The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) Review
When rumours first surfaced that Tobe Hooper's cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was going to be remade by a first-time director known mainly for his music videos and produced by the man responsible for effects-obsessed mainstream blockbusters, I rolled my eyes like everyone else and dismissed it out-of-hand - not because I was a huge fan of the original (I'm not), but because I thought in order to remake a film so beloved by horror fans, one would have to have a large set of gonads and some very creative ideas and I didn't think the people slated to make it had either. Armed with that skepticism, a tub of buttered popcorn and very low expectations, I sat down to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) last night... I'm happy to report I was pleasantly surprised.
TCM 2003 is again set in the early 70's, but this time around, we have five young people on their way back through Texas after making a marijuana run to Mexico. Erin (Jessica Biel) and her boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour), Pepper (Erica Leerhsen) and her guy Andy (Mike Vogel), and lone man out Morgan (Jonathan Tucker) are traveling in a van when they almost run over a female hitchhiker (Lauren German). Bloodied and seemingly out of it, she accepts a ride with them, only to commit suicide moments later. Horrified, the five friends drive in search of help, but instead find a homicidal family of freaks... so begins the nightmare that is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).
The filmmakers were faced with a daunting task. The 1974 version spawned three inferior sequels and its diehard fans weren't holding out much hope for the remake. Nispel knew better than to replicate the original scene-for-scene - instead he took its best bits and tweaked them ever so slightly while cranking the suspense up a notch or two. Back onboard are John Larroquette who reprises his scene-setting voice-over and Daniel Pearl the cinematographer from the original who provides some beautiful atmospheric imagery - also back are the infamous meathook, the slaughterhouse and the chainsaw, but there are also differences - gone are the horrific dinner scene and Marilyn Burns' teeth-curling screams. The female hitchhiker they encounter is a victim of the family instead of a member, a grandma, two female relatives and a bizarre young boy have been added to the mix and they purposely left the family's murderous motivation unclear - in the 1974 version you knew they were cannibals, but in this one you are never quite sure why they do what they do. There is a lot more gore in this film than the original which had surprisingly little given its title, and it is faster-paced with loads of suspenseful moments.
The casting was a make-or-break factor in this film. It is next to impossible to duplicate Marilyn Burn's hysterical performance or Edwin Neal's crazed hitchhiker, so they went in a different direction by casting Jessica Biel as the female lead - she has come a long way from her girl-next-door role on Seventh Heaven and the bimbo in Rules Attraction. Sporting a tank top that stays wet throughout most of the film, she provides eye candy for the male viewers, yet she is tough enough to take on Leatherface and the clan. R Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) is fantastic as the ultra-sadistic Sheriff. Grinning his way through the cruelty, he makes Gunnery Sgt. Hartman look like a Teletubbie. The one weak link in the cast is Andrew Bryniarski's Leatherface - Gunnar Hansen gave the character a human quality in the original that is sadly lacking in the remake. They opted instead to make Leatherface the ultimate killing machine a la Jason Vorhees - emotionless, he moves faster, is crueler and provides the film with its best jump-in-your-seat moments. I would be remiss in not mentioning the cameo by Harry Knowles... but, then again.
At the end of the day The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) lacks the creepy realism, documentary feel and morbid humour that earned its namesake the legendary cult status it has achieved, but on its own it is an excellent hardcore horror film. The acting is topnotch, the cinematography is gorgeous and there are enough elements from the original (but with a twist) to give the film a comfortable sense of familiarity. Nispel and company have created one of the best horror films of the last decade and I think it will please everyone. Hardcore fans of the original will appreciate the differences without being resentful of the similarities and the new crop of young moviegoers who haven't a clue about Tobe Hooper's masterpiece will see the remake as a genuinely scary film. To those of you who will miss Sally, Franklin, Kirk, Jerry and Pam, I sympathise, but give this film a chance - it's an exciting 98-minute rollercoaster ride in horror and well worth a watch, especially if you see it with a packed audience like I did.