The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) **½
When I first heard that Marcus Nispel and Scott Kosar were working on a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, my overriding reaction to the news was neither the excitement nor the disgust with which most people I encountered seemed to be greeting it. Rather, I simply found myself asking, “What’s the point?” The way I saw it, it had already been done, and fairly recently at that. Of the original movie’s three sequels, only the first made any detectable effort to continue its predecessor’s story, so for all practical purposes, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation might as well have been remakes themselves. But when does a little thing like that ever stop anybody?
So how does one update The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the 21st century? Well, apparently one starts by Blair Witch-ing it up a bit. Not content with an opening crawl like the one Tobe Hooper used, Nispel and Kosar bookend their version with grainy, black-and-white, pseudo-verite sequences describing the efforts of the police in Travis County, Texas, to get to the bottom of the awful things that happened out on the Hewitt farm over the course of some 20 hours in August of 1973. (Incidentally, I appreciate the new name for the killer clan. It may still be a pun, but at least it isn’t an obvious one.)
The other major change the present filmmakers effect to the familiar tale is to restructure it as a much more conventional slasher movie. Whereas Hooper’s kids started off their sojourn in Muerto County on a macabre note (they swung by to make sure Granddaddy Hardesty’s tomb was not among the ones violated in a uniquely hideous grave-robbing incident), the present bunch are just on their way to a Lynard Skynard concert after a short vacation in Mexico, an activity about on par with gearing up for the prom or taking a job as a counselor at a summer camp as an example of carefree adolescent fun. These kids are also far more typical of the ones we’ve been seeing get carved up by masked maniacs since the early 1980’s than were Sally Hardesty and her friends. Kemper (Eric Balfour) is the leader of the pack. He’s visibly the oldest of the five travelers, he owns the van, and he looks to have organized the recently concluded Mexican adventure— along with the accompanying surreptitious purchase of a piñata containing some two pounds of marijuana, which is now concealed behind the driver’s seat of the vehicle. The dope had to be bought doubly on the sly because Kemper happens to be dating a Final Girl, and in accordance with her role in the storyline, Erin (Jessica Biel) is just about the only woman her age circa 1973 who vigorously disapproves of buying, selling, and smoking weed. Also qualifying her for the part are her three-year monogamous relationship with intent to marry (no random hookups for this girl) and her conscience, which none of her companions possesses to any measurable extent. Turning our attention now to the back of the van, we meet the nerdish and majestically stoned Morgan (Jonathan Tucker, of Pulse and The Ruins), the lust-crazed and inhumanly sweaty Andy (Mike Vogel)— who, in keeping with another longstanding slasher tradition, will go unidentified by name until a good half-hour into the film— and Pepper (Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2’s Erica Leerhsen), the similarly lust-crazed (but markedly less sweaty) hitchhiker the crew picked up back in El Paso.
Now considering what an iffy proposition picking up hitchhikers is, you’d think Kemper and company would know to quit while they’re ahead. But when they unexpectedly come upon a teenage girl (Lauren German) wandering dazedly down the middle of the road, Erin insists that they stop to give her a ride too. In its way, this proves just as disastrous a move as the analogous pickup in Hooper’s version. The girl seems to be in shock, and the most coherent thing anyone can get out of her is a plea to be taken home, wherever that is. Then, without warning, the girl begins screaming that Kemper is going the wrong way, and that she refuses to be taken “back there.” Evidently she really means it, too, because the next thing the girl does is pull a revolver out from under her skirt and blow her own brains out!
Now obviously, our heroes aren’t driving all the way to Dallas with a stiff in their van, so we can safely consider their concert-going plans more or less terminally fucked at this point. Kemper pulls into the parking lot of the first business he sees, a little rural gas station/general store run by a dour old woman (Mamie Meek) who seems curiously unflappable in the face of his announcement that he needs to call the sheriff and report a suicide. The old lady gets on the phone behind the counter and relays what Kemper and Morgan tell her to the sheriff; he says he’s on his way out to deal with another call just now, but he gives instructions for the kids to meet him out at the old Carter Mill.
The mill turns out to be an abandoned ruin, and there’s no sign of the sheriff when Kemper and his friends arrive. For a little while, the kids succeed in amusing themselves by rummaging through the extremely impressive array of junk that lies strewn all about the mill’s grounds, although doing so turns up an unsettling artifact— a photograph that seems to depict their dead hitchhiker and her family, stuffed into what appears to be a bottle full of formaldehyde. After what’s probably about an hour or so, Morgan lets it be known that he’s tired of waiting. Since the sheriff obviously doesn’t give a shit, Morgan thinks they should just dump the dead girl’s body at the mill and get back on the road. An argument breaks out, principally between Morgan and Erin, which Erin wins by brow-beating her boyfriend (who, let us remember, is everybody’s ride) into taking her side. That’s when Pepper notices somebody moving stealthily about inside the ruins of the mill. Erin insists on checking it out personally (she thinks Pepper is just trying to scare her out of continuing to wait around for the sheriff), and when she does, she finds that the prowler is a scrawny young boy with fucked-up teeth who identifies himself as Jedidiah (The Ring’s David Dorfman). This works out well for Erin, because Jedidiah knows where the sheriff lives. In fact, if the boy is to be believed, the sheriff is at home even now, “getting drunk.” No roads go to the house in question, but it isn’t far from the mill, and Erin and Kemper could easily walk there.
We have now reached the beginning of the end for Kemper and company. The house Jedidiah describes contains no sheriff, just an old man with no legs and a colostomy bag hanging from his wheelchair (Terrence Evans, from Crocodile and Curse II: The Bite). The cripple allows Erin— but not Kemper— to come inside and use his phone, but it’s all a trap. While Old Legless keeps Erin busy, Kemper impatiently comes inside, at which point a huge man in a leather apron and mask sneaks up behind him from the basement, and clouts him on the back of the head with a sledgehammer. Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski, of Cyborg 3: The Recycler and the Rollerball remake) has dragged Kemper downstairs by the time Old Legless lets Erin go, and the girl assumes her boyfriend has simply returned to the van. And given that the sheriff told her he’d be coming along in another half hour or so, Erin figures Kemper had the right idea.
Except that the sheriff— or somebody claiming to be him (R. Lee Ermey, from Body Snatchers and The Frighteners, probably best remembered as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket)— has already been and gone when Erin returns. (We never will learn for certain whether or not Ermey’s character really is the sheriff in these parts.) Kemper, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. Knowing now that something strange is going on, Erin takes Andy back to the house, intent on figuring out just what Old Legless has done with her boyfriend. Thus it is that Erin and Andy meet Leatherface, who bursts out of the basement while the two of them are confronting the old man in the foyer of the house. Erin escapes from the chainsaw-wielding madman, but Andy isn’t so lucky. Leatherface saws off his left leg at the knee, carries him down to his basement lair, and hangs him on a meat hook for safe keeping.
As if further demonstration were needed that this simply isn’t Erin’s day, no sooner does she reach Morgan, Pepper, and the van in a state in incoherent hysterics than the sheriff returns, notices the gigantic roach in the vehicle’s ash tray (personally, I’ve never met even one pot-smoker who would let that much weed go to waste, but maybe things were different in 1973...), and goes psycho on the three remaining road-trippers. I’m telling you, man— I knew I didn’t trust that fucking redneck cop! The sheriff terrorizes his victims for a while, and then hauls Morgan away with him. And while Morgan is riding in the world’s most poorly-maintained police car to some awful fate, a different sort of awful fate descends upon the girls in the form of Leatherface, who cuts Pepper to pieces and then resumes his pursuit of Erin— while wearing a new mask made out of Kemper’s face, I might add. The killer chases Erin through the woods, in which she evades him well enough to seek shelter in a trailer at the forest’s edge. Unfortunately for her, however, the occupants of this trailer (Heather Kafka and Kathy Lamplin) are just as nuts as Leatherface, Old Legless, and the sheriff. In the crib in their back bedroom, Erin spots the toddler from the bottled photo of Suicide Girl’s family, and when her “hosts” see that she’s on to them, one of them whacks her on the head. Erin wakes up in Old Legless’s house, securely in the clutches of what proves to be a family of lunatics consisting of literally every single person she’s met since the moment she and her friends stopped in at that general store, plus a sharp-tongued matriarch (Marietta Marich, from Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering) whom the girl now meets for the first time. Like I said, this just isn’t Erin’s day.
In its favor, this version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes an honest effort to do something a bit different with the story, without going off on any silly tangents like the one that ruined Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. The previously obligatory Dinner With Grandpa is nowhere to be seen, and for the first time, some attempt is made to get inside Leatherface’s head. The remake also has a decent cast portraying mostly well-written characters, and the scripting in its expository scenes is a model of efficiency. Furthermore, I was not bothered all that much by the thing that seems to lead most fans of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to disparage this one. I agree that the squalid, gritty look and feel of Hooper’s film is far more satisfying than the slickly stylized production design used here, but at the same time, it seems to me that there was no way director Marcus Nispel was going to be able to compete with Hooper on that front. Aiming for a more conventionally cinematic feel was therefore probably a wise decision.
That said, I do think the production design of the new version goes a bit overboard, especially when it comes to the Hewitt house. For one thing, the exterior looks more like a papier-mâché model than a real building, and it is designed in accordance with no architectural style that one would ever encounter in a farmhouse that predates the modern road system. Frankly, it has more in common with a 1970’s government office building than with any house I’ve ever seen. Beyond that, the place also seems to have been built with Tardis technology— it’s about three times as big on the inside as it is on the outside, while the cellar appears to extend underneath the whole of Travis County and has ceilings at least fifteen feet high. All told, it makes it difficult to believe in what we’re seeing when the primary set is proclaiming its set-ness so stridently.
But the main inhibiting factor on the effectiveness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is its inability to break out of the formula box, despite what looks like a fairly respectable effort to do so. Hooper’s version is notable for how unlike subsequent slasher movies it really is, especially in regard to the structure of the plot. It moves along in a leisurely manner at first, suddenly explodes into a short eruption of concentrated violence that decimates the cast within minutes, then settles into an increasingly harsh groove of torture and psychological brutalization. This Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hand, plays it much straighter. The killings are spaced out over the course of the film, there are a number of prolonged stalking scenes, and the lengthy Final Girl sequence is very much on the cat-and-mouse model that rose to dominance in the early 80’s. Oh— and Leatherface has become every bit as inexplicably indestructible as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. It’s very disappointing that it should be this way, because despite what I said back at he beginning of this review, the filmmakers have obviously tried pretty hard to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre something more than just another latter-day slasher movie. They scrupulously avoid the POV-cam, they make no more than a ritual genuflection in the direction of Take Off Your Clothes And Die, and they eschew the Rube Goldberg murders that have been a mainstay of the subgenre since about 1980. And yet it does them little good. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for all its earnest intentions and unexpected strengths, still feels nearly as tired and irrelevant as many recent movies much worse than it— I Know What You Did Last Summer or Urban Legend, for example. Finally, and of the greatest importance, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is safe. A friend of mine, after hearing a teenage coworker talking glowingly of this film, lent her a copy of the original— which, by the way, the teenager hadn’t even known existed. The younger girl found the 70’s version so upsetting to watch that she refused to speak to my friend at work the next day. If that doesn’t sum up perfectly the difference between the two movies, then I don’t know what would.