Earlier this year, for Live For Films’ 31 Days Of Horror I had the opportunity to write some film reviews for a genre that I love. I chose Sinister and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Next year sees the release of a new instalment in the Chainsaw Massacre franchise, for which I am writing an new article. To commemorate this, I’ve decided pulled my horror review of the 2003 version out of the bag. Enjoy.
This review contains some spoilers.
Originally banned for its extreme violence and sadistic gore, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has since gone on to be known as one of the most significant horror movies of all time, not to mention one of the most controversial.
Gaining notoriety through cult status, the film managed to spawn three sequels, despite outright bans in some countries, a troubled release pattern in others and numerous butchered re-edits. Regarded as much a classic as it is profoundly disturbing, it came as no surprise that in the early 2000s, a remake was announced, which was instantly deemed as unnecessary by many. Helmed by Marcus Nispel, produced by Michael Bay and co-produced by the original director Hooper, this 2003 remake divided fans and critics, while bringing the macabre world of the Sawyer family (now renamed Hewitt) to a new, broader audience.
Set against the off-map roads of an isolated town in Travis County, Texas, five young travellers are on a return journey from Mexico, armed with a piñata full of pot and tickets to a Skynyrd concert. It is August 1973, and as it stands, dealing with the long drive in the blistering heat is the only worry the kids have – that is until they narrowly miss hitting a mysterious young girl walking in the middle of the road. Unresponsive and covered in streams of dried blood, they bring the girl on board, but before they can determine who she is, the stranger sobs uncontrollably before pulling a gun out, pushing it into her mouth and pulling the trigger.
Traumatised by the suicide, and now with a dead body on the back seat, the five travellers seek the help of the town locals and sheriff department, although both frustratingly appear far from helpful. It is at that point that Erin (Jessica Biel) and her boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour) stumble upon a remote house, home to the notorious Hewitt family. What follows is a blood curdling series of slaughtering and torture at the hands of the Hewitt family, headed by the maniacal Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermy) and a their disfigured, chainsaw-wielding son Thomas (Andrew Bryniarski), better known as Leatherface.
Some might comment that Nispel’s remake is different enough to keep the audience guessing what might happen next, without completely losing the concept of Hooper’s original version. Some, however, would argue that the differences are substantial enough to make this less of a ‘remake’ in the true sense of the word and more of a reimagining. One of the most significant omissions in the 2003 version is the inclusion of cannibalism. Although it implies cannibalism by showing unrecognisable lumps of meat stored jars and tins in various places of the Hewitt house, the original seems to utilise cannibalism as a social commentary on consumerism. Hence, the remake appears less concerned at forming theorised structure to the narratology in this sense, and more interested in providing shocks and scares through edits, sound and cinematography.
A scene that Nispel’s version appears to be sorely missing is the excruciating climatic dinner scene, in which an abducted Sally (Marilyn Burns) is forced to sit and endure the inbred family’s appalling eating rituals while tied to a chair made out of human limbs. In its place is a scene showing Old Monty (Terrence Evans) in the lounge as the sheriff sits in his underwear while his wife Luda May (Mariette Marich) irons his pants – a scene clearly inserted to show us, with the exclusion of a screaming Erin on the floor, that the Hewitt clan operate as a normal, if not grossly dysfunctional family unit. The inclusion of the infamous dinner scene came in the form of a prequel, 2006’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, in which the eating habits of the Hewitts was reworked into the updated story. However, without Sally’s blood-curdling and desperate screams, the scene sorely lacks the atmosphere captured in the original, which unfortunately sets the tone for this ill received origin story. (You can watch Hooper’s original dinner scene on YouTube by clicking HERE.)
Considering the title, the key words being Chainsaw Massacre, an absence is the actual killings by a chainsaw. Out of the five people killed during the course of the film, only two find themselves at the wrong end of the Leatherface’s weapon of choice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the other killings and scenes of torture aren’t brutally sickening. Instead, we are offered grisly shots of beating, stabbing, glassing and amputating as the perverted and psychotic Hoyt and his demented family work their way through the group of travellers. What are present, however, are the obligatory shots of a sweaty, horrified female running terrified through the woods while Leatherface relentlessly pursues. But while Hooper’s Sally is depicted as a survivor by means of part determination/part luck, the manifestation of Erin as a survivor and hero is a commentary on how the role of females has changed in cinema since the 1970s original.
Sadly, the film decides to show a quick glimpse of Thomas Hewitt’s face unmasked, a scene that some might say (me being one of them) destroys the mystique enveloping Leatherface. Also somewhat unneeded is the supposedly ‘real-life’ stock footage that bookends the film. I must be right in thinking that by now, it’s common knowledge that the so-called ” chainsaw massacre” wasn’t a massacre at all, at least not in the way the film suggests. Instead, the original Tobe Hooper screenplay was merely inspired by the events surrounding Ed Gein, a serial killer who is suspected to have taken several victims between 1954 and 1957 who, while he did wear the skin of his dead mother, didn’t use a chainsaw and didn’t reside in Texas. Incidentally, it was Gein that inspired the films Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.
Overall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a bad remake, and is certainly better than a lot of remakes and rehashes that the film factories appear to be churning out. It is unfortunate that it came at a time when remakes and adaptations were beginning to form a large bulk of cinema listings (a trend we all know dominates the cinema of today). But there are many positive points to this film that auto-responsive haters of remakes and hardened fans of the original are going to skim over. The characters, particularly Sheriff Hoyt who is the real show stealer, aren’t the problem with this film. Nor are the violent, bloody killings, which, other than a few off-screen deaths that prevent this from being truly horrific, in general don’t hold back in terms of gore. Standout scenes include Leatherface staring into the camera wearing Kemper’s face-cum-mask, as well as a certain toe-curling scene involving a missing limb, a handful of salt and a meat hook. Instead, the problem seems to be that original is so significant in the world of horror that any remake, sequel, prequel or spin-off is going to simply live in its shadow, in terms of achievements in creating the macabre atmosphere and controversial imagery. But that doesn’t mean that this movie is not worth the watch, and it is certainly a worthy contender for a modern frightnight favourite.