The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The title is infamous in the history of American cinema. It remains as one of the most disturbing films ever made. It’s just raw unrelenting terror, a psychotic journey straight into the bowels of hell. How anyone could ever believe they could remake such a thing is beyond my comprehension. Of course, you throw in the name Michael Bay, and everything becomes so easily understood. The man makes mindless big budget summer blockbusters, and hardly any of them are worth a second viewing (if even a first). Relegating him to a producer’s role doesn’t seem like a huge step in any positive direction, but surprises can come along. I admit that I was a detractor to the entire idea of this film. Nothing Hollywood-produced can ever equal or even hope to surpass something as purely insane and terrifyingly real as Tobe Hooper’s original film. The trick is not to expect such a thing because it’ll never happen. If you compare this 2003 remake to the original film from 29 years earlier, you will inevitably despise it, and so, I am going to review this film on its own merits – which I find to be surprisingly good.
The setup is pretty simple, and quite formulaic. A group of teens are traveling through 1973 Travis County, Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. There’s the tough but vulnerable tomboy Erin (Jessica Biel), her affectionate boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour), the dim bulb muscle head Andy (Mike Vogel), the sort of hippie hitch-hiker from El Paso Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), and the skittish odd man out Morgan (Jonathan Tucker). They’re singing along with “Sweet Home Alabama” (which actually wasn’t released until 1974), and enjoying a bit of weed. Everything’s all a happy road trip until they come across a very traumatized girl, around their age, trailing along the barren highway. A tragic turn of events with this girl forces the group to contact the local police – Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey). This terrible twist of fate soon leads them to a large rundown house to obtain help, but what’s waiting for them there is anything but helpful. What they encounter is a crazed backwoods family, and the murderous, relentless, chain saw wielding Leatherface. The events of this day would become known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (depending on your disposition).
What really stands out in this film is the great casting. Where to start? Well, what is most important in any slasher film is the heroine. Jessica Biel is so amazing. Her character tumbles through a horrifying bottomless pit of terror, and she sells all of it. She starts out very affectionate, but also tough and take charge. Biel and Eric Balfour really have wonderful chemistry, the love between Erin & Kemper seems very genuine and heartfelt. Early on, there’s so much sympathy built for her and the rest of the young cast. Later on, when the chain saw revs and the terror begins, the grief and fear she emotes is so frightening real. The tension and suspense will get to you, but it wouldn’t exist if Biel didn’t have the acting chops to make Erin such a sympathetic and real heroine. Of course, Eric Balfour complements Biel perfectly. He’s not a macho guy at all, he’s very genuine, and you believe, without question, that he’s fully in love with her. He wants to spend the rest of his life with Erin. Balfour also demonstrates a sense of leadership as well, standing firm in what he feels is best. Mike Vogel plays the stereotypical muscle head, but plays it with a dumb sympathy. He says the complete wrong things at the wrong times, but he really means nothing ill about it. He’s not the brightest guy, but he’s the kind of friend you can depend on when you need him. Jonathan Tucker is admittedly the weakling of the group, and certainly less sensitive. Though, eventually, you can’t help but feel for the poor guy. Ultimately, he’s just scared, freaked out over the situation at hand, and just wants to put it behind him as quickly as possible. Finally, Erica Leerhsen plays a far less stable girl than Erin is. Pepper was only hitching a ride down the highway, and is now in a situation she never wanted any part of. She easily starts to break down after being terrorized by Sheriff Hoyt, and barely holds together.
On the side of the psycho family, the Hewitt clan, you pretty much have to start with Andrew Bryniarski, the newest Leatherface. This is, by far, the most straight forward and aggressive portrayal of the character, ever. In the original franchise continuity, Leatherface was portrayed in a few different ways, but mostly in a mentally underdeveloped fashion. Here, he’s a ferocious animal. He’s a rampaging bull, but appears to be more focused than ever before. The fact that he is now named Thomas Hewitt instead of Bubba Sawyer would appear to be to distinctly differentiate the two continuities. Still, there’s a moment or two where Leatherface seems a bit like a ridiculed little boy. It gives a hint of character and depth to him. The overall look of Leatherface is very hulking, but not in a Kane Hodder fashion. Leatherface is just BIG! Andrew Bryniarski is a 6’5″ body builder with a decent list of acting roles to his credit. So, there’s no lack of physical screen presence on his part. The design of Leatherface is all-new, but not foreign – the butcher’s smock remains. As with every new film, the mask of flesh is re-designed with more detailed ideas in it. Apart from The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I have no intentions of ever seeing, I’ve never had any issues with any of the masks I’ve seen as they all offer something unique and different. I mean, Leatherface can’t wear the same mask of flesh for all that long. Sooner or later, it’s going to rot away.
The screenplay by Scott Kosar (The Machinist) introduces some new elements and characters into the world of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One such new element is Sheriff Hoyt portrayed by R. Lee Ermey, who is very creepy and sadistic. Granted, he seems to be called upon to do the same act in most every film since Full Metal Jacket, but he does it so well. His Sheriff Hoyt is terribly intimidating, frightening, and demented. You just don’t know what he’s gonna do next. He pushes these scared teens to the edge, but doesn’t let them off this ride. It’s all about psychological torture for many of his scenes. The rest of this fucked up family is quite good, but have significantly less screentime. Terrence Evans plays the cranky and creepy Old Monty exceptionally well, and all the ladies really dive off the deep end, too.
Next, there’s the direction of Marcus Nispel. He had no film credits preceding this film, just music videos. That can get people pissing in the wrong direction. David Fincher began as a music video director, and look at the amazing films he’s directed. I honestly feel that Nispel has a great talent for tension and suspense. The way he crafts every scene in this film definitely twisted my muscles up in knots, and had some chills running over me. You may indeed get the jitters here and there. Although, while he did film some very gory and disturbing footage, he felt the need to hold back. Alternate cuts of scenes are present on the Platinum Series DVD, and they really made me twitch in my seat. They would be a gore hound’s dream, but we are left with a slightly tamer final cut. Still, there’s a lot of gore and terrifying violence to satisfy your brutal horror needs. There’s some gutsy stuff that nobody had the gumption to do back in 2003. Horror films had been roaming down the safe road for a long time, and this film chose to get ballsy. It went further with the violence and brutality. Still, it held back some for fear of overloading the audience with too much intensity and visceral gore, but as time has told, genre audiences of today can handle a lot of intensity brutality. However, it takes a talented filmmaker to craft suspense and tension, which Nispel achieves here.
Daniel Pearl, the cinematographer of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original, returned to lense this remake. The difference is striking, but the difference of $9.1 million in budget and 30 years of artistic evolution tends to do that. It has a gritty beauty to it. In the light, there’s a dry, desolate, but wide open landscape to the film. The big Texas sky goes on for eternity creating a grim isolated feeling. In the dark, there’s this striking, but beautiful lighting. Probably too slick and polished for something baring this title, but it’s high contrast and very effective. There’s a density to the darkness that enhances the isolation. Overall, I really enjoyed the look of the film. It’s very rich and detailed. It sounds wrong to call it gorgeous, but that’s just how I feel about it.
The musical score by Steve Jablonsky intensifies all the tension and suspense. It truly aids the film without overwhelming it. I found it noticeable, but not at all in a bad way. It really drives home the terror, as does the entire sound design. When that chain saw revs, it’s louder and fiercer than ever before. Also, despite the fact that the soundtrack album is filled with modern day heavy metal bands, all you hear of any of them is in the latter half of the end credits. Rather unnecessary and out-of-place for a film set in 1973, but the studio’s just gotta have their commercial soundtrack.
Overall, I honestly find this film to be very good. It’s not perfect as the filmmakers’ felt the need to hold back a bit on the intense violence and gore in the editing stage. If an unrated cut were ever released, I think this drawback would be remedied. Ultimately, standing on its own merits, Marcus Nispel’s first film is impressive and the kind of film most directors would kill for as the start of their feature film directing careers. Sadly, Nispel’s remake of Friday The 13th ended up being a terrible failure. Again, if you go in this film with the intent of comparing it to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original film, I don’t see how you’re gonna like it. Your mind is probably already made up that this remake is inferior, and I agree that nothing’s ever going to measure up to that film on the same levels. The 1974 and 2003 movies are two entirely different beasts. No modern day $9.2 million Hollywood studio film is going to be like an $80,000 independent film from the 1970s years ago. More importantly, you can’t recreate what Hooper accomplished, and nor should you. I think it was wise for the filmmakers to not try to emulate anything specific from that movie, especially certain scenes. With the way this remake was approached and shot, such a thing could only fail. In any case, this version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is definitely worth your time. Whether you will view it as a worthy remake is purely subjective. It’s a good, solid horror film that does what a horror film is supposed to do – scare the crap out you. On a final note, I found it to be invaluable and a beautiful homage to the original film to bring back the greatly talented and beloved actor John Larroquette to narrate the opening and end of the film. His voice is as much a part of the history of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as Leatherface and Tobe Hooper.