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Friday, December 3, 2021

‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Kick-Started the Modern Franchise Remake With Relentless Inhumanity [Revenge of the Remakes]

Welcome to Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

Without 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, would this column even exist? Platinum Dunes — Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form’s production company — tested the post-9/11 horror waters with a malicious, dampened remake that’d pave the way for an onslaught of modernized favorites to follow afterward. Their “patient zero” remake kickstarted a nostalgia-serving trend that defines aughts horror output, alongside other famous reanimated icons like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and John Ryder. Marcus Nispel’s reimagining of a Texas slaughterhouse classic grossed $107.4 million on a modest $9.5 million budget and ushered in an era that horror fans would — at the time — lament on internet forums citing unoriginality, yet now remember with newfound fondness since online rage has shifted focus.

Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s 1974 classic is an “untouchable” for infinite horror faithful, which might help explain the remake’s paltry critical reception. One also has to consider the rise of perverse torture porn antics à la Saw that’d be villainized by mainstream critics, furthering a genre stigma. “’Inspired by a true story’ presumably adds to the sordid thrills; maybe we should look forward to entertainments about Nazis torturing children,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader. Hateful rejections of 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre seethed, but now the film is remembered as one of the spectacle successes upon a reevaluation of the 2000s’ remake avalanche.

Those who pave the way often face the harshest adversity, as history repeats.

The Approach

John Larroquette’s narration is a familiar return to the 1970s Lonestar State (Of Fear), recalling the atrocious acts committed by a fictional killer named Leatherface based on the likeness and methods of Ed Gein. It’s the same opening text crawl from the original; then it’s not. Larroquette reads until he’s interrupted by a grainy, first-generation video filming device that brings us into Leatherface’s workshop-slash-butchery. Law enforcement officers descend wooden stairs into the beast’s chamber, only to stop before any carnage is committed — no matter, because Nispel and writer Scott Kosar have already separated their franchise reboot as different. Hooper and Henkel savor the length of time between Leatherface’s grand reveal and the ignorance of their travelers. Nispel and Kosar adopt a more straightforward stalker-sinister horror blueprint that sets stages early and often.

Once Larroquette finishes reading the film’s preamble, the narrative grasps onto something still indistinguishable. Five friends are driving through Texas’ sweltering heat, unbeknownst to the monsters they’re about to encounter. Jessica Biel fills in as Erin, the eventual final girl, flanked by snarker Morgan (Jonathan Tucker), inseparable makeout machines Pepper (Erica Leerhsen) and Andy (Mike Vogel), plus her chauffeur and boyfriend, Kemper (Eric Balfour). Their destination is a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert after stopping in Mexico to purchase pounds of marijuana. Visions of dope smoke and southern rockers dance in their heads until a visibly distraught hitchhiker blows her brains through their back windshield with a concealed weapon (between her legs).

As per “dark and gritty” standards made famous by the nastiness of remakes during the height of Platinum Dunes’ takeover, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw is grimily lit and washed in muck. It’s a trimmer story than what Hooper and Henkel script since there’s no equivalent to a Hardesty family connection or reason to be around Leatherface beyond “wrong place, wrong time.” The vast difference in hitchhiker methods is the telltale to how both films approach their contextual horrors — Henkel obsesses over a “moral schizophrenia” that defines the Sawyer clan as they jabber, bicker and torture Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns). Kosar channels the demons within and values “good vs. evil” adversity as told through chainsaw massacres against whimpering arena rock fans.

Does it Work?

There’s such confidence in the film’s distinguished disgust that is impossible to ignore as nightmare fuel. Some might describe Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as cartoonish at times — the relic elder Sawyer sucking on Sally’s finger — while Marcus Nispel’s gross-out gamut provides a meaner Leatherface. Gunnar Hansen is the prototype Leatherface actor, imbuing these animalistic yet childish qualities into an aproned murderer who’s acting out his family’s sickest interests. Andrew Bryniarski confronts the challenge of playing Leatherface in 2003’s remake the same way Kane Hodder takes to Jason Voorhees, becoming the even-more brick shithouse incarnation of Leatherface. He’s all malice, peeping from holes in walls, and the thickest, mightiest predator that charges like twenty frothing bulls. It works because Bryniarski doesn’t aim to beat Hansen and only honors an icon through alternate imposition.

Scott Kosar and Nispel go bleaker, meaner, and doubly unforgiving in their remake. I truthfully think Kim Henkle and Hooper create something more criminally and psychotically interesting, but 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is unparalleled fright-night architecture. Erin’s gang locates the renamed Hewitt mansion with haste, Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey plays a headliner deviant) sniffs around the skull fragments in their backseat while making pit-of-your-stomach sick remarks, and warnings are everywhere. The hitchhiker’s fatal gunshot alone is a red flag that wants to ensure you anticipate a brewing storm after cinematographer Daniel Pearl pulls the camera through the women’s gaping cranial hole as a nauseating boast. Where 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre owes its inflicted trauma to cackling mongrels whose dinner banter and behaviors are reprehensible overtones, 2003’s heaviest moments lean on Leatherface as a soulless murderer. More chases through drying laundry, close-ups on his crudely stitched masks, and time spent in his blood, petroleum jelly, and mud-slathered basement.

Nispel sees Leatherface as an amalgamation of sequels, in the same way 2009’s Friday the 13th gives us the Jason made popular not until Friday The 13th: Part III (hockey mask, machete). It’s a very wet, soaked-through movie, whether that’s Leatherface letting juices spill everywhere or the abundance of soggy downpours while Erin scrambles away from danger. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre billows horror under the sun’s beating rays — what I’ve considered “Sunny Scary” horror elsewhere — while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre considers nightshades and shadows as better landscape accents. Both are adept at their approaches, with Nispel’s traditional usage of moonlight and intimate camera fixations on closer framing as effective as they’ve ever been throughout the genre’s history.

The Result

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre somehow outdoes its source in terms of the relentless inhumanity that devastates on screen. A character’s death is never just an assassination. Maybe that’s Kemper’s proposal ring plopping into gunky viscera runoff from his mutilated body, never to adorn Erin’s finger. Perhaps that’s Sheriff Hoyt’s disturbing sexualization of death or his forcing of Morgan to reenact the nameless woman’s fateful trigger pull. It’s a sleazier adaptation of derangement and public enemies as amputee Monty (Terrence Evans) gropes Erin while she hoists him into his chair, and stolen babies are yanked from now-deceased parents. The inclusion of Jedidiah Hewitt (David Dorfman) as a child who aids Erin despite the eldest Hewitt’s scorn is supposed to instill a little hope, but that’s all erased by the chainsaw eliminations and time spent watching Leatherface sew together new fleshy facial covers.

The hiring of original cinematographer Daniel Pearl does ensure there’s connective tissue between remake and original, despite the murkier overwash that drowns out most sunlight. As Erin dashes through hazy woodlands after nightfall, we’re transported to identical sequences where Sally flees Leatherface. Pearl loves capturing the Hewitt residence — what looks like a converted plantation homestead — the same way he does with the Sawyer abode. Both estates hide secrets until Pearl and either director allow. Although, he’s given a fiercer imperative in the remake that provides breathless cat-and-mouse dashes as victims sprint away from the lunatic waving a smoking chainsaw. Pearl does well to embrace the haunting and overwhelming physicality of Bryniarski’s Leatherface, like a shark unable to refocus until he’s devoured his latest bleeding target.

Marcus Nispel is respectful to Tobe Hooper amidst newfound aggression because the basics are all present. The Hewitts still operate a barbeque gas station, act without remorse, and allow livestock to wander their hallways. Leatherface wallops Kemper with a hammer as his first abduction, impales Andy on a meat hook like Pam (Teri McMinn), and Erin escapes due to a fault in the family’s security. What’s added allows for more commonplace scares — Erin’s standoff in Blair Meat Co. uses freezer lockers and tight confines — while the encompassing gooeyness and stickiness versus Hooper’s drier sense of atmosphere makes audiences feel ickily unclean. It’s a product of when vileness and violence oversaturated the genre market with repugnance — hence an eventual turn to more psychological, character-driven horrors — which speak for themselves throughout The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A marvelously malevolent and mushy horror tale that’s far more interested in pumping adrenaline and forcing characters into unspeakable trauma scenarios than a simple bonk, drag, and slam of an icebox door.

The Lesson

Marcus Nispel and Scott Kosar lay a foundational template to be copied by Hollywood studios and independent financiers alike — results do vary — after 2003’s victory. There’s never any instance where direction or scripting disparage Tobe Hooper’s entry into the horror hall of fame. Leatherface is an iconic master of massacres, but that doesn’t mean he should lay dormant as the genre evolves. There’s no rival dinnertime sequence — just a cheeky line about supper by R. Lee Ermey — nor keep-on-screaming third act for Erin like Sally’s forced to squeal. Where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre values psychological horrors as much as Leatherface’s chop-shop, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre allows Jessica Biel to become the final girl who hacks Leatheface’s arm off and catches a ride to safety. Both exist in harmony, proven standalone by the power of split visions.

So what did we learn?

  • There’s no one right way to play an icon, just different interpretations.
  • Horror films are defined by the themes that are repeated throughout an era as much as their narrative.
  • The 2000s have way more worthwhile horror movies than critics were willing to admit at the time.
  • The meanest films can always spawn something meaner.

Kudos to Platinum Dunes for driving the thrust behind 2000s horror revivals, no matter the company’s lousy rap back when. We’ll do this song and dance again when The Amityville Horror becomes an entry, plus you already know what I think about Friday the 13th and The Hitcher. Their only 2000s dud was A Nightmare On Elm Street — a rather commendable ratio. It turns out remakes weren’t the apocalypse to horror cinema many prophesied?

As we keep exploring the vast pool of horror remake titles that exist, I hope more and more will share this sentiment and erase the ugliness that exists on social media from toxic commentary better left in the past.


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