The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) – Schlock and Awe

*This review contains SPOILERS for the film*

Beyond any technical issues, the wrongheadedness at the heart of Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that it was not made to scare or shock but to pretend to as a marketing obligation to a savvy audience. Being scary is just its fashion choice. Anything remotely shocking, such as the original’s pitch-black cannibal comedy, has been removed or glossed up in favor of solid stretches of predictable jack-in-the-box sequences and performances that would not be out of place in cheap porn. It's as enlightening as a horror parody in a car insurance ad and shot about as well.

The film has been reconstructed as a mirror image of the new horror crowd intended to receive it, a crowd that does not see this film to be surprised but out of nostalgia for the original (to an extent, the nostalgia is for Leatherface himself, who stands in for the brand). The viewers most equipped to love this remake ask of a film if there are “any good kills in it” as a way to find out if the movie is worth seeing. Ironically, the mundane ambition to be liked by an in-crowd drains all the shock from the film’s original premise and leaves a contradiction – a movie conceived as an abuse but designed to be comforting. Even the kills are cushioned by the desire to be watchable to an audience impossible to scare (or scare off).

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) contained hardly any of the worn tropes of franchise horror filmmaking by virtue of predating them. It did not need to be updated with them. From false animal scares (usually a cat but a lil’ well-groomed possum in this case) to a car battery that inexplicably dies at an important moment to a loud sound effect pumped into the front of the mix every time someone slinks around a corner, this remake makes the wrong contributions to its heritage. The original was palpable; you could smell it. The remake is more violent yet less gritty – the shiny gore and clean clothes are so unbelievable that it becomes uncomfortably tolerable to watch dumb characters subject themselves to them (I kept waiting for, "As a character in a horror movie, you make dumb decisions. But that doesn't mean you can't save 15% on car insurance ...").

The great horror remakes like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) apply new cultural anxieties to flesh out an old formula. They transplant an old fear to a new era. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) does the opposite. By being glossier and more micromanaged, it recreates the formula with the appearance of devotion but only after removing its purpose. It changes Leatherface from a creature meant to be scary to a character meant to be recognized (and applauded). In the 1974 film, he could not be outwitted because he had no wits of his own – he was a pure engine of childlike, chaotic destruction. In the remake, the film ensures he is not outwitted instead by dumbing down his prey, bailing out his crucial mistakes with the characters’ unwillingness to notice them, to maintain the “allure.” We see him far more often, even beneath the mask, and it accomplishes nothing but to make him less of a mystery. The film’s audience, after all, already knows who he is.

The characters in the original film were thrown into a scary situation. They were killed in untimely scenes (the script didn’t even have a second act). The pacing was relentless to the point of feeling apocalyptic. The final girl couldn’t do anything but run and scream. By contrast, the remake takes more time setting up ways for them to escape the situation while denying them the ability to take advantage of them. Despite Erin (Jessica Biel) expressing cowgirl gusto (she learned how to hotwire cars at Juvey, she says) she leaves knives on tables when they would be far more useful in her pockets. There may not be a ton of room in her tightly enrobing jeans to fit one, but it might come in handy while being grabbed by the plump paws of leathery cannibals.

An extra 15 minutes of runtime wasted on particulars makes the remake sag. The kids have far more opportunities to escape in that time, which makes it harder to relate to their willingness to stay put and wait for the horror movie to arrive. In a sense, the audience begins to blame them for their misfortunes, yelling at the screen the common horror crowd wisdom (“Take the knife!” “Don’t go in there!”). These new versions of the characters couldn’t die more efficiently if the whole situation was a secret suicide pact.

The core issue is the screenplay by Scott Kosar, which adds to the original while replaying its sequences like a clumsy cover band. As a result, the characters’ actions don’t track with their traits – all has been pre-determined, it seems to say. If a character must be killed, they must wait at the appointed spot to be killed, no matter how unreasonable, no matter how many chances they are given to equip themselves or run away. They have been pre-killed already.

The extra runtime theoretically gives the film room to flesh out the characters’ relationships. We see Erin and Kemper (Eric Balfour) talk briefly – one line’s worth – about the life they’re planning together. And when Leatherface empties Kemper’s pockets, he finds a diamond engagement ring (with a comically huge gem, like a Valentine's ad). But later, when Erin is in Leatherface’s “workshop,” she finds the two other boys. She has a dramatic moment with one of them, but she does not find Kemper, confront his death emotionally, or find the ring. They added details to their relationship to allegedly make them more human (even the new conclusion connects to this premise), but Kosar didn't tie any of the new scenes together dramatically. The script leaves out even rudimentary payoffs through a combination of not understanding why the original film omitted such details and an inability to make its additions worth it.

The elaboration of the police footage is another example. For Friday night horror shoppers, being shown the crime scenes at the beginning of the film could have been a fun game of slasher-gore Bingo. Knowing they will all die already is its own kind of catharsis and the film could have accentuated its target audience’s preferences by giving them little details to watch out for, perhaps as an interpretation of the original's dark comedy. But beyond one instance (scratches on the basement wall), there's no payoff to this cushy opening. It's not a bad idea, but it required payoffs that weren't in the original, which the new team never thought to add.

The reverse is true as well – their additions remove depth that was already in the original. Consider the Hewitt family, who are more present throughout the remake. Terrence Evans plays a double-amputee who gropes Erin while she tries to help him up from emptying his catheter bag (the scene is a double-tap at the audience from its paintball gun of unpleasantness, though that could be interpreted as a positive). R. Lee Ermey, by far the most appropriately cast actor in the film, gives a performance that is closest to the appeal of the material. His extremeness is funny enough to be threatening. Our reward for going through these extra scenes of passive-aggressive drama with the Hewitts should have been the cannibal dinner sequence from the original film, recreated with characters that we’ve spent more time with. Yet, the extra scenes are wasted by removing that final sequence from the remake, seemingly in an attempt to edit out anything that could be misconstrued as comedy. Its absence makes the film’s runtime retroactively pointless since these characters now have more screentime yet less purpose. So much imagery was removed from the remake that I'm not sure if the film even clarifies that the Hewitts are cannibals. For the most part, the script takes the audience's awareness of it for granted; without the dinner scene, it has no point in the story anyway.

Ermey made a modest career applying the horrors of training real soldiers to the abuse of teenagers in movies. He seems to be meant to shock and awe the audience into a new tone after the film's self-important opening. Here, his presence is the most sickening in the film, being the most effective – by wielding fake authority with his brutal sarcasm, his character is more threatening than Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) wielding a chainsaw, who has been neutered by the burden of playing himself to an audience already familiar with his schtick. Ermey's scenes are tenser because they have the benefit of his devotion.

That’s ultimately the irony with TCM (2003) and why it can be viewed as emblematic of the problem with modern horror remakes as a whole. The original film was scarier because it was funnier and more extreme – the dark comedy was its creepiest element because it brought it all down to the level of flawed, disgusting human vices. The remake attempts to be rigidly serious and that makes it unsubtle. The characters grumble through lines and scream through injuries, but none of it is convincing enough to justify being played completely straight. Confronting Leatherface for the first time, Andy (Mike Vogel) is knocked on the ground. He clashes his tire iron with the villain’s chainsaw, shouting to Erin in a calmly certain voice, “Get the f*ck out of here! Run!” It feels like two Jedi clanging their lightsabers together – there is no tension, visual or dramatic, in this all-important scene where the characters meet the film’s villain for the first time. In reality, he would be screaming helplessly, barely surviving by blocking the chainsaw as its sparks and smoke filled the room, and nothing would be audible but its angry growl. Compared to this scene in the original, which is the greatest jump scare ever captured on film, the remake takes it easy on us.

None of the film's setups function in the intended way. Leatherface wearing Kemper’s face would be an effective moment had they not shown him sewing it beforehand – elaboration takes the shock out of the scare. Even Biel’s wardrobe is distracting. Her body is so immaculate that it might have worked had it been played up more satirically into a conscious, gore-erotica vibe, turning the original film's documentary realness into a different kind of excess. But it feels accidental, like the character is still supposed to be relatably heroic in a real situation and just happens to dress like a porn star. Her improbably athletic figure is the film's biggest attraction, in a wet t-shirt tied above her belly button in a little knot that never comes undone unless she does it herself. Even if it comes loose in a chase scene, in the next shot it will be retied. Clearly, that was a priority for them. But if they can't even let the wardrobe get loose and worn, how can the characters' emotions be anything but horror-casual?

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre cost $114,000 to make, approximately $600,000 in today’s money. Yet, the remake was made on an outrageous budget of $9.5 million (the equivalent of $14.1 million today) and even hired the same cinematographer, Daniel Pearl, whose work also includes the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th and Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, the most poorly lit film I have ever seen in a theater. Tobe Hooper and a team of jagged would-be professionals, including the same cinematographer, running around on location wiping dirt from the lenses to catch a flare of sunset, made more than the remake’s shallower intent and deeper pockets ever could. The remake even uses stock sound effects that you can sample online. When Leatherface peeks around a corner, at one point they play the exact soundbite that Hotel Hell uses when Gordon Ramsay sees dirt in his shower.

Do haunted houses have value? To the people who visit them every year, they do. But haunted houses display a premade thrill for a premade expectation. The core value is not the content but the visit, the being there. You must accept what happens in a haunted house as fake or you’d go crazy – the fun is in enjoying fakery itself. You don’t have to do this while watching a film, which can be worked up in your imagination and verified as a kind of reality. You can believe in it on its own terms. The remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is like a haunted house without the fun of going, like watching security footage of other people getting scared. It feels premade yet doesn’t have the pleasure of the premade. Its value is in being there, but we’re watching behind a screen.

That is why it fails, beyond its serviceable performances, washed-out digital visuals, and "good kills." It doesn’t aspire to be a great film – it aspires to remind people of one. As a result, there is no reason to ever watch the remake instead, except to make the situation more palatable. And that must be the grossest thing of all.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©New Line Cinema/Next Entertainment

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