bro! VERY not cool.”

SPOILERS > > > So as Leatherface is going through Kemper’s effects, he finds an engagement ring—he was going to propose! Although given Erin in this movie, he probably met the kinder fate. Not that Kemper seemed to be any prize himself. The whole appearance of the engagement ring and the easy irony it is supposed to convey is… nauseating. Anyway, Erin and Andy go back to the house and she distracts the old man while he sneaks in and looks around. The old man gets wise and bangs his cane on the floor to summon Leatherface—this is one of the few genuinely effective original touches. The kids run, and we have this LONG sequence of Leatherface chasing Andy through the requisite photogenic expanse of hanging white sheets. Only they’re off-white and tea-stained, another attempt to hammer us with the decay and grossness of the hillbillies. The chase goes on so long that you start to realize that this field of hanging sheets must be the length of a football field, and I was also amusing myself during this time imagining Leatherface in the supermarket aisle, pondering his detergents, wondering which will get his whites their whitest. Plus he might suffer from set-in stains. Anyway, Andy loses a calf and foot in the struggle, and gets brought downstairs and given the meat-hook treatment. Woah, bummer dude!

Meanwhile Erin has gotten back to the van and—my, that girl is simply not very articulate at all. Okay sure, she was just chased by a psychotic killer, but she could mention something like this to her friends, rather than just trying to start the van [and neatly flooding it, the idiot], but she is an extension of the current idea amongst the under-30 that being inarticulate means you are genuine and sincere. Anyway, then Ermey shows up again, finds a roach, accuses the kids of doing drugs, and uses this as an excuse to torment them! I love this guy. He torments Morgan particularly, in a way that was slightly amusing, all thanks to Ermey, although at the same time you can feel the movie drifting further and further what the original was about and into something, surprisingly, MORE sadistic. Soon we find out that Erin knows how to hot-wire a car, a skill she learned in JUVIE!!! That is too precious. This total goody-two-shoes simpering little whiner was in juvie. Love it. Around this time Ermey shouts out something that occurred to me way back when Little Miss Bossy Erin was telling them they HAD to do this and that to be all right and moral: “You guys shouldn’t have messed with that little girl! You brought all of this on yourselves!” Which is a very good point because, much as we’re suppose to side with Erin and how she is like, SO TOTALLY right about everything, and she IS our Final Girl [which is obvious from the first second of the film], the fact remains that if they hadn’t listened to Erin, HADN’T stopped for the girl, HADN’T gone to report the event, HADN’T waited for the Sheriff to just dump the body—none of this would have happened! They’d be at their concert and happy, all limbs still attached!

So then Leatherface attacks them out at the van [you will notice there are exponentially more chainsaw SPARKS in this movie than the previous version] and Pepper meets an ignominious end, and Erin sees that Leatherface has made a new face—out of Kemper! That’s when Erin can be quite sure that things are not going to end well. Erin runs and ends up in a trailer with these two women, one obese, one looking like she’s enduring chemo, and a baby. They are really QUITE insistent that Erin drink some tea, and she has a sip, and is drugged and gone by the time she realizes that the baby was stolen by some passing tourists and guess what, they DO have a phone. She passes out. But before she does, we find out the story of Leatherface—that he is a sweet, delightful, misunderstood little boy who people were mean to because he had a “skin condition.” We had earlier seen him at his Holly Hobbie Sewing Center, working without his mask, and discovered that basically he looks like a strange guy with a hole where his nose should be. We’ll come back to the topic of learning Leatherface’s “backstory” later.

When she wakes up she is held down, her head held between Ermey’s legs. This scene is the equivalent of the family dinner scene in the original, her head between his legs [facing forward] alluding to sexual activity the way grandpa sucking her finger in the original alluded to sexual activity. Eventually she escapes, and gets down in the basement, where she discovers Andy, hanging there and still alive. After a half-hearted attempt to free him, he begs her to kill him, which she does. This is supposed to be some sort of character crucible for her. You’ll notice that all the blood falls straight down, and would be quite easy to avoid if she didn’t decide to sit down and have her emotional breakdown right under it. And you’ll also notice that she doesn’t actually GET much of it on herself during her “I’ll just sit here under the blood flow while having my emotional breakdown” moment, yet in the next scene, she has blood all over her. Anyway, from here on out it’s all run, run, chase, chase, hide, hide, and I fast-forwarded through all of it.

Eventually she cuts off Leatherface’s arm and escapes. She gets into a passing truck, but he’s heading in the direction of the farm and now SHE’S the one screaming about how they can’t go back there. If she had yanked a gun out of her vajayjay and blown her own head off, now THAT would be an ending. After more fight and suchlike she ends up stealing the police car and running over Ermey. There is the last Leatherface lunge at the car occurs, and it is not followed by his little insane solo dance like in the original. A shot tells us that Erin has stolen the baby and is taking it to safety, and possibly adopt it herself. We return to the fake newsfootage and end with a freeze frame of Leatherface looking craaa-zeee!
< < < SPOILERS END

This is an example of one of those odd paradoxes in which we can show much more gore and include more psychological perversion, and yet, rather than the film being MORE intense, it is far LESS intense. There are a few factors. The first is that whereas the original film was a small, homemade indie thing that was showing in dirty theaters and had an air of the debauched about it, so there was more of a sense of watching something small and personal with much more possibly for something unforeseen to happen—which allows for the creation of genuine tension. This version obviously comes from a major studio and is produced by Michael Bay and is opening in thousands of multiplexes… so the chances anything REALLY dark and subversive is going to happen are very slim. And this thing is indeed hyper-mainstream in every way. For example, below we have a comparison between a shot from this movie and a Levi’s ad.

Part and parcel of that are the characters, who, despite supposedly existing in the 70s, are definitely youngsters of the early 00s. We have already discussed their Abercrombie looks and outfits [which is a bit funny, as the mainstream look at the time was a 70s throwback anyway], but they are also of the 00s in attitude… they are rude, experience no regrets or second thoughts, expect their emotional outbursts to take precedence over all considerations, and generally just seem to have no capacity for self-reflection. Especially Erin, who betrays no moment of self-doubt whatsoever, despite the fact that she was indirectly responsible for everything that happened to them, and all of her friends being killed. Which is a big part of the larger shift in attitude behind the worldview each film espouses.

In the original, the teens talked about astrology on the drive out, one of them saying bad signs were ascending. In the remake, there is no astrology, but instead a discussion about how there are no accidents, everything happens for a reason. In the original they were going to see if their relatives’ graves had been disturbed and later to see Franklin’s grandfather’s house, which bespeaks a certain connection to people and their heritage, whereas here the kids are on the way back from Mexico to a concert with two pounds of marijuana, all self-centered ends. In the original the kids don’t go looking for trouble, and everything that happens to them is largely the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the remake they try to do a good deed, and all of their resulting troubles are punishment for that—itself somewhat of a statement—but let’s also point out that what happened to them was a result of their decisions. So what am I getting at? The original was all about randomness and how sometimes bad things JUST HAPPEN, whereas the remake is all about intentionality, decisions made, and how there are no accidents. So it’s a difference of worldview, and personally I find it scarier to think that something horrendous could happen to anyone, even good people, as opposed to the tamer idea that things happen to one based on one’s actions and decisions, which implies a much larger degree of control over one’s fate.

Another modern worldview update related to the previous one just mentioned is that in the original the protagonist merely escaped with her life, which was enough, and which remains in line with the random occurrence worldview we have discussed. But that’s not enough anymore, and after all these events that follow on decisions made, it’s not enough for Erin to simply get away—she must TRIUMPH. So she ends up inflicting some serious injuries on her way out, and she saves an innocent soul who would otherwise end up a victim. Because in this film’s world view it all HAS to mean something, it has to have been FOR something… it can’t have simply been a random experience that has no meaning. And all of this just makes the film more mainstream, as it follows the expected moral patterns we expect, and ultimately lessens its impact, as the range of possibilities it could explore grows ever more finite.

One last point of comparison to go along with our thoroughly modern teens is that this film is motivated by urban prejudice against the rural. In the original this family was rendered obsolete by the introduction of modern slaughter technology, giving the film socio-economic overtones, and the family victimized the dead and living alike, making it seem like they’re just really macabre, bizarre people. In the remake, they are seriously IN THE BUSINESS of finding hapless victims and killing them—it seems to be their main focus and all they do. Which again points to the increased INTENTIONALITY of everything here. But this is surrounded by numerous points in which the kids turn up their noses as what rednecks everyone is and how GROSS their environment is. So ultimately the implication is that if these people are such loser rednecks, like, OF COURSE they’re going to turn into psycho killers. I mean, HELLO.

Overall, you could do worse, and this one has an amusingly sadistic sense of humor and that nice performance by Ermey. But it makes me very sad to think that someone might see this and think that there’s no need to see the original, or that they even tell the same story. Although at the same time it’s nice that the original still maintains its power and is not diluted by this later, largely irrelevant version. You MUST see the original. No one is going to say that about this version.

Should you watch it: 

Up to you. Probably most interesting in comparison to the original.

RELATED MOVIES:
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE [1974] is the original, is fucking terrifying, and is a work of genius